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Unlocking the True Value of Digital with User Flows

From 2003-2005 I spent a lot of time observing people of all ages and walks of life use the web across many different sites and verticals. I watched their facial expressions and body language as they surfed. I watched their mouse movements and the locations of their clicks.  I asked them to put their brains on speakerphone and listened to what they had to say – and noticed what they didn’t say. The sessions were videotaped and I spent countless hours watching them over and over again dissecting every action in an effort to understand the way people control and navigate this medium.

What I learned:

  1. Web behavior is determined by goals not who the people are
  2. Every click has a goal associated with it
  3. Success means anticipating and messaging to these goals, moving the person forward and creating a flow
  4. People have “tunnel vision” when they are moving forward in a flow

The last piece is incredibly important. What is tunnel vision*?

  • People don’t think of the online experience the same way web professionals spend their time thinking about them
  • People focus on completing their goal and little else
  • If elements of relevance are not in the context of focus they are likely invisible
  • People pay attention to detail only when they have found what they are looking for -- even then it is only detail related to what they want to see

Tunnel vision in the flow is why 62% of people still cannot distinguish between Paid and Organic Search results. Tunnel vision in the flow is why no one clicks on banner ads. Tunnel vision in the flow is the reason online marketing can be so powerful when you design ads, pages and campaigns with the customer goals in mind, not your business goals.

Nothing has changed in web user behavior the past 5 years to adjust these findings. In fact, everything that has happened since continues to validate them. The continued effectiveness of Email, the dominant rise of Search, the fall of display CPM and the death of Behavioral Targeting 1.0 (of course the dream doesn’t die so we’re rehashing BT again and I’ve made my feelings about that known here).

Taking a step back, this all makes a ton of sense. The web is the first medium where people can easily navigate discovery and recovery paths for information and commerce. Applications like eCommerce, Search and Email are flow enablers and that is what gives them so much value. In fact, almost all of the value in the web is created and captured within the flow of people’s goalstreams.

In stark contrast to the flow creation and capture channels mentioned above, many publishers have looked at the world one impression at a time with the central node of their Information Architecture being the homepage. The rise of Search fractured this idea and the rise of Social compounded it.  There is a real threat this singular and generic thinking will continue to hold back publishers and display advertising because their manufactured content hierarchies do not correspond to the reality of how people consume the medium.

Even now with the unbundling of impressions and data little advancement is taking place in publisher environments understanding online flows. If display is ever going to “tell a story” as advertisers want, it is going to need more than one realtime bid on one page view to do it. What is required is a sequence of clicks and associated messages relevant to the goal that move intelligently downstream in parallel to the flow being created by the user.

This idea is no different than the Query> Ad>Landing Page>Call to Action flows that are enabled by Search. I find great irony and satisfaction in the fact that Search and the flows created off it are the most effective story telling medium in online advertising. Maybe then, it should be no wonder why it is the most successful.

Another great channel when it comes to creating flow is mobile applications. Apps are all about the flow mechanics and the optimization of goal paths. It’s no surprise people have been so taken by apps with this basis in multi-step experiential strategy and design. Apple’s next great frontier as they move into Advertising is predicated on the matching of relevant multi-touch messaging and every publisher I know is already jealous of the CPMs they command. And don’t think for a second flows can’t be cross platform. In fact they already are.

Everyday, each of us creates numerous flows. With our blinders on, each click of every flow we self-segment on our path towards goal fulfillment. For too long digital advertising and marketing (Search Marketers guilty as anyone) have looked through these paths, isolating each digital step. If we are truly going to advance as a medium we must first be able to recognize and capture these flows and then help people by anticipating their goals and making goal fulfillment easy. I have no doubt that the sum of each and every web experience and user flow is greater than the value of its parts.

* Credit for these definitions belong to my friends at Creative Good.


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Great post...think we still have a long way to go on truly capturing user intent, even on the search side of the equation (i.e. if my query is "rock band 2" what do i want?) but through analytics and testing we will get to the point where we can suss out what a goal fulfillment flow looks like regardless of the media, search or otherwise.

I think this also is a great piece for our blog, This Week in Relevance, that looks at the articles and themes that impressed us the most in our quest to make every ad we serve relevant.

Jonathan, GREAT post! Could not be more timely. At Sociocast we are obsessed with finding the paths people take through topic/intent space and how social influence affects these paths. I look forward to meeting and discussing further!!!

A great post indeed.
A UI colleague here pointed me to this article on inattentional blindness, seems like a related phenomenon

Or maybe you could go after organic search.

Great article, ive bookmarked to show my colleage.

I strongly agree that every click has a goal associated with it. And internet marketers should be able to determine what those goals are.

Great article.

I strongly agree that every click has a goal associated with it. And internet marketers should be able to determine what those goals are.

Great article.

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