Why Your Website Doesn’t Convert

When it’s time to create a new website, clients and design studios are often seduced by the notion of making “something neat.” As a result, they can forget what their website is for. Often, a website serves as some form of sales tool—even if they don’t treat it this way. Web retailers want to sell products. Consultants wish to develop a pipeline for new business. Online publishers look to grow their audience, so they can sell more subscriptions and ad space. Even not-for-profits need to “sell” audiences on their philosophies, ideas, and initiatives.

Like it or not, most have something they need to sell, and part of doing so involves maximizing conversions. If you’ve defined clear objectives for your website, you probably hold a keen understanding of how you’re getting conversions. Nevertheless, when I ask most how their website is converting, responses tend to be feeble. Few know what they want their sites to do. So, they go through the motions of “checklist marketing.” This involves doing all the things you’ve been told—without considering whether such approaches are applicable to your organization.

Unsure of what a conversion is? Like most marketing concepts, conversions are straight-forward. A conversion is an action that you deem relevant to your sales and marketing objectives. A conversion might come in the form of a click-through, a sign-up for a product trial, an email or phone inquiry, or a sale. You owe it to your company to track conversions, and continually ask, “how can we increase conversion rates on our website.”

In this post, I’ll provide recommendations on how to set your website up, to achieve more successful conversions. With time, I’ll come back to this post and add other notes. If you need more hands-on help, feel free to contact me at smashLAB, and I’ll can work with you to help define objectives for your website—and meet them. Alternately, send a tweet to me, and I’ll do my best to respond (as well as I can, in under 140 characters).

You Haven’t Made Calls to Action Available

The most obvious reason your site doesn’t convert, is that it wasn’t built to. This isn’t uncommon. Just scan a few websites. You’ll find that for all the attention placed on creative effects, the user is commonly left with limited—or no—means of acting.

I experienced this recently with one of the most beautiful websites I’ve seen. In it, users are able to configure designer objects and then save their customizations. The layout was clean and effective. The interaction was spectacular. The photography was flawless. However, upon completing my selection I could neither find a price, nor a means of purchasing this creation. No Buy button. No phone number. No email address. Nothing.

I can’t imagine one good reason for hiding this information. Sure, this brand felt like a luxury offering, so, perhaps there was a fear of scaring off some buyers. That said, such worries are flawed. A website can serve many purposes, but for many organizations, getting a new lead/conversion is a key one. So, you’d probably benefit from ensuring your website contains at least one call to action (CTA), placed prominently, on most pages.

Not redesigning for another six months? Then shoe-horn some kind of a call to action into your existing site. Even if it isn’t beautiful, giving users a means of interacting with your organization is an imperative. Additionally, getting such an element in place now gives you months to collect data. This affords you a head start on your new website, by allowing you to start exploring which approaches perform best.

Your Incoming Traffic is Insufficient

Calls to action are critical if you want to make conversions possible. Yet, these items do not operate in a void. If your calls to action go unseen, they cannot produce leads. Let me put this another way: You can have the best lemonade stand in the land, but if you’ve hidden it, you won’t sell much product.

There are many ways to increase traffic to your website, and conversions. One approach is to solve the problem with money. Search engine marketing (SEM), digital display, and traditional advertising are all immediate ways to increase your site’s inbound traffic.

That said, be mindful of the audiences you are attracting, and whether you’re reaching the ones you want. (Bounce rates and the volume/quality of your conversions are good indicators of successful targeting.) You’ll also want to determine your cost of acquisition, and compare this to the customer lifetime value (CLV) of each prospect. Doing so will allow you to assess whether a paid approach is a sustainable means of acquiring traffic—and conversions.

I tend to favor content-based approaches for building incoming traffic. We refer to this method as content marketing. Done well, it has the benefit of producing a somewhat self-sustaining pipeline of new traffic. This is different from advertising, which no longer delivers results when you stop buying placement.

In its simplest form, content marketing involves producing content your audience finds useful. You then post this content on your site—and perhaps others’. This tactic has a handful of benefits: 1) It increases your site’s traffic through organic search traffic—and higher Google rankings. 2) It makes available information that prospective buyers/audiences can share with other interested groups. 3) It builds your brand, and fosters an almost personal relationship with your readers. 4) It can position you, and those in your organization, as thought-leaders. (This is important for most many non-commoditized offerings).

