This article might be a bit different than you've come to expect from a webmaster-related article. The reason is that, in my opinion, it is a facet of the internet many people don't really think about. And that is communication. But, by communication I mean more than just talking or writing. Read on...
What is Communication?
Communication is defined simply as the transferring of an idea or concept from one point to another with full duplication on the receiving side. This last component is one often forgotten. So, a full one-way communication would be Fred has an idea about a widget. He propels that idea across space to Ted. Ted receives the communication, understands it, and has full duplication on his end of the exact concept Fred was thinking about that widget. Now, a full two-way communication would be the above process, but with the addendum that Ted thereby acknowledge Fred for his communication, sending the acknowledgement across space to Fred, at which point Fred receives the acknowledgement and fully duplicates and understands the acknowledgement. Fred would then thank Ted for this acknowledgement.
So, what we have here is an interchange of ideas with full understanding on both sides, as well as the full understanding on both sides that their communication(s) is/are being received.
Why Do I Bring This Up?
Good question. The above communication formula applies to everything. Interpersonal relations, business, family, etc. However, we are in the business of websites. A website, by its very nature, is a communication medium. If your site does not properly observe this communication formula, you may be spinning your wheels posting and emailing your visitors/customers and they might still not really be receiving your communication. And, again, I emphasize that receipt. When you email a customer, I am not referring to whether that email arrives in their inbox. No, I am referring to whether that person fully duplicated your communication and got the exact point you were trying to make.
Have you ever written an article which, to you, makes sense, but others seem to not be able to grasp? Have you written sales copy that generated little to no sales? Have you dealt with a client which, no matter how hard you try, just doesn't seem to "get it"? If anything like this is out, then your communication formula is out. For one reason or the other, they are not getting the same understanding you are.
How Does This Apply?
It's far easier to observe proper communication in person than over the internet. First, when the person is right in front of you, you get immediate feedback as to whether they are understanding you. On the internet, if someone doesn't understand your writing, they will just leave and you'll never know. In fact, on the internet, if the communication is out in any way, you'll probably just lose the visitor. And the nature of the medium is that you won't know.
But, how can you do your part to enforce a proper communication formula on your website? Let's look at that:
1. Definitions of Words. Words are part and parcel of the language. But, if someone does not understand the words you are using, the language will not communicate to them. In fact, as human nature has it, when a person is reading something they don't understand, they will first forget they read it, second they will individuate from it. Ultimately, they will just leave and not come back. So, it is in your interest to use words that your visitors will understand. Do not use big, fancy words just for the sake of looking learned. It doesn't work. Also, if your site discusses topics which are technical in nature, do your best to describe things in an easy-to-follow way. Lastly, it is my opinion that every site which is an instructional type of site should include a glossary. Maintain a glossary of commonly misunderstood terms and, in your content, hyperlink those words to the definition. You could even use ALT tags or DIV layers to make the definition pop up when you hover over the word. However you choose to employ it, making sure your writing communicates to your reader is in your interest. And this starts with using words they understand.
2. Acknowledge Your Visitors. As discussed above, acknowledgement is half of the communication cycle. So, when your visitors send you an email, acknowledge it. If you do not, your visitor will think you are ignoring them and they may become upset. I don't intend to make your visitor seem like a child there, but it is true. Visitors who are in good communication with a website are more likely to remember that website. Their like for the site will increase and they will have a higher level of agreement with the people behind it. That is good for you. On the other hand, if you ignore them and do not reply to their messages, then the communication really doesn't exist. Therefore, they will write you off. So, organize your site's email lines so that emails are replied to. At the least, set up an auto responder to let them know their message was received. Ideally, though, you will send them an actual reply.
3. When needed, enforce acknowledgement. Sometimes, a visitor will initiate a transaction of some variety and then abandon it. For example, they may sign up for your mailing list but fail to confirm their subscription. Well, the communication formula is out. They never acknowledged the confirmation email. Maybe it never arrived. Maybe they forgot. Regardless, you need to repeat the question. Just as you would in real life if somebody does not answer your question, you repeat until you get an answer. In our example, you may send them a series of reminders (enabled via cron) until they confirm their subscription. After a few tries, you can write them off.
4. Design to Communicate. The design of your website needs to lend itself to the message you are trying to communicate. Badly designed, a site's design can impede the message. It would be like trying to communicate to someone over the loud noise of a jet engine. In this case, you may be talking fine, but you need to handle the environment around you to make your communication arrive. Stop the jet engine or go somewhere else where you can get your message across. Online, your site is the medium. Your content can be well-written and the words defined, but if the site is a chore to use, then your site becomes the din that will keep the message from arriving in the mind of the reader. I will reserve design theories for another article, but pay attention to things like (1) cross-browser compatibility, (2) your main message being very apparent when the user arrives to your homepage, (3) functional layout. On #2, do not overcrowd the page with so much information that the user doesn't know where to focus.
5. Allow Others to Communicate. Communication is the engine which powers life. It is what makes the world go round. This is the reason why interactive elements on a website make the site more sticky and more trafficked. People love to communicate. So, set up online forums, interactive quizzes, anything that will invite feedback and participation on the part of your visitor. Your site does not need to be a one-way flow from you to them. In fact, a successful website will actively get the return flow from them to the site.
6. Speak to Their Reality. This could take an article in and of itself, but I will give it a brief mention here. Even observing all of the above, you have the simple fact that everybody has a certain way of looking at things. And everybody thinks their way of looking at the world is right. In fact, they KNOW they are right. If you are communicating to them assuming things that are not part of their reality, then the communication will not arrive to them. A person has to be receptive to your communication. An example would be trying to explain the health benefits of meat to a member of PETA. So, in any situation, you need to find what the reality of your target audience is and then tailor your communication to THAT reality in order for your communication to really arrive. This is where inviting visitor feedback comes into play. Keep a running record of feedback to see what their reality is. Do surveys. Find out what their experience is and speak to that. By doing this and observing the proper communication formula, you WILL be the authority for them in your field. Look at Oprah. She is very wealthy, so much so that most other people cannot really identify with that kind of wealth. But, Oprah is out there, talking to everyone. And she positions herself in such a way where people identify with her. She doesn't put up a front. She is REAL to people. She speaks to their reality. And she is very successful because of it.
Wrap It Up
I have touched on some things in this article which I can easily expand upon at a later date. And I probably will. But, this will get you started. Judge the communication to and from your website and see how it measures up. Any successful website cannot sit there on the internet as it's own little island. It has to communicate and communicate in a big way. It has to serve as that 6 lane highway with traffic going in both directions. Make your site do this and you'll be on your way.