Are you welcoming people in, or warning them off?

June 20, 2011


Hallway, via Miss Millificent on flickr

Your website acts as a hallway of possibility.

Recently, I had to send my CV to a company that I’d like to work with.  I ended up using their job application software and I was honestly shocked by the poverty of the online experience.  The software gave terse, bald instructions laid out in small blue text on a plain white background.  An automated response told me that my upload had worked and that someone might contact me.  Eventually.  Maybe. (But don’t count on it).

Quite honestly, they might as well just have sent a reply that said ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

It was interestingly soul-crushing.  This is probably just typical of modern institutions who are flooded by job applications. Unfortunately, it set up a negative feeling about the organisation right at the start.

Do you invite people to go further or do you stop them right there?

Other institutions can behave rather differently.  I have been involved in several website projects for universities, where we looked at the student experience from early enquiry and application to final registration.  These particular institutions were hungry for the right people to join them, and they knew that their websites played an important role in students’ decision-making.

In the research with school pupils choosing universities, I found that they were desperate to get a sense of advance belonging.  They wanted lots of authentic information about the daily details of living there, along with the functional information about courses and careers.  They also wanted to subtly check out whether the other students were people like them. Or perhaps, like their ideal selves.

You’re probably not offering 3 years and a qualification, but I think there’s something important to learn here.

Your content frames the customer experience in advance.

It can make people excited to come forward and contact you, sensing common ground.

It can also make people step back, uncertain about what you have to offer.  They might move straight on to the next provider, or they may explore your site with some anxiety and suspicion.

In some circumstances, it will be appropriate to screen some people out – those who don’t have the qualifications, for example, or are looking for something that you simply don’t provide.

But it’s important to ask yourself whether your communication is turning away people who may be perfectly qualified to {work with you, buy from you, visit you}.

So, action steps.

Think about your site.  You might want to look at language, images, information, and tone of voice.  Do you give a genuine flavour of the experience you provide?  Does your design invite people to move forward in their relationship with you?  Is it easy to take the next step?

And do people who approach you feel welcomed and respected?

In the comments: I’d love to hear what works for you when you’re deciding whether to go further with an organisation online. What are the little things that welcome you in?


Email This Page

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Alison Clayton-Smith June 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Photos of the real people working there (not stock images), information on the real people working there (not just general blurb about ‘Our team’), lack of words like ‘maverick’ ‘guru’ ‘world class’ and instead a sense of humbleness and being a human being with good bits and not so good bits. These things are probably harder for large organisations to achieve but should be definitely doable for SMEs.


Ali Mac June 20, 2011 at 10:45 pm

It’s interesting how stock images have a really different feel to them.  We can somehow sense that the energy is all wrong.  

I think I see all sizes of organisation get it wrong, usually in their language but also in their choice of visuals.  There are a lot of clone websites out there which have very little individual personality, and they’re created because they feel like a safe option. 


Loralee Hutton June 21, 2011 at 12:29 am

Thanks for this post today.  In the very recent past I believe the only visitors to my website were people who already know me in the real world.  It was a place where I provided additional information, and it seemed that people were more than happy with what was made available to them.  Recently this has switched and I’m more visible to “the world”, which has left me feeling oddly vulnerable. I’m getting some feedback from brave souls who tell me about their experience on my site (usually the negative parts – but I embrace it anyway).  But it’s bringing to light a question for me.  As an SME, how can I cost effectively test the usability of my site?  I don’t want people to run away because they’ve had a bad experience, and yet I make changes on the fly & have no real idea how people will react. 

Something I’m pondering…And your article is making it feel more urgent than ever.  But that’s a good thing :)
~ Loralee


Ali Mac June 21, 2011 at 9:10 am

Hi Loralee,
There’s a couple of things this brings up.  First, you might want to sign up and download my Website Checkup document (up in the sidebar on this page).  Second…well, that’s part of what I do!  I’m redesigning my coaching offer at the moment – I’ll email you separately, if you’d like.  What I notice, though, is that with small businesses, it’s often not a problem of usability, it’s a problem of clarity and focus.   Smaller companies do create headaches for their customers through elements of their site design, but the bigger issue is customer confusion.


Diane Rooney-Pinchbeck June 24, 2011 at 9:09 am

Great article, Ali.  One of the things that puts me off at some websites, is “jargon”.  An assumption that I know the common industry lingo. I think it’s a balancing act as I’m finding I have the same problem now with my website.  I want new customers that are completely new to not only my products but the hobby itself so I want to avoid jargon.  However, there are also dedicated, hard core customers who totally get the jargon are are regular customers.  I guess it goes back to customer avatar LOL.  Either way, I enjoyed your article and gleaned some new things from it.  Thank you.


Cancel reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: