Web design and integrated marketing
Published on November 24, 2003
Web design—particularly the Web interface—is far from an island unto itself. Indeed, Web interfaces are only one tangible extension of an organization’s marketing and communications. This is a critical point that is often lost on everyone in a company, from the VP of Marketing to the brand manager to the Web designer—let alone the many people not directly involved in marketing, technology, or design. The good news is that, for those of us who understand the broader dynamic and are able to properly integrate all of the relevant components, there is a significant competitive advantage that we can enjoy as designers and can pass on to our clients and employers.
Integrated marketing is an approach based on the consistent and systematic strategic creation and delivery of marketing messages and materials. By establishing consistency between different media and distribution points, particularly over the course of a period of time, brands can enjoy greater sustainability and coverage. The expenditure of dollars or resources for integrated campaigns works in a resonant way, benefiting from the messages that came before and continuing to provide momentum and strength for the messages that come thereafter.
While it is a somewhat different scope and more limited application, visual designers have traditionally experienced this effect in logo design. Many of the most powerful and lasting logos enjoy recognition and prominence as much for their consistency and long-term application as for the skill of design craftsmanship and quality of the end product. Integrated marketing takes those principles farther, extending them on an enterprise level to most marketing and communications-related tactics.
Web sites are in their relative infancy compared to other media and communication touch points. As such, while well-designed corporate marketing typically exhibits excellent integration across more traditional media, Web sites often do not enjoy the same level of success. A big part of that is the lack of understanding that marketing professionals have for the media. For Web designers who do have a deep understanding of the Web, that spells opportunity. Here are some specific strategies and tactics that we can employ to use Web design as a successful component to organizational integrated marketing.
Not an island unto itself
Early corporate Web sites actually attempted to operate as an active component of integrated marketing. Realizing the value of an integrated approach, marketers helped to orchestrate the creation of sites that reflected the substance and content of traditional media tactics. The problem was that marketers did not understand the medium —and neither did most designers. The result was a preponderance of Web sites that didn’t work. Lacking architecture, not responsive to bandwidth limitations, exhibiting poor usability, not intuitive to human cognition and processing, there were far more Web failures than successes. Ostensibly, this created a backlash that resulted in the rise of disciplines and approaches focused on proper application of the media. Information architecture, Web standards and usability became buzzwords; hotshot Flash intro movies became a bad punchline.
The current paradigm is driven by making Web sites that work well and have good structure. Web sites that are visually clean, information dense, yet content light. Many corporate Web sites look alike; there is no visual differentiation. Unless all of these company’s other media touches look like a Web site with a lot of white space and a logo in the upper left corner, there is not good visual integration. We have swung over to the opposite end of the pendulum. Sites are beginning to work well and look very clean but they do not serve as an effective component to integrated marketing. They operate like a marketing island.
One of my Web strategy clients is an industry leader in a major technology space. Their top few competitors include IBM and Microsoft, and their products range from six to seven figures per purchase. As part of our research and market evaluation for this client we put color printouts of their home page and that of all major competitors on a big board and evaluated them adjacent to one another. There is simply no visual differentiation. Sure, if you take a granular look at one site or the next, the graphics and tag line might be different. But when you review the sites altogether they look the same. Actually surfing between the sites, it doesn’t take long before you can’t tell which site you are on anymore. In fact, even the written content is depressingly similar, saying the exact same thing in very slightly different ways. There is no differentiation; I hope there is not visual integration between these sites and other communication touches, else a whole industry worth of marketing and design professionals should probably be looking for another job.
Our charge, as Web designers, is to bridge the gap between marketing and usability. We know how to make sites that work well—sites that are clean, compliant, and eminently usable. But very few sites are interesting. Fewer sites are memorable. And even fewer—beyond consistency with the logo and a few choice content points—really contribute much to an organization’s integrated marketing. By understanding the basics of integrated marketing, and being uniquely positioned to craft Web experiences, we can stay true to important, critical components of information architecture, standards, and usability while creating Web sites that have marketing impact and are an integral component to integration. Successfully realizing that balance is the next major charge that Web designers face.
