I am not a heavy user of Facebook. I never really liked the service, but it has gained mainstream acceptance. Because of that acceptance, I joined Facebook several months ago. Over the past few months Facebook has changed their user interface. This was done because of the growth of the third party applications and the additi0nal features that have been added. Adam Singer of The Future Buzz had a guest post on LouisGray.com regarding the fact that Facebook needs a facelift. This is going to happen as an application or website grows, but there is the concern of what affect changing the image has on the brand and the reputation.

This may seem a bit like marketing-speak for the technical crowd, but I have a point I promise. First, we need to go over the basic concepts.

The Brand

Normally, the brand is that “thing” that is immediately recognizable as representing something. In these situations, the brand is the logo or some variant of it that is used in advertisements. On the internet, the logo is sometimes converted into a favicon, that 16×16 image that you see on various parts of the browser menu and toolbars. The brand also includes the name of the company or website as well as the other aspects that I am writing about, the reputation and the image. However, the brand is the shorthand for the whole thing.

The Reputation

Depending on who you talk to, the reputation of a site can be different. It may include how much traffic a site gets, or its comparison to another major site. At one time, Facebook was for the college crowd and MySpace was for teenagers and musicians. If you ask many people that are not deeply involved in the internet, you may still hear about these sets of users. Once a reputation is built, it can be hard to change those opinions. For myself and many in the technical crowd, the reputation can be based on the technical aspects. MySpace allowed users to create the most hideous pages possible. The site was generally annoying because of this as well as the amount of audio embedded in many pages. MySpace’s reputation will likely never change for me because the feeling is so strong. In addition, other social networks are available to me in the form of LinkedIn and Facebook. In the case of MySpace, the reputation it receives from me is purely based on the image. Some sites gain a reputation due to technical instability, i.e. Twitter during last spring, and have spent the last year trying to shake that reputation.

The Image

For a website, the image is the user interface. If the website does not have a reputation yet or a recognizable brand, the image is very important. I have received quite a few comments on the user interface for YackTrack. Overall, the feedback has been “good service, but it is ugly”. Obviously this is a generalization of the feedback, but overall it is correct. Initially, the site was created as a side project to fill a personal need, so the user interface needed to work just for me. As is typical for any new application, features have to be added before the user interface gets a makeover. Thankfully, YackTrack received some good feedback on the functionality so the reputation had started building regardless of the image.

One of the biggest problems for many bloggers is the image. They may have written some excellent content, but they are not web designers. So, they use the default WordPress or Blogger themes. Why is this a problem? For many people, it means that the owner of that blog did not care enough to look for a theme that fit their vision or content. For others, it looks like a generic brand of cereal or aspirin. It may be just as effective, but because the label isn’t as attractive it just can’t be as good as the other.

What About Reality?

I had been struggling with the concepts above for the past few months. I am not a marketer, but I do know about websites. The problem was that I could not figure out the different aspects of “the brand”. Many marketing blogs do not get into a lot of detail except when talking about how to improve your brand. As a software engineer, those posts were typically too oriented towards soft-skills and did not include definition. Then I read a post on Lifehack.org. In the post, there is significant discussion on labels (which you can translate to the brand). In particular, it talks about a study of shopping habits:

I was extremely interested in Wallace’s study and subsequent report as I have a fascination in this area; the value we place on labels. Having worked with a broad socio-economic cross-section of people over the last two and a half decades has given me a great opportunity to observe ’shopping behaviour’ and the rationale behind those purchases first hand…Like my client who would never buy a pair of shoes unless they cost at least a thousand dollars because “they couldn’t be any good otherwise”.

Once I finished reading the post I realized what was happening. I have also been guilty of thinking in the same way as the client and their thousand dollar shoes, without the same price tag though. Payless Shoe Source is a perfect case study. “Payless” the name is a known brand. I am not sure if people would recongize their logo, but the name itself is well known. They had a significant reputation for selling cheap shoes that were not ugly, but not stylish either. Their stores reminded you of an outlet as well, wall-to-wall shelves covered in boxes of shoes.

Two years ago, Payless made a decision to change some of that reputation. In “more reputable” locations, think high-priced malls, they upgraded the stores. They knew that the reputation would be hard to change, but the image of the Payless store could change one store at a time. These “upgraded” stores were more “open”, had more table displays, and only 5 foot tall shelves. The stores were brighter, and the shoes were upgraded as well to known brands that were not too expensive, but were also more stylish. Previously, you could easily find a pair of shoes for $20 at a Payless store, but these “upgraded” stores upgraded the prices as well. The prices generally stayed under $50, so the increase would not really threaten business. The result, the store was more crowded than ever.

Granted, Payless’ overall reputation has not really changed, but they are starting slow. However, this image upgrade has probably changed the reputation for anyone who has shopped there. For your website, an image upgrade could have a similar effect. More people may use the service because the site is more visually pleasing and easier to use. The image is the easiest thing to change, and sometimes these small steps are the best way to improve.

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