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.