Control: The Killer App

(Originally published in ClickZ, June 2003) by Eric Picard

Every once in a while this topic comes up, “The killer application for is [idea of the day].” When discussing the Internet, the following have been described as “the killer app.”

The list could probably run hundreds of items long. But I think I’ve finally figured things out. It struck me today. The killer app of the Internet is really control. Giving a user more control makes online efforts successful.

Brenda Laurel was first one to get close to this in her seminal book on interactive design, “Computers as Theater“. In it, Laurel introduced a concept called “constraints.” This deceptively simple concept made my jaw drop when I read the book in graduate school. Constraints, essentially, are rules about what can and cannot be done within an interactive environment. All interactive interfaces and environments have constraints.

When designing anything interactive, a primary concern is to constrain users in an unobtrusive manner. In other words, design your system in such a way they won’t want to do things that they can’t do.

A real-world example we can all relate to:

An automobile is an interactive device, perhaps the quintessential interactive device. You can go wherever you want in a car. If you crash a car into something, it tends to stop working. Therefore, most drivers avoid running into objects. Most drivers don’t want to crash into objects because the consequences ruin their interactive experience.

What I’m propose is pretty much the inverse of the constraint concept. A constraint limits control. If you want to elicit a response from users in an interactive environment, give them control.

An example of a constraint in online marketing relates to spam. Putting your email address in a questionable online form often leads to spam. Hence, people are often reluctant to give out their email addresses. The proliferation of anti-spam software is a result of the reduction in control users have over their email communications. It’s a good bet anti-spam software will be successful for that reason.

I’ve often been told by people who “get” the Internet, “It’s all about interactivity.” That’s a hard thing to argue with. Of course the Internet is about interactivity. But that still doesn’t explain why the Internet is powerful. It’s like saying water is valuable because it’s wet.

The Internet’s strength is the control over information and communications it provides users. To really drive online marketing, we need to understand the kinds of things users want to do and enhance their ability to control contact.

Recently, in an online discussion list, Derek Hewitt, a former Fortune 100 senior interactive marketing executive (now president of iMediaLearning) said his former company’s greatest branding successes came from “themed content.” Content more editorial than advertising. This reflects the medium.

In any medium, ads should reflect the user’s state of mind. Online, users are willing to spend time digging into the details — in fact, they demand the opportunity to do so.

Yes, cool rich media ads that draw users in are more successful than static banners. But ads that provide real opportunity to learn more about a topic that interests the user are the ultimate winners. This is clearly indicated in search marketing’s success. It’s why paid contextual links have always performed. Users actively seek information about services and products related to their online investigations.

The primary problem is most online ads are either completely direct response focused or eye candy. But there’s a sweet spot enabling a perfect intersection between the two.

Years ago, we built a rich media ad for a major car company primarily renowned for safe vehicles. Its core market was families with children. The ad was an interactive quiz about the proper way to use a car seat.

The ad provided five multiple-choice questions about car seat safety, then calculated a score. Depending on the score, the user received a targeted message and was enabled to learn more about car seat safety. It was an immensely successful campaign from both direct and branding perspectives.

By giving users an opportunity to dive into detail and more control over the way they get details, you’ll succeed in online marketing. If you hit users with fly-by creative in hope of driving response or try to build a deep emotional connection with complex TV-style creative, you probably won’t achieve the full benefit of the medium. Both approaches work, but there’s so much more on offer.


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