Books and Guides

16

May 2012

The MoreDigital Guide to Communication: Websites

Posted in Books and Guides, Business tactics | 0 Comments

The MoreDigital Guide to Communication - website section header.There is no faster way to reassure a potential client or customer that your business is twenty years behind than to present them with a terrible website. GIF files and clip-art from the Nineties, blocky design and the most difficult-to-navigate cluster of pages possible will tell me that you have no interest in the following:

  • Your company’s image
  • Modern technology
  • Making everything your company offers accessible to those they want to grant access to
  • Common sense

Keep customers on your site

I’ve rung the common sense bell at least once before, but I’ll give it another good old ding-a-ling anyway. In 2012 – you know, before Google’s Glass project renders all websites obsolete and we simply live behind a screen attached to our heads – your website is the most important first impression you’ll ever get to make. Compare it to your opening few jokes in a stand-up comedy routine – the first joke sets the tone for the rest of the performance. Similarly, the amount of immediately available, well-presented and easily-navigable information on a company site can make the difference between a one-off visitor and a regular user.

‘Bounce rate’ is a webmaster term that gets bandied around a lot – it simply means how many people are going to find a page on your site and then leave, rather than navigating around to see more interesting stuff. Usually, most people tend to come to a page for a specific answer, or to research one thing in particular. This means, funnily enough, that every single page on your site has to be informative – people should learn something every time they read a page on your website. You should not, under any circumstances, decide to just waffle on about your company or your products. Keep people interested, and you’ll keep them on the site.

People also go to websites to buy products and services. Should your site be selling something, then it’s not a bad idea to have a look at how easy it is for the average person to actually do that. A clear price, a well-designed shopping basket system and an easy-to-navigate catalogue will do wonders for people’s willingness to shop at your site. Don’t hide prices or postal charges, either – you wouldn’t do it in-store, so there’s no reason at all to do it online. Small print and hidden charges aren’t going to make anyone trust you or your site, and poor feedback in a public forum is – you guessed it – bad for your company image.

Personalisation, community, and plain old looking good

One of the things that I really enjoy on a website is the ability to really personalise my experience depending on how I’ve interacted with it in the past, but I find it’s a double-edged sword.  For example: when I’m using Amazon, I’ll find that my logged-in homepage is full of items related to the stuff I’ve shopped for. However, if I’ve recently been browsing gifts for others, most of the items the site presents to me are now completely irrelevant to my interests. At the same time, I do feel like it’s attempting to show me stuff I’m interested in, and while I can see through the “Buy this! Give us more of your money!” sell on the site, it at least lets me know that the site is paying attention.

Another aspect of websites I like is a strong community. Not all companies will be able to make this work, but again, Amazon does it well with user reviews and discussion threads. Some commercial websites are actually built around the idea of community and discussion – see Etsy for a great example. If it does work for your site, however, then you will have to motivate people to get involved. Custom titles for those who post a lot, a reputation system, even allowing people to voluntarily moderate (although I recommend giving them rewards or considering just paying them – free labour should feel awkward to anyone).

Most importantly, however, is that your website does not look bad in terms of its actual aesthetics. You’ll notice that as of 2012, a lot of successful sites tend to be quite clean and minimalist in their appearance, and technology is often the same. As a result, cluttering up your homepage and other pages with information, sidebars and info-boxes could well tire someone out if they’re just trying to navigate through it. Make everything feel spacious. Here are some good examples.

There are many ways to test your site, the most thorough being to run strictly controlled user tests. Alternatively you could simply to unleash five (Jakob Nielsen reckons ‘five users is enough’) really picky, pedantic, annoying, easily frustrated people – five of myself, basically – on your site and see what comes back. People who click everywhere, who look at your source code because they’re nosy or jealous of your good design (again, me). Whenever you create something, you need to get people to try and break it to see where the cracks appear. Making sure those areas are fixed and reinforced is going to help once the site itself launches. So good luck, test hard, don’t design a site for someone surfing in 1994, and for God’s sake realise that people might want to hang out on your site. Don’t be afraid. The future is clickable.

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8

Apr 2011

How not to market yourself.

Posted in Books and Guides, Business tactics | 1 Comment »

A wee while back, someone on my Twitter feed linked to an ebook review that I can only describe as constructively negative. The book, from what I could tell, was shoddily written, with little thought given to grammar, punctuation, sentence structure or even common sense. All in all, the concept was fine, but the execution was horrendous, and with one bad review comes a few good ones, surely?

No. With one bad review comes the author, and she was not impressed.

