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May 2002 / media shoegaze :: email this story to a friend

Back to Basics
By Clark Rowley

A bedrock marketing principle is that people are the best vehicle for conveying messages. In other words, people respond to people. Build your marketing program around people, and the reward is more effective communication and increased audience retention.

However, this common sense rule is more ignored than followed in web site development. A review of St. Louis area web sites reveals that people are not bearers of important messages. Instead, unadorned verbiage is the most frequented avenue. The absence of people detracts from the effectiveness of the web as a communications medium, robbing web site messages of both context and the symbolism that the presence of people provides.

An example of the problem can be found on CIN, the official site for the City of St. Louis. Under neighborhoods are 79 pages, one for each St. Louis neighborhood. There is one defining characteristic of a neighborhood: people. Nothing defines or characterizes a neighborhood more. But people are noticeably absent, with the exception of the Soulard page.

Clark Rowley In the site are three articles that are promoted through the use of people, including one titled "The People of Soulard." This page markets the idea that Soulard is an interesting place to live. Various insights of residents are wrapped into a short story, and context is developed by presenting background information and pictures of these residents. The varied opinions yield views of the neighborhood from different angles. The reader can select and retain those that resonate most meaningfully.

Another story spotlights the Soulard Farmers' Market, a neighborhood asset and the namesake for the community. Finally, there is an article that discusses neighborliness. Other stories round out the site.

The objective is to develop a picture of the neighborhood by creating context and by underlining neighborhood strengths, especially its "people assets," for both residents and visitors.

There are other CIN neighborhood pages that display technical strength and present considerable information, such as those for Lafayette Square, Shaw, Southwest Garden (which has a musical accompaniment), Holly Hills, the Central West End and others. With some minor exceptions, however, people — a defining component of a neighborhood — are absent. The exceptions involve people who appear almost accidentally in pictures of homes and buildings or who are part of group shots.

Of course, some CIN page developers may believe that the function of their pages is to present messages to residents. Marketing to outsiders by displaying neighborhood people in a favorable, realistic light may be perceived as beyond their scope. Similarly, web page editors are volunteers who may lack sufficient backgrounds, either technical or otherwise, to exploit the benefits of displaying people assets in order to tell the stories of their neighborhoods.

However, stepping into the real world of professionally developed St. Louis web pages reveals a disturbing failure to focus on or include regional people assets. The web sites for Forest Park Forever, FOCUS, the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, Downtown Now! and others are verbiage heavy. They sidestep the challenge of promoting their people-oriented messages through the use of people.

One example of a very colorful, informative and technically proficient site is that of the Missouri Botanical Garden. The site promotes the facility with extraordinary photographs of points of interest. Absent from these pictures are people, with the exception of an unidentified researcher on the home page. It may be that the site designers believe that the Botanical Garden speaks for itself. But an essential marketing element is missing — real people enjoying and giving their opinions of this wonderful public asset. Their absence denies the site significant elements of context and symbolism.

The impact of people can be seen on the CIN page produced by Animal Regulation. Pictured are cats and dogs available for adoption. In most cases, the animal is being held by a staff member. The pictures featuring an animal and a person, which imply the link between a person and a pet, are more appealing than the pictures that show a cat or dog alone. The site counter indicates considerable activity. People are returning to browse, a sign of a successful site. The pictures, coupled with brief descriptions, successfully and without fanfare promote the mission of Animal Regulation. The site is an example of effective minimalism.

There are other sites that promote ideas through the use of people and which deserve study. One is "Welcome to Rural Vermont — It's like no other place on Earth." Also of note is a site for West Mt. Airy Neighbors, a Philadelphia neighborhood. Of extraordinary interest is the page titled "40 Good Neighbors" and in that page the segment devoted to Doris L. Clinkscale, a resident. The power of the web can be maximized by careful development of context and by brevity.

As a visual medium, a web site calls for careful utilization of color, visual signals and symbolism to boost reader appeal, whether it is designed to market a product or a concept. Numerous common sense guidelines exist for creating successful web sites. Other media, such as television and print, have their own sets of guidelines. A common denominator is the inclusion and development of people. It would appear that somewhere in the creation of the splendid technology of the World Wide Web, the human element got lost in the shuffle. It is time to rectify this oversight and to return to a respect for basics.

Clark Rowley is a resident of Soulard and a web site developer.

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