In future posts, I’ll speak more on the topic of traffic building for your website—and content marketing. That said, I feel like such topics are too vast to delve into, in great detail, in this one post.

You Don’t Provide—or Quantify—Value

“Follow us on Twitter,” “Like us on Facebook,” “Find us on Instagram,” are all common requests found on the web. (I bet at least one of these phrases is already on your website.) Famous brands and personalities can get away with such vague, commanding, and self-centered language. This privilege is a result of their audience members already knowing what to expect if they act on such language. Few others have as much latitude, because they can’t rely on existing relationships, in the same way.

To convert those unfamiliar with your brand, you need to give them a reason to act. This means changing from a “look at me” approach, to one that’s focused on your audience’s needs. This might sound a little daunting, but such a change isn’t complicated. Affording value through your website isn’t much different from doing so in your business. First, you need to understand your customer’s pain, or desires. Then, you can work to provide either relief or fulfillment.

This approach runs in stark contrast to how many act online. They talk about themselves, blog on generic or random topics, and believe their job is to entertain their audience. The vast bulk of organizations, should avoid such antics. You’ll gain more from identifying your users and developing personas to better understand them. With this thinking done, you’re better equipped to provide answers, insight, support, or some other value.

Similarly, try to avoid buzzwords, marketing rhetoric, and aspirational tag-lines in your online efforts. Instead, make your value clear to the user, so they’ll understand why they should act on your offer. Examples of calls to action that might get me to act include: “Click here for a free ebook on marathon training.” “Subscribe to get time-saving productivity tips—emailed once a week!” Or, “Buy these jeans now, and get 50% off additional pairs.” Although you could make these examples simpler, they help illustrate my point. Each one of these indicates what action I should take, and what I’d get from performing it.

You might not appreciate how little time you have to get your message across on the web. Consider this: the average length of time a user spends on a site is less than 15 seconds. From this, you can extrapolate that users don’t read web content, so much as they skim. If they find useful information, they stay. They also abandon websites that don’t immediately address to their needs.

Given the few seconds you have to grab visitors, you have to illustrate the benefit (in your headline, copy, and call to action). Fail to do so, and you’ll lose them before you even have a proper chance.

Your Trust Indicators are Weak/Missing

Internet users are a suspicious lot—and rightfully so. Phishing schemes, malware, spammers, and overzealous marketers all make people fearful. They now take greater care with their actions and the information they reveal. Web users know that one errant click can expose them to risk—or at least unpleasantness. As this collective anxiety builds, getting a conversion becomes difficult. So, even if your offer is appealing, you could be losing conversions because your site doesn’t feel trustworthy.

Users make choices about their online actions, much like they make real life ones. Few are likely to walk down a dimly-lit alley, in a rough neighborhood, even if there’s something interesting down it. Instead, they’ll opt for an environment that poses fewer risks, with less substantial seeming gains. Meanwhile, improving your offer can work against you, in such a situation. In a dubious context, a better prize, only feels more suspicious. So, before making your offer more enticing, start by cleaning up the place.

Trust indicators help assure users of your credibility. The most important ones relate to high-level organizational systems. For example, a well-defined brand will result in clear and consistent messages on your site. Meanwhile, an effective corporate identity system will help the site feel professional, trustworthy.

When users scan your site, and make all those rapid nano-judgments that lead to a “trust” or “don’t trust” reading. Most don’t even recognize that they’re performing such a task—they do have a feeling about your organization.

You can also leverage smaller trust indicators like third-party references. For example, rankings from Zagat, Trip Advisor, Yelp, or Amazon can increase a user’s confidence in your brand. Noting the companies you work with, mentions in the press, or any accolades you’ve received, can also help. Similarly, photos of your staff, contact details, certifications, seals, and links to your active social media accounts can lend credibility. These indicate that your organization made-up of trustworthy humans.

What I’m suggesting in this section and the preceding one boils down to the following; If your call to action clearly articulates true value to your visitor—and you don’t shake his/her confidence—there’s little reason for this person to not click.

