Flashy or Simple: An E-Marketer’s Dilemma

For years, e-marketers have engaged in an online arms race to produce the most eye-catching, cool, and intrusive marketing to drive customer response. Banners animate; interstitials flash; web sites rock and roll. Pushing the edge of technology and bandwidth often seems the best way to get consumers, or at least clients, excited.

Sure, most advertising money online is still spent on static banners. And many give at least lip service to the challenges of marketing in a thin bandwidth environment. Nonetheless, Internet marketing has continually exploited evolving Internet technology to create cooler, slicker, more visually compelling messages and web sites.

But there is a strong counter-current running through the industry. Usability purists, led by the ubiquitous Jakob Nielsen, have been pushing for a scaled down, more standardized web experience. To Nielsen and his acolytes, web content that hogs bandwidth with animation and graphics is enemy number one.

In Nielsen’s eyes, the web is a cognitive, not emotional medium. He argues that users of the web are primarily goal-oriented and have a right not to be slowed or distracted by extraneous marketing messages. The best approach, thus, is to be simple and straightforward. Besides, he argues, online advertising doesn’t work.

There is ample evidence that online marketing does work. But the difference in opinion between those who would employ the latest technology to get attention and the usability ascetics who advocate a bare-bones approach is an interesting one. To frame the argument in somewhat different terms: When it comes to marketing on the web, is it better to be flashy or simple?

Here’s a little story that touches upon that issue.

Recently, we had a client who wanted us to evaluate its product web site for an over-the-counter medicine. The site looked awful; it must have been made in an early version of Microsoft FrontPage. Compared to competitor sites, which were all recently updated with nice graphics and the latest technology, our client’s site was the ugliest dog in the show.

Before giving our recommendation, we conducted some online focus groups with target customers. In a chatlike interface, with the client observing remotely, we asked participants to compare the different product web sites and tell us what they thought.

We were a bit taken aback by the results. Instead of trashing the client’s ugly site, it was the customers’ overwhelming favorite. Why? Because it wasn’t slick — it didn’t seem like a marketing effort. Because of its straightforward ethic and down-home look and feel, customers found the site trustworthy and worth visiting. Conversely, competitors’ updated, pretty sites were perceived as nonobjective and manipulative.

Make way for the ugly duckling. But we also learned about some other important considerations. While customers were primarily information-oriented, they liked the technology, such as personalized tools and searches, that could help them find it. In that way, the ugly client site fell short.

Can we bring this story to bear on the flashy-versus-simple dilemma? Perhaps. This research confirms what many of us already take for granted: People don’t like to feel manipulated by advertising. For this client, it made sense to preserve the trustworthy approach but update the site with the tools customers wanted.

But the story isn’t meant to settle the issue. Everybody has different objectives and different customers. If you are trying to position your product as the fastest hot rod on the block, for example, it might make sense to utilize creative and technology that makes your prospects say “Wow.”

Nonetheless, the blind devotion to intrusive, eye-catching, and visually compelling Internet marketing should be challenged. There will be plenty of neat technology and groundbreaking design coming over the horizon. But building a relationship with customers sometimes warrants the simple approach. Just try not to make it too ugly.

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