For most of the 20th century, advertisements dominated the American media landscape. Since the 1950s, television ads have been a driving force in shaping what we might call "mass media culture." So when websites first arrived it was only natural for marketers to think of them as advertisements on the internet.
But a website is different. Unlike a television ad, a website is not a mass media experience - it's an interactive product experience. What makes a website different than advertisement? Let's compare a television ad and website in terms of Purpose, Audience, and Desired Result.
A Mass Media Experience
- Purpose is to have an emotional impact on the viewer
- Audience members are passive; disruptive advertising will grab their attention and make them remember you
- Desired outcome is a transaction after they have seen the TV ad; the emotional connection keeps your product top of mind
An Interactive Product Experience
- Purpose is to help the user achieve a desired outcome
- Users are active; improving their experience will make them like you
- Desired outcome is a specific action on your website - i.e. subscribing, signing up, purchasing a product
Websites and advertisements serve a fundamentally different purpose. Advertisements interrupt you. Their purpose is to cut through the noise and grab your attention.
Websites wait for you to use them. They exist to help you complete some task, usually on the site itself. A good website waits for your permission before it starts to work.
This doesn't mean that websites are totally passive. Web marketers just use different techniques to get people to find them, like content creation and search marketing. All of these tactics exist to drive people to your website, and they are an essential element of any web marketing strategy. But once people do arrive, what they do next depends on the user experience you have created for them.
Users are another key distinction between websites and advertisements. While advertisements are designed to make an impression on a mass audience, a website is designed for one-to-one interaction with a single user. A website may reach a large and diverse audience, but each user will have a unique, interactive experience with the site itself.
Think about the last time a friend showed you a cool website on their monitor. If you're really interested, you might get a little anxious just watching them use it. You want to grab the mouse, play around and try it out for yourself. Websites are best when experienced. Think about this phenomenon when planning your site - design for a single user, not a mass audience.
Websites and advertisements also differ in their desired outcome. Advertisements seek to make an emotional impact because brands want you to remember them long after their commercial has ended. The desired outcome of an advertisement is a boost in sales, achieved by advertising as widely and as often as you can afford.
But with a website, the desired outcome is a little more specific - it's a concrete, measurable action that occurs on your site. The desired outcome of a website should be clear to the user: show the user what you want them to do, and make it as easy and appealing as possible for them to complete the task. A web designer's ethos is based in transparency and simplicity.
Of course, emotional impact is not restricted to advertisements. A great web experience can make an emotional impact and keep your brand top of mind. That’s the power of beautiful design. But as we pursue this goal we must also pay attention to the fundamentals - the information and experience we provide for the users. These simple elements are the foundation of any great design.