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Friday, February 17, 2006

The Power of Website Approachability

Strange. So I was reading The Power of Approachability (How to Become an Effective, Engaging Communicator One Conversation at a Time) by Scott Ginsberg, the guy who decided to wear a nametag for the rest of his life to become more approachable. It’s a nice book in the style of life tutorials a la Dale Carnegie. Scott tells you how to network, how to make unforgettable first impressions, and so on, all in easy formatting (there’s a lot of bold, headlines, trademarks and lists... as long as he’s not selling snake oil...).
Scott’s motto in life is to build front-porches – to give people the right signals so they will start talking, and then for both parties to come out off the conversation enlightened.

So, the strange thing was that I emailed Scott four days ago asking him for tips on how to make a website be more approachable. I half expected Scott to get back to me in super-speed due to some tricks he’s practicing. But I guess as there’s no answer by now – I’m sure Scott’s getting a lot of emails – I’ll ponder this one myself.

Make your site’s first impression UNFORGETTABLE™

Your blog or other site is more than a flat layout you can print out on paper to capture its soul. It’s dynamic in the sense that it has a loading behavior, that it can be scrolled, bookmarked, emailed to others, copied, quoted and so on. To make an UNFORGETTABLE™ first impression, you need to make sure:

Turn your inbox into a front-porch

Now it’s almost impossible to answer every single email you get, but trying won’t hurt. Even if it’s just a confirmation that one received the email, or that it was indeed helpful. If people take their time to prepare something for someone else, they rightfully expect their work to not enter a black hole.

In everyday conversations, this can be as much as a nod. Since this “nodding” isn’t available in many email programs (actually, opening an email should be “nodding”, a feature that Outlook implemented), you need to actively reply in some way.

Capability of being reached

Scott says approachability partly means the capability of being reached. For your website, this means that your server is strong enough to manage the traffic you’re getting. In the world of web traffic, the irony is that the time when your site is the most popular is also the time when it is most likely go down; the so-called slashdot or digg effect. Imagine you’re an author and your latest reading is getting so popular... that you have to cancel it!

In my experience, nothing helps better here than to be prepared for this moment with good caching mechanisms, knowing (and improving upon) bottlenecks, watching your stats from time to time, and a strong server.

Avoid communication barriers like full hands

Scott says, “When someone approaches you – whether you know her or not – you don’t want to fumble with your belongings. Make the handshake smooth and quick.” And that’s how your website should load, I think. Smooth and quick. Putting a large Flash on top, creating images out of every headline, using heavy table layout, or showing a “cover” or “intro” to your site (even when you’re selling a product) is like having your hands full; you are not able to quickly greet strangers.

Powerful Smile

I’m sure this is one of the most-given advice, and easiest “social tools” to implement for anyone. A smile is the best indicator to others that you are approachable and ready to engage in a conversation. But just how do you make a website smile? (Except of course by using light and friendly colors.) Well, put up a picture of you somewhere in which you’re smiling. I think that’s one of the reasons I kept coming back to Micro Persuasion (next to the cool content): Steve Rubel’s blog managed to stick out of the crowd because he smiles at you as soon as you visit.

Always have your business card with you

Scott says, “If you don’t have your business card with you at all times, you won’t make a bad impression – you’ll make NO impression.” Your business card on a blog or other website, I think, is your “About” page. If you don’t make it easy and obvious to reach, then people have a hard time finding out more about you. When I visit a new blog, I often go straight to the About page to get acquainted with this blogger... if there is an About page in the first place.

On the About page, I think (while seemingly obvious) you need to actually tell your name again. I’ve seen a few About pages that started with this: “I’m working as a ... I’m living in ...” Somehow, the author took it for granted that her readers know who she is. However, the About page is often a first stop for new readers who don’t yet know the blogger.

Discover the CPI (Common Point of Interest)

“People like others whom they are like,” Scott says on page 58. Every website or blog should have a topic that makes people feel at home. Maybe the topic is as broad as everything cute or wonderful things. Maybe the topic is as specific as confessions sent in by mail or stuff on your cat. This common point of interest is what the blog writer and the blog readers share, and it should be made obvious somewhere (either in the blog title, or by using a tag line).

The Talk to Me Sign

In his book, Scott tells the (true) tale of two New Yorkers named Liz and Bill, who invented a great conversation starter: “They stand around in New York City, all day, everyday with a two-foot tall sign out on the sidewalk that reads ’TALK TO ME’. On a daily basis, the scene is packed with customers and conversationalists who bring up just about any topic one could imagine.”

A good website as well needs a “talk to me” (or “talk to others around here”) sign. Usually, that’s either a message board, or your email, or a link to a form where one can post feedback to you, or a mixture of all three. An approachable blog is a blog where people can start a conversation.

What networking means

According to Scott, networking means (among other things) sharing information, and helping others. Networking online is really about who you know – and who links to you. Does that mean you should ask for backlinks from bloggers? No – it means you should share information and help others. You can help with tips, tutorials, pointers, thought-provoking or funny content, and so on.

Let me ask ya this...

Scott is ending each of his chapters with a question. In the appendix to the book, he’s suggesting the following questions – I’d like you to copy them and share your answers in the comments:


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