Here’s how behavioral scientists define sludge: when users face high levels of friction obstructing their efforts to achieve something that is in their best interest or are misled or encouraged to take action that is not in their best interest. It’s likely that we’ve all experienced sludge in our lives as consumers. It could be unintentional, like a long checkout line at a retail store or the inability to find the information we want on a website. Or it could be intentional, like those gym memberships that come with a deliberately complicated cancellation process. Most of us have lost our tolerance for day-to-day sludge, and that holds true for your potential registrants whose experiences with your marketing messages, on your website, and/or during your registration may be less than seamless. I asked a few of my colleagues about the steps they take to eliminate sludge at every step of the attendee journey.
Reducing Digital Marketing Sludge
How do we combat sludge in the digital media space? For mdg’s director of digital activation, Joe Mathieu, it’s a matter of “delivering appropriate content that aligns with where a prospect is in the customer journey. If we’re promoting an event to cold prospects, we’ll use ad creative that focuses on the benefits of attendance and directs users to a landing page that moves them down the conversion funnel. If we’re promoting the same event to warmer leads — like those who have already visited the event website — we’ll focus less on the basic benefits and more on creating a sense of urgency and getting them to the registration page. In that same spirit, if we’re marketing to a subset of a prospective audience (an industry vertical, an international market, past attendees, etc.), we’ll ensure that our targeted ads take them directly to targeted landing pages. Taking a user who clicks on an ad to a homepage and expecting them to navigate their way to the information that relates to their needs is the epitome of digital sludge.”
Reducing Web Sludge
Web Developer Michael Engard echoed the importance of ease of navigation. “When a prospective attendee lands on a website, they likely use the navigation bar to orient themselves with the page. It follows the site visitor throughout their online journey and gets them back to the landing page. Reduce sludge by keeping it consistent throughout your site and by limiting the number of menu items. Another way to reduce sludge is by limiting the number of calls to action on your site pages. If you are asking a prospective attendee to sign up for a newsletter, ‘like’ you on social media, join your association, and register, you are asking too much. The life of each page and feature on your website should begin with a purpose: Who is this for, what are they trying to do, and how does this make that more likely to happen? Even elements that are well-conceived on their own can take on the quality of sludge when they clash and compete with each other. And the most important advice of all about reducing sludge online? Use A/B testing and data and analytics for the facts about what your visitors want and where they encounter barriers and distractions.”
Reducing Email Sludge
When creating email campaigns for her clients, Digital Marketing Director Bridgette Smith follows much of the same advice as for web pages. “A good practice is to have just one call-to-action message per email. More will only distract prospective attendees from registering. The most salient piece of advice I have for reducing email sludge, though, comes down to one word — targeting. Sludge happens when email recipients are bombarded with messages that aren’t specifically relevant to their needs. Prospective attendees who receive content that aligns with their specific industry segment, job title, experience level, past attendance, or any number of criteria are going to be much more likely to engage with your marketing efforts and convert. Unfortunately, segmentation is still an underutilized email marketing tactic.”
Reducing International Marketing Sludge
International Marketing Director Anjia Nicolaidis is especially sensitive to sludge that impedes overseas prospects from registering for and attending the U.S.-based events she markets. Two of the main sources of friction, in her opinion, are poor or nonexistent translation and a cumbersome registration process. “With the significant improvements in AI-powered translation solutions, it is much easier to make event websites multilingual and more accessible to more international audiences. But don’t stop with the site itself —remember to translate your registration form. Additionally, remember that lengthy registration forms are often perceived as being overly complicated or even invasive depending on cultural norms around data privacy.”
Reducing Registration Sludge
As attendees return to in-person events, increased safety concerns will mean a decreased tolerance for lines, crowds, and congestion in registration areas. As such, event managers must bring registration to attendees. John Kimball, president & CEO of convention data services, advises organizers to “create a flexible registration footprint by offering a safe, efficient, and convenient check-in throughout a host city — in hotels, airports, and/or near rideshare or shuttle bus pickup spots. Better yet, allow attendees to print their badges at home or download digital badges to personal mobile devices, enabling them to avoid registration areas entirely and go directly to their preferred destination.” Because registration is often the first touchpoint of an attendee’s on-site journey, making it sludge-free goes a long way at setting the stage for a positive user experience.
Reducing Exhibitor Sludge
Exhibitors, just like attendees, will lose patience with event sludge as they begin to return to events. “Those who serve the exhibiting audience should be prepared to offer touch-free payment options, paperless transactions, and offerings that give them the ability to customize the level of safety within their own space,” said Freeman’s senior vice president of customer experience, Bobbie Caldwell. Likewise, exhibitors should be encouraged to have a preferred payment method on file prior to the event to send the vendors with whom they will be working the name and mobile number of their on-site company representative, to have easily accessible copies of their orders on hand, and to order all necessary products and services in advance to avoid last-minute on-site ordering.”
A recent Behavioral Scientist article on sludge highlighted the work of Dilip Soman, a behavioral science and economics professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Soman created a dashboard to enable organizations to assess sludge in their processes in three key areas: process, communication, and inclusivity. Process refers to the number of steps or length of tasks and their complexity. Communication addresses whether all of the necessary information is provided to complete the task and how simply it is spelled out. And inclusivity measures whether certain groups are explicitly or implicitly excluded — some individuals are deterred from accessing a service because it causes them shame or embarrassment.
Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes is chief marketing strategist of mdg, a Freeman Company, a marketing and public relations agency specializing in audience acquisition for live and online events.