This article is based on the new book, The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online.

Customers Behaving Differently

These potential customers were not behaving as expected. They were avoiding all the classic marketing material on the website and were instead digging deep into the technical details and spending considerable time in the support section.

Strange, considering that they hadn't even bought the product yet. The organization's marketers were surprised by such behavior. They thought it strange.

But it's not that strange, really. I've seen that pattern occur again and again on the Web. Customers want details, facts, comparisons, and feedback from other customers. They avoid the fluff and waffle and marketing hype.

In fact, when applied to the Web, old-school marketing drives many customers away. That's because old-school marketers, when on the Web, are like needy children tugging repeatedly at the customer's sleeve while whining, "Pay some attention to me!"

"This is marketing," one customer complained as he sought to do product research on the website. "I don't have time for this."

Many people associate marketing and advertising with deception, lies, half-truths, and manipulation. When marketers talk about wanting customers to have an emotional engagement with the brand, what many customers hear is an attempt to exploit human emotions to make profit.

What the Web represents, more than anything else, is a shift in power: away from organizations, toward customers. Brands, politicians, even popes are being questioned more than ever.

In Western societies, at least, the age of blind faith and brand loyalty is waning. The Web customer is skeptical, cynical, and impatient. On the Web, the customer isn't kingthe customer is the dictator.

The Rise of the Long Neck

Web customers are strangers. They're on the outside. They have a small set of tasks that are extremely important to them.

Sure, there is the long tail of minor tasks as popularized by Chris Anderson in his book, The Long Tail. But if you look at the following chart\, you will see what I call "the Long Neck": the top tasks customers come to your website for.

When we did top-task analysis for tourism websites, we found that two tasks are overwhelmingly important to customers:

  • Booking accommodations
  • Getting special offers

The problem with the long tail is that it can wrap itself around the long neck and choke it. We once worked with an airline that had lots of destination information available. When it removed that information, its bookings went up.

A case study in my book is about another such suffocating experience: Microsoft had thousands of people come to its Excel website wanting to know how to sum two numbers (a top task). But when they searched for "sum a number," many of them landed on a page about the IMSUM function, a mathematical formula.

The tiny task (the IMSUM function) had gotten in the way of the top task (sum a number) because of word overlap. (Tiny tasks often use the same type of words as top tasks.)

To solve that problem, Microsoft Excel made sure that the IMSUM function page was no longer found when someone searched for "sum a number." Half of search management is knowing what you don't want to get found for a particular search.

Excel learned that lesson and removed links for tiny tasks that might confuse people who were scanning for top tasks. The result of those initiatives—prioritizing top tasks and deprioritizing tiny tasks—led to one of the most significant increases in customer satisfaction Excel had undergone in many years.

Support is the new marketing. Help customers complete the task they came to your website to complete, and you are much more likely to increase customer satisfaction and sales.

On your website, support is where your brand is built or destroyed. Shouldn't you, as a marketer, be thinking about how you support your customers?

Nibbled to Death by the Tiny Tasks

One of the most pressing problems a Web team for a large website faces is being nibbled to death by the tiny tasks. In large websites, there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of tiny tasks.

They will fight very hard to get more prominence than they deserve. They'll want to be on the homepage or as high up in the search results as possible. They'll constantly pester the Web team and waste valuable time and resources.

I've developed a method (which is clearly explained in my new book, The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online) that creates a league table of tasks based on customer votes.

So, a top task might have a vote of 2,314, while a tiny task might have a vote of 7. That gives a Web team strong evidence and allows you to defend your decision to focus on the top task and not focus on the tiny task.

My book gives you a tried-and true method to identify both your top tasks and your tiny tasks. Developed over a 10-year period, the method has been used successfully by organizations such as Microsoft, Cisco, Tetra Pak, Wells Fargo, IKEA, the BBC, Schlumberger, etc.

Great websites continually improve the performance of their top tasks. Poor websites continually launch and leave tiny tasks. A great website remains lean and mean and focused on what really matters to the customer. A poor website grows. The older it gets, the worse it gets, as outdated content and tiny tasks get in the way of top tasks.

Customers who come to your website are on a mission. They have a task they want to complete as quickly and easily as possible. Traditional marketing is about getting attention. Web marketing is about giving attention.

Great Web marketing is about making the top task doable on the homepage. Ten years ago, you went to a hotel website and you saw a picture of a room on the homepage. Now you can book that room right on the homepage.

Death to the Hero Shot

The smiling hero shot on your homepage is so pre-Web, so print thinking. It's a classic attention-grabbing strategy. Do Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Expedia, and Wal-Mart use those tired brochureware or billboard techniques?

When quality sites such as Progressive or eBags use smiling faces, they are always connected with a big discount and a clear call to action:

  • You could save $550 on your car insurance
  • Father's Day Sale: Extra 25% discount: Plus Free Shipping

Those are the websites we love. They are fast and simple, they cut to the chase, they give us great discounts, they treat us like intelligent strangers, and they avoid the old-school marketing waffle.

The new marketer helps you complete the task and then expands the offer in a logical manner. When you've booked a flight to Rome, you get offered car rental and hotels in Rome (not in Paris).

The new marketer goes on a journey with the customer rather than trying to get the customer to go on the marketer's journey. The new marketer facilitates other customers to do the marketing and truly understands the customer's task.

That's one reason why Amazon is so successful: It understands your task. Awhile back I searched for The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrera (I'm very interested in books about how the brain works). Amazon not only helped me find the book quickly but also connected me with customers who bought that book and told me about other books they bought, such as Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior and How We Decide. That wasn't just marketing. That was useful.

Marketing can be useful!

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image of Gerry McGovern
Gerry McGovern ( is a content management consultant and author. His latest book is The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online, which teaches unique techniques for identifying and measuring the performance of customers' top tasks.