Stickin’ Around Web Sites
“Stickiness” was one of the original criteria by which Web sites were judged. Marketers wanted visitors to come to their site and stay a while—look around, sign up, make a purchase, tell their friends and, of course, come back.
Over the 10-year history of the consumer-oriented Internet, much has changed about the nature of our Web experiences—they’re faster and safer, more educational, more focused and more productive—but stickiness persists as a goal. What has changed is how marketers achieve it and how we’ve grown more sophisticated in our assessment of it.
Some Mistakes of the Past
In the last five years, stickiness has meant flashiness—literally and figuratively. Sleek, beautiful intros with built-in Flash (a graphics animation software) resembled the opening credits of a movie and had show-stopping power. As consumers have become Web-literate and more purposive in their online shopping behavior, and as online advertising and streaming video have begun to make competing demands on our time and interest (comScore’s Video Metrix reports that in March 2005 alone, U.S. Internet users initiated a total of 3.7 billion video content streams), elaborate Flash-based Web site intros are experienced more as a delay, and consumers tend to look for the “skip intro” link.
Stickiness also has been about sign-up over the last few years. Web sites pressed visitors to sign up for a club, an e-mail, a sweepstakes or a mailing list. The mistake here was in creating a consumer experience where it seemed to matter less what the consumer was signing up for and more that he or she was handing over an e-mail address and other personal information.
For larger companies and organizations with multiple divisions, deep inventory or long histories, stickiness also has manifested itself as an abundance of content, as if simply saying more, and in a variety of formats, would keep consumers reading—and lingering. Some companies, for instance, offer newsletters or whitepapers, but don’t edit them sufficiently or prioritize them, so visitors experience the “paradox of choice”—more equals too much. Word count isn’t a big cost consideration (this isn’t print, after all!), and this often has led to copy that is not current and is as much about verbosity as it is about brand positioning.
The New Measure of Stickiness
So how should stickiness be viewed as a goal—and achieved—today? When you stop thinking about ways you can hold onto consumers and start thinking about ways you can help them accomplish their goals—whether that’s information, a purchase or community interaction—you give them a good reason to go deeper. You also give them a reason to come back … serial stickiness! This, perhaps, seems simple in theory, but it requires a more thoughtful approach to execution. Creating a site that will engage visitors and keep them returning requires you to think about your site the way visitors will experience it, from the moment they walk in the door.
1. Greet your visitors at the door—every door. It’s time to stop thinking about your Web site’s front door as the only door. With more than 220 million searches per day in the United States alone, and paid search valued at roughly $8 billion this year, deep-linking—consumers entering your site on any page “below” the homepage—is the new reality.
Consider what L.L. Bean is doing. A search engine query for “backpack” turns up a paid result that takes you to the L.L. Bean backpack guide. You’re deep-linked into the site, but between the logo area, the visible “breadcrumb trail” (or the increasingly narrow product categories that led to your choice) and the introductory nature of the page, visitors know exactly where they are.
Through online advertising and subscription e-mails—a record $8 billion industry investment for 2006—millions of online visitors are clicking through from their inboxes or strategically placed ads to pages deep within your site.
What does this mean? Every page is a potential homepage, so it’s imperative to communicate your brand on every page. Whether visitors are coming from a search result, an e-mail or even a text link sent from a friend, you want to make sure they immediately get their bearings and start to feel comfortable, because only then will they be more inclined to go deeper.
2. Provide solid navigation. Once visitors understand where they are, the next step to moving them further into your site is about orientation and navigation. Imagine them standing in the middle of your site, just like they would stand in a brick-and-mortar store, looking around, checking out the options.
A strong and clear site architecture will make it easy for them to see what their choices are and make the best one for their needs or interests. A few years ago, Amazon.com got bogged down with bulky tabs that made its navigation appear heavy and cluttered instead of intuitive. Amazon’s redesign is a more usable two-tier top navigation, where visitors can browse product subcategories while still within view of easily clickable alternative product category pages.
3. Engage them. Great design is more than pixel-deep. It not only gets your attention and engages you, but it draws you into the experience. A smart visual treatment is more than beautiful. It’s also functional. It provides navigational cues, designates zones and draws the eye into the page and the mouse into the experience.
People are more likely to follow through on a Web visit if they can intuit through visual cues that they are on the right track to reaching their goal. That’s why so many shopping carts offer “steps” to the check-out process: step 1, address; step 2, payment; step 3, confirm; step 4, order. Users are more willing to click through and complete information because they know it’s taking them closer, easily and clearly, to their end goal.
Design also can be used as a tool to create consistency across channels or compensate for some of the sensory shortcomings inherent to the Web. HerbalEssences.com leverages the rich, vibrant colors and lines from its product bottles. The look is bold and energetic, and the striking visuals of key ingredients help communicate the unusual combinations and the fusion of scents behind the luscious looks.
Finally, when it comes to that sweeping generalization that people don’t read anymore, don’t believe it applies to Web sites. The truth is, people read when they get to sites. They may not read every word, and Gen Y reads fewer than older generations, but they read the ones they need to. That’s why visual hierarchy is so important. It’s your opportunity to create visual cues that tell your visitors what they need to know.
Key tools for creating and placing effective content include personas, scenarios and user flows. These can be incredibly informative guides to help you know what to say, how to say it and where.
4. Guide them down a path. At its core, the Web is a network. Its strength lies in its interconnectivity. The key is to understand what those connections should be and how to encourage your site visitors to make them.
Contextual links are great, but insert them at the beginning of a sentence or a page and you’re giving the reader the opportunity to dismiss everything that comes after it. Be thoughtful about links—how you write them, where you put them and where they take you. Too many on a page and the reader is overwhelmed and often paralyzed by choice. Too few and the page (and the information) starts to lose its perceived value.
User flows are a great help when you’re engineering your visitors’ paths. Understanding the visitors’ goals will help you plan for the progressive disclosure of content—how much to share and when—because people often come to the Web to learn, but some just want a general idea of what you have to say while others want even minute details. Progressive disclosure enables you to please both groups.
5. Give them a reason to come back. Marketers have spent decades creating programs to earn consumers’ loyalty. Special cards, point systems and discounts can be enticing, especially when getting registered “only takes a minute.” But once everyone’s doing it, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate, and it’s more about whose perks are better.
Not that loyalty programs can’t work, but they shouldn’t be the only thing driving traffic to your site. Give shoppers unparalleled service or support, remind them of the value you can provide even after your transaction, or make the experience so seamless, easy or fun that it’s one they want to repeat.
Stickiness isn’t about guilting visitors into returning because they could get 100 more points if they buy from you versus your competitor, but in making sure they realize all the reasons why it’s in their best interest to return to you.
Another approach involves inviting visitors to take a little ownership of your site. Consider the current popularity of sites that invite consumer-generated content. Organizations that open the door to consumers in varying degrees and let them put their thumbprint on the experience—through a product review, a blog comment, or a contributed image or video—are letting consumers take some ownership of the experience, increasing the likelihood, again, that they’ll come back.
This is where the industry is today, but just as the last 10 years have been full of growth and change, one decade from now, with new technologies and new ideas, stickiness may have a whole new meaning. What’s important is to keep thinking about your Web experience the way your audience does. Stop trying to force them down a path or make them stay longer than they’re comfortable. Keep their interests, their needs and their goals in mind, and you’re sure to create an experience they will find satisfying enough to return to.
Karen Scholl is content editor at Resource Interactive, a Columbus, Ohio-based interactive agency that focuses on helping companies develop rewarding digital experiences for their customers and constituencies. She can be reached at (614) 621-2888 or firstname.lastname@example.org.