Think like a marketer first and a designer second
Before you even begin to contemplate designing a company’s Web site you need to understand their marketing. Being that Web designers are often brought into the design process in the Web niche—as opposed to designing communication touches on an enterprise level—we are accustomed to designing for the media first and for the marketing strategies second. No!
The marketing strategies should be the driver. While we certainly need to maintain some semblance of usability and accessibility, those considerations should come later. We need to start by digging into current and future marketing strategies, and the universe of existing tactics. From advertising to sales tools to environments, you need to explore the current marketing tactics and search for successful integration, or for elements that could be the foundation for successful integration.
Along with that integration piece, we need to think about differentiation. That is how graphic designers think: getting attention and creating memorability are essential to good visual design. They are also components of controlling mindshare of our audiences and convincing them to take actions beneficial to our company. Those fundamentals should not go out the window on the Web.
In the future, we can expect to see a principal designer that presides over crafting successfully-designed communications across all company media. At that point most everyone involved in the marketing and design space will understand the need for true integration and a strong global vision which will include all traditional and new media. But we are certainly not there yet. What Web designers can do in the interim is think like a principal designer and design like a principal designer. If we think of ourselves as Web designers our Web sites will continue to look like Web sites instead of successful components of broad integrated marketing campaigns—which contributes directly to business success.
Integrate other media approaches into your Web design
In my experience, Web sites are pretty good at maintaining consistency and integration in written content with traditional media. The problem is most pronounced with the look and feel. Sure, the approach of “putting your brochure on the Web” is sadly limited and does not allow us to tap the power of the Web. But it is equally obtuse to optimize for the Web to the detriment of other communication touches. The resonant benefits that visual integration could provide are missed.
There are some very simple things that help create effective integration, and you can lead the implementation of those approaches by understanding other media. For example, imagine a company that includes mass advertising across multiple media in their marketing mix. Traditionally, large national clients would shoot television spots in 35mm film, and use traditional photography and audio production as an accompaniment to populate other media with integrated elements. These campaigns would typically have good integration but could sometimes suffer from “not quite” integration, showing the seams between one medium and the other. But if we understand film and video, we can be the catalyst to improving the process.
Today, we have HD video with 24fps frame rate—the same frame rate as 35mm film. Not only does this 24P technology produce similar quality to film at a significantly reduced cost, you can also pull still images from the video that maintains 300dpi for brochure applications, and are more than adequate in size and resolution for any Web application. This technology not only saves marketing dollars up front, it provides easy integration across various media and, best of all, provides many dozens of unique still images for Web application. More than a couple of select shots taken during an expensive photo shoot, this is a veritable cornucopia of visual images to pick from, identical to what is being used on the television commercials, in print pieces, and beyond.
Through an understanding of integrated marketing and related media and technologies, such as this example with HD video, Web designers can add value to their clients and companies. The exploration of new (non-Web) technologies, like HD video, as a method to improve our Web design can provide extra value through lower production costs and greater integration across other media. This level of broader thinking and knowledge makes us more valuable and improves the business success of those who employ us.
The future is now
Many of the people who read Digital Web Magazine, almost by definition, are already ahead of the curve. And, honestly, by professionally sticking to the sensible usability trends and expected, sterile visual design, we will remain very competent, relatively effective, and enjoy nice compliments and personal credits. But that is not what is best for our companies or clients. Integrated marketing means better marketing ROI. Thinking beyond conventional boundaries and striving for differentiation and memorability is essential to the effectiveness of our design. There is an opportunity for all of us to be part of setting the next trend—one that is not only inevitable but logical and intuitive—instead of following the current trend that was important and necessary but is stretching the boundaries of its own limitations. For those with the courage and creativity to think bigger and push farther, the future is most certainly now.
Dirk Knemeyer is a Founding Principal of Involution Studios LLC, a digital innovation firm located in Silicon Valley and Boston. Dirk is responsible for managing the business and for providing design strategy, brand innovation, and training services to organizations around the world. Dirk is on the Board of Directors for the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) headquartered in Vienna, Austria, as well as the Board of Directors for the AIGA Center for Brand Experience, based in New York City. He is also a member of the Executive Council of the User Experience Network (UXnet). He has published more than 100 articles—many on the topic of design strategy—and regularly gives presentations all around the world.