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WHITE PAPERS

How to Build a Grenade by Rich Binell and John Bielenberg

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Given the choice between looking and reading, you'll look. 

Corporate web sites are difficult, frustrating and sometimes big and lucrative projects, so it pays to examine them, and revisit some techniques to do them well, by making them stronger and more compelling.

Usually, it goes like this: You kill yourself to lay out, present, shoot, proof, print and deliver a lovely site, and then when someone visits it, they flip through it, usually from the back to the front, or worse-skipping to random pages.

This is bad.

The point is, most people don't read web sites. Which means you can either give up on getting anything read, or you can take that as an assumption, and examine it.

You don't have to read this, OK?

The reason most people don't read most business web sites in an organized fashion is that for the most part, they are given permission not to do so.

Think about it.

With most web sites, you can read it or look at the pictures. One-hundred percent of all people will look at the pictures first.

They look at it to decide whether to really read it. If the pictures are interesting, or tell a story, they can distract from the message by giving people a reason to skip the headlines or words. And photos rarely tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. So the reader hops around, and may miss the message that you and your client want to communicate entirely.

This is bad.

Well, what if you took the choice away, and used only words throughout a web site? They had better be interesting words, of course. Words can be very clear. And clarity gives them power. So if there are only words in a site, you have made it very hard to miss the message.

But for many designers, designing a site, a brochure, or other communications vehicle without pictures or illustrations is blasphemy. It's just not what they teach you in design school. It's just not what wins awards.

The other reason is that design schools, for the most part, do not educate designers in the strategic use of words.

What about look and feel?

Yes, a lot has been said, and written about the importance of look and feel and logos and typography when it comes to corporate positioning and branding and, of course, all that needs to be reflected in any good web site.

But-and this is important-it's not the real job the designer has to do.

The real job of a designer is to ask how design can be used as a tool to make the client's business work better.

So any designer who begins a web site project by scribbling a layout and indicating "[Headline goes here]" with a bunch of gray text, has missed a huge opportunity, maybe two.

The first is the chance to join forces with a writer and the client to figure what the main and most compelling message of the site is. And the second is to use that kind of thinking to become a valuable business asset-a business consultant-to the client.

Why? If you were on the other side of the table, which would you find more valuable, a designer primarily interested in look and feel-the corporate equivalent of a cosmetologist-or a professional who begins every project by asking, "How can this help you sell more, produce more leads or qualify more leads?"

Most designers never make this leap to understanding the business function of the designer. They continue to believe that look and feel is the highest calling of their profession.

It is not. Making design, and designed communications, serve the interests of the client's business is.

Start here.

That said, the purpose of most web sites, especially those for service companies, is to differentiate your client's products and services from the competition, and to get the reader to do something. In most cases, that's to call, take a sales call, or mail a postcard back. Some way to say, "I'm a potential customer."

If that's the endpoint, then what is the beginning? The most overlooked piece of real estate in the whole site -the home page.

The highest purpose of a site's home page is to get the site visited. Unfortunately, the home page of most sites has a company logo, and some vacuous statement, like "Improving the performance of widgets."

Which essentially says, "I'm boring inside, you don't have to pay attention. You certainly don't have to read me."

This is bad.

Why?

Because it has fallen into the trap of assuming that the reader or potential customer already cares. But what if they don't care? It is far more important to involve the potential customer by starting where their issue or headache is, and stating it, or by making a provocative statement that intrigues or otherwise compels the reader to enter it and continue reading. The first job of the message of the web site is to answer the question "I'm the reader. Why should I care? "

The five minute rule.

When you have no tangible product, and can't deliver a product demonstration inside the site, then it pays to tell a simple, powerful story. Better yet, a simple, powerful story that can be read and understood in five minutes or less. Why?

First, because that's about all the time most people will give any web site, even if it's for something they want to buy.

People are busy.

Second, because people want to be seduced emotionally, and the power of a good story-even a product story-can capture, build and hold a reader's interest until they get to the call to action. And a good call to action then, of course, takes them another step closer to a sale.

Don't just make sites, make grenades.

The more powerful the presentation made in the web site, the more likely that it will help make a sale, or generate a lead.

Occasionally, this can work tremendously well.

"The Grenade" is the name given by a former client to one particularly useful site because it told the client's story with so much impact and pass-around value that when visited, everyone was affected. People visited it saying, "Did you see this?"

Grenades have drama. They get noticed. They often start, or are built around the most dramatic statement about the product, the potential customer or the marketplace.

It helps if they are written in easily-digested, plain English, with a sensible pacing, and not too many words on the page.

It helps even more if they have a sense of humor.

Web sites are key for clients.

Working on a web site allows the client and you to take a look at the big picture of a company and its products, to ask the big questions about its inner workings, and to attempt to deliver even bigger solutions than the client asked for.

All of which requires that the designer not abdicate the role of helping the writer and the client to construct the business strategy that is the backbone of the site.

Web sites are "the foot in the door" for many companies, a method of generating leads for salespeople, who will quickly let you know if the site works.

Which is, in fact, probably the key method of measuring how well a site is working: How often does the client ask you to update it?

Web sites are key for designers.

All of this big thinking about web sites can bring you to question your assumptions about what most designers think of as "the gray stuff" on the page. The message. The product story. The sales challenge.

It requires that you think like a writer. Or a client.

In fact, creating really powerful web sites requires that most designers question their definition of design. If it has to do with "Can you notice the designer in the layouts, logos and typography they produce for a client?" then hasn't somebody forgotten whom we're trying to make famous?

If it's "To use all available means in order to make the client, the product and the message into the hero," then you're essentially getting paid for business consulting.

And that's what a few designers, and writers-good ones at least-have known for years.

The bottom line? It's a question of whether you see your contribution's value in terms of message or look and feel, as communications or as cosmetology.

 

Reprinted with permission by Communication Arts, ©2003 Coyne & Blanchard, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in the July 2003 issue of Communication Arts.