Marketing Isn’t a Dirty Word

More Than Words

Content that communicates

A column by Colleen Jones
October 23, 2007

Think you’re not into marketing? Think again. As UX professionals, we share much in common with our close cousins, the marketers. We all seek to understand customers—needs, preferences, behaviors, attitudes, and more. We all seek to create positive touchpoints with customers and, in turn, a positive affiliation with our product or company brand. We all know the importance of communicating effectively with customers and evaluating the performance of our work.

In fact, the worlds of user experience and marketing are colliding as companies increasingly

  • interact with customers through various channels and media—Web, email, mobile, phone, store, print, and so on—for everything from purchasing to customer service
  • engage customers through a range of Web sites—traditional brochure Web sites, social networking sites, personal portals, search sites, partner Web sites, RSS feeds, and so on
  • seek long-term relationships with their customers

More and more, if we’re creating content for the Web or any interactive channel, we’re dealing with marketing issues.

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Three Useful Concepts

Though these worlds are colliding, many UX professionals shy away from marketing. In many ways, who can blame them? We’ve all observed customers ignoring banner ads and becoming annoyed and confused by pop-up ads. We’ve read rants by usability pioneers about the negative impacts of ads on Web design. Indeed, we’ve seen attempts at applying a traditional broadcast model of marketing to the Web fail.

But good marketing is more than just ads—a whole lot more. Several marketing concepts complement the goals of user experience:

  • integrated marketing communications
  • relationship marketing
  • customer relationship management

Integrated Marketing Communications

What do I mean by integrated marketing communications? According to the American Marketing Association, integrated marketing communications require a planning process that ensures all brand contacts a customer or prospect receives for a product, service, or organization are “relevant to that person and consistent over time.” For example:

  • A TV or print ad refers to a Web page or site that has a similar look and message and offers more information. For example, Figures 1 and 2 show the TV ad and Web page for the iPhone, which have a consistent look and message.
  • A branded email message links to a Web page with a similar message and look.
  • A customer who has just signed up for a service receives a welcome email with relevant information for new customers.
Figure 1—TV ad for the iPhone
TV ad for the iPhone
Figure 2—Consistent look and message of the iPhone Web page
Consistent look and message of the iPhone Web page

Relationship Marketing

The American Marketing Association describes relationship marketing as marketing with the conscious aim of developing and managing “long-term and/or trusting relationships with customers, distributors, suppliers, or other parties in the marketing environment.” For example:

  • A long-time customer of a service receives a special discount when upgrading the service.
  • A frequent customer of a retailer receives a discount during the month of his or her birthday.
  • A company’s Web site and email messages emphasize its privacy policy or the security of customers’ personal information. For example, as shown in Figure 3, an image of a padlock and the Secure Shopping Guarantee on the checkout screens emphasize security.
Figure 3— checkout screens checkout screens

Customer Relationship Management

According to the American Marketing Association, customer relationship management (CRM) is a marketing discipline that combines database and computer technology with customer service and marketing communications. CRM seeks to create more meaningful one-on-one communications with customers by applying customer data—demographic, industry, buying history, and so on—to every communications vehicle. For example:

  • A company personalizes an email message to a customer with his or her name.
  • A customer who has purchased baby clothes online in the past receives an email notification about a promotion for baby products with a link to the corresponding Web page, shown in Figure 4.
  • A customer requests and receives a monthly text message reminder to pay a bill that includes the amount due.
  • A frequent customer of a retailer receives an email message informing her she’ll receive a discount on her purchases during the month of her birthday.
    • She also receives a notice about her discount when she goes to the retailer’s Web site and signs in.
    • When she adds items to her cart, her discount applies automatically.
  • A customer who calls customer service provides his or her account number, then hears a customized phone menu, offering only the relevant options.
Figure 4—Promotion on
Promotion on

The Good: The Experience Is the Marketing

These three marketing concepts complement user experience by emphasizing consistency, customization, and credibility. They echo some characteristics of what I described as customer-centered communication in my previous column, “Rediscovering Communication.” Their focus on sequences of events that occur over time and across multiple channels reflects the ideal goal of customer-centered communication: providing customers with

  • the right information
  • in the right amount
  • at the right time
  • through the right channel
  • in the right format and style

Additionally, these marketing concepts

  • lead us to view customers’ interaction with a brand holistically rather than focusing on isolated channels or products
  • challenge us to effectively apply customer data such as demographics and buying histories to improve communications
  • encourage us to think about building long-term relationships with customers

In short, these marketing concepts underscore the fact that a customer’s entire experience with a brand and its marketing are one and the same.

