Content is more important than design – do we need any more proof?

In April I wrote an article for Smashing Magazine entitled ‘Designing for the Future Web‘. In it I laid out my thoughts and opinions on how our experience of the web would change over the next few years, and how we would need to adapt our thinking around design and content. The main points of the article were:

  1. The number of devices connected to the internet would grow
  2. We would not be able to predict with any certainty where or how our sites would be seen
  3. To maintain a seamless customer experience, users should be able to have the same core experience regardless of the device, and switching from one to the other should present no challenge.
  4. To design for this we would need to concentrate on content structure first and visual design second, creating richer experiences for more capable devices.

Unsurprisingly, considering the general audience demographic of Smashing Magazine, this didn’t go down well with some of the readers. My favourite comments being:

i feel you my friend, as far from i know design is dead and designer swept away by the multitude of the wave. im thinking doing some admin/ Logistic work rather than be a creative. suck my balls corporate people – YR

And:

…. that’s Fking RETARDED, please get better authors on here…. – Nick

Yes, I have taken that last comment slightly out of context, but it tickled me, what can you do? (He was actually talking about my views on keeping JavaScript off of first generation mobile phones).

Well, I’ll ready myself for more of the same, because, without a doubt, content is more important than design.

Go on then, tell us why

The internet has always been a joined up medium. HTML was designed to link together documents to create a ‘web’ of content that could be searched and explored.

Since the days of CERN, the amount of content that has been created has grown in unspeakably large volumes, to the point where no human could ever possibly know where to find the content they need. So we developed search engines to help us with this. They crawled and indexed on our behalf so that we could bring information to us when we needed it. And this is the crux of it: the right information when we need it.

We’ve now reached a point where the ability to access information is driving changes in the products and services that are being developed, and in our own behaviour.

Product evolution

In iOS5, Safari has finally gained the same ‘Reader’ functionality that is available on the Mac OSX version. Pressing the ‘Reader’ button will strip all design from the page and publish only the content, resized and restyled. No fancy fonts, just Georgia. It’s like you’re reading a page from a paperback. If you like it, but don’t have the time to finish it, just save it for later.

Why have they introduced this? Because Apple understands that you go to sites to consume information. That content is valuable as a traffic driver, and in turn, a revenue generator. So the experience of reading that content on a mobile devices must be as clear and simple as possible.

Service evolution

The concept that information is always available, wherever we are, is defining a new set of services. Companies like FourSquare could not have existed a few years ago, but the broad availability of hardware-specific functionality such as geo-location has changed the game. Their partnership with Groupon to provide localised real-time deals starts to hit the mark, despite the issues with the Groupon IPO. These service are not about design, they are about content. Targeted content.

Behaviour change

The evolutions in products and services are in turn driving a behaviour change. Our ability to access information wherever we are is funnelling into the purchase process. We check prices and specification in-store at the point of purchase, we may even be swayed from one brand to another, or one shop to another, by the targeted offers we receive.  Targeted location-aware, identity-aware content is turning us into savvy consumers.

The result…

We’re finally able to make good on the marketer’s dream: the ability to deliver the right  content to the right person at the right time, driving sales and adding value to the purchasing process.

It’s clear, design is the enabler not the driver; users don’t need design, they need information that benefits them in a clear and tangible way.

So, sorry designers, but content is more important than design.

What is… Gamification?

There’s been a lot of talk about the subject of Gamification recently; it’s the buzz topic in marketing and its impact will most likely grow over the next couple of years. But what is it? And what does it mean for marketers?

Gamification – it’s not making games

There’s a misconception that Gamification is all about making games. Let’s be clear: it isn’t. This is an oversimplification. We’re not trying to create the next Angry Birds for our clients, for a number of reasons. One, in a technical sense, it’s very difficult to do well. Two, actually creating a game around a brand isn’t simple. A good game would resonate with the brand’s identity and ethos. It’s much easier for a sports brand to create a game than a computer hardware brand. So, if it isn’t gaming, what is it?

Team Fortress 2 from Valve - achievements and rewards drive gamer loyalty

Gamification is the process of using gaming methodologies to create a connection to the user. When playing games, we are constantly rewarded for our participation. This can be through gaining achievements, opening up new areas or levels, or by achieving some sort of status. Here are some examples:

  1. Team Fortress 2 by Valve – in team-based first person shooting game you are awarded achievements for in-game actions. Reaching milestones for the number of opponents killed, or for capturing places on the map, are rewarded with a cheer and in-game fireworks above your character’s head. Your achievement is not just recorded on your record, but is broadcast to all the other players as well.
  2. Angry Birds by Rovio – this also utilises the achievements reward structure, but at its heart it is the episodes and levels that keep us hooked. The game is split into a number of themed episodes, each containing a number of levels. Completing a level opens up a new level, until we complete the episode and unlock the ending movie. We always feel the pull of ‘Just one more level’.
  3. Farmville by Zynga – this popular Facebook game uses statuses to differentiate players’ progress in the game. As the player moves through the game and gains experience points, their title changes. Starting off  as a simple ‘Field Hand’, they can make their way up to ‘Master of Pasture’ or ‘Lord of the Plough’. Your title is a direct indication of your status within the game, and a something that is aspirational.
Gamification works within games, but how does this translate onto non-gaming platforms, especially those for marketing?

Gamification for the masses

There are some great examples of gamification being used on non-gaming platforms. The most well-known exponent of which is:

Foursquare

Foursquare has made strides lately to widen its offering, but initially its appeal was mostly reliant on it game-based mechanics. The aim of Foursquare is to reward consumer loyalty with location-specific deals and discounts, strengthening the bond between the purchase and the brand. They use gamification to enhance that experience and drive user behaviour. Let’s see how it works.
Users on Foursquare check-in  to their current locations using an application on their mobile phone, leaving an optional comment at the same time. A location can be anything from a coffee shop to a workplace, a shop to a sports stadium. This action has a number of effects:
  1. The user builds up check-ins at the location. The user with the most check-ins becomes ‘Mayor’ of the location
  2. The user gains achievements based upon the location they are checking into and the number of check-ins they have made in total. i.e. they receive the ‘Newbie’ badge for their first check-in, the ‘I’m on a boat’ achievement if they check-in whilst over water, and the ‘Local’ achievement for checking-in at the same place three times within a week.
These rewards create a strong connection with the user, as they strive to gain them. The ‘Local’ check in above is particularly powerful for local businesses, as the need to gain the achievement directly ties the user to their business.
Here’s Katie Colbourne, a friend and ex-work colleague of mine, using Foursquare, thanks to Katie for her permission to use these tweets.

In the first tweet, Katie checks-in at her workplace, and by doing so becomes the Mayor of that location (the second tweet). We can see here that the gaming behaviour – the ability to create ‘feel good’ moments through a rewards-based system –  has translated directly into user action. This, along with the added real-world achievements such as ‘free coffee for the Mayor of Coffee & Co.’ , provide can create motivation and loyalty within consumers in a way that group-buying platforms cannot.

As a marketer, can I use this?

Absolutely. Good marketing brings consumers closer to the brand, generating advocates and ultimately sales. Gamification creates the ‘stickiness’ between the two, and can be used within marketing practice. There are two approaches that can be taken:

1. Apply these ideas to your own product or service

This is the more involved approach, but can be extremely rewarding. Marketing Tech Blog provides some good tips on how to create a gamification strategy for your site or application. In essence, this consists of creating a series of goals (CTAs) for your user and then providing a series of actions to attain that goal, awarding points and achievements along the way, and always tracking their progress.

2. Use existing ‘sticky’ products in your campaigns

Foursquare can drive consumers to purchase using gamification techniques

This is the easiest approach. Going back to Foursquare, we can see that brands are leveraging their userbase and rewards system to their advantage. Brands can now create their own pages on Foursquare and create brand badges which users can earn. Macy’s, CNN, and Toys ‘r’ us have all used this in their marketing campaigns.

As well as the introduction of some sponsored badges, their is also the simple process of linking reward to action, as discussed earlier i.e. if you are the Mayor of my shop, I’ll give you a free coffee every day.

Where can I find out more? What are my next steps?

There’s a full explanation of gamification at Wikipedia, along with a selection of supporting articles. For those interested in using gamification techniques within their products, sites or applications, please feel free to contact me.

What is… Groupon

Now that the dust has settled, and the hyperbole surrounding Groupon’s growth has subsided, we can now take an objective look at the service it provides. Here’s a 5-minute guide – or at least a 5-ish paragraph guide – to Groupon.

What is Groupon?

Groupon LogoGroupon is a collective buying service. Put simply, it offers discounts on products and services which only become valid once a set number of consumers buy into them. The numbers required may change, as will the amount of discount you get, but the principle remains the same: once enough people buy, the discount becomes active and everyone benefits. Consumers get the discount and businesses have the peace of mind that they have generated new customers and have enough take-up to make the offer pay off.

Sounds great in principle

And so it is. However, businesses need to be careful when they construct their offers. In January, a Japanese café was inundated with buyers for the traditional New Year’s meal “osechi”, leaving them unable to meet demand and leading to disappointment. Predictably, complaints were widely posted on the Internet. Usually, Groupon provides advice to businesses to stop this happening, but due to their rapid growth, the Japanese employees had not yet been trained to provide this service.

How did it get so big, so fast?

Groupon was launched in the US in November 2008, and its growth since then has been outstanding. It now covers over 565 cities around the world and has seen its web traffic grow from just 2 million unique visitors per month to over 15 million (source: Crunchbase). Annual revenue is around $2 billion. They are the market leader in the group-buying category by some distance.

In December 2010, they turned down a $6 billion offer from Google, a defiant move that shows the confidence they have in the marketplace and in the group-buying concept. This was after turning down approximately $2 billion from Yahoo in October 2010.

Their growth has been fueled by a mixture of acquisitions (Japan, Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Phillipines and Taiwan), aggressive IP protection (MobGob), partnerships (eBay, Ning) and smart deals (Gap). But also, and in some ways more importantly, they’ve come to the fore at the right time, catching the zeitgeist for the hyper-local service.

Zeitgeist… ?

As I’ve written before, following globalisation is localisation. The rise of mobile devices and geo-location technologies has led to a upsurge of interest in creating personalised web experiences. Service providers from search engines to advertisers are using these technologies to get closer to consumers, offering them more targeted information. And while pure online spend may be rising, connecting consumers with local businesses will always generate good return as that’s currently where the majority of our spend takes place.

FourSquare is also based around these principles, but works the other way around to Groupon. Rather than introducing new customers to a business, it rewards consumers for their loyalty, with regular customers earning greater rewards. Using the two services together could provide a strong basis for generating and retaining consumers.

Shoppers queuing at a till
Groupon makes the queues a little more bearable (Credit: George Yi)

Does it have any value for B2B Marketers?

There’s no doubt that Groupon started out as a pure B2C proposition. It’s perfect for lower-value, impulse-led purchases, but it may well hold value for B2B organisations as well, even though the decision-making process is much slower. March saw the first B2B deals being made available, led by IT consulting firm Ajilitee. Their daily deal offered 50% off $25,000 of consulting and proved a great success for them, not in direct sales but as a demand generation tool. Although Groupon would prefer deals to demand, this has led to Groupon putting more resource behind B2B deals through Groupon Stores and redemption-tracking software.

Despite its market-leading position, the future isn’t completely clear for Groupon. It must continue to provide relevant offers and not become a home for drab low-value voucher code discounts, and it also faces competition from Living Social. However, it’s size and stature should keep it ahead of the game in the B2C space.

And B2B? Only time will tell whether B2B collective buying services will be successful, but (excuse the pun) they should certainly not be discounted.

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[…] would like to use your current location

If you have an iPhone, you’ll have seen this message plenty of times. If not, well, you have probably answered without even knowing.

Location-based services are set to be the next ‘Big Thing’. FourSquare is setting pulses racing, Twitter knows where you are tweeting from, and Facebook is set to launch ‘Places’. But why the big fuss, and what does it mean for marketers?

In a way, we should have foreseen this, the world can only become so globalised; at some point it would have to bounce back the other way. We’re now seeing that bounce, and it’s in the form of localised information. Having pushed information to the biggest audience possible, service providers are now trying to increase the relevance of the information they provide by understanding you and the people that surround you.

Let’s look at the three players:

FourSquare – Takes a much more relaxed and game-like approach to using location, users are awarded ‘achievements’ as they use the service. You can earn everything from the ‘Newbie’ badge to the title of ‘Mayor’. Already they are seeing success with advertisers, with Starbucks offering discounts on coffee to the ‘Mayors’ of their stores.

Twitter – I think we all know Twitter very well. But did you know Twitter stores the location from which each of your Tweets emanates? At the moment it’s used to create local trend information (see Trendsmap for a great example), but as Twitter seeks to monetize itself effectively, location-based advertising will follow.

Places – Facebook has been talking about location-based services since 2007, but has put off until now. Why? Well, apart from the fact that there is now competition from the likes of Foursquare – their patchy record over privacy has led them to be cautious. Facebook has now reached a point where its hand has been forced; if it wants to keep up the pressure on Google, Facebook have to stay current. Places will open a host of opportunities for them to generate revenue from location-based advertising, with communities growing around specific places. A spokesperson for Facebook said: “There are currently no plans to add marketing partners to this product. We may consider working with marketers to enhance the experience in the future, but have no plans to do so at launch,” At launch… expect this to be available to marketers very soon.

And what of Google? Covered by Techcrunch’s Eric Schonfeld on the 16th April, Google has made updates to its ‘Google Suggest’ feature that tailors search results to your location – not just your country, but your city. In collaboration with a December update to personalised search we’re now in a situation where we can’t take search results for granted, and with it our efforts at SEO and targeted marketing (unless of course we use Google Adwords!)

So, what does this mean for marketers?

These services come with a fair share of concerns, the top of which is privacy. Why should you share your location with these service providers? But the value proposition attached to them is powerful and may hold sway over users in the long run.

The world is moving towards a more mobile-based digital experience where location-based services will become the norm, and the ability to leverage these to create a better or more intimate user experience will pay dividends; whether that is through timelier message delivery, the creation of local communities, or something as simple as customised promotions for individual retail stores.

Preparing now for these changes will stand Marketers in good stead, because as the big guns of the information world come on board everything will start to accelerate. With the ability now here to provide highly targeted advertising and promotions, we must be aware of these possibilities.

Next time… the rise of the robot…