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Web Trends 2017: Design Sameness. Content Red Alert.

By Burkey Belser
July 6, 2016
Web Trends 2017: Design Sameness. Content Red Alert.

It’s that time again—judging the WebAwards for another year. If you've followed these trend reports through the years, you may remember that judges get together to share their insights in advance of being turned loose as judges. We found the conversation extremely interesting in large measure because this year’s trends seem very different from years' past.

Technology is settling in and speeding up at the same time

As users get increasingly comfortable with content management systems and the systems themselves become fully featured, “CMS” is no longer a scary technology. They have become as familiar as cars. Today, the question is how much car do you want. Buyers are just as wary of an enterprise-level system with too many capabilities as they are of a less robust system with too few. Why buy a car that cruises comfortably at 130 mph when you only drive back and forth to work in the city? Yet you also want the pick up, the zip—even in the city.

Innovation in technology

The land grab for SiteCore and other enterprise level systems has not abated, but buyers are beginning to understand the nuances. Carrier? Battleship? Destroyer? PT boat? Buyers seem to be trying to match software with their commitment to their particular Internet property but it’s a challenge for the best of them. The tendency is to buy more capability than you need or will use to be on the safe side. Others are coming to grips with the reality of their organization’s budget, staffing and ambition.

Ballooning web-related staff is still a pipe dream for most

Firms are evaluating their commitment to their overall communications strategy first as a prelude to a decision about a CMS. Most large B2B and B2C businesses have a substantial commitment to their online presence with job titles that may include a mobile marketer, content librarian, community executive, social media engineer, analytics advisor and manager of engagement. For most professional service firms and associations, these titles outstrip their commitment by a mile. Marketers have other fish to fry. The website is just one responsibility in their portfolio.

Innovation in site design is good and not so good

We wrote last year that industry “looks” were solidifying like product design. Soap has its particular visual vocabulary; same for accounting, consulting, law firms and associations. But some design trends we reported last year (the long page, horizontal scrolls, etc.) have allowed industry sites to break the mold.

Murmuration and the problem of design

For a moment there was hope! But now a new “standard” has taken over, bleeding across industries, amazingly leading to a new mold for seemingly everyone! You know the formula: full home page image or video with a rectangular do-something box in the middle and a pulsating down arrow to get the reader to slide down the page. Here’s an example below. The good ones at least combine this familiar look with brand messaging, thank heavens. Here’s what’s sad: these sites look good, they really do. But they look good in a sea of sameness. Is looking good enough? Absolutely not. Demand differentiation.

The Old Standard

Trust_Worthy_llp_old_Standard

The New Standard

O, yeah, “murmuration.” Faithful readers will remember an earlier trends report that talked about the movement of millions of swallows in perfect synch, quickly turning in dramatic fashion within inches of outstretched wings. This is what’s occurring across industries and across the entire Internet of Design. Demand differentiation. Damn, I’m repeating myself.

Other channels

This report on web trends is too narrow—just in case you noticed attention being diverted to other channels. A brilliant presentation recently at LMA Tech in Chicago by Seyfarth Shaw marketers shared innovations in Twitter (embedded images with type, fooling the character limit, and adding emoji that lifted engagement). Adrian Peterson talked about how to tweak your LinkedIn pages to do the same—increase engagement. People are working in small spaces with limited opportunities to do better and better things. God is in the details.

Content

Houston, we have a problem. No one wants to read what you present as biographies or service descriptions for professional services. A wall of words is not a sales brochure. Your website is today’s sales brochure. Judges were told to look for innovation generally (see below), imagining the category to be confined to technology. But some smart judges want to see content presented differently. It appears high value intangible services are the only corner of the Internet where words are the primary means of communication. Hotels? Picture, picture, picture. Retail. Nuff said. The only persistent failure of effective, compelling communication as a class occurs in our little (multi-billion dollar) corner of the world.

The solution to this content problem is to completely rethink the strategy that informs these descriptions. We are not in high-school anymore. No one is demanding a 500-word paper on antitrust or assurance or member benefits. Unfortunately, this means that all 75 service descriptions must be re-imagined, not just rewritten. That moves site redesign into another category entirely. No longer “redesign,” this activity becomes “realign.” Much more work but work with greater ROI in terms of engagement. Here’s a familiar standard below followed by a much improved solution.

The Familiar Standard

Kirkland_Ellis_Industry_Page

A Better Solution

Choate_webtrends_homepage

Lewis & Clark and the customer journey

An important phrase you’ll hear more often is the “customer journey.” I get a little warm flash in my zensides when I hear this because the words are usually caressed by the speaker as if he were swirling a fine wine against the palate. But, snarkiness aside, you should care about the customer journey. You’re probably not equipped to act on it or fund the journey-watch process but you should definitely learn more about this idea. It’s your PhD in website marketing.

Innovation in user experience

The biggest, fastest, bestest rolling tide of innovation is in the user experience. This is what distinguishes yesterday’s site from today’s. Smooth loads and silky transitions are comforting and pleasing. Once again, it’s in the details. Every action, every button is now thoughtfully considered to deliver an optimal user experience.

The idea of innovation generally

Judges asked themselves, “What makes a site innovative to you? How do you score innovation when a site is very strong, but not particularly different, or if the mission does not clearly call for the site to be innovative? Is innovation important?” You may not wish to take your time to ponder these questions but your site designer should be able to tell you how they approach every detail of site design in the context of the organization’s goals.

Look. As great as all this innovation is generally, we cannot forget that websites ought to rely on a simple and direct customer experience and sometimes agree to sacrifice all the hoopla if it detracts from the effectiveness of the user…journey. Some effective websites (I’m thinking appliance repair shops here) are being designed as a single page, scrolling, with panels that slide in from the left or right to augment the story. A/B testing is another arrow in your quiver to refine usability and KPI.

Bottom line

Innovation is tricky, particularly innovation in navigation and technologies the average user fails to understand. Innovation has to align with the target audience and industry and match to solid content. Innovation for innovation’s sake often just over-engineers the user experience. Judges found this the most difficult question to adjudicate. But we settled, more or less, on these criteria:

  1. Responsiveness
  2. Speed of loading
  3. Design
  4. Usability
  5. Functionality
  6. Content
  7. Innovation