Information Highway: Exit 404

I was on a panel at a marketing conference some time ago. Also on the panel was Rick Kreysar, CEO of Accrue. He said something that really struck a chord with me. He was talking about sales and about a promotion his company had put together that had a flaw in it, a flaw that generated a ton of complaint calls.

He basically told his sales force this: Great! I hope we get a thousand complaints. Every one is an opportunity to make a new customer.

Smart sales thinking online and off. When we talk about “lead generation” (a misnomer to begin with since leads are grown, not generated), we always talk about it in terms of being the end result of some successful marketing program. But Rick’s point was that every touchpoint even those that come from mistakes is an opportunity. And that quality business can be generated when you fall on your face entirely if you’ve learned how to land.

On the web, the most prevalent “mistake” is the omnipresent 404 page. So let’s take a couple of minutes and consider some ways to handle 404 pages ways to turn them into an opportunity to win new customers.

You Can’t Escape the Inevitable

404 Page Not Found is the most visible of the status codes that are returned by web servers. In truth, every single download returns a status code: 200 means the file was downloaded successfully, 304 means no download was made because the file is already reported to be cached by your browser, and so on. 404 means that you’ve requested a page that doesn’t exist. (You can see a complete list of status codes here.) When a 404 error is generated, a page is returned to the browser indicating that the page wasn’t found you’ve all seen them, of course.

In this imperfect world, 404s are inevitable just ask Microsoft (the undisputed king of the 404). Sometimes it’s the site publisher’s fault, but most of the time, due to its nature, it’s the fault of the web. A link that someone made to a page of yours is outdated, or most often a search engine’s index retains a record of a page you’ve long since removed. Whatever the cause, it’s certain your site is going to be generating 404 pages.

At the most rudimentary level, some companies have handled this by creating custom 404 pages simple modifications to the configuration files that your web server uses. This way, instead of a blank page with a start error message, you can at least present a little corporate identity. But most sites haven’t even come that far. Most 404 pages are still that generic server message. (Even some of the big boys haven’t gotten around to it see what happens when you enter a bad page at W.W. Grainger.)

But You Can Exploit It

Just generating branded dead-end signs is not enough. Let’s look at some other opportunities you can make happen with a little creative thinking. (I call this Web Marketing 404.)

  1. Re-create your home page, with an explanatory note. This is the simplest thing to do.

  2. Offer a series of alternatives for people to find their way. For instance, you can categorize your site content by product line and by content subject, and then list and summarize each page that meets those criteria. The more complete the list, the more useful and helpful it will be.
  3. Create what I call a concierge path, and invite visitors to let you take them through the site, based on criteria they select.
  4. Put up a Next/Previous button and then take visitors one at a time through pages you want them to see (in the order you want them to be seen).
  5. Immediately present potential alternative pages. By reading referrer information (especially when the referring site was a search engine) it’s possible to recognize what visitors were looking for when they came to your site. Help present pages that you’ve categorized as good starting points for that subject.

The list goes on. But my point here is not to suggest any specific method of handling 404s. What you’ll ultimately do will be driven by your business, your technological infrastructure, and your resources.

Wander the web 404 pages are the easiest to find. Make it a two-hour exercise. See what your competition is doing. See what the sites that you admire do. Visit random sites and see what they do. Create a matrix of the good and the not so good. Evaluate what’s reasonable for you.

And then start turning mistakes into customers.

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