Web Sites: Best Practices or Creativity?

Are best practices creating a sea of sameness? Do direct competitors differentiate brand on their sites anymore?

I recently sat on a panel discussing the battle between standardization/best practices and creativity. To be innovative, creative, and different is hard enough in general. Never mind in the online world, particularly with e-commerce and other transaction-oriented sites, we face clear industry standards. They’re backed by volumes of data showing what works and what doesn’t.

We all know differentiation is critical for a brand. Judging from recent buzz and industry discussion around online’s rapidly growing importance to the marketing mix, we also know consumers continue to flood online. The online user base isn’t growing in the huge numbers of the boom days, but the Web’s importance to consumers is advancing at a breakneck pace.

We live in an increasingly digital world and are more connected than ever. Marketers must speak to digital consumers, regardless of whether they communicate via a digital medium. Consumers are increasingly in control of the media they consume, and their expectations have gone through the roof. The quality of your consumer experience is measured in comparison to your competitors.

Consumers continue to embrace new digital functionality. Digital is truly weaving its way into the fabric of our lives. We do more and more online: music, banking, research, shopping, video, entertainment, and so on.

All this is good news. The bad news is there’s little differentiation among many brands in their online incarnations. Companies such as Target and Wal-Mart, which occupy very different positions in their offline communications and brick-and-mortar store experiences, have remarkably similar Web sites. Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com aren’t all that different, either. Examples abound.

Your Web site and, more generally, the digital experience you enable are increasingly important to your overall marketing efforts. The Web site is replacing the :30 spot as a brand’s central expression.

Given that, you can’t afford to have an average site or a site that looks and feels like your competitor’s. You must find ways to differentiate the experience. It’s hard in the face of industry best practices and your own transactional data, but it can be done.

Foster an environment in which testing and experimentation are encouraged. Create projects that are allowed to fail. Schedule them into the workflow. Segment your audience and push these test experiences to a small percentage.

Explore rich content. Push your creative teams to reinvent the shopping experience. Online shopping in general is still a largely unsatisfactory, unrewarding experience. We’ve forced a very linear flow into something that can be nonlinear in other channels. Test things such as guided selling and collaborative shopping.

Constructing these kinds of tests in a controlled environment is critical to long-term success. It will help differentiate your brand and may lead to a new set of best practices. Testing and optimization within a certain framework often lead to incremental improvements in conversion or other measures. More experimentation may lead to significant change. All this is a bonus to building a truly differentiated online experience that supports your brand in the long term. That will be critical to success.

Jeremy is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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