Content v Creative – Where does the Customer Count?

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Content v Creative – Where does the Customer Count?

I had a very interesting conversation with Charles Prescott, the VP of Global Education for the Direct Marketing Association. Charles comes from a direct mail background, whereas I am a child of the internet. We like to joke with each other about which is the better medium, but ultimately we know that there is a lot that we can learn from each other.

Direct Marketing Success
One of the things that he told me was that the most critical part of a direct mail/marketing campaign was the selection and refinement of a list. While most research is anecdotal, most accounts put the importance of list selection up to 70% of the success of a direct mail campaign (don’t quote me on this exact number, but it’s high).

However, the creative, which accounts for a smaller percentage of the success of a campaign, gets much more attention. Most of the attention comes from the owners or principles of a company, the art directors, the staff, the creatives, etc. Everyone wants to be involved in developing the right mood, the right message, and an attractive message.

Basically, getting the list together is not as glorifying as coming up with killer creative. But it is the most critical part of campaign success.

What about the web?
This applies so wonderfully to the web. I have been a part of so many projects where the design is the focal point of creating the website. Everyone is involved in color selection, graphics, fonts, and all of the “pretty stuff.” Everyone is so concerned with the design of the homepage and the impression that it makes, that they forget two very important factors:

1. Most visitors do not enter at the homepage.
2. Content is what engages the visitor and persuades them to take action.

It is a shame that so much effort is put into the design of a website, yet the content tends to be the last thing that most businesses consider when creating that new website. Content tends to get shuffled to the bottom of the pile until someone is tasked with the overwhelming job of gathering, organizing, and writing content at the last minute so that the website can go live.

In reality, it is the content that persuades people to take action. While a good presentation can help establish the credibility of a website, the content is what creates the connection and ultimately makes your case. It is the content that positions your company, creates confidence, sells your business, and persuades the visitor to take action.

Here again is the dilemma. In a study by the Stanford Persuasive Technology lab, they found that design helps to create credibility for a website, however, the particular elements of design were not the pretty pictures or the flashy graphics. It was the elements of the content, presented in context of the design: fonts, colors, typography, layout, organization. These are all elements of readability and layout! When content was designed in a consistent pattern that allowed people to easily find the information they needed – it was perceived as being more credible.

What’s Popular
Interestingly, looking at most visited sites online; Google, Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, MySpace, AOl, and Mapquest, none of these sites are known for their stellar designs. Instead they are known for their content, which is a powerful draw. These sites have valuable content, and they are used because of that. Looking at each of these sites, the content is primary and the design follows the content.

Back to the main point.
Until web managers focus on the content and the navigation of the website as the primary means of communicating their message, the design of the website will not matter. Everything has to work together, but the content is the ultimate reason for people to be on the website. The design gets the glory, but the content is the engine that drives the results.

Seth Godin recently commented in his blog that “Many websites say, “look at me.” Your goal ought to be to say, “here’s what you were looking for.”

You can only do that when the plan for the site is well-thought out. Not only the presentation of the content, but the soul of the content.

  • How will you persuade visitors to take action?
  • What actions are you persuading them to take?
  • Is your call to action a focus of the content and the design?
  • Does your design reflect these goals?

In reality, the design has to follow the message and the purpose of the site. Otherwise, the design will conflict with the primary message and distract the visitor from the stated goal. Put the time and attention where it counts, in developing a persuasive message for your site.

About the Author:

Matt has taught Google employees how to understand and use Google Analytics, consulted with Experian on how to present data, developed online marketing training for both Proctor and Gamble and Johnson & Johnson and presented analytics methodologies to Disney, ABC & ESPN. As founder of SiteLogic, Matt teaches marketers how to create measurable and profitable strategic marketing plans.


  1. Bryan Eisenberg October 25, 2007 at 5:10 am - Reply

    Amen, Brother! This is the key to understanding persuasion and then conversion. If you look at conversion rates since 1992 (under 3.0% according to they haven’t budged. However, sites have better designs, better technology, better analytics, more budget, more people on broadband, more people online with credit cards, people are visiting fewer and fewer sites each month and still conversion rates have not gone up. Why? Because the content is not the focus.

  2. Neil Matthews October 25, 2007 at 8:34 am - Reply

    I cannot agree more, with the advent of RSS most people are not even bothering to come to the main site anymore.

  3. Tanner Christensen October 25, 2007 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    Thank you Matt. This is exactly what I needed today.

    I’m in the middle of a project that I’ve been working on, the creative director and myself don’t see eye-to-eye on the design and I couldn’t figure out why…until I read your article.

    It’s too common to overlook content, when content can easily overlook design (Myspace anyone?).

    Thanks for the great insight Matt.

  4. earlpearl October 25, 2007 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    How true. I have a new site under design. I’m growing tired with the discussions about design. I’ve worked the site for years and know what is getting us traffic and which traffic is converting. I bow down to nifty design….but not when it screws up the content and rankings.


  5. Matt Bailey October 25, 2007 at 8:26 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the support! It’s nice to be around people that see this and not designers who pitch a fit because their lovely design won’t communicate the purpose of the site.

    I’ve just been amazed at the amount of times that the site nears completion and no one has discussed content. Some clients even assumed that content would be provided with the new website?!?

  6. Sheri Bigelow December 14, 2007 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    It’s so true that so many marketers place wayyy too much emphasis on design. What I would like to hear are stories about how in-house designers and webmasters have been able to successfully communicate the importance of copywriting. I would even go so far as to recommend that copywriting should be created FIRST, and then design should be developed around it.

  7. Matt Bailey December 14, 2007 at 12:51 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the comments, Sheri.

    I am working on a project right now where the development company worked the hardest on the content and architecture first. The client keeps saying that they are doing it backwards, but really, it’s the “old” way that’s backwards.

    Despite the “backwards” comment, the client has been extremely please with the way that the site has come together, and it makes total sense to them and our usability testers.

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