For centuries, Western knowledge has been based on the concept of authority. Whether it was religious authorities handing down spiritual truths, government officials handing down legal truths, or scholars handing down scientific truths, society, with rare exceptions, has accepted the truths passed on to them without question. When union leaders spoke, workers followed orders. When Churchill’s government told Britons to keep calm and carry on in the face of nightly bombings, they did. And when Walter Cronkite told the nation “That’s the way it is,” it was. We didn’t question it.

…earn your authority.

authorityAt various times in history, we’ve questioned authority. For example, the civil rights movement and anti-war protests of the 1960s demonstrated that when Americans felt they weren’t getting the real story, they would revolt. However, it’s not been until the age of the internet that when people feel misled they have a real tool at their disposal to share their side of the story. The internet has become a great equalizer, giving anyone with a computer the potential to possess the same veracity as the government, traditional media or scientific community.

What this has meant is that if someone doesn’t agree with “the way it is,” they can publish their own version of the story online. What does this mean for your company? The good news and the bad news is that it means a lot.

The best strategy is to use this to your advantage. Don’t tell the public how good you are—let them tell each other how good you are. For example, Amazon.com is one of the world’s most successful retailers. A central component of Amazon’s selling platform is the rating system, in which consumers can give products from one to five stars and write a review. Do you think Amazon would use this approach if it didn’t work?

Advertising today is about letting the public tell your story for you. If your product is good—and that’s a prerequisite—consumers will tell each other about it on your website, on Facebook, on YouTube, on discussion forums, on Twitter, and so on. You’ll earn your authority.

That’s not to say that you should shy away from white papers, articles in trade journals, media kits or other traditional marketing materials. Those are essential. But remember, those materials won’t seal the deal these days—they’ll only increase awareness. Your customer will make his or her decision about your product or service based at least in part on what his or her peers think about it—and having a quality product or service is the best way to ensure positive cyber-chatter, as well as earning that position of authority.

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If you ask a web designer or online media professional what “below the fold” means, they may give you a blank stare. But those of us who cut our teeth in print media know that “below the fold” refers to a story that’s important enough to make the front page, but not important enough to make the top half of the page. This is the part visible in a newspaper rack, or on a stack of newspapers at a news stand. Too see the stories “below the fold” of the newspaper, a reader would have to buy the paper, or at least flip it over. Therefore, these stories stood less chance of being seen.

below the fold

courtesy of http://www.stomptheweb.co.uk

How does the concept of “below the fold” translate to online media? Not well. For one, it’s very difficult to design a web page that looks more or less the same across a variety of devices and browsers. Due to screen resolutions that vary from those appropriate to a 27” inch monitor all the way down to a mobile phone, websites are compressed, smashed, stretched and rendered in all sorts of unknowable and uncontrollable ways. The user’s own browser settings come into play as well: for example, whether or not they allow websites to choose their own fonts and font sizes, or if they run screen-altering plugins like ad blockers.

How does the concept of “below the fold” translate to online media? Not well.

Some companies have taken this to mean that they have to be very careful about where they place their most important information, lest it be hidden beneath the virtual fold; or, in other words, somewhere off-screen where it’s not likely to be seen.

However, it’s important to understand that online media-savvy users, who make up a larger and larger part of the workforce as the baby boomers retire and the millennials begin to move up in the ranks, aren’t intimidated by what some might see as an uncontrollable and chaotic web space. They don’t mind clicking below the fold at the bottom of the page. They don’t mind scrolling. They probably see repeated menu links at the top and bottom of the page as redundant and simply in the way as they look for the information they need.

In fact, creating pages that require scrolling and a little “poking around” can actually increase engagement, length of time spent on the page, and influence all kind of metrics in a positive way. (See the website uxwmyths.com for information on this and more web design myths.)

But one thing remains true—there has to be content. All the scrolling, clicking and finger gestures will only prove fruitless and discouraging if visitors can’t find what they need. Cyberspace, as always, is rapidly changing, and we’re learning as we go when it comes to human behavior and digital media.

The upshot: don’t let your traditional assumptions about media like “below the fold” influence the design of your website. Get help from the pros, who can take your content and make the most of it.

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