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 conference, In Control, his book Adapting to Web Standards: CSS and Ajax for Big Sites, and other topics of web geekery.