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Ten Reasons Your Site Isn't Selling

By John Cunningham

Your Web site is a key player in your lineup of promotional tools. As the front door to what may be your company's largest reachable audience, it should not only complement your overall sales and marketing program, but also be your mainstay for building brand identity.

However, many companies pour thousands of dollars into sites that are full of basic marketing blunders. Without a marketing expert directing the show, a Web site offers little more than Internet presence. It can be a beautifully designed technical masterpiece, but if it lacks marketing value, it's worth nothing more than the hefty check you handed your Web developer. (See " Online" for some sites that have successfully avoided marketing pitfalls.)

Here are some common mistakes you'll want to avoid, along with constructive advice on how to improve the market value of your Web site through marketing-savvy design tactics:

1. Confusing your visitors with conflicting content.

If you're trying to build brand identity, inconsistency is your primary enemy. It's critical that your fonts, graphics, colors, logo, and content be consistent, not only throughout the site, but with all of your other corporate marketing or advertising materials.

Put your online and hard-copy materials side-by-side. Have somebody compare them word for word, image for image, message for message. You don't want a potential customer to visit your Web site and then come across an ad or brochure that doesn't convey the same look, feel, or message. That will project nothing but an identity crisis. Visit Unbound Communications' site for a prime example of visual consistency, particularly as it applies to use of color and fonts.

2. Underestimating the importance of usability tests.

Once you've invested significant resources in your Web design, don't skimp on research that will clearly indicate your site's marketability. Usability tests, somewhat comparable to the concept of focus groups, are useful tools for determining whether your Web site is accomplishing your objectives and appealing to your target audience.

To conduct usability tests, it's customary to call in an objective third party (someone reliable, professional, and outside of your company), to find about ten individuals who represent your target audience. The third party then observes each individual, one on one, as he or she moves through your site to evaluate content, main messaging, and navigation.

You pay the individuals for an hour of their time, and in return you gain valuable information that helps you determine whether your site is serving its purpose. For example, if your objective is to drive sales, did your target audience walk away wanting your product or service? Were the content and navigation conducive to your objective? If the answers are no, you'll need to tweak your site until you get the response you're seeking.

3. Leaving your visitors helpless.

Remember these two words: response device. A Web site should always include a free offer, or something that helps you determine a prospect's interest. A free brochure or a free e-newsletter is sure to spark more interest and further educate a promising prospect. All marketing materials should include contact details for information requests; likewise, every Web site needs the standard "contact us" button to make it easy to request more information. See the FamilyLife site, which offers visitors a wide variety of free electronic newsletters, as well as simple steps to register online for seminars and order educational materials.

4. Assuming a high level of technical expertise.

When designing a Web site, ease of use is critical. Just as all of your traditional marketing materials are clearly written and easy to understand—your Web design should follow the same rules.

Even first-time Web users should be able to navigate easily and order products without a hitch. Always assume a low level of technical expertise—another reason why a marketing pro, rather than a Web developer or other such techie—should be orchestrating your Web-site design and driving your marketing message throughout. For a pleasant, user-friendly experience, visit

5. Forgetting to promote your product.

Sounds ridiculously obvious, doesn't it? Too often, Web sites are chock-full of text, bios about the executive staff, and links to clients and partners. In the end, the visitor walks away asking, "What do they sell?" Through careful design, you should weave and promote your products and services into every aspect of the Web site at every given opportunity.

For example, if you offer a technology that's useful for small businesses, your entire Web site should be a walk-through demo that gives users a true feel for its benefits and ease of use. Don't just ask them to read about it—give them a firsthand taste of how it works.

Of course, not all products or services are demo material (i.e., you're a public relations agency, employee recruitment firm, or a pharmaceutical company). But you can still offer samples of your creative work and success stories, outline case studies that illustrate positive results, or develop other creative means to show your capabilities. Check out Hewlett-Packard's ScanJet scanners site for a clear illustration of solid product promotion. Or visit the J. Stokes & Associates site, which provides buttons for defined departments that allow access to samples of work for clients.

6. Falling into the cobweb trap.

Too many companies pour thousands of dollars into developing a Web site, sigh with relief when it's up, and leave it untouched for months. A fundamental marketing principle is to always give people a reason to come back—otherwise visitors will eventually abandon you.

