The ugly truth about pretty websites

December 18, 2008
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Most of us do not operate e-commerce websites, that is, websites that sell products directly to customers. This is different than sites that make money from adsense ads, referral links, and so on. I’m talking about sites that have “Buy Now” buttons and sell directly to customers.

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Yet despite having no experience or data to inform our position, it doesn’t stop us from making certain assumptions regarding direct sales e-commerce websites. For instance, here’s some of the “truths” that I started with:

  1. Customers prefer a nice looking website and if customers like the site, it will be effective.
  2. A nice looking website will perform better than an ugly website.
  3. If customers complain about your website’s look (or even the copy), you should fix it.
  4. A website that is praised by respected sites and personalities will perform better than sites that are loathed by the Web 2.0 community.
  5. Giving customers what they say they want in a website will improve sales.

This all seems pretty obvious. Of course these must be true. I never would have challenged these assumptions four years ago. That is, not until the actual data told me otherwise.

Before we look into these “facts” in more detail, let’s talk for a moment about metrics and objectives. The first question is, what is the purpose the website? We need to know that so we know how to measure success. If we’re talking about websites that are selling products to customers directly, you would think the objective would be sales. However, it’s not always quite that simple. A lot of websites also serve a calling card role. We call this “branding”. People tend to focus on this side of a website, but “branding” can often be at the expense of “selling” and vice versa. In other words, if your objective is “selling” then the metric should be sales, and your actions, and the ultimate appearance of your site may be dramatically different as a result, than if the focus is on “branding”. This “branding” versus “selling” trade-off is probably one of the most challenging compromises one has to battle with for e-commerce websites.

That said, let’s assume for the moment that we’ll focus on “selling” where our measurement for success is sales. But this “branding” issue is sure to raise its ugly head, before we are through. As we look at the “truths” we’re going to let the data speak for itself and not let our emotions dictate the conclusion.

Customers prefer a nice looking website and if customers like the site, it will be effective

The first part is probably true – or at least customers will tell you they prefer a nice looking version of a site (with the same headlines and content) over an “ugly” one. However, that doesn’t always translate to what they actually do. Just because the positive feedback increases, doesn’t mean our metric improves. Remember what we’re measuring. This is an important lesson for anybody running a direct sales site, so let me repeat it: Remember what we’re measuring. What do you like better: getting positive feedback, or getting more sales? If the latter, then you may let positive feedback inform your “branding” compromise, but it is irrelevant to the “selling” question. The site that sells better very well may produce less positive feedback and you’ll need to decide if you can live with that. Likewise, a site that gets more positive feedback, might be less effective with selling, even with the same headlines and the same sales message (copy).

A nice looking website will perform better than an ugly website.

Given the same content (same headlines, same sale pitch), one would assume a nice looking site with cool CSS and Web 2.0 niceties, would produce better sales results. It doesn’t appear to be the case. Or certainly, it’s not universally true. I have some theories about why this is true, but really they are only theories. Perhaps users think they are getting a better deal by buying from an ugly or “cheesy” site?

This is another example of this “branding” vs. “selling” compromise. How ugly are you willing to let your site get even if the ugly version performs better?

If customers complain about your website’s look (or even the copy), you should fix it.

Every customer is sure that they represent some huge population, that there are millions of other people that think just like them. Such people are not shy about sharing their opinion. The louder and more aggressive a certain customer is, the more pressure we feel to do something. However, it’s important to step back before overreacting. Does this one customer actually represent a significant population? Does that population represent a customer segment that you want to sell to? In my experience, the louder the customer complains, especially pre-sales, the smaller the population they represent. Many of these people were never going to buy anyway, even if you made all the changes to the website they suggest. Each individual complaint is exactly one person and we’re measuring sales across a large population. A individual complaint may hurt our feelings, but it usually has little or no impact to our metric: sales.

Praise from the Web 2.0 community

An ugly website is never going to become the darling of GigaOm or Boing Boing. But do you care? Just because a website is all the rage on Twitter, doesn’t mean it’s making any money.  These sites may bring you traffic (often not as much as the mythology suggests), but the trade-off may not be worth it. If the changes to your site required to make it “worthy” among the technorati crowd reduce your sales conversions, are you better off?

iphone-web20-icons

It’s easy to become pre-occupied over the look and feel of your website, the buzz, the hype, the branding, but this can cause one to miss an important lesson in selling online: the best websites don’t call attention to themselves. Instead, they call attention to the sales message they’re meant to convey.

I found the following comment on a message board:

I’ve found that the more basic I make my site, the better my conversion rate! I’m not gonna win any design awards or impress anyone on this board…but I sell a lot of merchandise:o)

I have seen exactly the same thing. Just because your site isn’t getting the attention of TechCrunch or winning awards, doesn’t mean it isn’t selling the pants off those other sites.  If you need to be stroked by blogs, by all means, you better have rounded corners, lots of gradients, and some pastel colors. But be aware that those things may do nothing to improve your sales, and they may even hurt your sales. Even if you do get a lot of free coverage on popular web and blog sites, the imapct will be less than you expect, and it won’t last. And the vistitors from those sites may not be your target customers anyway. But now you’ve tuned the site to the bloggers and nobody is buying. It may be time to dress your website down, ugly it up a bit, and let the cash from the increased sales take the sting out of those harsh comments you’re likely to hear from those who don’t like the look of your site (but probably weren’t going to buy anyway).

3 Responses to The ugly truth about pretty websites

  1. December 24, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Touche David. When I was teaching a lot I used to also explain that not every child really knows how to use the 64 color box of crayons. For some, 8 colors is enough.

    There’s a balance issue between pretty, usability, Web 2.0 and underlying functionality that is sorely lacking in a great many sites. And yet, some of the most successful sales sites simply focus on providing information and making ordering easy.

    I think it’s a basic issue of finding a core value proposition, whatever is is, tweaking our individual formula until it works, and then sticking with it and honing our craft. Constant changes, following the winds of Internet fickle trends, may not serve our business goals in the best way.

    Oh and here’s another really interesting piece I read from a Twitter friend on PR, marketing and sales. http://responsiblemarketing.com/blog/?p=776

  2. Angela
    January 6, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    A friend of mine was telling me about a company called iamvoip.com. What do they do?

  3. jen
    January 8, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Iamvoip.com is phone provider that uses the internet as the base for you phone service. It also appears they are a network marketing company

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