The Potentially Bad: User Experience Opportunities

The potentially bad side of these marketing concepts is, of course, their execution. (Remember those banner ads.) A focus on user experience offers tremendous opportunity for informing the strategy and execution of these marketing concepts. This section describes some ways in which we, as UX professionals, can ensure successful execution.

Don’t Interrupt Me: Placement and Content

UX professionals can help determine the most appropriate and effective place for marketing communication in a specific channel. Because we understand how and why customers actually use the channels, we know when and where marketing communication is most appropriate. We also can inform its content.

Take a retail Web site, for example. Promoting special offers and related products that encourage continued shopping are good ideas, but usually not during the checkout process, when a customer has already committed to purchasing. At that point, promotions would interrupt the checkout process. Promotions are more relevant earlier in a customer’s buying process—for example, when a customer adds an item to the shopping cart or reviews the contents of the cart and might want to keep shopping. However, a promotion that might be relevant during checkout is a credit card promotion—especially if the customer can apply for the card without disrupting the checkout process. For example, the example shown in Figure 3 includes subtle promotion of the Dell credit account, but no other product promotions appear during the checkout process.

Figures 5 and 6 show another example: On, when a customer adds an item to the cart, a confirmation appears along with several types of promotions that encourage continued shopping, as shown in Figure 5. However, once the customer enters the actual checkout process, no promotions appear.

Figure 5— shopping cart and promotions shopping cart and promotions
Figure 6— checkout process checkout process

The infamous phone menu provides another example. I once did usability testing on an interactive customer service phone menu with a lengthy marketing message at both the beginning and the end. Not surprisingly, customers found the marketing messages annoying, because they kept the customers from satisfying their immediate needs. Marketing products to customers before solving their problems never works.

Still another case was getting the marketing focus right when my project team at Cingular Wireless redesigned the customized Cingular Service Summary (CSS) document, shown in Figure 7, and related welcome communications. When welcoming a new customer, we eliminated irrelevant marketing elements. Thus, CSS focused on information relevant to new customers, not selling more products. For example, we removed a coverage map, because customers consider coverage during the process of choosing their wireless carrier, not after they’ve already decided to become a customer. We focused the communications on moving the customers forward in completing their rather complex purchase—reminding customers of their plan details, explaining how to set up features, and educating them about their billing and customer service options. By explaining self-service options for paying bills and checking minutes, CSS helped customers make their service more convenient to them and reduced customer service costs for Cingular.

Figure 7—Cingular Service Summary front page
Cingular Service Summary front page

Finally, the right kind of banner ad can be effective in the right context. A couple of months ago, I clicked a banner ad for the first time ever. The ad appeared on the newly redesigned Web site with an article about the environment. Shown in Figure 8, the ad was not promoting a specific product, but awareness of BP’s environmental efforts. Thus, the ad was relevant to the article’s topic. And the ad stood out visually, because the page had little visual clutter. When I clicked the ad—rather than taking me to a different site or even a different page—the ad expanded to reveal more information. Because the ad was well-placed, relevant, and not disruptive, it engaged even a skeptic like me.

Figure 8—BP ad on
BP ad on

Don’t Just Tell Me—Show Me

A long time ago, a writing professor taught me a critical lesson I haven’t forgotten: Know when to tell and when to show.  In writing, telling means reporting what happened or explaining what to do. Showing means describing the experience—in a sense, creating the experience through words. For example, telling is reporting that you hiked 25 miles on the Appalachian Trail last weekend. Showing is describing the weather, the scenery, the sounds, the animals you encountered, the soreness in your muscles. Telling informs people about what happened. Showing engages them in the experience. I think communicating by showing is critical to developing trusting, long-term relationships with customers.

In marketing, an example of mostly telling is a traditional TV or print advertisement. It conveys a key message through brief text and imagery or video. One example is Nike’s “Just Do It” advertising campaign. Some examples that incorporate more showing are Nike’s sponsorships of athletic events and placement of its logo on clothing athletes wear while competing. An example of mostly showing is Nike’s microsite that provides information and tools for managing the running experience and is centered around its Nike+ product line. (Nike+ is a system that includes shoes with a sensor and a kit that lets the iPod Nano track running metrics.) Shown in Figure 9, the Nike+ microsite integrates running programs, tracking tools, shopping for gear, and more to help customers create the optimal running experience.

