Monkeys, Pachinko and Web Sites

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There are two versions of what happens online.

There's the engineer's version, which is that smart people, with plenty of time, who know precisely what they want from their online surfing, are able to make a considered decision with access to all the data. This version of the Web says that if you can thoughtfully organize everything you can think of, people will find what they want and do business with you.

Then there's the marketer's version. This says that people are busy, ill-informed, impatient, not very thoughtful and eager to click on something right now. And if you don't give them the right thing to click on right now, they're going to hit the back button and leave.

Surprisingly enough, the second version is the one backed up with all the data and all the successful results. That's because it's the right version. The first version is what leads most Internet companies to bankruptcy.

One of the best ways to remind yourself about what's really going on is to think of a monkey in a big red fez. Imagine that the monkey is in some sort of bizarre psychology experiment in which the researcher is trying to train the monkey to climb a ladder and jump into a vat of lime jello.

The best way to motivate the monkey, of course, is to use a banana. Whenever the monkey walks into a new situation, all it wants to know is, "Where's the banana?" If the banana isn't easy to see, easy to get and obvious, the monkey is going to lose interest. But, if you can make it clear to the monkey what's in it for him, odds are he'll do what you want.

I imagine the Web as a series of offer pages, all competing to get us to click. And if those sites make it really clear and really obvious where the monkey's banana is, then the time-starved, not-very-bright consumer (that's you and me, folks!) will go for it.

Some people object to the characterization of Web surfers as monkeys. After all, they say, we're smarter than that. No, we're not. We're not smart, because we're busy, or we're distracted or we've never been to this site before and we're not mind readers.

Why are so many sites in financial trouble? So many existing sites are tanking that investors run out of investment pitches, screaming in fear. The answer is deceptively simple: Because the engineers have been in charge.

The original Web designers wrote the early books, influenced the early articles, staffed the first Web shops. They were the ones who founded Organic and Sapient. They loved technical stuff and viewed marketing as a necessary evil, not the center of the Net.

All was fine, except when they were joined by the Hollywood wannabes, the guys with the soul patch beards and weird haircuts. These were the folks who wanted cool more than anything. They were encouraged by the first few million folks online, the early adopters with fast connections in search of the cool site of the day. Put the three together and you ended up with multimedia extravaganzas, or densely packed multilevel menus. In short, you got a hacker's dream.

This orgy of overprogrammed, overthought, overbuilt Web sites was funded by eager beaver venture capitalists who embraced the engineering-centric view of the Web. They were used to funding technology companies, not direct marketing companies.

Cool plus efficient equals Cool plus nerdy equals or This was a disaster when it came to making money from the Web.

Odds are that your company is still focused on getting traffic (eyeballs, hits, search engine listings) and has designed a user-driven site that allows a smart, focused, patient person to find exactly what they want. And if you're like most companies, you spend whatever time you've got left building entertainment, improving the look of the site, putting in Flash and rollovers and more.

And now, alas, it's not working as well as you hoped., my favorite site, set a trap for the rest of us. I have no idea whether it did this intentionally, but Jeff Bezos is smart enough to have pulled that off as well.

Amazon set an example -- an example of the online catalog, the online brand, the profitable portal deal, the profitable affiliate program. I've got news for you: Just because it worked for Amazon doesn't mean it's going to work for you.

The fact that it worked for Amazon, indeed, makes it less likely that it's going to work for you. You don't have the money. You don't have the time. Most important, Amazon has picked all the low-hanging cherries on that tree. If you're going to make your Web site work, you're going to have to work for it.

In Japan, there are thousands of pachinko parlors. For some reason, the obsession never caught on here, and that's a shame. Pachinko is a terrific way to think about the challenges facing Web marketers.

A pachinko machine is a bit like a pinball machine, but the differences are important. First, it's upright, so the balls fall much faster. Second, you buy balls by the hundreds and shoot them as fast as you can, with repeated twangs of your thumb on the launcher.

With all those balls in play, it doesn't really matter if a few drain out the holes in the bottom. Nobody whacks a machine or tilts it as they do with American pinball. And most balls do drain, with a few hitting the jackpot and giving free balls.

Your site is a pachinko machine. If you buy enough balls, you'll have plenty of traffic coming in at the top of the machine. The challenge (which is under your control) is how to design the layout of the machine so that the balls -- or most of them -- go where you want them.

Most sites are poorly designed. They waste a lot (or sometimes, virtually all) of the balls that flow through. As a result, the owners of these sites need to pay more money for more traffic in order to get the desired results.

What I'm trying to do is outline a different theory. In essence, it's a direct marketer's way of looking at the traffic you get. If you can get some of the balls to go where you want, it's OK if the rest drain away.

As the balls work their way down through the machine that you call your site, you can choose to place additional pages between them and the desired goal. Of course, the more pages you place, the more likely it is that the ball won't do what you want and will drain, leaving you with nothing.

The challenge is to create a series of enticing offers, impenetrable boundaries and thoughtful and logical steps that keep people with you from the moment they arrive until they reach the destination you've set out for them.

What's so cool about this analysis is that you soon realize that balls toward the bottom of the machine (near your goal) are worth far, far more to you than fresh balls just in on the top. You quickly find that it's OK to waste many balls at the topmost level, but only if that sorting action leads to greater profit at the bottom.

The goal is to have a site where X percent of the balls you put in the top end up doing what you want. If you can figure out what X needs to be to make a profit, and you can determine how to accomplish that goal, you've built a perpetual motion machine of money.

If this sounds like direct marketing, that's because it is direct marketing. The Web is a giant direct marketing machine, and the best tactic is to use direct marketing thinking to create a site where your margin per relationship is greater than the cost of that relationship.

Now that you've got a site where balls generate more revenue than they cost to buy, buy more balls. It's not rocket science. It's simple, so simple that all those sites that lost $5 or $10 or $300 for each person they brought in ignored it. They weren't playing pachinko. They were gambling, and they lost.

Here's what we know:

• People don't visit many Web pages considering how many there are.

• When they do visit a page, they decide whether they're going to stay in less than three seconds. If they don't know what to do, they hit the back button.

• The vast majority of people who visit your Web site aren't going to figure out what to do in three seconds.

• If you show them in an obvious way, maybe they'll figure it out.

• Hence the banana. Design each and every page with one and only one primary objective. That's the banana. Make it big. Make it blue (or red). Make it obvious.

• Fight the urge to be all things. Pick one thing. No, your pick won't make everyone happy. So what.

• If you don't pick, they won't either.

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