You’ve Set the Barrier to Entry Too High

As a young man, I was bad at dating. My eagerness to be in a relationship got in my way, and made me seem desperate. If only I would have slowed down a little, I’m sure I would have met a lot of nice people, and had more fun. That time has long since passed, for me, but I often think back to it when I see how organizations conduct themselves online.

Many groups are needy and impatient on the web. They demand too much data from interested parties. They aren’t willing to help visitors through the buying cycle. They require full buy-in before the user can get a feel for what they might be committing to. These groups want to close the sale—without putting in the work, and making the process easier for the user. What these organizations fail to recognize is the gap between what they want and what their users want.

These groups need to learn the same lesson my dismal dating life taught me: if you want a relationship, you have to slow down. Odds are, the person visiting your website isn’t ready to commit to your organization—but, in time, they might. So, the question for you, is how you engage them in a dialogue, until they’re ready to act.

An easy way to start this dialogue is to lower the stakes. Someone’s interested, but not quite ready to buy? Maybe they’ll consider a 1 hour consultation. Still too much? Perhaps they’ll download a free demo of your product. Not quite there yet? I bet you could entice them to sign up for your company’s email newsletter.

Of all those who’ve marketed to me, I think David C. Baker has done so most deftly. David runs a consultancy called ReCourses, which helps creative companies operate better. On his site, visitors can read his posts, but must provide some personal information to access his more in-depth thought pieces. Once they’ve provided this information, he sends email updates about new posts he’s written. He also offers up free samples of his books—all, I suspect, with the help of some well-tuned marketing automation software.

David understands—and acts upon—one of the fundamental laws of marketing: people trust what’s familiar. Through his blog posts, thought pieces, downloadable resources, books, webinars, presentations, and workshops, he establishes comfort among buyers who would benefit from his unique insights. David uses each of these tools to lower the “risk cost” for the user, starting with a small conversion that leads to others.

You Have a Pollution Problem

My first point in this article, about not making calls to action prominent, has an equally dangerous counterpoint. You find this in the website that provides so many ways for users to take action that the propositions take over. Such sites often devolve into one large stack of offers, demands, and requests—which fight with one another for the user’s attention.

This kind of visual pollution comes with two notable problems. The first goes back to trust: a site that’s replete with calls to action becomes the online equivalent of a high-pressure used car lot. This abundance of activity, might lead some to think a deal is waiting to be had. Most just get a cheap feeling—like they’re a moment away from someone tricking them.

The second concern comes down to user fatigue. An overuse of calls to action sets-up an environment in which the user feels like many voices are shouting at them. Most users simply won’t put up with this noise; they’ll just click the Back button, and find a site that meets their needs with less grief. This choice relates to something called interaction cost. Users are always looking for easier ways to achieve their goals. Don’t let your desire for conversions backfire due to a lack of restraint.

Apply this same sort of restraint to every aspect of your website, and how you engage your users. For example, upon getting that click, keep input forms simple. No user wants to complete a massive questionnaire, just to sign up for your newsletter. Reduce the length of your forms, and you’ll improve the user’s experience—and increase the probability of them completing this action.

This last point is a tough one for many organizations, and I’ve faced it first-hand. A campaign gets stymied by a manager who wants to “kill two birds with one stone,” and get “just a little more” data for their list. What they fail to recognize is that the added information might come at the cost of conversions. Remember that you’re working to get the conversion—not to extract the most user data. Once they’ve committed, and you’ve built a bit of a relationship, you can ask them for more.

You Don’t Know What Your Website is Doing

If you aren’t setting goals for your website, measuring results, and refining your approach, you don’t own a website, you have a digital brochure. The good news is that turning your website into a proper sales tool isn’t in any way out of your reach. In fact, you can make this change quickly.

Start by opening up your Google Analytics (GA) account, and poking around. This will give you a sense for what’s happening on your website, and maybe you’ll even spot some underlying trends. (e.g. “Holy crap—our site’s traffic is 25% lower than a year ago!”) As you conduct this informal survey, and repeat the process, you’ll gain a better feel for your site. You’ll come to learn which content is performing, how users are behaving, and whether there are any big holes in your website.

