Editorial: Who Kidnapped Marketing?

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What the heck is going on out there? Is there a marauding gang of Web site designers holding marketers hostage and threatening to shoot the first one who makes a suggestion?

Must be. How else do we explain the Boston Consulting Group's findings released this week that 28 percent of shopping attempts were thwarted in the past year.

And make no mistake. This is a design problem.

Too many sites are conceived like it's the launch of a Mars probe - countless project meetings where no one can speak their mind. And one by one, hour by agonizing hour- agonizing for all, that is, except the gasbags who live to dominate meetings - crucial decisions are made by consensus.

Finally, the big red switch is thrown. Champaign corks pop. And there sits DesignedByTheGroupAnd AnnointedByTheBoss.com, prettily drifting, turning away 28 percent of the people who want to buy the company's product in a marketplace where customers cost, what, 50 bucks each to acquire?

Please say marketing departments are not responsible for this. There has to be some way to blame France.

Yes, that's it. Marauding French Web site designers have infiltrated marketing departments, spreading reserved European sensibilities at gunpoint everywhere they go.

What other explanation can there be since money-back guarantees, if displayed at all, are never displayed prominently on home pages?

Catalogers have known for years that prominently displayed money-back guarantees drive up conversion rates. What's more, tests a long time ago showed that money-back guarantees prominently framed in those very uncool green certificates improve conversion rates even more. It wouldn't be surprising to find out that the certificate part is no longer true. But has anyone tested to find out? Doubtful. We certainly don't want to offend anyone's sensibilities with a garish sales tool.

Or how about phone numbers? They're always buried one, two, sometimes three clicks into the site. Contact information is apparently another possible sensibility offender.

"But all they have to do is click here. See? Nothing to it," our indignant Web site designer will say as if talking to the village idiot.

The point is someone who has made the decision to be a customer shouldn't have to work to get hold of a merchant.

Here are two examples of the thinking behind far too many Web sites:

At a recent meeting of Internet muckety-mucks, a marketing executive - one who no doubt rakes in dumpster loads of money - from a huge, well-known consumer goods company based in New York, said of Yahoo, "I just can't stand that site. It's too cluttered."

At another recent meeting, an executive from a top-five online ad agency said she didn't like the way the New York Times Web site looks and would have designed it differently.

These were not rookies speaking. These were two people from the top of the Internet food chain taking shots at two of the most effective sites in existence solely for the way they look.

Permission marketing man Seth Godin about a year ago at a Jupiter Communications conference in New York City asked an audience of several hundred marketers: "How many of you are trying to change users' behavior online in some way?"

Nearly everyone raised their hands. "Then you're direct marketers," he said. Next he asked how many were testing home page approaches. About two hands went up. He then recommended diverting 10 percent of a site's traffic through test home pages to see what visitors' respond to.

"But what about our brand ... our consistent look and feel?" our marauding French Web site designer would say.

If a brand consistently stands for "Maybe you'd be less frustrated shopping elsewhere," it's time to change it. And the only way to find out how to change it is to test it.

E-commerce sites should not be judged by the number of oohs and aahs they elicit from a conference room full of company insiders jockeying for position. E-commerce sites should be judged by the people who use them and the sales they drive.

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