Marketing: The difference between building a website and using it

By Head of Marketing - Mon, Feb 9-->



A few weeks ago, Andy Budd wrote a piece for his blog called Usability as a Marketing Tool.  I couldn’t help but think “duh” as soon as I read the title.  The basic premise of his post was that if you could make your website super easy to use, you could use testimonials from your users in your marketing efforts (or advertising efforts in this case).  Of course, Andy Budd is right - usability is a key marketing tool on the web.  But the premise of his post doesn’t go far enough and illustrates a fundamental lack of understanding about what marketing is.

More than SEO and PPC

When most web people thing of marketing on the web, their thoughts immediately jump to SEO and PPC, both of which are valuable, but ultimately shortsighted.

  • SEO and PPC will get users to your website - then what?  Without a marketing strategy, ultimately leading the user to convert to being a customer, getting them to your website is pointless.  It’s like getting them to come to your store at the mall, but not encouraging them to buy anything.
  • Even more important than attracting new customers is retaining those you already have, another factor that SEO and PPC don’t adequately address.  For colleges, think about repeat customers as users who have given money before or prospective students who have taken initial steps in your application process.  They’ve already shown they are more interested than the average user, and far more likely to return for future visits.  What tactics do you have for these users?

Fundamentally, both SEO and PPC fall most aptly into the category of advertising.  While advertising is a single component of the marketing process, it is best for building brand recognition and visibility, rather than converting users to customers.  Real e-marketing goes beyond this - it’s about utilizing the web to provide a positive experience for your users at every step in the process, resulting in achieving your business goals as an organization.

It’s more than making a site look pretty

In his piece, Budd says:

Very few design agencies think about how a website is going to be used, obsessing instead on what it looks like or how it’s put together.

This is a fundamental flaw in the way many developers approach creating a website - when they’re building it they don’t consider how it’s actually going to be used.  Why would you design a product - any product - without this critical consideration?  Of course the site has to look nice, but organizations don’t spend thousands of dollars on website redesigns to have a pretty facade - they do it because they want the site to contribute to their bottom line results.

I firmly believe that people who develop websites should have a grasp of basic marketing principals (or work with consultants that can provide that point of view) so that they can help their clients make the most of their websites.  If the web isn’t taken seriously as a results-oriented tool, it’s because people who develop websites haven’t yet made a convincing argument that it should be.  It goes beyond usability tests, which tell you whether or not its intuitive for users to perform certain fundamental tasks on your site.  Though this is certainly important - users like to feel “taken care of” on a site - just because its easy for users to complete certain tasks within the confines of a test  doesn’t mean you’ve made a compelling case for why they should be interested in doing the same things on their own.

It’s about articulating value

The American Marketing Association defines marketing as:

…the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

Say it a different way - Marketing is about articulating your value to an audience to get them to buy what you’re offering.

Think of every single touchpoint you have with your users online - it’s all marketing.  And every single one of those opportunities should be optimized to make sure it’s as easy as possible to convert and for your users understand what’s in it for them.  For example:

  • Every time you ask your users to fill out a form, make sure you’re (a) demonstrating the value of disclosing information to the user and (b) optimizing the form so that you’re not losing people who start it but don’t finish it.  For colleges, think about your request more information form - What information are they going to get? When will they receive it? Why is this information any better than what they’re going to get by surfing your website? Make the case to your users, then make it as easy as possible for them.
  • When you send email, how you structure your message is just as important as what you say in it.  Keep it short, easy to read, and calls-to-action obvious.  Most importantly, make sure your users will find it valuable.  Don’t email just to email - email because you have something new to share with your base that they will find compelling.
  • Relationship building through social media is important - but if that relationship building never leads to a conversion than it’s a waste of time. Say you have a Facebook group with 1,000 people in it.  School A had 750 of those 1,000 people enroll at their institution, while School B only had 250 of those 1,000 people enroll.  School A is clearly using the group as a means to an end - it’s achieving a result from building the relationship.  School B, on the other hand, needs to take an objective look at its strategy for the group to see how it can become more results-oriented.

One thing that all these touch points have in common is content.  We’ve all heard it before - content is king.  In December 2008, A List Apart featured a few articles on content strategy.  I found this to be hilarious because they’re talking about marketing without ever using the word.

Repeat after me:  Content Strategy is Marketing.

Unfortunately the web community seems to reject marketing as evil, mostly because of their lack of understanding about what it is.  This only contributes to the problem of developing websites without considering how they’re going to be used.  Marketing is not sales.  It’s not spin.  It’s not lying and deceiving your way into taking someone’s money.  It’s showing people that what you are offering is valuable, and can help them solve a problem they are having (or to be more Kathy Sierra about it, it’s helping your users kick ass).