As traffic starts to increase, you’ll also be able to perform A/B and multivariate testing to see which calls to action are performing. If you don’t have a lot of site traffic, I wouldn’t put much effort into implementing such testing in a formal fashion. For any such data to be telling, you’ll need to achieve a certain critical mass of volume. In the meanwhile, though, you can set goals and review performance regularly, to gain a more general sense of what’s performing.

Along the way, you might want to run some casual experiments with your content, to see what changes affect conversions. For example, varying headlines, swapping button placement, varying color, can make a big difference in how website converts. For example, Firefox learned that the call to action “Download Now – Free,” converted nearly 3.5% better than, “Try Firefox 3.″ (Quite a difference for a small text change.)

Like many of the other points in this article, I’m only presenting the basic gist. I figure it’s a long enough post, without me going into specifics. That said, in future posts, I’ll return to the topics of analytics and optimization and discuss them in more detail.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)

Long articles like this can feel daunting, and lead users to skim the summary paragraph, and bookmark for reading at a less busy time. If you’re one of those, I’ll summarize with a TL;DR, just to hold you over. Here goes:

If you want to your website to produce a greater number of conversions, you must: 1) Determine what actions you want your site to generate. 2) Provide clear and prominent calls to action. 3) Attract more traffic to your website. 4) Provide content/offers that your clients consider valuable. 5) Establish—or at least not shake—the trust of your site visitors. 6) Lower the barrier to entry. 7) Avoid polluting your site with too many calls to action or complex forms. 8) Measure, monitor, and test your site, to make it better.

BTW: As of late, I’ve been writing more on my other site: Deliberatism. Maybe drop by and check it out?

My Facebook Privacy Notice

Friends: I pray you share this important message.

Due to the fact that I have no understanding of the law, and that I believe Facebook to be some kind of nefarious boogeyman, I do declare the following:

On this day, June 6th 1944, in response to the new Friendster guidelines and under articles LOL. 123, 456 and 789 of the morse code, I declare (do I really need to make this many declarations?) that my rights are attached to all my badly Instagrammed lunch photos, often inappropriate jokes, poorly timed cultural critiques, pointless clickbait, general bragging, and self promotion, etc… published on my profile.

For commercial use of the foregoing, my written consent is required at all times (unless you Photoshop me into porn, which I find rather amusing).

Those reading this text can copy it and paste it on their Facebook wall. This will in no way allow them to place themselves under the protection of copyright—but, they’ll somehow feel better. I guess? I don’t know. Why they Hell does anyone post this shit? It’s a social network, not a court of law. Jesus.

By this release, I tell Facebook (ironically, on Facebook) that it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, broadcast, do the cha-cha, or to take any other action against me (unless it first buys me dinner) on the basis of this profile and/or its contents.

The actions mentioned above apply equally to employees, students, secret agents and/or other staff under the direction of Facebook—as well as Joy Philbin.

The contents of my profile include private information. (Don’t ask why I posted them here—that’s beside the point.) The violation of my privacy is punished by the law (UFC 867-5309 and that beautiful golden statute in the park).

Facebook is now an open capital entity. I don’t know what that means, but I think it’s some kind of a reference to a bank, or one of the characters from The Force Awakens. (Don’t ask me. I write this blathering nonsense, but I’m no lawyer.)

All members are invited to post a notice on a bulletin board, dance the Macarena, or if you prefer, you can copy and paste this version—which, I think you’ll agree, is dope.

If you have not published this statement at least once, you will tacitly allow the use of elements such as zinc, argon, magnesium—as well as the information contained in your profile updates. For what, I cannot imagine; however, this should in no way lead you to think/act rationally.

You may now return to looking at Kim Kardashian’s bottom.

The Zen of Busyness

Over the past few years, I’ve worked to simplify my life. Mostly, this has been a positive exercise. I now have more time, and am less tense. However, I’ve also fallen into spirals of doubt, in which I plan scenarios out—but fail to follow through.

It’s understandable that I take this approach, given how much I help other groups plan. However, when I plan too much for myself, I slow down, and get confused. This can lead me to a depressed state.

Recently, I noticed something. In spite of common wisdom arguing the opposite, I’m happier when busy. I’m not talking about the distraction that comes from checking your smartphone every 30 seconds. I’m referring to the way complete absorption in a task leads to clarity.

Such tasks might involve making dinner, or reorganizing a closet. I also experience this sensation on long runs, or when walking in the forest. At the studio, this experience seems most present in work that has defined goals. So, planning a UI, or completing a set of wires can be fun; whereas, responding to email for an entire afternoon isn’t.

The important distinction here is between distraction and busyness. The former is neither pleasant nor productive. It’s a curse borne by modern workers who are always doing something—that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. The latter is invigorating. It is pure action, unencumbered by stuff that just looks like work (e.g., meetings, email, team-building, time sheets).

This realization is affecting the way I act. It changes how I feel, both in the studio, and outside it. This mindset allows me to push aside my doubts—albeit temporarily—and gain a sense of direction.

If you’d like to do the same, I’ve boiled this approach down to a few key parts: focus, speed, and sequence.

Focus is the most important of the three. Although multitasking is sometimes necessary, it’s inefficient. This lack of focus divides your attention. It leaves you weighing tasks, and wondering what to do next. So, your work takes longer, and you do it less well. Parceling work into blocks, in which you focus on one task at a time, is an easy way to increase your efficiency (and sense of control).

I achieve focus by following a few steps. I clear my desk, turn off smartphone notifications, and close my desktop email client. Then, I write out what specific work I intend to complete (e.g., Finish website comps). After that, I break my work into smaller tasks I can check off, as I complete them. Sometimes these tasks seem granular, but I benefit from this clarity.

I allow no other project to impede the one I’m working on. This is all I will look at until I’m finished. (Admittedly, such discipline can be difficult to consistently maintain.)

Speed is another key part of this approach. The longer I work on a project, the less excited I am by it. This leads to me to whine, get sloppy, and drag tasks out. (Or, I start to wonder if what I’m doing has any greater meaning—which leads to an existential quagmire.) So, I move as fast as I can, to maintain enthusiasm for the task at hand.

Finally, there’s sequence. This is the carrot. I need motivation to focus and move fast. I find the necessary motivation in having something else to get to. This might involve a new client project, or some internal experiment. Either way, I operate better knowing that once I’ve finished this project, I get to work on another interesting one.

To summarize: pick a project; focus on it; work fast; and know what’s next. Simple, right?

I can’t say this approach will work for you. For me, though, it’s been a sort of revelation. I can’t always see the “right” course of action. That said, I enjoy working, and when I’m getting things done, I find myself excited, happy, and at ease.

Invisible Design

If my bladder had a gauge, the needle would be at its highest point. There’s little time to waste. So, I locate a restroom, make my way inside, pee, wash and dry my hands, and am back outside—in less than two minutes.

At no point during this experience do I think about design. I just do as I must, free of any sort of friction, discomfort, or frustration.

Such an experience rarely ever occurs by happenstance. Instead, someone identified user needs. She explored material requirements/shortcomings. Additionally, she devised a plan and anticipated potential failings. She did so, to produce an experience in which the design seemed invisible.

Let’s back up a step, and consider this experience in more detail:

Of the many distractions surrounding me, the large restroom symbol is easy to spot. As such, I don’t need to ask for instructions, or consult my smartphone. Upon finding the entrance, clear symbols identify which side is for men, and which is for women. This means I don’t think for even a moment. I just direct myself to the opening on my left.

I enter, without needing to push open a door, as it’s propped open. A brief corridor (approximately 6 feet long) shields users from the gaze of those outside. Urinals are at the front—I gather to shape traffic flow. A small sheet of coated board separates each urinal, and provides a hint of privacy from the individual to one’s side.

After a sigh of relief, I leave the urinal, without flushing. There’s no handle or other means of controlling the urinal. Invisible design replaces such manual requirements. As I move out of the device’s range, an infrared beam triggers a flush.

This restroom’s designer baked needs fulfillment into the entire space. I place my hands under a dispenser, and it releases the appropriate quantity of soap—no waste. I move my hands beneath the faucet and water starts flowing. The water is set to a safe temperature—eliminating the risk that I’ll scald myself. As I pull my hands away, the flow stops. This conserves water (with no special effort required, on my behalf).

A blower dries my hands. It is also free of any sort of controls. Although the absence of buttons might have once been confusing to users, few even notice, any longer. Besides, in the absence of controls, most just poke and prod until something happens.

I’m a little obsessive about order and cleanliness—perhaps more than most. So, after witnessing many leave the loo, not having washed their hands, I’m reluctant to touch taps or door handles. Similarly, my fear of sharps in trash bins leaves me unwilling to push a paper towel into one that’s overflowing. However, this brief trip through the restroom involves no such touching.

Take my obsessiveness out of this scenario, and you still see how efficient my experience was. I knew where to go, what to do, and how to use the equipment. I completed this set of actions quickly—and without slowing others from doing the same. Meanwhile, there was nominal waste of soap, water, or paper towels.

I don’t design bathrooms. Nevertheless, I can imagine the many requirements for designing such spaces. For example, there are structural guidelines, budgetary concerns, and energy needs. Additionally, accessibility requirements, building/material longevity, and waste water management, are likely considered. Then, there are issues like sustainability, cleaning needs, upkeep costs, and user safety.

This is the important part of my post: because someone did their job well, I don’t need to think about, or know much about, bathrooms. I just use them and go on with my day. Just imagine if your website worked like that!

Postscript: For those who’re confusing invisible design with flat design, please read, These Aren’t the Skeuomorphs You’re Looking For.

User Experience is Brand Experience

The phrase, “we’re concerned about our brand,” is often misused. These words commonly mask a group’s real desire, which is focused on visuals. Translated to its intended meaning, this phrase might read, “make our logo bigger, and use more of our corporate color.” I might sound glib, but many would attest to the accuracy of this comment. Brand experiences are somewhat difficult notions to wrap one’s head around. As such, some mistake their visuals for their “brand.”

Presentation and Its Limits

Most acknowledge, at least in theory, that a brand is much bigger than how something looks. An apt comparison would be found in a person and what he wears. His clothing provides visual cues, which might indicate vocation, socio-economic standing, and life outlook. However, there’s more to a person than this presentation layer—including what he says, thinks, feels, and does.

In recognizing this construct, I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of presentation. Dress a homeless person in a suit, and people will treat him differently. Put a businessperson in rags, and she won’t get past her building’s security guards. Visual cues are powerful. The first information we receive about new things tends to be through our eyes. This makes the presentation layer information rich (at least superficially), and we process this data immediately.

If I see someone dressed like a hipster, my mind groups her with all those who share these characteristics. The category I’ve placed her in isn’t necessarily suitable to this person. With time, my other senses are activated. Her accent might contradict my first impression—as could the words she chooses. Similarly, her chosen discussion topics, mannerisms, gestures, and other bits of information will add depth to my understanding of her.

Although presentation is important, failing to think beyond the visual layer is a mistake. This myopia is comparable to obsessing over the size of your tie, while failing to develop your interpersonal skills—and then wondering why no one likes talking to you.

Why Doesn’t the Print Button Print?

Recently, my father-in-law asked me to help him check in, for a cross country flight. (During his prior excursion, he was stuck in a middle seat. He hoped to avoid such unpleasantness, this time, by selecting his seat 24 hours early.) We visited the carrier’s website, entered his data, and responded to some questions about baggage requirements. At the completion of this process he had the option to print his ticket, or have it sent to him via email, or text message.

As he doesn’t own a smartphone, we selected the Print option. After a moment’s delay, this action led us to a blank screen. I hit the Back button, and repeated the process. Same result. So, I tried again. Eventually, I gave up. As a workaround, I emailed the boarding pass to myself, and then printed the document.

The situation I describe isn’t the most terrible inconvenience one might endure; the experience was notably cumbersome, though. And this is my point: In spite of this organization’s adherence to logo guidelines, corporate colors, and standard brand treatments, all I remember is the broken experience. Perhaps this was a temporary glitch, but the interruption introduced doubt. If I can’t perform the most basic of actions on their website, what am I left to think of the airline? Errors/glitches on a basic system like this one make me wonder what else they’ve been sloppy with. For an airline, such notions are concerning.

Some reading this post will think, “There was a problem with the booking system, but you eventually got the ticket. What’s the big deal? Cut them some slack.” In principle, I agree; however, such a casual viewpoint belies how fickle brand relationships can be. Today’s customer has a vast amount of choice, and this leads to a ridiculously petty sort of entitlement. Slightly confuse a customer’s latte order, and he’ll consider you a moron. Interrupt his wi-fi access and he’ll think you’re ripping him off. Change what’s familiar, and he’ll threaten to leave your service—like they do when Facebook (a service made available, free-of-charge) makes a small change to their News Feed.

In spite of such overblown reactions, the customer/user can get away with this behaviour—because your organization needs him/her. As such, you need to understand what matters most to these individuals. If your corporate identity standards aren’t perfectly implemented in your site, app, or kiosk, they probably won’t notice; but, interrupt their experience, and they’re apt to react with vitriol. With this in mind, I raise the question: What’s the most important aspect of your brand—the visuals or the experience?

What It’s Like to Hold Your Brand

I don’t mean to freak anyone out about having an occasional system error. I only use the ticket printing example to illustrate how significant experience is, for your users. Yes, I want you to be concerned with matters of visual implementation. I also want you to be as concerned with user experience (UX)—because this area dramatically impacts the way your brand feels, for customers.

The baseline for online systems is an error- and confusion-free user experience. Navigation should be intuitive, options explicit, content clear, and so on. This is only the beginning, though. To facilitate positive brand experiences through UX, you’ll need to implement a more iterative, long-term mindset, in your operations. This involves continual monitoring your digital properties, regular testing of common use cases, and committing to putting the user’s experience ahead of any marketing directives you’re trying to meet.

This is no small statement, and this thinking runs contrary to the way marketing professionals learned to approach such matters. For the longest time, websites, apps, and other digital properties were principally thought of as apparatus that helped achieve marketing goals.

Although this can still be true, we increasingly find that UX defines the brand experience. Users are loyal to a tool, like iA Writer, with fewer features but more graceful UX. They become vocal advocates for experiences that bring them joy, like Netflix. Meanwhile, tools that empower them, like Twitter, rewire their daily habits. The user experience effectively becomes the brand, and the users—and their actions—do the marketing.

Let me take this a step further: The corporate identity you’re so intent on rigorously preserving? It isn’t really worth that much, any longer. In fact, you’d likely strengthen your brand, if you instead placed the bulk of your effort into your user experience. If it’s a contest, UX wins. (And, if you allow UX to win, your brand probably will, too.)

The Threat and Promise of UX

If you place visual identity concerns ahead of UX, you put your organization at risk. I say this because small groups tend to move fast. This speed enables them to make better stuff than you can. A small army of smart, motivated, forward-thinking people are working to overtake your organization, by attacking your weakest point. You might find such a notion alarming. Good—because while you’re tinkering with trivial details, someone’s preparing to eat your lunch. So, perhaps you need to be alarmed.

You’ve spent the last year working with a major brand studio, fretting your logo. Your competitor built hers in an hour, and will make it better if her business model takes hold. You’re stuck in meetings, trying to outline an approval process for blogging; she’s posting daily, and learning which content gets the most interest. You’re asking how to charge customers more; she’s driving the price to zero. You’re asking how to extend your user’s length of stay; she’s working to service them faster, so they have a frictionless online experience.

In case you think I’m being hyperbolic, I’d like to remind you of a few such cases: Search ate The Yellow Pages. Craigslist neutered newspaper classifieds. Torrents decimated cable television. These are the obvious examples, but there are also less known companies like Clearly Contacts, Dollar Shave Club, and ZipCar that are working to upset entire sectors. And if you don’t think someone’s working on disrupting your industry, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

One notable indicator in all of this, is found in the number design studios (not ad agencies) being acquired by growing startups. Good design talent is difficult to access, so, some organizations are buying existing design groups and plugging them into their operations. Think about that: how big of an issue is user experience design, if Google will buy a company—not for its fixed assets—but as a way to rapidly access design expertise?

These designers are notably different from their predecessors, though. They aren’t trying to exercise some kind of dogmatic control over how their work looks. Instead, they’re concentrating on the experience—and then letting users’ actions tell them whether their approach works, or doesn’t. This feedback isn’t coming through a survey or focus group; it’s being garnered methodically through data and testing.

People who work in branding live in a polarizing time. Those who insist upon following conventional rules risk their companies’ futures. Alternatively, those who put UX first, can topple giants.