The Eyes Have It

These 10 principles will help you attract and keep your customers' attentionIn case you haven't noticed, the Web and e-commerce are all about eyeballs. Already around 10 Web pages exist for each Australian, and we're rapidly heading toward a world in which the ratio of information to eyeballs is overwhelmingly large. Unless future citizens plan to do nothing but stare at screens all day, we're going to encounter a huge shortage of attentive pupils. Attracting, retaining and transferring eyeballs will be all the rage.

Let's face it: e-commerce is still sexy, and it's also expensive. It takes a lot of smart, well-paid bodies to create and maintain good content and transactions on the Web. Even the most with-it of bosses will eventually ask: "Just how many people are looking at what we've got on our site?" and "What exactly do they do besides look?" It would behove you to be ready with an answer.

And, by the way, since the only proven way to make money on the Web is through advertising, you can expect that any sponsor of ads will ask how well they are working too.

If by some slim chance you're not interested in e-commerce, you still can't ignore eyeballs. Even if the information you distribute is on green-striped paper in a three-ring binder, somebody's got to look at it if any business value is to be achieved. If nobody's looking at your information, it might as well not exist.

So it's no big news that eyeballs are important. But I've never seen any treatise on eyeball management. How exactly does one pull them in, keep them staring at your stuff, move them elsewhere at will or bring them back again? I'm no expert in eyeballology, but I have spent a year or so studying the management of attention -- a highly related subject. It seems to me that there are some fundamental principles of eyeball management that can be deduced from what we know already. Herewith, I propose 10 principles for eyeballs. (First pre-principle: eyeballs are known to like predictable, round numbers like 10.) To attract eyeballs, one must think about evolutionary appeal.

You don't have to be an evolutionary psychologist to know that certain themes and visual stimuli have attracted attention since the caveman era. They include anything related to sex (that prehistoric urge to merge), motion (beware the sabre-toothed tiger), dominance (what else could explain the popularity of www.whitehouse.gov?) and other messages that might extend the reach of our genes. Humans find other people interesting, and it's important to present them in multiple forms -- narrative, celebrity photos, chat, voice-over-IP contacts and so on.

Eyeballs get bored easily.

When they do, they'll go elsewhere. So no matter what you do to attract them, change it often. To keep eyeballs glued in your direction, you've got to have new content, new formats, new everything as often as you possibly can. And the ante for what's new and interesting is always being raised; what were once the hot sites of the day are now the bland sites of yesteryear. This principle has been the bane of many an amateur Web site operator who has discovered that content creation is a never-ending task.

Eyeballs alone aren't worth much.

They must be converted to something else. For someone to have clicked through your site isn't enough. What really matters is that someone actually clicks on a banner or button, visits an advertiser, and ultimately buys products and services. In the short run, because nobody is sure exactly how all this stuff works, and because measurement approaches aren't quite there yet, you may be able to get away with more rudimentary behaviours. If you can simply demonstrate that a lot of eyeballs have come to call or that an ad has received a lot of "impressions", it may be enough. In the long run, however, site visit numbers will be just the beginning.

Know your eyeballs.

If an anonymous eyeball is worth 10 cents, a registered one is worth at least a dollar. If you know the actual person who has visited your site, you can start pursuing all those marketing clichŽs that everyone talks about: relationship marketing, one-to-one marketing, lifetime customer value and so forth. A simple prerequisite of close customer relationships is knowing who your customer is. I know, it's difficult to get people to register; basically you've got to offer something valuable, which gets into another principle. There are intermediate levels of identification and thus value; an anonymous visitor with a cookie file, for example, is more valuable than one without.

Not all eyeballs are created equal.

The ones that are worth more belong to those who actually buy, those belonging to bodies with fat wallets, those with the target demographics sought by the sponsor. Print and television eyeball-seekers have known this for decades, but the Web is just getting into it. Now we don't really know yet what kind of Web site design equates to what demographic group (the same way we know what demographic groups like tabloid versus broadsheet newspapers), but we certainly know what products different groups like to buy, and how that relates to occupations, hobbies and interests.

If you can't measure eyeballs, you can't manage them.

This corollary of Peter Drucker's well-known management principle suggests that we need to put a lot of energy into eyeball measurement. Current techniques for eyeball management aren't very good. We can measure whether someone has visited a site, whether the visitor clicked on anything (especially an advertisement), and how long the visitor stayed. Most sites don't use even that simple information to redesign or customise their sites more effectively. More useful information might include knowing how the visitor felt about the content. Eventually, at least for a sample or focus group of viewers, we'll be able to evaluate feelings through brain wave monitoring, galvanic skin response and heart rate. Some of these measurement approaches are already being used for television viewing, and the Web will surely follow.

Eyeball-catching technologies compete with eyeball-saving tools.

We hear a lot about eyeball-catching technologies -- new tools for making images move, speak and sparkle. Advertisers and other eyeball-seekers are certainly motivated to sponsor and welcome these technologies. As a result, they tend to be developed at a somewhat faster pace than technologies to preserve, protect and defend eyeballs. But there are also smart entrepreneurs working on eyeball-saving technologies. Web ad blocking technologies, for example, are proliferating. The idea of content filtering applies not just to pornography and children, but also to adults who don't want to be bombarded by ads and undesired content. The more invasive these commercial messages become on the Web, the harder these entrepreneurs will work, and the richer they'll become.

Once an eyeball leaves you, it's hard to get it back.

You know what happens on the Web; you get easily distracted, move quickly from one site to another and forget where you've been. Portal sites are attempting to retain overall eyeball control, but it's an uphill battle. There are techniques for making it difficult to leave a site, but I don't really approve of them. They will ultimately make visitors quit their browsers (which feels like the only way to escape) and leave the Web altogether.

The best bet is to make your site so attractive that the viewer just doesn't want to leave. Another approach is to reward visitors for staying. There are significant differences between sites in how long visitors stay; eBay, for example, has a very high level of eyeball persistence. Add "perception of a bargain" to the list of eyeball-attracting virtues.

Automated searching is anti-eyeball.

Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, once built a cartoon strip around this principle. He had Mike, the software entrepreneur, entertaining the possibility of providing his site visitors with a "search bot", or automated searching tool, that would find the lowest price for a particular item (like the Excite Product Finder at www.jango.com). Mike realised that not only would this tool eventually destroy profit margins for all providers; it also prevents eyeballs from seeing ads as they search. In fact, the more efficient the search tool, the worse the implications for attracting eyeballs (except, perhaps, eyeballs looking at the search site itself).

If you want eyeballs, you've got to pay for them.

In some ways, this is the ultimate principle of eyeball management. As human attention becomes more and more scarce, we're going to have to pay people for it. In order to get people to look at stuff they're not naturally drawn to (such as advertising), you'll have to cough up some dough, some prizes, or, at a minimum, some highly valuable information. Several Web sites pay in some way for eyeballs: www.cybergold.com, www.mypoints.com and www.alladvantage.com, for example. Perhaps in the future it will be possible to make a decent living merely by eyeballing ads. Of course this principle raises the question, will advertisers pay for ad viewers whose primary income comes from ad viewing?

I hope that these principles have retained your eyeballs. If they haven't, what I say at this point doesn't matter much, does it?

Thomas H Davenport is a professor of management information systems at Boston University School of Management and director of the Andersen Consulting Institute for Strategic Change

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