The Purple Cow Level: An MMORPG Lesson in Remarkable Marketing

Case: LF1M healer for norm BM

Unless you’re a seasoned World of Warcraft player, the string of acronyms listed above probably doesn’t mean much to you. To translate, it stands for, “We are looking for one more party member to fill the role of healer for a normal-difficulty run of the Black Morass dungeon.” Yes, it means all of that. What can I say? We gamers love our shorthand.

The other night, my wife and I wrote little else into the game’s various chat channels for the better part of an hour without response. No healers were interested in joining us on our excursion.

Undeterred, I decided to mix things up with a little marketing. Instead of “LF1M healer for norm BM,” I took the time to write the following:

“Lo, there do I see my father. Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers. Lo, do I see the line of my people back to beginning. Lo, do they call to me. They say, looking for a healer for Black Morass!”

The cinema-savvy among you may recognize this as a quote from the movie, “13th Warrior.” Naturally, it elicited more than a few chat responses from curious and/or amused players. Seeing my tactic paying off, I followed up with two more:

“*singing* If you like my body and you think I’m sexy, come on heal for Black Morass!”

“*in echoing monster truck rally voice* TUESDAY, TUESDAY, TUESDAY… IN BLACK MORASS, MORASS, MORASS… LOOKING FOR HEALER, HEALER, HEALER…”

After more than a little laughter from my audience, my tactic managed to convince several players to log on as their healing characters and help us. We went on to a successful run of the dungeon.

Point: Remarkable Marketing

Is your marketing drawing your audience’s attention? I could have continued to produce the same monotonous, “LF1M healer for norm BM,” proclamation ad infinitum in the hopes that it would eventually pay off. Instead, I decided to do something that stood out, and it paid off.

Naturally, what draws attention will depend on the medium. Television commercials, for example, are always pushing the envelope and getting little response because users are desensitized to it. In simple text-based chat, however, I proved how a little innovation can go a long way.

Much like Seth Godin’s famous purple cow, is your marketing remarkable? Does it stand out and demand attention or fade into the noise? Are you still looking for a healer, or have you already gotten one and finished the dungeon?

P.S. Kudos if you’ve got enough marketing and gaming savvy to understand, “The Purple Cow Level,” without reference. 😉

Why NYTimes.com Gets a Majuscule “A” for Usability

Case: “Majuscule”

Whenever I’m presented with something I don’t know, I have an almost instinctive habit of looking it up.  It’s not necessarily a bad habit; in fact, several of my coworkers seem to rely upon it.  And I could argue that it’s foolish not to do so with the wealth of the world’s knowledge at my fingertips, but admittedly, it’s just a compulsion of mine.

The other day I was monitoring Reddit, as I have been apt to do since I began my experiment in social media, and I came across a curious NYTimes.com article about the capital “I”. For some linguistic reason that I don’t fully understand, however, they didn’t use the word, “capital.” Instead, they called it, “majuscule.” If you already knew what this word meant without reference, I tip my hat to your vocabulary, because I had no a clue.

As I went to double-click this word to copy it for a dictionary search, something magical happened. Without having to open a separate window, type in a domain name, wait for it to load, paste the word, hit submit, and wait again, a window popped up with the definition of majuscule.

I was awestruck. Had I inadvertently done something clever? No, the page that popped up was still on NYTimes.com. After a bit of searching, I discovered that this was a standard feature of the site. Every time a user double-clicks a word on NYTimes.com, a window pops up with the definition. From the NYTimes.com website:

Point: Intuitive Usability

To say that this is a brilliant example of usability would be a massive understatement. Without being aware that the site offered this functionality, I nonetheless availed myself of it without doing anything out of the ordinary. The site designers saved me precious seconds and left me with a very positive impression by giving me exactly what I wanted, almost before I knew I wanted it.

The take-home lesson is that usability is about making something easier to use. The more intuitive the feature, the more readily and happily users will adopt it. In this case, I didn’t even have to know the feature existed for it to improve my experience. I wanted something, went about my normal routine of getting it, and got it much faster than expected. If this had been a restaurant, I would’ve exclaimed, “Now that’s service!”

The question to ask yourself is, what is my website doing to make my users’ lives easier? Where can I cut out needless steps? What features could stand to be more intuitive?

A Golden Delicious Lesson in Usability

Golden Delicious Apple

Case: A Hassle a Day…

I love apples. In fact, I eat one almost every day with lunch, to the point where you might think I’m testing the, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” hypothesis. As the title of the post might suggest, my favorite variety is golden delicious.

Now, aside from rinsing off pesticides, apples don’t really require any preparation in order to eat. That’s the beauty of them. You can eat them as soon as you pick them up. Of course, you could wash them, peel them, slice them, or use them as ingredients in other dishes, but if you’re like me, you value them for their convenience (and flavor, of course).

What I find to be decidedly inconvenient, however, are the stickers that get placed on them. At every grocery store I shop at, I find the same sticker with the “4020” item number on my apples, supposedly placed there to make them easier to process at checkout. This could possibly be valuable to someone who buys apples for the first time, but checkout is a no-brainer for the rest of us, so the added value is practically nonexistent.

On the other hand, it’s frustrating to peel off. What is supposed to be a no-preparation-necessary food instead requires me to take precious seconds prying a sticker off with my fingernails. It is a needless extra step that irritates me on a daily basis.

Point: …Keeps the User Away

Is this feature adding value? That is the question you need to ask whenever a design decision impacts the user experience. My question to the grocery industry is this: Do you think you’re adding value by putting product code sticker on my apples?

It may seem like a little thing, but any usability expert knows that little things can mean a big difference. In my case, the sticker is worsening my experience. It is reducing the value of my interaction with the product, and by extension the store, by needlessly increasing the steps toward achieving gratification.

