Imagine if you got into your car to go to work and the first set of traffic lights you approached were coloured mauve, blue and pink. Overnight, someone had changed the red, amber and blue you had known all your life, for an entirely new set of colours? What means Go? The blue one at the bottom, or have they changed that, too? Recovering in hospital after the predictable accident, you might pen a letter to the Roads Authority, asking them, in broad terms: What Were You Thinking?

It’s likely the Roads Authority will have its hands full dealing with similar correspondence, but eventually the reply comes:

“Dear  resident,

Thank you for your enquiry regarding our new traffic arrangements. The colour change you refer to was one of the recommendations of “Roads Millennium”, a study commissioned by the Authority to determine the fitness of the road system to meet the needs of the State in the 21st Century and going forward. The Committee determined that the old system of red, amber and green was “just sooo 20thcentury” and proposed the changes of which you complain. We understand that a period of adjustment is inevitable, and apologise if this has imperilled your life…”

At this point you might be forgiven for deciding that these people were plainly mad, and that further correspondence with them would be unprofitable.

My imaginary Roads’ Authority’s madness, of course, lay in its defiance of the semiotics of road use – the collective understanding that we have of the significance of red, amber and green lights that allows them to be used in an environment of fast-moving traffic. And while the madness of my imaginary Roads Authority’s decision to abandon the orthodox traffic light colours is easy to see, it’s amazing how many businesses make similar mistakes.

This rather curious train of thought was provoked by a recent visit to Italy, which involved a train journey from Venice to Florence and thence to Rome. My better half had bought the tickets online, from one of Italy’s competing high speed rail operators, and in deference to my 198cms height had looked for whatever the rail equivalent of “Business” class was.

and that’s where the trouble started.

train in Italy

The two competing services, Frecciarossa and Italo, offered classes which sounded tantalisingly familiar from long usage in the air travel industry – “Economy” for instance. But then you look again and there’s a “Base” fare below it. Huh? And as far as we could see from the descriptions on the site, “Economy” looked remarkably like what we would think of as “Business”. Italo described their classes as “Smart, Prima, and Club” in their marketing copy, but try and buy any of them and the choices you’d be given were “Economy”, “Comfort” and “Premier”.

The better half finally decided that Frecciarossa’s “Economy” despite its name, most closely resembled what we understood to be “Business”, and booked seats for the Venice-Florence sector. Then she saw that there was a thing called “Super-economy”, and in a humane gesture chose it for the Florence-Rome sector. Only later did we learn that in Italian trainspeak “Super-economy” actually means “Super-economical”, and that the standard was, in theory, a notch below “Economy”. Whatever that meant. And it was just a theory, too – in the event, “Economy” and “Super-economy” turned out to be precisely identical. (That is, in case you’re planning a visit, fast, on-time and comfortable, but a little short on luggage space. Just sayin’.)

Italo train

Now I’ve no doubt that the marketing guys at Frecciarossa thought they had great reasons for the names they chose for their classes, but you only have to look at the online reviews to see that they made it harder, not easier, for their customers to purchase the precise product they wanted when they visited the site. The well-known system of airline classes was a semiotic resource that they squandered. They should have chosen to wage their branding war elsewhere.

video clip of seals

Semiotics is the study of symbols, and symbols need not simply be graphical; they include words which through habitual use acquire specialised, extended meanings. Marketers are of course keen to create distinctions between their own and their rivals’ products. But it’s vital that they recognise those terms and language that have become what lawyers call “terms of art”; forms of words their customers use to denote a whole array of characteristics – short forms that communicate a wealth of detail, and thus save businesses the expense of explaining their products from scratch. Terms like “First”, “Business” and “Economy”, for instance – or even “Hot” and “Cold”. Closer still to the digital revolution – when media-playing software first arrived in personal computers, the symbols for “Play”, “Pause”, Fast Forward” and so on were already established in the electronics industry, so the wise heads in the new industry adopted them for their own products:

When we do business online, we communicate information solely though the web pages we use to transact our business. We can’t clarify misunderstandings. Of course we want to distinguish our business from others, but it behoves us to recognise and exploit the meta-language of symbols that have become culturally embedded. These are not just useful conventions; they have the power to punish businesses that disrespect them.

Make friends with Convention

Online marketers have a small enough window of opportunity in which to grab their customers’ attention as it is. It’s our job to make this cultural resource our friend, and certainly not to defy it! Creating a familiar online user experience is perhaps more important than design. So when designing your site, here are some issues you should always consider:

When a product is clicked on it should have a dedicated page with a detailed description, price and multiple pictures, plus an Add to Cart button.

Successful online business means meeting the expectations of your customers every step of the way. Keeping an eye on the semiotics of your market space is an invaluable guide for ensuring these expectations are met. To learn more on the ways in which people use websites and consume information check out Melbourne digital marketing blog on eye tracking.


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