It’s for more than selling products

One final thought: How much further along would the web standards movement be if it didn’t reject marketing as evil?  I’ve been in presentations by some of the leaders of the standards movement who laugh and roll their eyes when the term is even mentioned.  No wonder less than 5% of all websites validate - the standards movement has never made their case in a meaningful way to people who don’t already agree with them!  Marketing is about more than just selling products or services - it’s about getting people to buy into your ideas as valuable.  The standards movement has plenty of great arguments but have done a piss poor job of getting them out there and convincing the people who need convincing.  The lesson? Reject marketing at your own peril.

Epilogue: When he heard I was writing this, standards advocate Christopher Schmitt wanted it mentioned for the record that he loves both marketing and standards.  Check back to .eduGuru soon for an interview with Christopher on his innovative new web design conferenceIn Control, his book , and  other topics of web geekery.

16 Responses to “Marketing: The difference between building a website and using it”

  1. Says:

    Head of Marketing ,

    Great post again! Much of what you speak of relates to Branding as well. I’ve often heard folks say Marketing and Advertising is the price one pays for poor branding. What are your thoughts on that?

    Best Regards,

  2. Says:

    Hi Ethan


    I’m not sure I entirely agree with the statement that marketing and advertising are the price one pays for poor branding. It seems as though the person who made that statement might be confusing marketing and advertising (really, just a subset of marketing) with sales. Look at Nike - arguably one of the more recognizable brands on the planet. They still invest heavily in both advertising and branding. Let’s look at a higher ed example - Harvard. Harvard doesn’t need to do much of anything to attract students yet they just launched a beautiful new website (and I’ll bet they have invested more than a little bit in print marketing materials as well). Sold brands take years to build and certainly if you have one, you don’t have to make as much of a case through marketing and advertising, but you still have to do it to maintain.

  3. Says:

    Integration of traditional marketing and online marketing is a must. Your article states my opinions almost exactly. People ask what Internet Marketing is and they instantly think its one thing or another exclusively. They fail to realize that it is a combination of many online and offline strategies and not simply (my favorite) getting on the first page of the SERPS on Google and hey you’re done.

  4. Says:

    Head of Marketing as usual you’re boxing yourself into a semantic argument about the true nature of communications/marketing concepts. And it’s one you’ll never win. …as just about everybody seems to be referencing a unique glossary of industry definitions. But stepping away from theory and into the realm of practice, execution, and results,’re right.

    Content Strategy is marketing.

    This reminds me of a recent Bob Johnson post: “In a nutshell: strong up-front creative but weak integration of what follows with the original marketing theme. …like many online advertising campaigns, not enough time, energy, and money was spent on the follow-up to get maximum conversions from the initial effort.”

    You’re hitting on something big and important here with this post. Alot of web shops and designers identify success with “hey this looks great and is standards compliant” and are ignoring goals related to people USING the site and performing measurable ACTIONS.

  5. Says:

    One really interesting thing I’ve learned since working at HubSpot is that are marketing people will tell you that “Content creation is our marketing strategy”. Create as awesome and unique content as you can and get it out there as far as you can. Many colleges might argue “yeah, but that doesn’t really apply to us” which I would argue that the relationships and interactions are happening every day at your school you just aren’t do enough to tell those stories to the world.

    Gives me a whole other idea for a blog post… “What is great content”… we talk about content all the time, but nobody really defines what it is we are all just suppose to know.

    • Says:

      I would enjoy reading a blog post on *What is great content*.

  6. Says:

    Erin - great content really depends on a lot of things doesn’t it? will there really be one blog post that will have all the answers?

  7. Says:

    Excellent Posting ! Thank’s

  8. Says:

    Can you provide more information on this? I was looking for this additional information, just bookmarked to check out the updates ;)

  9. Says:

    I agree to your point that web developer should have some basic understanding of the marketing fundamentals. If any one designs a web site and keeps it marketing friendly there should not be a need re design and the web site will be more fruit full to both customers as well as the owner.

  10. Says:

    Hi - really good website you have created. I enjoyed reading this posting. I did want to publish a comment to tell you that the design of this site is very aesthetically sweet. I used to be a graphic designer, now I am a copy editor for a merchandising firm. I have always enjoyed playing with computers and am trying to learn computer code in my spare time (which there is never enough of lol).

  11. Says:

    Could you kindly translate your site into Italian because I’m not so comfortable reading it in English? I’m getting tired of using Google Translate all the time, there is a cool WordPress plugin called like global translator which will render all your posts automatically- that will make reading posts on your great blog even more pleasant. Cheers dude, Writing Guide!

  12. Says:

    It’s really quite fun isn’t it? We’re finding out how the same we all are. Guess blogging shows we have a lot more in common than we ever thought we did.

  13. Says:

    The Ninja Trainer says, “Thank you”. ;)

  14. Says:

    My name is manish shah. Am an avid blogger & social media representative. I am retailer by Profession & my blog is ask manish shah
    I find your article very interesting on social bookmarking, however – would like to add that one of the best tools on automation is bookmarking demon

    You can always get in touch with me – or write to me at – I am visible with my work at Ask Manish Shah


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