Make it a priority to update your content each week (or day) with a feature that's valuable to your visitors, such as a "Tip of the Day." You don't need to have groundbreaking news; however, your site should look different when a visitor stops by. In addition to a daily or weekly helpful tip, consider adding a sentence to your home page that reads, "Click here to learn more about our new (fill in the blank)." Even if you don't have something truly new to offer, you can spin something fresh on an existing product or service. Or feature actual quotes or feedback from customers. Change the quotes frequently so visitors can see how different businesses or individuals are making use of your product or service.

Bottom line here: Keep it fresh. A great example, The Knot, offers visitors valuable wedding tips and new products on a daily basis, giving consumers a reason to return.

7. Keeping a messy home.

Think of your home page as the entryway to your house or business. When visitors come through your front door, would you want them to stumble over a heap of debris? From a marketing standpoint, you need to grab potential customers immediately upon entry, or you might lose them forever.

Keep your home page clean. Don't let your message get lost in a sea of unnecessary copy or graphics. Use concise copy, readable type, and simple navigation to convey clearly who you are, what you have to offer, why it benefits the visitor, and how to proceed with ordering or further exploration. Both Apple and National Public Radio have sites with clean, attractive, user-friendly home pages.

8. Trying to appeal to everybody.

The result of a mass-appeal approach is typically mass confusion. A key principle of marketing involves proper research to determine your audience and target market. Take the knowledge gained from previous research, if it exists, and apply it to your Web-site design, appropriately tailoring your content, graphics, message, and even type size to suit your target audience.

If you're a technology company that appeals to Internet-savvy types, then an interactive Web site makes sense. Likewise, large type and minimal navigation would be more appropriate for an older audience. Ask yourself, "Who is my target clientele?" Then tailor each aspect of your Web site to suit their needs.

The Ministry of Culture and Communication has built an excellent site that speaks directly to its audience. The site helps visitors explore the Cave of Lascaux, transforming your mouse pointer into a flashlight that illuminates an area of the dark cavean automatic turn-on for enthusiasts likely to visit such a site. For a design that clearly speaks to a specific age group (Generation Xers), visit the Toyota site.

9. Killing 'em with copy.

It's easy to get carried away when you attempt to provide a company history and describe all the great benefits of your products and services. Believe me, people don't care that much.

Web-site visitors are there for a purpose, with limited time and patience. If they wanted to read novels, they'd visit and order some. Just as with all your marketing materials, keep it short, clear, and concise. Deliver a message, and call visitors to action. Tell them only what they need to know, and then prompt them to click to get to the next step. Two good examples of clean, yet valuable sites are the Monterey Bay Aquarium's site and e-lingo.

10. Putting the wrong driver at the wheel.

How do you tell the difference between a Web site that was primarily driven by a technical expert and one designed by a marketing pro? It's easy. A site that asks visitors to choose between a "Regular Version" and a "Shocked Version" at the home page was likely designed by a well-meaning techie with little or no knowledge of basic marketing principles. The results can be disastrous.

An unprepared visitor who clicks on the "Shocked Version" will likely encounter a graphic that requires a download that leads to a button that leads to a Netscape page. Chances are great that the visitor may never return to your site.

Let's say a hard-nosed executive looking for a local video production company found this site via a search engine. Assuming he or she wasn't automatically turned off by the lack of basic instant information upon entering the home page, do you think he or she would return to the "Regular Version" to risk a painstaking recurrence? Doubtful. More than likely, this busy exec will move on to video company number two, whose stylish and substantive Web site offers what he or she needs to know—on the home page.

It's true that a dreary, two-tone Web site lacking any graphic images and overloaded with text is bland and boring. On the other hand, a flashy Web site readable only with the latest browsers, video cards, plug-ins, and tons of memory will be useless to anyone except the developer who designed it. For a wonderful example of the right driver at the wheel, visit Crayola.

To be an effective marketing tool, a Web site must have a careful balance of substance and style. My overall advice is to limit the flash, beef up the substance, and offer your visitors something to walk away with.

John is vice president of marketing for TellSoft Technologies. You can reach him at

Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC