Sunday, November 22, 2009

Marketing as a Double-Edged Sword

Believe it or not, there's actually a large subset of the population that believes that all marketers are evil lying scum. They tell you to watch out when a marketer opens their mouth, because they're about to try and sell you something that will slowly kill you. We can probably attribute part of this to the cult followers of the late comedian Bill Hicks and his take on marketers.

To be fair, he did have a point. Due to the efforts of more traditional old-school marketing, we had the Flintstones hawking Winston cigarettes on television. What Mr. Hicks failed to point out in his comedy act was that marketing is little more than a tool used in business, and as such, it can be used to do terrible things like convey the idea of how cool it is to smoke cigarettes to children, but it can also be used to do good things.

Most people probably think of marketers as people who spend their time in office buildings brainstorming ways to sell retail products to consumers to help the bottom line. While this is the most well-known aspect of marketing, it's not what marketing really is. Marketing is about ideation and the dispersion of those ideas. And if you do it right, then maybe, just maybe, you achieve the goal you set out to accomplish by influencing a lot of people and getting them to take a desired action. (In Winston's case, it was to get more people to buy cigarettes.)

It's funny that more people don't understand or embrace the deeper concepts of marketing because all of us have something to market. If you don't believe me, go on and spend some time browsing the profiles of people who are trying to find someone to date. Most of them are terrible; it's painfully obvious that they don't understand what marketing entails because they don't have the slightest clue how they should be marketing themselves.

Personal ads aside, most people do have something that they want to market. They have an idea that they want to spread to others, either about their church, about a politician or a political cause, or about the fact that their college football team is better than every other one. People resist adapting and learning how marketing works because it seems synonymous with advertising, which is by far the most annoying emergent property of the age of technology. The truth is, Obama didn't win the 2008 election because he spent more on television ads than John McCain; it's because he had a remarkably enthusiastic group of people that liked what he stood for. (Because of this, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there was a small handful of people in Illinois that wrote his name in on the ballot for president in 2004.)

Good marketing, to be effective, should be built right into the product you want to sell. If you're running an e-commerce site, I'm not necessarily talking about the quality of your merchandise you're shipping off. In the first chapter of my book, I talk about why you should be building your site from scratch instead of jumping on a platform: because you want to have fine-grained control over the quality of the product. You want to be able to manage the user experience, because you have to sell them on liking the shopping experience before they'll buy anything from you. And if you jump on the platform that your competitors are using, then you don't have any advantage in offering a better shopping experience to the customer on your site than they could get from those competitors.

If you post a profile on with a picture that isn't really you and claims that you don't live with your parents when you actually do, you might have an easier time getting people to meet up with you, but you'll have a much harder time developing any kind of long-term, meaningful relationship with anyone. Sure, it's better if you don't live with your parents, because then the marketing is built right into the product (you). But effective marketing is also honest; you don't get anywhere by deceiving people.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Make the Decision Easier

People love having lots of options from which to choose, but they hate making decisions. Barry Schwartz makes the case in his book "The Paradox of Choice" that a lot of modern unhappiness is the direct result of living an age where we have an abundance of choices. Case in point: one study found that when people were presented with six different types of chocolate versus thirty different types, the people who were shown only six types were more likely to decide upon and buy one of the types of chocolate.

Give people more options, and opportunity costs rise. It compounds the difficulty of choosing between all those options.

So the marketing people who work for companies that make chocolate do focus groups, and people say they want more choice. The more, the better, they will tell you, and they mean it. But consumer behavior tells another story: the more options you give them, the harder it is for them to decide which one they want.

What's the solution here? Make the decision easy for people.

My friend Mark figured this out, and makes a decent side income working at a department store selling perfume and cologne on nights and weekends. When a woman comes in looking for a good perfume, he starts by showing her the spicy one that accosts the nostrils. Then he shows her the one that smells like powder and makes you think of Grandma. Then he moves on and brings out a fragrance that he thinks the woman will actually like and want to buy. Given two not-so-good choices and then a good one, the decision to buy the last one is an easy one to make.

In practice, it's called framing, and it's the reason that merchandise in so many stores is always "on sale". People might not want to buy the complete Futurama series on DVD in a big plastic Bender head for $109.99, but it becomes more appealing if the sign reads: "Was: $139.99. Now: $109.99!"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Search Results with Only One Result

I have a question about an issue with internal site search on websites. It's related to how the results are rendered to the user if there is only a single item that matches the customer's search. For example, if you search on for something super specific, like "Beginning Django E-Commerce" in the Book category, you'll be taken to search results page that contains a single result. From there, you can click on that single result and be taken to that book's page on Amazon.

However, if you perform that same search on, it only returns a single result, but instead of showing that single result to you on a "results" page, it skips that step and just redirects the user to the book's page. It assumes that if there is only one result, that the customer would have clicked on it, and they're trying to save them that step by just forwarding them automatically to that book's page.

I think there are benefits to the "skip the results" page that uses, but I always thought that it would be confusing to some people. After they get used to clicking "Search" and getting a results page, they'll enter one search and suddenly they're on a product page. For technical people who are searching the site, it's pretty easy for them to figure out what's going on. But to the average person, isn't it better to leave the user in control of where they are? Isn't it a better approach to keep them oriented, and let them choose whether or not they click through to the single result?

I couldn't find any definitive answer to this question, and I know better than to trust my own opinions. Has anyone ever had any experience in testing this two alternatives as a usability issue? Is there any overwhelming consensus that the way is better than the way does it, or vice versa?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Security Process

Security is about more than just the technology involved in the site you're building. Most of the time, security is a process and not a just one stage of the design. When it comes to creating an e-commerce site, there are certain things you should do to make the site less prone to unauthorized compromise. (which is just a fancy way of saying you don't want John Q. Hacker getting his hands on your customers sensitive financial information.) For example, you might restrict network access on your database server so it can only be accessed remotely from the servers running your application, reducing the likelihood that the guys will be able to mess with your database directly.

But this is just the first step. The Great Wall of China was erected to keep the Xiongnu out, but the Chinese did not merely build the wall and then expect that the structure alone would suffice to keep their border secure. They had to keep it manned, making sure there were Chinese guards stationed in watchtowers at periodic points, actively monitoring for potential intruders.

You can put up a firewall, but that's just the first step in defending against network attacks. You have to be much more proactive. Know the kinds of attacks might be brought against your web application, identify the red flags associated with each, and set up your system so you'll be alerted in case your system detects the signs of the attacks. Be ready with a response plan.