Susan Boyle talent and your web site

Susan Boyle is now in The Priory, a private clinic renowned for treating celebrities with mental health issues, following reported exhaustion after appearing in the Britain’s Got Talent final on Saturday night. Clearly it has been a traumatic few weeks for her.

But the issue that few people are prepared to face up to is why they watched her. When she arrived on our TV screens just a couple of months ago she did not look like a “singing sensation” as the tabloid press likes to call her. Instead, as Simon Cowell later apologised for, everyone made assumptions that a middle-aged women who calls herself “simple” would not be able to have any kind of talent.

The show’s judges made the assumption that there in front of them was this talentless individual, who had no hope. Their assumption – just like the rest of the massive TV viewing audience (the highest for a single programme on British TV since 2004) – was that she was a “no hoper”.

Then, she began to sing. And, while there are doubtless better singers than Susan, her voice did not match our pre-conceived image of what a singer should look like. We expect talented singers to “look good”, to be well-groomed and to be “beautiful”. Of course, that is just nonsense. So why does it happen and what has it to do with your web site?

It’s about the psychological concept of “prototyping”. Consider for a moment the humble table. How many different types of table can you think of? Some have four legs, some have one central pillar, others have three legs. Some you have chairs around, others you need stools, some are only near your knees for you to place your coffee cup on. Some are square, oblong or circular. There are oval ones, wooden ones, glass ones and even metal tables. The combinations of features that make up a table are endless – and designers come up with new ones each year. Yet, if you were to face a table you had never seen in your life before you would still instantly know it is a table. How?

If your brain had to work it out, you would take some time to consider all its features, compare them with what you already know then hazard a guess. It would actually takes ages to operate in the world around us as many things are not quite the same as our previous experience. So, what we do is form a “prototype” – in this example an “average” table that we then compare our new experiences with. If the new, never-before-seen, table is pretty much the same as our prototype, we say it’s a table.

It’s much the same for things like “singers”. We have been exposed to thousands of professional singers who all, pretty much, look the same. They have their hair neatly styled, they wear fashionable clothes, their faces are unblemished and they stand up straight. So when we Susan Boyle, stooping somewhat, not in fashionable clothes, with rather unkempt hair she is a long way away from our prototype. Hence what comes out of her mouth is completely unexpected.

But because of that, something else kicks in to action in our brain – our attention system. Because what we see is so far removed from our prototype our brain goes “hang on a minute, my prototype must be wrong”. We go into “re-evaluation” mode to try and change our prototype so that it is more appropriate.

And guess what – after 15 or so years of web sites, we now have sufficient experience to have a web site prototype in our heads. It has navigation down the left hand side and across the top, there is a logo or banner stretching across the top of the page and there is a set of links and contact details down at the bottom. The problem then is that your web site is just like every other web site; you fit the prototype so well, you just don’t get any attention.

To attract attention to your web site it needs the Susan Boyle effect; it needs to be different to the prototype in such a way that it makes people re-evaluate, thereby paying attention. Susan Boyle was visually removed from the prototype – but not vocally. In other words, if you change your web site so that is so “whacky” and “far out”, you will get noticed – but only for a short period. Like Susan Boyle, your web site needs to be different from the prototype so that it gets attention – but it needs to contain some core elements of what people expect from a web site in order to maintain that attention.

After all, who really remembers the Britain’s Got Talent “singers” who didn’t look like singers AND didn’t sound like singers? There are thousands of them – just ask the judges. So, to get your web site long-term attention make sure your different enough to be noticed, but not different enough to be seen as nonsense. But unlike Susan Boyle, make sure that when your web site does get noticed, you have in place systems to cope with the attention you will get. Luckily for Susan she is surrounded by people from Syco Television who have on hand all the experts to help her. I am sure you wish her well.

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