Marketers: Learn Your Web Lessons Well

Not so long ago, the web was a brand-spanking new medium. Would-be marketers frantically rushed to apply TV models, ham radio metaphors, publishing paradigms, and telemarketing ideas to this new, strange world. But the web has persistently defied all attempts at typecasting and pigeonholing.

Moreover, it has quite a lot to teach those working in older media. Smart marketers in every medium should take a close look at what the web tells us about direct mail, telemarketing, TV ads, print ads, and more.

Consumers Hate Advertising

Consumers have known this all along, but marketers had to wait till there was an accountable, trackable medium like the web before they would admit it. Click-through rates have dropped to 0.5 percent and could dip even further. Focus groups and usability testing have shown that any method that tries to force more ad visibility not only doesn’t work but actually angers users. For example, interstitial ads provoke near-violent mouse action as users rush to close the pop-up box before it can load. Animated ads, ads with sounds, Flash-based ads: They all motivate users to scroll the ad out of sight so the user can get back to reading or at least avoid an animation-caused headache.

Is this a web-based problem? No, it’s a web-tracked, web-proven problem. But smart marketers will admit that consumers hate TV, print, and radio ads just as much. If you can track that 99.5 percent of your web ad exposure is ignored, how many of your TV ad views are wasted while people quickly hit mute, change the channel, or leave the room? The old marketing mantra has always been, “Half of my advertising money is wasted; I only wish I knew which half.” It turns out that may have been optimistic.

Consumers Love Word of Mouth

Viral marketing has been the web’s killer marketing application. Consumers hate advertising but, luckily, love their friends. You can pummel your web users with ad after ad with no results. But a single mention of your site from a friend, and he or she will click over faster than you can say “CPM.” With cynicism at an all-time high, an overwhelming number of sites, and the endless barrages of banners, users filter out all but the most trusted, most reliable information. They will listen to their friends’ recommendations, open their friends’ emails first, and take their friends’ advice over the most cleverly phrased ad message.

This is not a new phenomenon: Word of mouth has to be the oldest form of marketing out there. But the web has extended its reach, thanks to trackability, web-unique models like Hotmail, and flailing advertisers looking for solutions. Marketers in all realms would do well to re-examine the basic human behaviors that have driven the viral marketing craze: Consumers trust their friends more than strangers and therefore listen to their friends more.

Additionally, consumers like their friends and like to imitate their friends. Nike and IZOD learned this early on with their use of logo clothing. Businesses that pay referral fees have known it for decades. The inventors of bumper stickers, jack-in-the-Box antenna balls, and free art postcards in coffee shops have caught on, too. Viral marketing should be core to your customer growth not just your web site.

Spam Could Kill Telemarketing

Users hate spam, or UCE (unsolicited commercial email). Marketers had predicted (hoped) all along that as mass audiences came online, the online audience would start to behave like mass audiences. Mass audiences tolerate ads, telemarketing, direct mail, and door-to-door salespeople. Therefore, so the reasoning went, online audiences would eventually “lighten up” and learn to accept spam in the same way they tolerate other invasive marketing offline.

Instead, the opposite has happened. Sentiments against UCE run even more vehemently now than in years past, when the online environment was composed mostly of early adopters. Mass audiences did come to the Internet, but rather than turning the culture toward prior attitudes, they easily adopted the netiquette that had been established. I’m always astonished to talk to new web users who have politely tolerated (or blocked) telemarketing for years; they come to the Internet and, within days, will violently complain about UCE and quickly learn ways to flame, block, filter, and complain.

Marketers offer the lame rationalization, “But it’s just like telemarketing or direct mail! And those are legal, normal marketing tools.” And customers will almost always reply with, “Ah, yes, I hate junk mail and junk calls just as much. How can I block those, too?”

The Internet has taught consumers plenty about privacy: how technology can invade it and then how technology can be used to protect it. As consumers (and system administrators) start to actively protest UCE and legislators begin to react, it’s only a matter of time before users extend the lessons learned and flex their privacy muscles in other media.

Design Matters

Included in this, we have learned that branding and usability matter. I think it took the web to make marketers realize how design savvy and clever their audiences really are. Or alternately, the web has taught users to be aware of design and usability.

I’m fairly certain that 10 to 15 years ago, words such as “font,” “navigation,” and “user-friendly” were somewhat rare in normal conversation. Nowadays, I hear everyone from cashiers to political analysts throwing around such terms when discussing labeling, ads, sites, print collateral, and so on. Look at the recent mix-up with the placement of ballot punch holes in the Florida elections: Suddenly layout, alignment, and font size are being analyzed on nightly news. Chalk up part of this lesson to the web’s unique level of tracking and accountability: When you can definitively see improved sales from better design and clearer information, it would plainly make you reconsider how you present information in other formats.

Attention to aesthetics, good branding, and clean design has seeped into many aspects of life now. Look at Target’s new line of Michael Graves products. Look at the clean, well-conceived VW Bug advertisements. And the best example of all, look at the perfectly designed iMacs, which managed to create a whole market through new thinking about design; a fresh, creative use of color; and a real aesthetic awareness.

(An aside: I have noticed some designers who are applying web aesthetics just a bit too literally in other media. For example, a local newscast uses a “navigation bar” in its graphics now to indicate “where” in the newscast line up you are (news, sports, national, weather). Print ads also seem to be borrowing from the web and software with the liberal use of arrows, hands, and pop-up-style highlight boxes. What used to be considered the limitations of web design are now being carried over to media as an aesthetic choice.)

Final Lessons

The web has much more to teach marketers who work in traditional media, be it television, radio, print, or direct mail. Respect your users. Respond to your users. Give them as much information as they need since information is free anyway. Give away free samples. Be accessible to everyone. Be accessible at all times.

What lessons have you learned from your own web marketing, and how will you apply them to your marketing across all media? Let me know.

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