Web Design Flaws – part 2

So, more on my pet frustrations with organisations unable to get Web 1.0 right and why that should be fixed before everyone gets too carried away with the potential of Web 2.0… (You can read part 1 here)

Part 2 – Email

Why do companies do such a bad job of using email to connect with customers? They force you to enter your email address before you can do anything (e.g. download a document or trial software) and then spam you with useless automated messages from that point onwards but don’t provide a way for you to respond.

Sample culprit: Handango (http://www.handango.com)

I have an iPaq 4150 – gorgeous little skinny PDA that, thanks to a spare battery, can keep running all day (8 hours+ including watching movies). It serves 3 primary functions: my organiser (calendar, contacts, notes, tasks, email + syncs the lot with my work and home PCs), research (AvantGo, RSS reader + viewers for most doc formats), and play (games, movies, music, ebooks etc. – thanks to 1.5Gb of SD storage). Actually, it’s now got a 4th use, having acquired a GPS receiver and installed PocketStreets, but I digress. I decided I needed a new game for distraction during travel times, and went for a browse on Handango’s site. I decided to ‘trial’ Riven (‘trial’ = trailer rather than demo, as it turned out), which naturally required me to enter my email address in order to download the required file. Sure enough, a few days later, I receive an automated email thanking me for recently downloading a trial and including the link should I wish to purchase the full program. The email then includes a ‘few suggestions’, should I be looking for something else. The closing blurb goes as follows:

This is a one time email sent to the email address as entered when downloading a trial application from Handango. You are not subscribed to any additional mailing lists.

THIS EMAIL WAS SENT FROM AN UNATTENDED MAILBOX. PLEASE DO NOT REPLY AS YOUR MESSAGE WILL NOT BE SEEN

Why would Handango not be interested in any reply I might want to make? Had the email instead ended along the lines ‘We’re interested in your feedback on this trial and how we can improve our services, please send any comments to [insert email address]’, I would have clicked the link and sent them the following response:

“Thanks for the email. I have actually already purchased Riven but from another web site. Whilst checking reviews to see what others thought of the game running on a PDA, an advert popped up offering the product at a 25% discount over on ClickGamer and I purchased it from there. Had you also been offering the same discount, I would have purchased it from you having previously purchased from your site.”

At least that way, Handango would know a) the trial worked, in that it led to a purchase, and b) they lost the sale because the identical product was available on discount somewhere else. As a result, they could perhaps work with the supplier to negotiate a discount to protect future potential sales and even, shock horror, go one step further and respond with something along the lines: “We’re sorry not to have been able to offer the product at the same price as one of our competitors. Next time, please do contact us first as we will always try to match the lowest available price for software.” And you know what, if they replied like that, I would check back with them first next time. If you want to increase your potential sales, basic analytics from your web site won’t help much, you need feedback. I don’t doubt I could revisit the web site, locate the ‘contact us’ link that is likely to exist and supply some feedback there, but a) it takes a lot more effort on my part, and b) will disappear amongst unrelated emails within the standard website inbox.

The web offers also sorts of ways to increase sales and improve customer service, but it requires different methods and processes to traditional channels. First and foremost, it needs to be as easy as possible for your potential customers to get what they want. If you want rich feedback, make it as easy as possible to do so (you went to the trouble of collecting that email address…) It seems that very few companies really take the effort to use the Web well to improve their business…

(Again, just like the last post, I must stress, the culprit named here just happened to be a site I’ve visited recently. They are not alone and there will be plenty of other examples out in cyberspace.)

Blog power

Guy Kawasaki has posted some interesting statistics that should be of interest to any organisation considering the effect blogs could have on their business. For any marketing and PR people who haven’t yet studied the power of blogs and networks involving ‘influentials’, it’s about time they started…

After just 30 days of blogging, Guy noted that:

  • Amazon sales rank for his book has gone from position #1,500 – 2,000 up to between #500 – 750
  • Web site page views per day have increased from 400 to between 800 – 1,200
  • After linking to somebody else’s site, their page views per week jumped from 321 to 38,946

This ties in nicely with Richard Edelman’s recent essay The Me2 Revolution describing how, in the world of communications:

“…the pyramid-of-influence model has been gradually supplanted by a peer-to-peer, horizontal discussion…”

And whilst I’m in quote-happy mode, I recently read Orson Scott Card’s ‘Enders Game‘, on a friend’s recommendation (that would be the good ol’ peer network in action) and the following quote seemed, well, fascinating:

“There are times when the world is rearranging itself and, at times like that, the right words can change the world… The world is always a democracy in times of flux, and the man with the best voice will win”

…from a book originally written in 1977, a conversation between two children deciding to use ‘the nets’ to publish articles that will get people talking and challenging political decisions:

“Peter, you’re twelve.” “Not on the nets I’m not.”

There was me thinking The Cluetrain Manifesto was ahead of its time.

