The Golden Rule of Online Persuasion

I’m about to present to a group of Luddite business owners itching to market online. Several have flushed quite a bit of money into Web sites without ever receiving the return on investment (ROI) they expected. Some adopted a wait-and-see attitude during the dot-bomb heyday. They never bothered to build a home page, barely used email. Even these ultra-cautious types have by now heard enough success stories. They know the time to get started online has arrived.

Everyone in my audience is deeply concerned about getting it right. Remember the film “City Slickers”? In it, the old-time cowboy shares his secret to the meaning of life. He holds up his index finger and explains how to ensure success in life, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean s*%t.” I’m that cowboy. I have that one secret. I shared it with my audience, and I’ll share it with you.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you may have guessed what that one thing is. I call it my golden rule. He who has the gold, rules. In the online world, the one with the gold is your potential or existing customer. She is all that matters to herself. It’s about her: her ease of use, her experience, her expectations, her idiosyncrasies, her preferences, her personality, her energy level, and her needs or wants. It always has to be about your customer. Always! This is more critical online than it once was.

You can trace the development of the art and science of sales and markets, from early barter economies to the invention of currency, from nomadic markets to retail stores and huge malls, from road shows and door-to-door sales to telemarketing and TV shopping. In each case, the medium was new and sometimes even amazing. But the message, the systematic process of getting a customer to buy, was the same. QVC and HSN didn’t succeed by forcing a new technology on customers and demanding they adapt. They adapted the technology so it would serve customers the way they’ve always preferred to be served, only better.

The Internet doesn’t change the fact people want to be sold (in the sense of helping them identify what they want, then presenting exactly that). Buying is fundamentally an emotional decision. To be successful sales must stay in touch with its human-centered roots — regardless of the medium. Time-tested sales and persuasion principles work offline, and they work online, too.

People have employed every communications medium as a sales tool. Each evolution reduces friction for the consumer and puts a greater onus on the merchant. By “friction” I mean the physical, cognitive, or emotional efforts required to satisfy wants and needs. Today, consumers have more choices. They can shop anytime and virtually anywhere with minimal effort. They can buy with just a single click.

Merchants deal with people’s perceptions and motivations. We meet business goals by meeting our customers’ goals. It’s not easy to do. It takes a lot of hard work and planning. To get high conversion rates, set the hurdle high.

Recently, Web sites have replaced the human-centered sales process with lots of non-human-friendly technology. Some sites are hard to buy from. Successful selling is human-centered — people meeting the needs of people based on a series of steps understood, explicitly or implicitly, by all participants.

Sites with high conversion rates have a dominant characteristic: a high degree of empathy for the visitor. Here’s how they do it:

  • These sites sell a product or service for which there’s a truly felt need or want.

  • They immediately understand the visitor is there voluntarily; site activity is based on participation, not coercion.
  • They don’t assume the visitor knows anything, but they don’t insult her intelligence, either.
  • They understand you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. You can, however, entice it to take one sip at a time.
  • They present visitors with necessary information when it’s needed.
  • They anticipate questions the visitor may ask and address his fears and concerns.
  • They use copy that emphasizes consumer benefits and helps involve the visitor’s senses in an “intangible” type of sale.
  • They use copy that helps them rank well in the search engines, because it’s relevant to a visitor seeking a way to solve her problems. Hyperlinks are filled with keywords that speak to her questions. They’re laced with benefits that jump out at her. They let her know she’s on the right track to achieving her goal.

You can’t sell ice to Eskimos on the Internet, or elsewhere. No matter how well designed the site, how persuasive the copy or how usable, if you can’t find a way to meet customers’ needs, they won’t buy. Customers who vote with their mice have already proven they’re not interested in “solutions” that are long on sizzle but take forever to load and only delay what they came to do: buy.

Why have we all seen horrific Web sites that sell successfully? Despite their obstacles, they meet customers’ desires and motivations with merchandising or brand identity. If your brand is so cult-like, your price so ludicrously low, or the need for your product or service so insatiable, you may get away with a site that persuades poorly. If your product or service doesn’t fit one of those categories, remember just one thing: Follow the golden rule.

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