The Difference Between Web Presence & Web Experience


There once was a simpler time in advertising—back when there weren’t Ferbies, generic Ferbies, and every other creepy kids toy. The market wasn’t insanely saturated and in need of constant promotion just to avoid a slow death.

How about a historical anecdote?

The year was 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, and the very first phone book was created. It wasn’t much of a book though. In fact, it was one piece of cardboard that didn’t even have telephone numbers on it. Instead it just listed the 50 local businesses that actually owned telephones.

No emotional content. No promotional copy. No calls-to-action.

Just the name.

That and instructions on how to actually use a phone in effort to mitigate the user error of yelling into the wrong end.

Marty Neumeier explains the historical progression of advertising in his book The Brand Gap. He says that the first quarter of the 20th century marketing focused on the product’s features—what it had.

Wikipedia: Crayola Ad 1905

Around 1925, products become more about conveying the product’s benefits. This slight shift brings the product and the user a little closer together, emphasizing what it did for them.

The 50’s brought in emphasis on the experience. It became even less about the product itself and more about what it made its user feel.

And finally, evolving into the 21st century, marketing has become all about what Neumeier calls “tribal identification.” The product itself is minimized behind who the user is. With the rising number of options, brands promote lifestyle and mindsets in order to win us over.

When it comes to the web…

What worked in the 1800s won’t work today.

Yet many people are still stuck in the early days of advertising. Especially among the small businesses, there is a misunderstanding of the great and powerful www.

“I’m a floor remodeling contractor. What do I do? I remodel floors! Now will you just give me a site and let me get back to it?” -Hypothetical Client

I think the problem stems from taking the term “web presence” literally—an “if you build it, they will come” sort of thing. Their goal is simply having a website rather than making it useful. And then putting all emphasis on budget and timeline, they brutally murder usability and hide it under the floor boards.

But the tell-tale heart of user experience beats with every missed opportunity to leave an impression. Yeah, it’s that dramatic.

Unfortunately for the client, an outdated, sloppy website won’t help them outshine the competition.

Fortunately for designers, we get to partner with them to create not just a web presence, but an effective one. A web experience.

What makes for an effective web experience?

In his book Platform, Michael Hyatt said “There’s nothing more expensive than a cheap design that doesn’t work.” Our job is to show the client that a thoughtful site is not only necessary, but also a worthy investment.

Here are some talking points to advocate for an effective website:

1. Know your users.

Square 1 is a deep understanding of the exact demographics of who will be using the site. Create something that engages those specific people, connecting what you do with who they are.

It’s pretty hard to focus on identity and lifestyle when you don’t have a grasp on who you are trying to reach.

2. Get the whole picture.

An effective web design will take everything into consideration. Have a thorough understanding of what is off the web just as much as on. One of the keys to branding is consistency so if there is a break in flow, it will throw the user off.

An example would be to look at all offline literature. Maybe the business is handing out brochures that direct to a web page that has all the exact same content as the brochure. Eliminating redundancy and tracking the user story from beginning to end creates a much more dynamic experience.

3. Give them what they want.

Whatever your site, your users are there for a reason. Often marketers will try to stuff as many buzzwords and as much meaningless fluff as they can—holding on to the hope that something will stick.

Anticipating who they are, where they are coming from, and what they want will make for better content and design. And with better content and design comes better experience. Better ingredients, better pizza.

Stop throwing frozen grocery-store pizzas at them when they deserve a deep-dish.

A web presence states who you are and that you do stuff.

A web experience invites those users to be a part of it.

Is a bad web presence better than nothing at all? It depends on the client but probably not. Even the lowest budget projects can take advantage of a little extra thought.

But a true web experience isn’t something that can or should be slapped together in a weekend. It takes time, effort and process. Operating with this mindset can help us convey the importance of a well crafted site. We can avoid the careless mess of unnecessary content and create something effective.