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Shame.

Too often, I feel shame for the web. It saddens me that an article can still be written today on how the misuse of the web can risk damaging brand equity.

Despite the supposed maturation of web development in recent years, short-sighted and authoritarian corporate marketers and wannabe IT-types continue to wreak havoc on the web. They continue to commit time and resources to ill-founded and untested online initiatives.

Yes, there is a vast body of casework that proves the value of pre-development audience research for web sites. And yes, there are studies upon studies illustrating the importance of sound usability practices.

Yet, marketing executives, project managers and IT staff who stand guard over their servers continue to make the same mistakes as their predecessors.

In the interest of repairing broken learning curves, I offer the following observations of the most time-honored, and regrettably prevalent deadly sins committed in the development of online branding initiatives.

Deadly Sin #1: The Field of Dreams Web Site.

“If you build it, they will come,” the voice spoke to me in my head. When I was a kid, I really wanted to believe that if you built a better mousetrap, the world would beat a path to your doorstep. Call me bitter and disillusioned by the dot-com downturn, but this isn't guaranteed to work for a web site.

Imagine if your television had millions of channels. How realistic would it then be for a television producer to believe that if his program were simply good enough, everyone would find it and love it?

Look, it takes cold, hard dinero to drive traffic to a web site. And there is no substitute for a robust advertising budget, both online and offline. You gotta put gas in the tank. The more gas, the farther you'll go.

Deadly Sin #2: The What-Was-That-All-About Web Site.

You've seen them…many produced by major corporations. You visit the web site and you wonder, “Why did they build this?”

Perhaps the audience seems unclear, or the content doesn't really appear cohesive. Also known as the “They've-Got-One-So-We-Need-One Web Strategy,” such web sites are often built as a competitive response.

The problem is, the executives who issued the directive to build it failed to consider the nature of their business objectives, who their audiences are, and what the company's communication goals should be via the web site. Seems like a sound place to start, strategically. But often those executives pushing online initiatives proclaim, “We don't have time or money for all of that,” or worse yet, “Here's what I want you to do.”

Deadly Sin #3: Letting the IT Department Design and Control the Web Site.

Do I really need to explain this? When I need a network card, I call IT. Hard drive crash? IT is on the job.

But save me from the type of IT imperialism that rationalizes: If it is on a computer, we are in charge. The typical online consumer views the web as an experience, not as a technology.

Don't believe me? Ask my mom about secure socket layers. All she knows is that she found the book she wanted on Amazon and paid for it to show up by tomorrow. IT has a role, but it should be following, not leading.

Deadly Sin #4: Old-School Executive Leadership.

If you are over the age of 45, have the letters "VP" somewhere in your title, and haven't written one line of code since your COBOL class in undergraduate school, chances are you should not be anywhere near a web project.

Sure, you feel that your business experience means you should be in charge. But remember, a stopped clock is right only twice a day. That's hardly a justification for you running the show and pontificating on how you “think” the web ought to work.

My advice: grab a cool glass of Countrytime® and park it on the front porch swing. Otherwise, if you want to help, become an advocate for user research and testing as the basis for your web initiatives. You'll be seen as a strategic visionary; and besides, it will make a positive difference.

Deadly Sin #5: Centralization and the Myth of Efficiency.

How often do we hear the argument: "We want to host all of our sites on one server in one country.  It will be more efficient."  This is predicated upon the belief that central control is better than distributed authority.  Did we learn nothing from the fall of the Soviet Union?  

This type of request typically comes from executives or IT-types who know little about the volume of work by dozens or hundreds of individuals who each have a piece of the responsibility for the success of web initiatives. Centralized authority rarely improves the responsiveness and flexibility commonly needed on web projects.

Moreover, executives of this ilk fail to grasp the concepts of latency, propagation delay, bandwidth variables and their negative effect upon the quality of the user experience. Adequately addressing these may require a significant investment in infrastructure or partnering with Akamai, which also means dropping some big coin.

If you don't understand these issues, then I'm probably talking about you. Place your hands in the air and step away from the web project.

Deadly Sin #6: The “soft” Launch.

When was the last time you saw a television network run a spot that wasn't quite finished? Only on the web will you hear people say, “Let's just get it up and running, and we'll go back in fix it on the fly."

On the web, you've got one chance to make a first impression. If you burn your audience members during their first encounter, they're unlikely to return for a second chance.

Examine the basis for your launch deadline. When someone insists that the site must launch on a certain date, ask why. If the answer seems vague or insufficient, keep asking why until he tells you, “My bonus depends on it,” or hopefully, “Okay, we can push the launch back until we get it right.”

Deadly Sin #7: Forgetting to Include the Audience in Web Development.

There are those who claim, “We don't have time or money to talk to users.” Often, they believe mistakenly that trial and error is a better method.

Sure, you'll eventually find the option that works best among the choices you present. But it is not optimal, because superior alternatives may exist that haven't been identified.

All web sites have a common goal: To communicate with an audience. Whether your web site is about selling more stuff or merely to entertain, your audience likely knows more about what will click with them than you do.

So before you build it, ask them. Should you even build a web site? If so, what is its purpose? What should be on it? What is the best way to execute the imagery, language, tonality and features?

You simply have to talk to actual users…sit down with them and learn from them. And with regard to usability, you have to ask the audience the best manner for organizing your content, labeling it and laying it out. Together, audience research and usability ensure that the web site is both usable and useful.

So, there you have the Seven Deadly Sins. Perhaps you've seen bigger ones.

Are there others? Let me know what they are.

I'm vaguely aware of another 127.

But hey, who's counting?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mitch McCasland (mmccasland@moroch.com) is director of insight and brand strategy at Moroch Partners (www.moroch.com) and a leading advocate of using customer insights and competitive intelligence as a basis for brand strategy, advertising, and new product design.