The ROI Of Nouveau Baseball Parks And Audience Engagement

Yankee Stadium last week hosted the All-Star game because this year will be the last before a new ballpark replaces it. The extraordinary "Home Run Derby" event and the All-Star Game itself was an ongoing homage to great Yankee Stadium moments, along with much debate over the pros and cons of razing the "Cathedral of Baseball." To me this raises issues analogous to Web site design, usability and advertising sales. But first let me refer to a tipping point in the relationship between usability and sales -- in baseball.

The new wave of user-friendly baseball park design began with Baltimore's Camden Yards. Ballparks began to appear that emphasize arresting vistas of magnificent cityscapes, promenade areas for stretching your legs and milling about, a wide variety of foods, and ease of access to, from and within the ballpark. Every city that has adopted this very customizable local model has made its local fans very happy -- Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Phoenix, Houston, Seattle, and so on -- and the extraordinary usability has paid off in revenues. Ticket sales, concession revenues, and branded merchandise in every one of these cities have produced a grand slam of revenue growth.

It is worth noting that the Baltimore Orioles, which began the revolution, was not the first team to be presented with a retro-modern stadium design. The Chicago White Sox rejected what was the Camden Yards blueprint. They chose instead to build a replica of Comiskey Park, which, like Yankee Stadium, was an ancient big ballpark design. While Comiskey was a venerable stadium, the new ballpark's disappointing revenue performance proved that fans didn't seem to feel that strongly about the brand cachet that the owners believed it carried.

Online publishers often fall into the same trap as the Chicago White Sox. Failing to pay attention to what users want to accomplish or their experience on the site, they assume that their existing design is good enough. The Baltimore Orioles, though, listened to the customer research that told the creative designers what fans hated and what they would want to see in a new ballpark. Online publishers who pay attention to their visitors' goals, their navigation, and their visual experience are akin to the new wave of ballpark designs. And like the new parks, usability-oriented design will always pay off in revenue, as visitors will return more often, do more on the site, and encourage others to do the same.

If you know the Peterson Model of online audience engagement, the importance of usability becomes abundantly clear. Looking at click depth, loyalty, interactivity, recency, duration, and subscriptions are, as I have argued in a previous column (http://www.mediapost.com/blogs/metrics_insider/?p=32), the best way of measuring engagement on your site. Usability becomes the road to a transforming Camden Yards user experience:

  • Click Depth: Do users know your wonderful content is there in the first place? Do they know how to easily find it?
  • Loyalty: Does the overall experience generate a strong desire to return often?
  • Interactivity: What makes your users passionate enough to generate content, post comments, forward content to friends or colleagues?

And so on.

Online usability testing involves a commitment to a path of listening to your audience. If you have never conducted usability research before, I heartily recommend starting with the wisdom of Jakob Nielsen or Steve Krug. They both agree in many areas -- most importantly, on the need to do one-on-one sessions with a relatively small sample of representative users. An accomplished usability pro can often tell you all you need to know to move toward optimal design after 5-8 of these one-on-one usability sessions. I recommend too the ongoing use of online research surveys. ForeSee Results, for example, has developed a usability research product that enables publishers to set up ongoing surveys that illuminate usability roadblocks and point toward design solutions.

Wise online publishers commit a budget to ongoing usability. They know that they will see a more loyal visitor base, expanded engagement, and higher revenues. You will see a measurable difference in click depth, loyalty, interactivity, etc. These online publishers will learn about the relationship between audience research and accelerated sales. In other words, they will know the secret of Camden Yards.

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