Don’t Take Me Back to Norwalk… and Other Observations on Creating Content

The other day, my family left me home alone on a Saturday afternoon. Now that is a very rare event in my world, so I decided to do what most tired moms only dream about: I vegged out. Yeah, I vegged out with just the television remote to guide my way.

Well, that was six days ago, and I still can’t get the whole nasty affair out of my mind. Granted, this was midday on a Saturday, so I wasn’t watching television’s supposedly “best” fare. This was mostly local programming — a time when perhaps the local stations could appeal to some regional buyers.

All I can say is phooey to the content that I found. The nadir was a local show featuring a walking tour of the homes of Norwalk, CA (where avocado green and harvest orange came to flower). Honestly, what producer thinks people will watch this dreck? OK, maybe just once, for the fascination of observing the grotesque, but this is not the programming that people come back to again and again. And it’s definitely not the stuff that would drive legions away from the competition. It is, to find no other words, useless — and sometimes detrimental — filler.

Ever find a Web site that seems to drive business away rather than reel it in? Sure you have. They’re all over the Net and becoming even more of a scourge since Web site budgets have plummeted. Yes, we all hear about how loyalty and differentiation are going to make us successful, but we’re far from following that advice. The content that I’ve seen lately is almost as tortuous (and torturous) as, well, a walking tour of Norwalk.

I’ve been reading a lot about loyalty lately. It’s a Holy Grail for us marketers. And I really don’t have to expound on the virtues of “lifetime value of your customers” (although, unless we’re marketing to guinea pigs, puppy dogs, and anything else with a lifespan of eight years, there have yet to be any customers who have pledged a “lifetime” of commitment to a Net company at this point).

But if you really are serious about gaining loyalty among users, here are a few content mistakes I’ve found that are sure to keep most from coming back:

  • Registration for nothing. Pesky registration forms seem to be popping up as often as that cheap digital camera ad. Some sites won’t even let you get a peek at any of the content until you give them your vital stats. (COLLOQUY has a wealth of information for marketers but is particularly frustrating because you can’t get into anything without going through the name, rank, and serial number drill.) Clearly, there’s a marketing director behind all this gleefully gathering names and addresses, but he or she better check the data that’s being collected. I suspect a lot of pissed-off users are simply typing in Jane Doe at 1234 Main Street just to get past the irritating registration box. You’ll gain a lot more loyalty — and a lot more interest — if you give users some very interesting content right up front without the sign-in requirement. Then, offer something really intriguing when you ask them to register. And for heaven’s sake, tell them what they will receive. Nobody likes giving up personal data without knowing how it will be used.
  • The need for interactivity. Yes, interactivity is a wonderful thing. However, it’s not the only thing you need to have a successful site. Users expect to find information on your pages. If all you’re doing is “dialoguing,” you’re not giving much back to the consumer. Sooner or later, they’ll begin to feel manipulated and leave in droves.
  • Dumb toys nobody needs. Now, I do think that the Advocate Health Care System site is very cool, and it does a lot of extraordinary things to encourage loyalty. However, my advice is to dump the “create your own MyAdvocate personalized home page.” Honestly, who is going to keep coming back to a Web page that screams, “Your annual prostate exam is overdue, Mr. Jones”?
  • Senseless autoresponders. Two years ago, I was on a harrowing flight that had not one, but two, emergency landings. Granted, that airline lost my loyalty sometime around Pittsburgh when we were dumping fuel and watching the emergency vehicles gather on the tarmac. Nevertheless, I wrote a very nasty email when I returned to terra firma. A day later, I received a stupid autoresponder thanking me for flying its scary skies and asking that I join its frequent-flyer club.
  • Sites that got sloppy with content. Just as there was a golden age of television (think Paddy Chayefsky versus MTV’s Jackass), there was a golden age of content (the early days of Slate and come to mind). But with mergers, downsizing, and just about everything else befallen our Web world, content, too, has slacked. Worse, we are finding that we now have to pay for meaty content that was once available for free. Or even — and I found this on a health site I use quite often — we now have to pay to search the archives.

    In reality, there are very few products and consumers the American public will grant true loyalty. Truth is, we’re a fickle bunch of folks who will cut you off the moment you let us down. So, if we marketers want that “I won’t go anywhere else on the Net” type of loyalty, the fact remains that we have to work at it. And that means we can’t give people content as green and moldy as a dishwasher in Norwalk. It’s gotta be fresh. It’s just gotta sparkle.

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