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B2B marketing’s 6 most common design mistakes

My recent post on “B2B marketing’s 10 most common copy mistakes,” attracted many readers. Since copy doesn’t stand alone, it made sense to update and repeat a post from 2009 on common B2B marketing design mistakes.

That post began with me talking about why I love “direct” marketing more than advertising.

Direct marketing is a discipline built on the testing and measurement of every element of a marketing campaign to let the market reveal which approach produces the most response. This ability to learn what works and what does not, gives each new B2B marketing campaign the potential to be more successful than the last — and to make B2B marketers smarter.

Direct marketing has been around for over 100 years, so those B2B marketers who have come before us have tested EVERYTHING. Granted, different products and different target markets can produce different results, but there are some findings that are pretty much universal. That’s because human nature is universal. So here are the design mistakes I see most often that can affect the performance of a Web site or other marketing effort:

1. Treating copy as a design element: Words laid out in a cute shape or design manner are unreadable. B2B marketers want the design to reflect their business brand and style, but the purpose of marketing design is to make the message as inviting and readable as possible. Designing headlines with some words larger than others also diminishes readability. Headlines in sentence case are more readable than those in title case or all caps.

2. Running copy lines across a full page from left to right: The eye moving across a computer screen or printed page from left to right can easily lose its place. The harder a B2B marketing message is to read, the faster a prospect or customer will stop reading it and move on. In fact, in email marketing, the rule is to put no more than 70 characters, including spaces, on a single line.

3. Not including visuals: The message offering a white paper is stronger if a visual of the white paper is included. Using pictures of people on Web site pages, landing pages, printed materials, and emails subliminally makes a company look human and adds a level of comfort to those thinking about responding. A visual that directly supports what is being said makes the message stronger.

4. Presenting the message in big, long paragraphs: Other B2B direct marketers have tested this and proven that paragraphs of over four lines look like work to read and reduce response. Busy B2B buyers don’t want to have to work to get information. Good readable copy is easy to scan. That means using bold subheads, bullets, indents, numbers, and other devices that make the message easy to understand by scanning the page.

5. Hiding the call to action: Presenting links online is pretty easy. But if B2B marketers want a response from any printed material — letters, sales sheets, data sheets, and brochures — the call to action needs to be prominent and clear. Prospects need to see the phone numbers, URLs and/or email address quickly and clearly so that they know instantly what they must do to respond.

This last note was mentioned in the recent “10 common copy mistakes” post as well. It’s frightening how often I see this design error — in fact I’ve seen entire Web sites designed this way.

6. Reversing body copy out of a dark background: This practice reduces readability by over 30%. Web pages, ads, fliers or mailers with all-black backgrounds and light copy are the worst. Reversed headlines are OK, but not body copy. Dark type against a light or white background is always the most readable.

B2B Marketers — Don’t Go Out Without Your Makeup.

It was 1995 when Newsweek had Bruce Willis on its cover in a t-shirt and jeans with a headline that read “Have We Become a Nation of Slobs?” We dressed pretty casually back then, but these days it’s a miracle if folks aren’t going to work in their pajamas on casual Fridays.

It’s a bit different in B2B marketing, especially for companies selling larger ticket items. When a B2B marketer shows the company’s “face” to prospects, that company needs to be wearing all the proper clothing and makeup.

This sounds like I’m talking about branding, but the brand is only one element of what prospective customers see when they are ready to make contact. Here are the other two critical foundations that must be in place before ANY other marketing is undertaken:

1.  Build a Web site that, in addition to supporting the brand, is a strong sales tool.

Here are the basic items that must be included:

  • Strong story that quickly and clearly communicates what the company offers, who the product is meant for and the main benefits the product(s) delivers
  • Opportunities for visitors to interact with the site, such as white paper downloads (both free and those requiring registration), a strong opt-in invitation, possibly an ROI calculator, videos and other similar interactive devices.
  • Multiple contact options, including a “Please contact me” form, phone number, email address and, yes, even a fax.
  • Navigation that lets visitors quickly and easily find the information they need.

Many prospects who are directed to Web site landing pages — whether in response to SEM ads, emails, direct mail or other communications — may still choose to visit the company’s Web site before accepting an offer. So the Web site must “sell.”

2.  Make sure inbound callers can easily reach a human being.

There are still prospects out there who prefer to pick up the phone and call a company for information. Providing an easy option for them to call and speak with a sales person or operator (who can direct the call) ensures that companies don’t miss easy opportunities for personal interaction with their prospects.

Without the proper makeup, B2B marketing efforts — regardless of the channel — cannot be as effective as they should be.

Does your Website fail to deliver these 3 basics?

Helping a newly formed B2B company create their first Website spurred me to visit dozens of sites in search of examples I could show them from their industry that follow best practices.

Web Basics Photo 2In the process, I made a sad discovery. Not one followed what I know are the most basic rules of good Web design.

The rules (that is — what should be on the page and where) are the ones I learned from Amy Africa of EightbyEight. Her firm specializes in helping e-commerce companies maximize online sales. They have conducted hundreds of hours of research that monitors how people’s eyes move through a Web page, how they navigate, and even how their pulse reacts to what they see. The rules are built on the results of this research.

The way people interact with Websites does not change even if the site is a B2B company with no e-commerce involved (although Amy has reported that experienced visitors interact somewhat differently from novices).

A Website is important. It should be a strong part of every company’s integrated marketing program. It is often the first place prospective customers go to find out if the company that has contacted them or that they’ve heard about is real and legitimate. Companies conduct Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Search Engine Marketing (SEM) for the sole purpose of driving prospects to their site.

But what does the viewer experience at most sites? Hard work and confusion. What visitors want is information that they can gain without effort. So here are just the very basic rules for a B2B company to make its Website a strong player in its integrated marketing programs:

Rule #1:
The first 50 words of copy on the landing page must convey what the company, service, or product is about and hopefully its unique selling advantage. The page must instantly answer the question “Where am I?” Pages with no written message but only links to other pages force visitors to work to find answers to this question. Visitors should never be made to work.

Rule #2:
Navigation must be clear and instantly imply what kind of information will be found on the linked pages. If the navigation says “Services,” the page had better list the services available from the company. Marketers should look at their navigation and make sure it is clear and correct.

Rule #3:
Every page must have at least one call-to-action. Just like a meeting with a sales person, after prospects learn something, you must ask them to do something. The call-to-action can be “Learn more,” “Contact us now,” “Download FREE content,” “Request a bid” or many other options. A Website is no different from any other B2B marketing effort. It needs to respond to the prospect’s inquiry of “What’s in it for me,” then get the prospect to act.

There are, of course, dozens of other Website best practices. However, if B2B marketers can achieve just these three, they’ll be putting their site way ahead of most others.