Expectation + Experience = Value in Digital

What is 'value to the user' and how would you define it?

It's something that a lot of digital people talk about but few have actually explored a full definition of what 'value' is. The most common way that I hear value defined is in rational, economic terms - value is the rational exchange of something (money typically) for a product. I pay $5 for a video rental on iTunes because then I get to watch the movie that I missed in the theaters.

Yet that example doesn't capture the whole 'value' of that transaction - the film that I watch helps me get into social conversations that might be happening about that film. It gives me the opportunity to participate, to show that I'm interested in the same things and too relate. Said another way, it helps to shape my social identity (albeit in a small way) and that value exchange is part of the choice as to why I'm willing to part with $5.

So how to we define value when it comes to a 'digital' experience like a website, Facebook page or mobile application? I think that Suzan Boztepe's paper, 'User Value: Competing Theories and Models' provides an excellent framework to assess value in the digital world. After reading through it, I think the process for understanding digital value can be broadly categorized in a three part framework:
  • Pre-Experience Expectations: any digital experience, just like any pre-product purchase, comes with a pre-existing set of expectations. Take an application. Before you tried out Angry Birds, you probably heard about it from a friend or one of the thousands of tech media sites that is obsessed with it. You heard that it was addictive, simple to learn and the top game for the iPhone. So you decide to try it out. You go to the App Store. You find Angry Birds and see a few screenshots. You read a few of the reviews. After seeing that they align with your friends (and everything else you've read), you decide to download the app. Before you've even played it once, you expect it to be simple, fun and addictive. This creates a value-expectation that needs to be considered prior to playing. As you've probably guessed, we can apply these pre-experience expectations to anything - a website (how do you find it in the first place? What did the banners say? The search terms? The Meta?), a Facebook page (what friends joined, why did they become a part of it? Etc).
  • The Experience Itself: So now you've got Angry Birds. And you start to play. It only takes a minute to figure out the rules, the different types of birds and before you know it, everything you've heard about the game you are actually experiencing. It's fun. It's simple and your friends, and the reviews, are right. It's a winner. The value of the game (to this point) is that it gives you a break and lets you have some fun. It's emotional and, of course, through game dynamics helps to take you on a journey that keeps you engaged for the long term. If you think about it, shopping on is similar. You go there because you know that it has the biggest selection of products on the web but once you arrive, you not only find exactly what you were looking for but get additional value (through reviews, low pricing and 'if you like this, you'll like that') recommendations that the experience as a whole has long term value. Services like Open Table or Kayak offer similar benefits. Factual utility turns into positive emotional responses. (I think that this is the most important part of the value creation process and I'm sure that most website designers / agency creatives would agree with me).
  • Post-Experience (and returns): At some point, you have to stop playing Angry Birds. You go back to work, the Tube ride ends and you have to get back to real life for a few hours. Eventually you return and keep playing. And you do this, again and again, until (at least for me), you find a new shiny app that dominated your attention for a few weeks. Like the movie rental example, my post-Angry Birds experience translates into value because I can tell people about how I enjoy the game, I can relate to those who have been playing for longer than I have (finally) and I can recommend / talk about it to people who haven't played before (for an early adopter, this part of the value equation is likely the most powerful).
Looking at digital value as a 3 part equation (pre, during and post experience) helps to focus strategies on the key moments that create it. I think that too often we focus on the experience itself vs. how the pre-experience expectations are set or the post experience results. We all want people to only spend time on our sites or in our apps but the reality is it doesn't work like that.

Value can be temporary (a great YouTube clip) or long term (a continual return to your Facebook news stream) but in order to create it, you have to first understand what type of value you are looking to develop. More specifically, value could be utility (quality, conveniences), social significance (identity, prestige) and emotional (fun, nostalgic). What type of value are you hoping people get out of what you've made?


Finding a niche

I had an interesting discussion today with one of our search experts. It started with some personal advice about a new website I'm starting (more to come). I wanted to be sure that I had every SEO fundamental in place and soon realized that I needed to reconsider the domain to ensure that it was search friendly in places other than Canada.

The discussion quickly evolved to affiliate programs and the power of them for someone with a bit of knowledge about search. I recently joined the Amazon Affiliate program and was very impressed with the simplicity of the process - simply sign in, find links, insert them into your site and if someone makes a purchase from your site (as a referral), you get a percentage of the revenue (in this case 4% with an upward moving scale based on sales). It's incredibly simple to implement and if you're site starts to gain any amount of traffic, the money can (albeit slowly) start to flow in.

But how do you find the right terms? And how do you decide what categories to focus on?

I started from a content-creator perspective. I had an idea about a new blog and worked from the content-type out. Many search experts, though, start from the keyword out. Using the Google Keyword tool, they look for 'attractive terms' (3-14K monthly searches) and then try to buy the .com domain for that term. Once it's purchased they join a relevant set of affiliate's programs, create a site with a few dozen pages and wait for the clicks to come in.

Chances are you've been to a link-baiting site before. It typically looks awful, is full of Google ads and doesn't answer your search query. Link baiting, like email scams, is a game of numbers. Get enough volume and any user will respond. If the volumes are high enough, those responses can generate real cash from affiliates.

The problem is, the quality of the experience is poor. And, as a result, the web gets polluted. Especially with public companies like Demand Media generating mass volumes of content specifically designed to answer medium volume search queries.

But still, what interested me is starting the content generation process from the pre-existing demand vs the passion of creation. For those people, the content is a means to an end - an answer that leads to a referral. For content creators, it is the attraction and the desire to be heard, to create something that people will - eventually - want to search for.

The key is to remember that the web is a spectrum. From one search query to thousands of blog posts, success not only depends on the quality of content produced but also the demand for it once it has been published. Using free tools (like the Google Keyword Tool) help to understand pre-existing demand for a content type is a great step for any content creator looking to find their niche.