Figure 9—Nike+ microsite
Nike+ microsite

Betty Crocker, the General Mills icon that represents a line of baking products, provides a unique, long-term example of showing. This brand has been showing customers how to bake since its inception in 1921, when they created the iconic food expert as a way of personalizing responses to customers’ questions. The Betty Crocker persona evolved to share baking advice, recipes, and more through a radio show and eventually a TV show. As shown in Figure 10, even their print ads focused less on telling customers about Betty Crocker products and more on helping them use the products, including tips and recipes. Today, Betty Crocker engages customers with baking ideas, tips, coupons, recipes, and more through its Web site, shown in Figure 11, and RSS feeds, shown in Figure 12. Similarly, with our emphasis on the experience, or showing, UX professionals can leverage online technologies to deepen customers’ relationships with a brand.

Figure 10—A 1951 Betty Crocker cake mix ad with a quiz about baking fruit cakes and a fruit cake recipe
Betty Crocker cake mix ad
Figure 11—Betty Crocker Web site with baking ideas, tips, and recipes
Betty Crocker Web site
Figure 12—Betty Crocker “Recipe of the Day” feed—as shown in iGoogle
Betty Crocker Recipe of the Day

Help Me Help Myself: Applying Customer Data

In this age of privacy concerns, we have to treat customer data responsibly and manage users’ perception of its use. Through user research, we can help evaluate when and how applying customer data enhances the customer experience and how customers perceive it—helpful, annoying, alarming, and so on. In my professional experience, once customers have chosen to enter an ongoing relationship with a company by subscribing to a service or signing up for an account, they are more comfortable with obvious applications of their data.

UX professionals can also make the most effective use of customer data across customer self-service channels and applications such as store kiosks, Web applications, automated phone systems, and more. We know how to leverage that data to make self-service more valuable and easier to use. For instance, when a customer calls customer service or signs in to a kiosk or Web site, we can customize menus based on the customer’s account. So, the customer hears or sees only relevant options. Similarly, we can make the most of customer data in applications and systems that support customer service representatives, whether in a store or a call center. For instance, we can design better visualizations of customer data and make storing, finding, and reading notes taken during customer interactions easier.

Quiet the Noise: Optimizing for Specific Channels

Of course, we can make marketing communications highly usable and accessible within specific channels. I discussed many examples of such optimization, or quieting of technical noise, in my previous column.

The Ugly? Shaking Up Organizational Roles and Structures

When the user experience is the marketing, the line between marketing and user experience blurs. So, within a specific company, where does the marketing role end and the user experience role begin? I don’t know the complete answer yet. Marketing tends to represent company goals such as winning a certain number of new customers or creating a certain brand perception, while user experience tends to represent customer goals such as ordering a product that offers the best value. I’m not sure exactly where the strategic work of synchronizing company and customer goals lies, but I do know user experience needs to be involved in that work. Further complicating matters in larger companies is the channel silo. When marketing and user experience roles focus on specific channels with little coordination across them, creating a holistic customer experience is tough. In the short term, UX professionals can work with marketing teams—similar to the way in which they work on product development teams. I see value, too, in bringing the UX professionals who designed a product into the product’s marketing, because they know the targeted users so well.

Over the long term, as the ways in which companies interact with customers evolve, will the user experience and marketing roles evolve? If so, how? I think these roles should evolve, but they can’t unless organizational structures change. Channel silos must integrate or collaborate efficiently. To some extent the future of these roles depends on a company’s domain, focus, and target customers. A company focusing on product development for businesses might need to approach these roles differently from a company focusing on services for consumers. I can see these roles becoming very intertwined at a services company, perhaps resulting in a Customer Experience division that houses sales, marketing, customer service, and user experience.

These thoughts provide only the beginnings of an answer. I invite you to share your insights and experiences regarding these important questions. 

President at Content Science

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Colleen JonesA pioneer of content strategy, Colleen is author of The Content Advantage: The Science of Succeeding at Digital Business Through Effective Content and founder of Content Science, an end-to-end content company that turns content insights into impact. She has advised and trained hundreds of leading brands and organizations to help them close the content gap in achieving their digital transformation. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science in developiing the content-intelligence software ContentWRX, publishing the online magazine Content Science Review, and offering certifications through their online Content Science Academy. She has earned recognition as a top instructor on LinkedIn Learning and as a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine. She is also one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists. Colleen holds a B.A. in English and Technical Writing and an M.A. in Technical Communication from James Madison University.  Read More

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