And from the power of words to the weakness of words. Whilst writing this, a documentary has just started on the TV: Challenger: Countdown to disaster. Having just read Edward Tufte’s excellent ‘Visual Explanations‘, I’m not expecting too many surprises. (The book uses The Challenger shuttle disaster as a case study in what can happen if you don’t present your data clearly and someone does not want to hear what you are trying to tell them.)

Dose ‘IT’ matter: Blogs

Blogs are disrupting traditional media channels. They have the potential to make or break brands and reputations. Within two years, a blogging policy should be included in every organisation’s marketing strategy and content management system.

Contrary to popular opinion, your priority is not to start blogging in earnest. Instead you should ask, ‘how do we respond if somebody sets up an ‘I hate [insert your name here] blog?’ It’s an extreme case but will help you focus on what matters – listening to your customers and responding effectively. Lock manufacturer Kryptonite provides a great example of what can happen if you don’t act, as retold by The Global Blogging Effect (scroll down to the section titled ‘The Kryptonite Factor’). The short version: failing to respond cost Kyrptonite millions of dollars and the damage to their brand will take a generation to repair. Silence is not an option. A bad blog entry is like a red wine stain – ignore it and the stain becomes permanent, do the wrong thing and it will get worse, act quickly in the right way and you can fix it. But there is an upside to this effect. Blogs can give you feedback faster and richer than any other channel. Not convinced? Hugh MacLeod has shown how blogging helped double the sales of a certain brand of wine in just 12 months. If you are prepared to connect with, listen and respond to your audience, you will be rewarded. And this effect is not limited to external conversations. The nature of blogs make it a powerful medium for sharing knowledge internally.

So you’ve written your policy and you want your organisation to start blogging – what to do? Realise that blogs are just digital conversations and share similar characteristics with verbal conversations – they are optional and difficult to control. You cannot force someone to write or read a blog (well, you can, but it will be as useful as a statement in court). Similarly, you can’t force someone not to write a blog (well you can, but would you really want to do that? …Really?) And if you try to control the content, you risk faking it. L’Oreal did and learned the hard way (but they listened, responded quickly and made an incredible recovery – The Fall and Rise of Vichy retells the story). You need to decide what type of blog would benefit your organisation, identify who wants to be involved, create a policy, set up the tools and leave them to it. You have to trust them, accept that writing a blog isn’t a 5-minute activity and that mistakes will be made a long the way. But care is needed. A digital conversation has one characteristic that differs from verbal conversations – it is written down. That makes it a record, just like email and instant messaging. Yup, that means blogging activities will need to be considered part of your overall content management system and applicable to the same governance and regulations. And if your organisation could benefit from some email etiquette training, blogging will be no different.

The benefits (and disadvantages) of blogs will depend on how and why you want to connect with an audience. There are no hard and fast rules. In the technology industry, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft have both benefited from employees blogging. Apple prefers the secret squirrel approach but (just about) everyone still loves Apple. The media industry huffs and puffs at blogging but the house isn’t about to blow down and goodness knows why they want it to. The only media threatened by blogs is mediocre and badly written journalism. If you want to build a stronger relationship with your audience, be it employees, customers, suppliers, partners, existing, new and old, the chances are blogging can help. If you are in the middle of investing in some form of customer relationship management system, are you including blogs in that project? If not, why not? If you want to maintain strict control over content and communication then blogging probably isn’t for you. That doesn’t mean you can avoid including it in your marketing strategy – just because you aren’t blogging doesn’t stop people from blogging about you…

Blogging is not mandatory, it simply provides a channel where people can connect and converse, if they want to. Blogging is just one element emerging on the Internet that demonstrates what The Cluetrain Manifesto pondered back in 2000:

“What if the real power of the web lay not in the technology behind it, but in the profound changes it brings to the way people interact with business?”

That’s what blogging is really about and that’s why IT matters.

IM versus Email

In May 2005, I was asked to present at the EEMA annual conference on the above subject. Given the debate has cropped up again (in BusinessWeek), here’s a short outline of the notes that go with the presentation.

(Note: I presented in my capacity as a technology strategist at Microsoft. Whilst it wasn’t a sales pitch, no prizes for guessing which technologies the screenshots and examples were taken from – hey, they’re the tools that I use and I try to stick to talking about what I know.)

Will IM take over from Email?

When I asked the question in the room, about 10% of the audience responded with yes. They were surprised when I displayed the results from a Sage research paper, released in January 2005. The report showed a much more mixed response: 51% of those surveyed said yes. Why would so many think that IM could replace Email? Do we think IM is a more appropriate tool or are people becoming increasingly frustrated with email?

Is Email dying?

