"People want to feel special and tend to reach out to the things that make them feel that way. So, it's no surprise that people flock to social networks in droves; they make users feel like the star of their own lives. The same desires extend to companies, products and even TV networks. The lesson here is that socially-aware companies put customers and audiences at the center of their world, or at least make them a part-owner in it. The New York Times and most newspapers do this by simply highlighting the "most popular" articles other site visitors have read, searched or shared. CNN goes a step further and gives broadcast and digital airtime to user-generated, citizen journalist iReports. Nike does it too, by centering its Nike+ site on the user's profiles and the community's interactions, instead of its shoes. And Yahoo!, Google, and Coca-Cola go full bore--giving their entire home pages over to each user to "trick out" with their own MyYahoo! and iGoogle controls or Coke bottle designs. In all cases, the key is they make sure the spotlight is on the customers and not on themselves."This is a critical insight, and one which I wish I had kept in mind when helping build video game websites over the past two years. On some level I think I already knew this, but it's easy to forget in a corporate environment where everyone knows the company's goals going in, and the developers come to the table with a list of features they're eager/willing to build, and the designers come with a vision for how the site should look and behave, and the marketing and product people have clear expectations of what messages should be pushed and where. The result is you end up with a site that's built to please developers, designers, product managers, and marketers. Is it really all that surprising, then, that customers find the results considerably less appealing?
But now imagine that you do the whole thing over, this time starting with a very simple premise: the site should make each visitor feel like a star. What does that mean in practical terms? Right off the bat, it means that when a visitor comes to the site for the first time, s/he should be asked to sign in, and every time after that the first thing s/he sees should be a personalized home page full of content that s/he has chosen. In my previous position we suggested that sites should include personalized home pages, but we never got anywhere because that was never a high enough priority. In the world where every visitor is a star, though, it's the highest priority of all.
Second, we should have been thinking of every visitor as the star of their own life. That means designing the site in such a way that they can bring aspects of their life onto the site, starting with a friends list that is platform-agnostic. We never discussed implementing OpenSocial or Facebook Connect, but we should have. Sure, not all of a visitor's friends are video game players, but it's his friends list, not ours. The universe revolves around the user, and the list of friends should not have been limited to the ones we were willing to display.
The third way we missed the boat was in displaying stats and leaderboards on our gaming sites that weren't focused on individual experience. We put up leaderboards that displayed the top-ranked players without really thinking about how that diminishes a person who is and never will be good enough at the game to be displayed there. On a site where you're the star, stats and leaderboards should tell your story; they should focus on what you're good at and highlight the areas where you have excelled. So you just completed your first online match and you finished fourth? That's great. You rock. Here's what you'll want to do next, and when you do, we'll help you brag about it, feel good about it, and have fun with it. Because it's all about you.
You begin to think completely differently about marketing when you imagine a site this way. In the old way of thinking, marketing was a general-purpose club used to bash every visitor over the head. The home page crawls with it: "Buy Now!" links, branded images, trademark bugs, and "news stories" that are actually warmed-over press releases. But a truly user-centered design might dispense with that home page altogether and redefine marketing as moments that occur within a customer's personal narrative:
"Don't have the game yet? When you're done viewing the trailer, we can introduce you to other people like you who are really enjoying it. If it sounds like fun, you can buy the game directly from this website."
"Just getting started? Struggling a bit? There are how-to videos in the media section, or you can buy this official strategy guide. Click here to download a free preview."
"Welcome back -- you originally signed up months ago, but you haven't visited in a while (and our records show that you haven't played online in nearly as long). Here's another game in the same genre that might prove more of a challenge, but don't forget that the sequel to this game is coming out in ten months -- click here to add that event to your personal calendar, and we'll send you an email when the demo is available for download."
I'm not a marketer, but I bet that would work pretty well. A one-size-fits-all marketing strategy never fits anyone for long, and in using it we train our visitors to ignore what we're saying. Marketing messages that address specific moments within a customer's personal narrative, though, are an actual value: they offer products to a visitor at a moment when s/he might really want those things. That's an effective strategy, and it starts with treating every user as a star.