Website Tools, Part 1 – Bells & Whistles

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In the 1990’s, when the internet as we know it was in its youth, the novelty of the Web Site was reflected in the number of (sometimes literal) bells and whistles often included in its construction.  Early users were subjected to a rainbow of exotic fonts, flashing Christmas lights, and bad midi tunes as “designers” – frequently the site owners themselves – staked their claims in this fresh new advertising space.

While the web has matured considerably since then, the allure of “bells and whistles” for those maintaining an online presence is just as strong, only the options are broader and the audience more savvy.  Designers and clients are also subjected to the meta-conversation surrounding their use, as “experts” continually admonish their audience that in order to remain relevant, they must stay on the front lines of social media and web technology. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the urgency of the latest and greatest, but it’s just as important to evaluate your options and select those that really add value to your brand.  Some of the shiny new toys are just as appealing to your audience, but often they either mean nothing or worse, drive potential customers away. 

Competition online is fierce, and sometimes it feels like the only way to stand out is to employ every option at your disposal.  However, to do this is to lose sight of the fact that all of these elements are ultimately TOOLS available to advance your goals of building a solid brand and advancing positive awareness of who you are, what you do, and why people should come to you for it.  Just as you wouldn’t use every tool in your handyman toolbox when all you need is a solid bookcase, you don’t need to avail yourself of all of these web tools to create a solid online presence. 

As with anything else in your business, it’s all about value for money – why spend time &/or money on something that doesn’t add any value to your brand?  Or even more illogically, something that counteracts your desired brand identity?

I don’t purport to be an expert at creative web design, but I have logged more than my share of hours as an end-user of websites and brand consumer, in addition to working with marketing and brand management, and it is as this focus group of one that I offer you the following guidance for evaluating today’s internet-tool options.  Part 1 addresses some frequently used/abused website elements; Part 2 speaks to the push to be socially interactive.

Some of you will be familiar with one of fashion-icon Coco Chanel’s style rules – before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.  Her point being, we can get so focused on augmenting our style, trying to make it MORE interesting, we overwhelm it and lose what originally made it good.  It’s not too much of a stretch to apply this to your website design: of course you want to present something unique and appealing, but not at the expense of the core brand.

“Vlogging” and Video Intros

Search any topic on YouTube, you will come up with vlogs-a-plenty – it’s hard for people to resist the opportunity to create their own version of Oprah.  Many of these video blogs are in the form of tutorials, which is a great use of webcam technology, as often it’s much easier to learn a task like checking your 1962 VW Bug’s oil or styling your hair like a ‘40s pinup by watching someone else do it.  But as an alternative to the traditional blog, be careful, as there are plenty of downsides: 

VERDICT: Unless public speaking is a significant part of your brand, avoid the vlog-tation.  There is far more potential for harm than good here.  If your heart is set on this sort of “personal connection”, consider including a transcript on the same page so that the visitor can select their preference and have something to refer back to, and do not set the video to play automatically.  Or perhaps include an introduction video that they have an *option* to view.  But never put all of your eggs in the video basket, there are just too many opportunities for them to get lost altogether.  And with any kind of video, consider the production values and how you (and your environment) look and sound beyond the content – no video at all is preferable to one that represents you poorly.

Music & Sound Effects

Nearly 20 years on, the allure of the Website Soundtrack continues.  In our daily lives, we see how sound can impact perception and stimulate an emotional response.  Try watching a film scene cut with and without the soundtrack, and it’s immediately obvious how music affects our experience.  And now that we’ve moved beyond poor midi renditions, attaching a music track to a website feels like creating a multimedia experience vs annoying the heck out of the visitor.

VERDICT:  While the appeal is slightly more understandable than that of video, I strongly encourage you to really evaluate why you want music on your page – most of the time, it really isn’t helping, particularly if you anticipate people returning to the page often.  By the 10th time they’ve heard that song, they’re putting it on mute.  Trust me.  If you just can’t resist, consider a *very brief* musical interlude, and PLEASE don’t attach it to every page on your site; make it easy to find the stop/pause button or select No Music.  If your brand is music based, it can still benefit you to make the soundtrack optional, so that it can be appreciated when the environment/time is conducive to listening.  Why give visitors unnecessary reasons to avoid loading your page or leave quickly?  On the topic of sound effects, the key word here is “judicious” – you don’t want visitors to face a cacophony of unnecessary noises every time they drop by.  And while quite clicking of a radio dial may create ambiance, a loud BING every time the mouse accidentally touches a bullet point is just a waste of code.

Flash

Graphic animation has come a long way from the days of the dancing GIF, and certainly looks far more appealing!  Unfortunately, some people use today’s Flash technology in the same way, and with the same impact.  Apple’s mobile OS is also notoriously incompatible, so what looks awesome on a home PC can be completely non-functional on the road, although the recent introduction of HTML 5 and the ability for simple animation with JQuery may change this.  Even on home devices, Flash can… well, crash, or run afoul of other software issues.

VERDICT:  Done well, key animation can make your site look slick, but don’t be a victim of the “more is better” mentality or you’ll have your visitors reaching for the Dramamine and possibly not coming back for more.  And due to the potential for tech breakdowns, your site should make sense without it as well – don’t depend on the animation to sell your message, or you could be coming up blank.  Don’t just animate things to animate things, either; you’re better served with a well-designed site with no moving parts than token animation that makes no sense.  This is a case where working with professional designers will serve you well, as they will have the best idea of what “works”, the potential pitfalls, and the difference between quirky and distracting.

Stay tuned for Part 2 “Social Interaction”…

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Alexandra Mahlke

Alexandra Mahlke is a self-described dilettante and compulsive English major. She has more than 15 years of experience working with project and brand management in various nooks and crannies of the entertainment industry. She indulges her fascination with history, linguistics/languages and interesting animals by getting on an airplane whenever the opportunity presents itself, and always takes too many pictures wherever she lands. In a parallel universe, Alex sings in a rock band, wears only vintage clothes and spends holidays on her English country estate with a bevy of whippets while her yacht is being prepared for the next adventure…

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