The most recent report from MessageLabs claimed that spam now accounts for three-quarters of all email traffic, up from 40% in 2003. Spam filters have become incredibly effective at blocking spam (I rarely see any in my inbox these days). But the filters are like fishing nets – they catch more than just the fish you want to eat. As a result, people are losing track of important messages. And then there’s the other type of spam…

Have a look through your inbox. How many of the messages could be considered corporate spam: stuff that is sent for people to see, rather than requiring any response? How many ‘me too’ responses thanks to the dreaded ‘Reply-All’ button? This is a real bug-bear – the sending of unnecessary email to unnecessary recipients – see related blog entry: 7 Productivity Tips (point number 3).

What this all adds up to is a drop in productivity – the very opposite to what email is supposed to achieve.

Is there anybody out there?

But there’s a reason why we have come to rely on email for conversations and completing tasks. When you use the telephone, how often do you actually get to speak to a person instead of hearing the answering machine? How often are you advised to contact somebody else? And contacting that person leads to another voicemail… The Guardian ran an article in April 2005 claiming that British companies spend £20billion per year due to inefficiencies caused by playing telephone tag. Rather than being passed from pillar to post on the telephone system, it has become easier to just send out an email to multiple recipients, and then do something else whilst you wait for somebody to reply. Could there be a better way?

(I think context may be required here: When writing the presentation, ‘Star Wars: Episode III’ had just opened at the cinema)

The value IM provides is not so much the ability to send messages instantly but the ability to see presence information. When someone logs on to their computer, their IM status is updated to ‘online’. If their computer is inactive for a period of time, IM status is automatically updated to ‘away’. If you are reviewing a document, seeing the author’s presence online makes it easier to decide when and how to collaborate on the document. The feature becomes invaluable if you are in a distributed organisation, spread across multiple locations and time zones (increasingly likely in this flattened world of ours).

IM can reduce the need for telephone and email tag and dramatically improve productivity where collaboration is required, especially between people who are geographically dispersed. So why have companies been so reluctant to deploy the technology?

Many people worry that IM will cause a distraction and reduce productivity. This is one of those crazy irrational fears – believing people will just use IM to gossip all day… if people are so uninterested in their work, they will gossip with or without IM – that’s what water-coolers were invented for. People also worry that confidential information will be shared over IM. Hmmm… a) the same can happen with email, telephone and any other communication method, and b) IM conversations can be audited if you deploy a corporate IM system as opposed to using consumer versions such as MSN Messenger. And that leads us nicely to some statistics.

  • According to Nucleus Research, in October 2004, 18% of companies had officially deployed an IM solution
  • According to SurfControl, in March 2005, 90% of companies had at least one employee using IM, and 78% of workplace IM users had downloaded the IM software from the Internet.

Ignoring IM is not an option. Just like any other tool that makes collaboration (and work) easier, users will start adopting the technology with, or without, the permission of IT. And I have little patience for IT departments who fight users and prevent them from using new collaboration tools. For most companies, IT is not the reason for existing, IT is an enabler for doing business. If users find IM useful, then it should be encouraged and deployed in a managed environment instead of pretending it isn’t happening or, worse, blocking its use and preventing people from working more effectively.

The use of IM is increasing inside of organisations, whether it’s through official or unofficial channels. The growth is inevitable – we are seeing a generation enter the workforce who have grown up with IM and who consider email to be the new snail mail – something you use to communicate with the oldies (i.e. those who viewed traditional mail in the same light a decade ago). In addition, we are seeing new mobile devices running IM software, enabling people to send IM and participate in a group conversation using their mobile phone (a device previously used for chatting/texting between only two people). And for those oldies amongst us who have embraced IM, it’s becoming easier to communicate when travelling, thanks to the growth in wireless laptops and networks (I can IM someone from a coffee shop far easier and faster than I can access the corporate email system…)

Let’s get together

So what is the future for IM, email and telephony? Unsurprisingly, we are seeing them converge together, providing a single access point for communication. Today, using Microsoft’s Live Communicator, not only do I see an author’s presence information, I can also view their full contact information – email address, telephone number, office location. I can review their calendar and discover their whereabouts, I can see their ‘out of office’ message without having to first send an email to discover they are unavailable… I can choose the most appropriate way of communicating (perhaps even getting up and walking, having discovered their office is just 50 yards away from where I sit) and get on with doing just that – communicating. And because IM has been integrated into Office 2003, I can do this all from within the document I am currently working on, rather than fiddling about with multiple different applications and address books.

The opportunity for IT departments is to apply the lessons learnt from email systems. IM will not be immune to the same challenges email has faced during the past decade.

The challenge for users will be to use the right communication channel for the right message in the right context. And again, email can perhaps lead the way. When I first started deploying email systems (i.e. those that ran on PC-networks – GroupWise, ccMail and Exchange), they were considered useful toys. Since then, they have grown up to become mission critical and unruly. I’ll let the final slide speak for itself:

Maybe improving our use of communications tools isn’t so difficult…

References: