Conversational Web Sites
Web technology makes it very easy to quickly communicate with so many people that it's easy to forget the overriding purpose of creating a powerful Web site.
It's cool to be able to interact with customers who come to a Web site. We can share a great deal of information, gather more profile data than we think we can use, and provide an entertaining, informative, and educational environment.
It's so cool that we sometimes lose sight of what we're trying to accomplish with this technology. Sure, we want to sell products with e-commerce or generate leads for salespeople. But how does this impact the audience? I mean, really impact them.
Many people involved in Internet marketing feel that they're helping members of their audience improve their lives through the information and products provided on the Web.
Have you seen the TV spots for iVillage? They talk about women with real problems finding real help from people like themselves. Because many ailments are shared by very small groups of people, these groups are so small that local support organizations aren't always available to help. The Internet provides access to those communities of people who share common interests and needs, and are willing to help.
Speaking of TV commercials, another company is advancing the concept of one-to-one marketing and mass customization. Xerox periodically runs commercials with the theme, "keep the conversation going." This campaign shows that providing personalized information to customers appeals to people - on paper, of course. Xerox makes a good case that profile data can be used to personalize more than just Web sites and e-mails.
But all of these - from communities of like-minded people to personalized Web, e-mail, and, yes, paper-based communications - are done for one reason, and that's to influence decisions.
Communication is a give and take. Whether it's an online community where people share their experiences or an e-commerce site where merchants provide products (and get paid). We communicate when we want to influence those around us to be like us, respect us, and sometimes buy from us.
But how do we actually use the Web to provide the kind of interaction that touches people and influences their decisions? The slogan used in the Xerox TV commercial has the answer: Keep the conversation going.
The conversation we use in everyday life is also aimed at influencing the decisions people around us make. We know that we need to speak the language of the person we're trying to communicate with and understand what they're feeling.
Have you watched a couple of Internet techies talk to each other? At first they ask a few questions to learn about the other person's experience level and background. Then they shift into a very different level of talking that uses a language of their own, sometimes called "technospeak" (and sometimes called "technobabble"). They don't care if the non-technical people around them don't understand their TLAs (three letter acronyms), because those conversation shortcuts help them communicate better.
They can quickly form a bond of trust and understanding that frequently allows them to learn from each other. That respect can lead to learning something new that influences their decisions.
So how can we use conversational techniques on the Web to influence visitors? Portions of the Xerox Web site are written in a conversational style, but there's more to making a site conversational than the style of writing.
A truly conversational site learns about visitors, saves that information in profiles, and then uses that knowledge to react to different interests.
Here's a quick test to see if your Web site is conversational:
- Does the site ask questions aimed at learning about each person?
- Can the site determine if someone is just starting to learn about products like yours or has researched the market and is about to make a purchase decision?
- Does the text on the site change to match the interest and knowledge level of the visitor?
These are just a few of the ways that profiles about people can be used to make a Web site more conversational, but the real focus should be on getting in step with each visitor and matching what the site says with what people are thinking and feeling. The art of conversation is taught in books, classes, and seminars, so there is a procedure for doing it. Why not use the same procedure on the Web?
Intuitive navigation and great design help people find the right document. But taking advantage of meaningful profile data allows dynamic documents to make an impact on the audience and influence their purchase decisions.
Cliff Allen is the co-author of the book One-to-One Web Marketing; 2nd Ed., published by John Wiley & Sons, and has consulted with companies on strategic marketing for 20 years.