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2 sides to outside-in marketing

December 4, 2010

I recently attended a webinar by noted expert Gerry McGovern, CEO of Customer Carewords, a Web consulting firm based in Dublin. I have not had a more validating experience for our approach to Web content strategy since we published our book. In fact, I found myself thumbing through our book for places where he inadvertently quoted us during the webinar.

Not all of what McGovern emphasizes in his Top Task analysis is in our book, though. And he does not cover much of what we cover in our book. So it makes sense to cover the convergence between our two efforts to help link them together. The main thing we have in common is an emphasis on outside-in marketing. We both emphasize how the Web medium is different than traditional media. We both spend a lot of effort demonstrating how Web users behave much differently than consumers of traditional media. We both emphasize that testing and testing alone should govern your content and design decisions. And we both net out this analysis in terms of Web marketing principles.

But I don’t want to cover the overlap in this post as much as the difference in emphasis. At a high level, the Top Task analysis focuses on the user experience on transactional Web sites. Our scope is broader, covering the whole breadth of the customer Web experience. We think users behave differently depending on their goals. Top Task only focuses on one goal or task family–the part about ordering, purchasing, booking, etc. Our book is neutral on task families; it should cover all task families, in theory. But we will need to flesh it out for task families outside of demand generation. I would consider that work done by Customer Carewords.

More importantly, though, we focus as much on what happens outside of the Web environments we build for customers–on the search engine results page (SERP) and in social media, primarily–as we do on the page. The experiences users expect when they land on your pages from a SERP should govern your UX design. That much McGovern says. What he doesn’t say (or at least he didn’t say in the webinar) is that the words and descriptions you use to entice a willing audience to your site affect decisions about the experiences they expect to have when they get there. Solve water quality problems ought to result in a different experience than buy water filtration systems. He seems to focus just on the experience. We focus more on the SERP. They are of equal importance.

The rest of this blog puts some flesh on these differences, hopefully filling in some gaps in our mutual viewpoints in the process. If you’re interested, read on. If not, be sure to check out other links on our page, especially some new links we put into the blogroll recently.

Focus on the page

A lot of Web marketing education shows side-by-side comparisons of two pages with the same goal. McGovern showed several, but one in particular struck a chord with me: 80 percent of Web marketers shown a particular side-by-side comparison chose the right-hand page, yet the left-hand page got 40 percent better conversions with users. That is, a vast majority of trained professional marketers not only couldn’t tell what works on the page but got it drastically wrong. The upshot: Don’t trust your intuitions about page design. Get two versions of the same page running in A/B tests and let your users decide which one they like better. The one that helps more users accomplish their goals in the shortest possible time should always win.

Beyond the mantra of testing, there are a lot of on-page factors that help you chose better pages to test in the first place. McGovern focused on transactional pages, so your millage may vary if you’re just trying to help users learn about your company, or perform some other informational task. The main thing about transactional pages is they should just include the forms and buttons and dials users came to the site for. Don’t include a lot of text or images that are not necessary to order or purchase or book or check the radar or what have you. Users came to your page because you made it clear on the SERP what the purpose of the page is. You don’t need to explain this to them again when they get there.

Focus on the SERP

Note the bolded text in the previous section. In all my years of auditing pages, I can say this is the main problem with Web pages. Users want some clue as to what they will be getting when they click through on a link. If you don’t give them clear clues or you give them misleading clues, they will bounce. The most common of these is to clearly describe the purpose in the short description, and then give them a big image of a smiling person and a lot of text to wade through before they actually get to the part about doing what they need to do.

McGovern likens this to waving and shouting to a friend across the street. When the friend comes over to talk to you on your side of the street, you continue to wave and shout at him. You got his attention by using the words and phrases he uses in his search queries, and by clearly describing your page purpose to him in the SERP. When he gets there, he expects to get right down to business. Don’t push him away or waste Web real estate to get his attention again. If you don’t believe me, try two versions of your page in an A/B test: One with a big hero image and a bunch of fluffy text at the top, one without. See how many users bounce or engage.

All of this is to emphasize that what users see in the SERP needs to be clearly aligned with what they get when they click the link. As we say often in the book, include the verbs that describe the user task in your keywords in the title tag. And describe the page purpose in the short description or snippet. If you do a good job with this, the users you entice to click into your page will know what to expect and will interact with your content.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gerry McGovern permalink
    December 9, 2010 1:00 pm

    Very interesting piece, James. I definitely agree that the way you write the link is the single most important factor in web success. A link is a promise. It should be a clear promise. And then when the persn clicks on that link the page they arrive at should deliver on the promise.

    While in the webinar I did focus strongly on transactional tasks, I have found that the basic Top Tasks approach works equally well for informational tasks. People come to the Web to solve problems / complete tasks. Focusing on task completion can bring a lot of clarity to the management process.

  2. December 9, 2010 3:38 pm

    Thanks for the comment Gerry. I figured your approach covered all digital tasks, but there’s only so much you can cover in an hour and John wanted you to focus on the demand side. Didn’t mean to misrepresent.

    I’m focused on how tasks net out in terms of the words users type into queries. Most keyword research tools return noun phrases. But it’s the verbs that differentiate the query by task. I’d like to chat with you about how to align keywords to query grammar by aligning the task to the verb.

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