Is it enough to make me stop buying apples? No, of course not. Assuming equal quality and convenience, however, it might mean the difference between me buying apples at a grocery store that doesn’t use stickers instead of one that does. Depending on how many people are irritated by these stickers, and how much, that might mean a significant loss of revenue.

The question to ask yourself is this: What are my apples stickers? What small things am I doing that are large problems in the eyes of my users? Am I listening to my users and addressing their concerns?

Remember, usability matters in every context, on every scale. Worry about the big things first, but don’t forget that little things matter, too.

Show Results, Win a Free Lunch

Case: Marketing Contest

Earlier this month, my supervisor challenged our team to produce our own original marketing campaign proposals. The rules of this little game/performance evaluation were simple. We were to create our own lead generation campaigns using any renewable audience, in any medium, targeted toward any of our company’s products. A week later, we were to deliver our proposals to the CEO, COO, and our supervisor in a five-minute presentation. Limited collaboration was allowed, and scoring was determined by a variety of factors, including the campaign’s viability, measurability, and materials provided. The winner would be rewarded with a free lunch.

It didn’t take me long to flesh out a worthy idea. Online marketing is my specialty, so I developed a keyword-targeted PPC campaign, complete with ad text and landing page. I didn’t stop there, though. Everyone in the competition had their own particular advantages. As the online marketing manager, mine was the ability to launch and test my campaign quickly. By the time we were to present, my campaign had already been running for several days. Instead of attempting to convince my superiors of the campaign’s merits, I devoted half of my presentation to results, conclusions, and plans for refinement.

Of course, my coworkers put on a great showing as well. The graphic artists of the bunch came up with some very compelling advertisements. Our direct mail marketing specialist prepared a letter that was practically fit to be mailed out that day. Our copywriter had some detailed ideas for video advertising with free gas cards and a Jimmy Buffet song thrown into the mix. Overall, it was some stiff competition.

In the end, though, what impressed everyone the most were results. With a hat-tip to our direct mail marketer in a close second, I took first place.

Point: Results Speak for Themselves

In the same vein that actions speak louder than words, proof is more convincing than conjecture. To put it another way, say something works and others might believe you. Prove that something works and everyone will believe you. I wouldn’t say my campaign was particularly exciting or original. Because I had results to prove its value, though, I won out over other seasoned professionals with more compelling pitches.

This is a widely-applicable lesson for any web professional. When you’re out to make a convincing argument, don’t just assert your point with eloquence; demonstrate it with facts. There’s nothing better than verifiable results when it comes to spicing up a resume, impressing a client, adding punch to a performance evaluation, or winning a free lunch. 😉

The Great Bloggasm Panic of ’08

This will be the first article in a format I like to call, “Case in Point,” where I present a specific, real-life scenario of success or failure on the web (the “Case”) and then the take-home lesson to be learned from it (the “Point”).

Case: Bloggasm and the Google Roller Coaster

On March 25, 2008, I saw a frantic post over on Bloggasm, one of my favorite independent news blogs, about a sudden drop in Google rankings and traffic. Simons Owens and I are friends, so I decided to offer my expertise. What followed was a lot of analysis, theorizing, and more than a little consoling.

I started where any good SEO should with the header response codes. Simon mentioned that he had recently upgraded his WordPress installation, so something could have happened to hinder spidering of the site. Everything looked fine until I discovered a 412 error for Googlebot 2.1. This sent up a red flag. Luckily, Simon trusted me enough to give me access to his Google Webmaster Tools, where I confirmed that Google wasn’t seeing any crawl errors. A more thorough crawl of the site revealed almost no problems at all.

Much like a clean bill of health from a physician, this should have been good news, except that Bloggasm’s rankings were still languishing. As Simon continued to panic, I advised that he should calm down and wait a few weeks. After all, common wisdom in SEO circles is that this sort of dance happens all the time due to algorithmic changes; all you can really do is wait for the rankings to return. If you’ve got a good site with quality content and you aren’t doing anything shady, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.

That was the expert in me talking, but the friend in me wanted to provide more of an explanation. So, I performed some more analysis, theorizing that the site might now be seen as adult in nature due to some of Simon’s more risque post titles. I looked for evidence of paid linking and large-scale update news in the forums. I grasped for any explanation that seemed plausible, but all of them inevitably fell flat.

In the end, I gave up on over analyzing the situation and stuck with my original advice. If there’s nothing apparently wrong with the site, there’s nothing to worry about. Just relax and wait for the rankings to return.

On April 9, 2008, a little over two weeks after Bloggasm’s rankings plummeted, Simon emailed me with the good news that they had mysteriously returned. In fact, according to Simon, they’ve been higher than ever.

Point: Don’t Panic

In this case, common SEO wisdom was well-founded. Search engine rankings may suddenly drop for short periods of time only to return as if nothing happened. The important thing is not to panic. Take a careful look at your website and ensure that it doesn’t violate any of Google’s quality guidelines. If you don’t feel confident enough in your technical abilities to do this, have an expert look for you. If nothing is amiss and you know you aren’t doing anything to game the system, just relax and let the search engines work it out. Like a lost puppy to a loving owner, your rankings come back to you.

I’ll conclude with some words of wisdom that I shared with Simon early in his ordeal:

“Patience and strategy are the name of the game. Take a deep breath and accept that you may be suffering without ever having done anything wrong… It’s just how things work; as you say, Google is fickle. The important thing is that you keep writing good, organic content that people want to link to. If you do that, your blog’s success will grow despite these bumps in the road.”

Note: After writing this post, I helped Simon through some WordPress difficulties as well. In all fairness, then, a more appropriate title might have been the “First” Great Bloggasm Panic of ’08. 😉