As you can see, she went completely berserk. Attacks directed towards the reviewer soon expanded to encompass the entire wealth of commentators delving into a writhing morass of criticism and defensive attitudes that became the pitiful sight of a debut author going down in flames. There’s little else to say. Within a few hours her comments had gone from long and badly written to profanity, and it didn’t take much to provoke her.

Some people say that it was unfair for everyone to jump on the bandwagon, but is it? In this day and age, being an idiot on the internet is generally a bad idea, especially if you’re selling a product, running a business, or you have some form of celebrity status, either online or not. Her mistake was doing this publicly, as the moment it hit the Twitterverse, even esteemed fantasy author Neil Gaiman was weighing in with his bafflement at her approach to a negative review, stating that this was how not to self-promote.

I decided to do some research, as she initially claimed she’d had a fair few five-star reviews. All of them jokes, apart from a couple which are written by either the author under quite an obvious pseudonym (given that the review itself contains the exact same grammar mistakes found in her magnum opus) or a relative who couldn’t even be bothered to change her surname. Astonishing stuff, really.

Sure, it’s a little disheartening to get a bad review, and of course the amount of people ripping into her must have hurt, but what would you do when someone’s lashing out with four-letter-words at you for agreeing that their book was bad? In the age of the instant search, there’s no longer room for error. Once you’re done, you’re done, and it seems like a harsh judgement to pass on someone, but if you’re going to upload an extremely short novel clearly written during NaNoWriMo, without any editing whatsoever, when why should people bother? Why pay for a product you’re selling as an independent creative entity?

I’d love to see someone try and pull this again. I think she stands as a strong warning to authors about to flip over a harsh few words from a critic. Pro Tip: people will never like everything. If your book had bad grammar, it had bad grammar. Suck it up and edit properly. But in an era where I could tweet about your bad reaction and have it appear on ten thousand accounts within a few minutes, I am the Consumer-Peasant, and you are the Unruly Sovereign. And the peasants will revolt.

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15

Nov 2010

Are we too paranoid about spam?

Posted in Books and Guides | 0 Comments

I have a friend. I can’t divulge his name, but he lives in Nigeria, and he’s one of the most powerful, wealthy men in that particular country. He’s also got a slight problem – there’s this absolute ton of money he’s nicked, and he needs someone to help him get it out of the country. All I’ve got to do is send him a cheque for ten grand, while he sends me one for fifteen. Simple, right? I’ve sent mine off ages ago, and he’s just sending me his. Only the queue at the post office is two to four years long. Pretty sweet, right?

Wrong.

If you’re out there, and you’ve fallen for this, I’m not going to take the whiz. Recently, I had a similar experience with a “man-in-the-phone” moment. My bank called me saying there’d been odd activity on my account. There hadn’t been, I assure you. Now, I’m fairly confident it was my bank, as I missed the original call, so called Abbey back directly and they seemed to know what I was talking about. But not all calls claiming to be from banks are the real deal.

When you’re contacted, you’re going to ask a lot of questions. I find I’m fairly protective. The only people I know who have the privilege of my email address (or, even rarer, my mobile phone number) are major online stores, business associates and close contacts. But when an email drops into my in-box talking to me personally and they seem to have my aims and goals down-pat, I tend to read it through, do some research, and listen. I’ve gained a few things that way – memorably, affiliates for my blog – and it only took me 20 minutes.

The downside to registering with a job site is the endless amount of CV emails that arrive every day. It’s astonishing – they’re all looking for someone in Europe, who can have any skills at any level as long as they have enough time, energy and devotion for the exciting new project their company is starting work on. They mention me by name, sometimes, but mostly it’s the same email – even the format doesn’t change. I’d love to think I was this in demand, but there are Hollywood actors who get fewer offers from the indie film industry. The key thing is research – I’ve almost missed some seriously important messages due to my over-zealous spam filter.

If you’re looking to fine-tune your filters, and you’re on Gmail or a similar client with filter capabilities, then you need to think carefully. If you’re job hunting as a hungry graduate but want to nix the time-wasting spam emails, be confident before you filter out anything with the word “CV” in it – you never know, you might just be throwing away your only chance at a job interview for the next seven months. I have a comprehensive and ridiculously complex list of “if this, then this” filters, and they’re doing a grand job of keeping most of the dodgy stuff away from my online letterbox.

A lot of emails nowadays are also coming from well-known companies. Blizzard (I own a frozen World of Warcraft account), PayPal, and so on – they’re all legit-looking, and appear to come from the right companies, but chances are, they aren’t. Why? Because if you registered and clicked on links in a validation email already, chances are you’re probably set up to have the any mail from the real company drop straight into your inbox, no spam-wall-of-death required. Do skim-read your spam, though, so you don’t miss any receipts, update emails or friend requests. Just don’t click on anything that you feel tempted to Google first.

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