Word of mouth is a force to be reckoned with, but it isn't a new force. People have always talked about the products they use. The tweeting, chatting, e-mailing, and all-around instantaneous forms of communication, that's new, and it has brought our attention back to the power of word of mouth, and consequently the power of designing products that get talked about. If companies do a better job creating products that are valuable and remarkable, will that render advertising useless? It depends on what you mean by advertising, but paying for a place in media will remain far from useless.
While changes in the business landscape may render traditional advertising less valuable, there are other ways that companies pay to be seen. For example, the work that fills and surrounds websites revolves around the need for companies to change perceptions, build brands, and drive sales. While interactive marketing is often less disruptive than a thirty second tv spot, it's nevertheless paid for. The user may not see it as advertising, but when they find a brand on Google it's because of SEO (or PPC). When they get a message from a brand on Facebook, it's from someone who is getting paid to send those messages. When a user reads content on a brand website, that content is written with marketing objectives in mind.
Ultimately, the question is: what is advertising? If you mean the thirty second television spot and radio ads, it may be dead. It's cheaper to build a good product and let people talk about it than spend your way to market share with these types of advertisements. But, if you mean paying to change perceptions, to get attention, and to drive sales, well, that isn't going anywhere.
Google is not always the first to market with some of its products, in fact it usually isn't, but it's getting good at mastering the products and services it goes after. Sidewiki is the next product that Google hopes to turn to gold. By allowing web visitors to contribute to any webpage, Sidewiki pushes the envelope of the social web. It isn't a new concept, plugins have been around for years that do the exact same thing (Wikalong, for example), the difference is that this one is backed by Google.
What does this mean for users? Well, how many times have you found the answers to your questions about a topic in the comments of blog posts, instead of the posts themselves? Many authors are disconnected from their audience, but comments give the visitors a chance to have conversations that dig down to the answers. Sidewiki brings these conversations out of the blogosphere onto the entire web. Sidewiki is going to be a great opportunity to leave your footprint on all the interesting websites you visit.
What does this mean for your business? For one, its another outpost you need to be aware of. An outpost, as defined by Chris Brogan, refers to those social sites you might consider maintaining a presence with. People are going to have the ability to comment on your website -- they'll post questions, say positive things, and negative things. It's important to be aware of this, and more important to play an active role in the conversation. Contribute positive insight on other industry websites and people will begin to pay attention to you, follow you back to your profile on Google and eventually to your home base such as your corporate website or blog. This personal branding can pay off for your business as well by drawing attention to both you, and your company.
Yesterday, I learned an odd fact. Traffic signs have very little effect on driver behavior. According to the book "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)", streets and cities that have taken the drastic step of removing all traffic signs, often see a reduction in crashes.
People drive more carefully when a road feels more dangerous. They automatically respond to the natural visual cues in their surroundings and adjust their behavior accordingly. They ask themselves, is this they type of road I can drive fast on, or is this the type of road where I have to drive carefully?
This is the reason narrow streets with trees crowded along the edges are often safer than wide streets with large clearing zones on each side. Common sense would say, less trees means fewer potential things to collide with. But, the reality is: the scary trees lining the side of the road act as a crash deterrent. The trees are far more effective than a "35 mph Speed Limit" sign. Traffic signs are nothing but artificial cues that try to compensate for a road environment that doesn't effectively tell people how to behave.
Interactive designers can learn from this lesson. Human behavior often ignores artificial cues. Just telling someone to "Click Here," isn't enough to spur them to action. Most of the time these artificial cues are ignored entirely (just like the signs that say "Slow Down: Children Playing"). Instead, websites should be designed with natural cues.
A well integrated call-to-action, engaging motion graphics, or a startling design element can provide natural clues to what a user should do next. They're built it into the environment, not patched on top of it, and that's the way they should be.
Users ignore most banner ads because they feel like banner ads. They're ugly, distracting and feel artificial. They're unrelated to the website experience at hand. The mind blocks them out and instead responds to other items on the page. If interactive designers really want to get people's attention, they need to create natural cues, not artificial ones.
No one has time for things they don't believe in, so many companies don't have time for content. Without understanding its real value, they see it as a cost instead of an investment. In reality, compelling content is fundamental to success online, and here's why:
Good, Targeted Content Spreads
Creating viral content is still a big deal for many companies, but it doesn't take five million views on Youtube to do great things for a company. While the object of many social campaigns seems to be creating a mainstream phenomenon, the target market for many companies isn't mainstream. For a lot of companies, aiming for mainstream consumers rather than a niche group is like shooting to just hit the target instead of the bullseye.
Though there are a large number of companies focusing on general consumer goods and services, strategies that try to create the next online phenomenon do little for most companies because the audience is too broad. Content spreads the most effectively when it is emotionally compelling and targeted at a specific audience. Content that is insightful, inspiring, useful, surprising, upsetting, frightening, or exciting will spread. And, if it's relevant to your audience, it will spread to the right people, even if it doesn't spread to as many.
Search Engines Love Content
Because the people who send you links tend to send you business as well, links are a useful metric to measure, but links are also valuable on a more technical level. For search engines, links play a large part in determining the importance and relevance of a website. Although there are other ways to get links, there's nothing as powerful for a link building campaign as a piece of quality content that gets shared. Here too, misconceptions abound.
There's so much talk about the people who link and why they link, but in reality the best links are rarely mysteries. The people who link are usually influencers in the target market, and they link because the content is useful or compelling. The internet is mainstream now -- instead of creating content focused on technological influencers, it makes more sense to understand your market and create content they would find interesting regardless of the fact that they found it online. Everyday your customers are likely talking, writing, tumbling, and interacting with media online. If you build it, they will link.
Another misconception some people have is that link building is a pure numbers game. The truth is that search engines are just as concerned, if not more so, with the quality and relevancy of inbound links as they are with the number of them. That's why creating good content is vastly superior to other methods of getting links: good content stands a chance at getting picked up by important and relevant sites in your niche. Other methods such as social media profiles, message boards, and link trades rarely make as much of a difference as a few good links from influential individuals. That being said, Google and friends regard links as a way to measure the conversation about your brand online, if one person thinks the world of you, that's great, but if fifty people think the world of you, that's better.
Good Content Gets You into The Conversation
The internet has moved from static information to a dialog between individuals, and now to a dialog between brands and their customers. Creating content is the best way to join this conversation, and it greatly benefits your search, social, and even PR efforts. The question is: does your company have the time for content?
The worst feedback someone can give is, "I don't like it." There's no value there. Especially in regards to design. It doesn't provide a way forward, or point to a new direction. Good feedback is critical in nature, but rooted in analysis. It pokes, prods and understands what the designer was trying to accomplish before speaking it's voice.
Design is rarely created to please a single person. Personal likes and dislikes aren't important when analyzing design. What is important, is asking: does this design accomplish its goals, or are there ways it could work better.
By providing informed critical feedback, instead of opinions, design projects will go faster and everyone will be happier with the end result.