Plain-spoken Online Conversion Rate Newsletter - covering web design, email techniques, sales, marketing, copywriting, usability,  and consumer psychology.

Applying Emily

Every now and again I need to take a step back from the microscope I keep trained on the detaily specifics of designing for conversion (all work and no play makes Grok a dull Martian!) and consider the broader picture. And it’s actually the picture itself, the image, that has captured my fancy today.

So make yourself comfy, and let’s take a mental wander.

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"What a wonderful site! You know how to put the powerful academic principles of marketing and sales into practical language. A great asset for getting past the current day hype in marketing."
Professor Allen Weiss,

In Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads, Roy H. Williams presents a little essay that opens like this:

Born into a wealthy family in 1830, Emily has her photograph taken at the age of eighteen, then lives a remarkably uneventful life until she quietly passes at the age of fifty-five. It will be the only photograph ever made of her.

Incredibly shy, Emily asks her friends to speak to her through an open door from an adjoining room while she stands behind the wall. Her life consists of tending her garden and baking. She never travels, never marries, and rarely leaves her home. Emily lives in a world of imagination where words are all she requires to generate a series of vivid associations.i

Think about this for a minute. The only image lots of folks ever had of Emily (Dickinson, that is) was a static daguerreotype - a woman perpetually eighteen. Of course, she didn’t stay eighteen. And the dimensions of her personality no doubt encompassed more than what the photograph suggested. But that photograph and her words defined who Emily was.

So what has this got to do with you? Lots, actually. It’s a brilliant metaphor for how you conduct your business on the Web, and the sorts of things you can accomplish if you present the right image - the right personality - through the content on your Web site. I don’t mean to sound cavalier, but when push comes to shove out there in cyberspace, who you are is far less important than who your customers imagine you to be.

So let me take you to talk with Emily.

The Importance of Consistency

You’re on the other side of that wall, exchanging confidences. Emily sounds understanding and compassionate. But when you come back the next day, she sounds like a gutter snipe. How are you going to feel?

With consistency comes trust. Visitors to your Web site want to know they are interacting with the same, reassuring person every time they come. When you change personalities in the middle of the stream, they get confused. They can’t form a coherent image of you.

The Importance of Personality

Who Emily actually is behind that wall matters far less than what she has to say and how she says it. And as you sit there listening to her, who you “see” is actually based on a very limited experience of her. It is through her words that she ignites your imagination and helps you form your image.

In reality, you can be the toast of the party or even a dreadful bore - it doesn’t really matter online. What does matter is the character of the personality you create through your words. They are the elements that help construct the image of you that is going to make a huge difference to your visitors.

The Importance of a Relationship

Behind her wall, Emily engages you in conversation, and you never doubt that you have her complete attention. Now, maybe she’s really making notations in her gardening diary or deciding which sauce to whip up for the roast beef that night, but that isn’t the point. The important thing is, you feel her words are just for you.

That’s how you want your visitors to feel - as though you are there for and speaking to them and them alone! Of course your relationship will grow and develop over time. But always remember, as John Steinbeck wrote, “Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person - a real person you know, or an imagined person - and write to that one .”

It all comes down to the importance of words and their power to create the image you must convey to your visitors. Take it from me and Emily.


i “Emily Lives Inside Herself.” Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads. Roy H. Williams. Austin: Bard Press. 1999. p 64.

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Get That Site to Me Fast …

… or else the computer gets it! Web rage! If I lived in an ivory tower, I’d tell you it’s the latest acknowledged antagonistic reaction to the frustrations of our high-speed, technological world. But there’s not a speck of chalk dust on me. So, what I’m saying is simple - road rage mentality has made it to the Web. Folks aren’t just releasing their aggressions on the highways, and when your site doesn’t perform to your visitors’ expectations, they’re apt to turn primal and take a whack at their computers.

I’ve been yammering on about issues of performance and usability for over two years now. So have others. But have enough people been listening? It seems not.

So read on for a little laugh and a dose of perspective. And take heed!

Just before it launched its redesigned Web site, Abbey National, a bank in the United Kingdom, commissioned a study of Web behavior.i What Abbey National learned should come as no surprise to you, dear reader - although the depth of feeling behind some of these reactions should tell you this is serious stuff.

“More than half of all internet users admit to losing their rag with the net at least once a week …. High on people's stress meter is the length of time it takes websites to appear, help buttons that do not offer any help and requests for personal details before being allowed into a site. One frustrated IT manager admitted to smashing up his Ł2,500 laptop after a web page failed to recognise his personal details after six attempts.”

And how do folks react?

· 7% vent their frustrations on their mice and keyboards

· 2% admit to easing their irritation by beaning a workmate

· 52% abandon a site when it makes them angry

· 26% boycott frustrating sites

· 11% get irritated on a daily basis

There are those who flood infuriating Web sites with abusive email. Others turn to revenge - like the fellow who ordered 1 million pounds worth of merchandise on a bogus credit card after a site failed to deliver.

11 percent of the online user base is a lot of people to tick off on a daily basis! Not particularly good for business, nor for cultivating confidence in consumers that they should consider the Web their commercial venue of choice. Fortunately, the Abbey National study revealed a reassuring piece of information:

· 83% of users revisit sites that keep them happy

Abbey National created a little device to help online users chill out: Moments of simplicity. Folks can defuse their web rage by listening to some soothing music and viewing some therapeutic images. (It also works as a portal to the Abbey National site: “Calm enough? Click to Abbey National’s new website for financial therapy.”)

It’s cute enough, but I’m really hoping it’s tongue-in-cheek. Because if you truly want to give your visitors a useful dose of therapy, you’ll give them what they want: a fast-loading, customer-sensitive Web site.

And in the process, you just may spare the life of a computer.


i “Web Rage Hits the Internet.” BBCNews, 20 February 2002.


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GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledge and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

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