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Of Web Sites And Pinball Machines

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troy janisch

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User since: 08 Jul 2002

Articles written: 17

If you ask a typical web developer to describe how a web site works you're likely to learn about site maps, flow charts, and search engines. If you ask me, you're likely to learn a lot about pinball.

A pinball machine is a great metaphor for describing how a web site works: not the mechanical side of working that involves ASP, PHP and databases, but the reality of how a web site attracts and retains customers. By thinking of the Internet as a huge arcade, and your customers as kids with a pocket full of quarters, its possible to take a fresh look at your web site and how it can be more effective.

What's the Attraction?

When you walk into an arcade, your senses are assaulted by sights, sounds, and activity. Each pinball machine and arcade game is competing for your attention and ultimately for your quarters. There are similarities online. The number of online destinations available of any topic exceeds the attention span of even the most dedicated shopper. The first moments on your web site — what can be seen at a glance — has a profound impact on whether site visitors will stay. Look at any site's web statistics and you're likely to find a catastrophic abandonment rate from the home page to other pages on the site.

Pinball's solution to this challenge is the "attraction mode." Unoccupied games call to Arcade visitors with flashing lights, inviting sounds and animations that promise visitors a good time in exchange for their quarters. In the time it takes to glance at the machine, it has to communicate its premise and entertainment potential. Web site content must also capture visitors immediately and communicate what the site has to offer before visitors return to the search results that brought them to your site — and promises to take them to hundreds of other sites that want to meet their needs as much as yours.

A good attraction mode is well honed to the target market. It lets you know what the game is about. For example, the attraction mode for a shoot 'em up action game is filled with gunshots to appeals quickly to its target, knowing full well that visitors who aren't action oriented will move on. Rather than one quarter from every arcade visitor, it wants every quarter in the target market's pocket.

What's the Use?

Consider the variety of pinball machines that exist and how many of them are comprised of the same primary controls: two flippers and a plunger. The most successful arcade games provide a wide range of playability, variety and strategy with simple controls. Web sites that provide a similar level of innate usability are more likely to succeed than web sites that provide controls that may be "innovative" but require a learning curve that many customers are unwilling to follow. If you've ever tried playing a driving simulation game on a home-based game system using four-buttons instead of a steering wheel, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, you can still imagine the relearning that would have to take place if the steering wheel of your cars was replaced with a joystick.

What's In It for Me?

A good pinball machine knows its users well. Players with low scores are identified as 'new players,' and are encouraged to continue play despite their poor skills through free balls, free games, and the ability to extend games by buying additional balls. The underlying goal is to keep new players engaged and encourage them to master the game slowly overtime.

The pinball game offers rewards to players as their skills advance. "Specials" allows a player to increase their score and earn additional balls or games by completing task: Hit a target and a ramp will flash. Hit the flashing ramp and earn bonus points. Earn bonus points and you can earn a multiball. Rewards escalate with a player's skill. The best players earn high scores and find themselves defending their high scores against skilled challengers.

Effective web sites identify the level of information a user needs and provides them with the appropriate level of detail. They provide detailed, educational content for site visitors at the beginning of their learning curve. For site visitors who are ready to buy, they provide side-by-side comparisons of their products and describe the benefits of their products over competitors.

What Have You Learned?

Every pinball machine manufactured since the late 70's has a built-in processor that tracks every game played, the number of free balls rewarded, the number of free games rewarded, and a detailed summary of how often "specials" and multiballs are awarded.

Based on this information, the processor allows establishments to make games easier or more challenging to play in an effort to optimize the income potential for that game in its current location. If an establishment has a lot of traffic with few returning customers, a game can be set to optimize churn: the difficulty level is set high and the likelihood of players earning specials or free games is reduced. If the establishment has returning customers, the game is optimized to encourage ongoing play.

Although most web sites collect detail information about visitors, few companies use the information on an ongoing basis to tweak the site for its visitors. Data collected on the pages that customers visit and the pages where customers abandon the site help identify whether the web site is meeting the needs of site visitors. Session length and the percentage of returning visitors to new visitors can also help determine the appropriate web strategy.

What Will They Remember?

Some pinball games stand the test of time and become classics. Others disappear overnight. The success of a game is the result of many factors: its theme, its playability and its reputation. A Simpsons pinball machine will be popular regardless of its playability. Likewise, games with good playability, such as Pinbot, build a reputation over time and become collectible.

For most businesses, the quality of their content and reputation is their best asset in developing a strong web presence. Their brand is defined by their ability to provide site visitors with the information the need. Brand-savvy companies do so without compromising on visual identity.

The reason pinball machines are a good metaphor for conducting business online is because they are business tools. Their purpose is to make money. And, they do so by giving users a pleasant experience in hopes of establishing loyalty and return visits.

How different is that from the hopes you have of your business?

Troy Janisch is president and founder of Icon Interactive™, an industry leader helping companies integrate Internet and other Interactive media into sales channels, marketing strategies, and overall branding. He can be contacted by email at

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