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In: Web Design

“Frankly, it’s technically weird and ugly.”

Although no one can say exactly what it looks like when a website is weird and ugly, a web designer actually e-mailed 23-year old artist Burny Madden with an offer to “beautify his website technically.”

Indeed, in the Internet – where the word “techie” is synonymous to godling, and the word “newbie” is almost an insult – a “technically cool” website seems inevitable. Whether a Flash eye-candy website with animated buttons, titles, images, streaming video, cinematic sound effects, pop-ups, and techie cool what-have-yous is visually distracting is beside the point. Never mind what you’ve heard about beauty in simplicity. In cyberspace, techie cool is what’s beautiful.

A Burning Man’s Weird and Ugly Website

Burny and his best friend Nona have built a website to tell his life story to the world. Burny is afflicted with a mysterious chronic burning disease that causes parts of his body to ignite at random. Burn scars constellate his body. He walks with a limp. He is too mortified to be with people. Some even call him a freak. Then he discovers that the flames killing him little by little have miraculous healing powers. His life has never been the same again, especially after going online.

But now Burny and Nona feel that if a website is called weird and ugly; it probably looks a lot like their website.

It certainly feels that way when people say the website will have tremendous potential if they show a short animated feature about the story. It certainly feels that way when they receive e-mails asking in so many ways why the site is “sooo static.” And it certainly feels that way when they read this message from a returning site visitor: “Hey, no offense guys, but I think your old Flash website looks a lot better than this dead mind-numbing stuff.”

They Built It, They Came, and They Left Forever

It is an offshoot of an original fancy Flash website, their newbie attempt at being webbies. It was an absolute “techie beauty.” Cinematic intro. Scrolling text. An array of moving thingies. Even an animated page-turner. All this plus some Hollywood-style effects. It gave that peculiar feeling of watching a mystery movie.

But where’s the rest of the story? That was the question of most site visitors.

Burny and Nona intended to tell the Burny’s story in that website. Trouble is, the animated page-turner limited them to a maximum of sixteen pages – about 106 pages short of the site’s designed content.

Their first website became some kind of an unfinished visual treat that people would visit once or twice at the most, and then never again. Adding more animated effects served like a one time adrenaline boost for the site, that’s all. Requesting those who purchased the ebook to recommend it to others led some people to accuse them of spamming. They even tried using sophisticated linking software to increase its exposure to no avail. Webmasters would visit, but only a handful would link to it. Their website traffic seemed to trudge to a dreary drumbeat – one…two…bye. They built it and they came, and they left forever.

Connection is the Key

It took an unusual degree of humility for them to accept that the techie beauty they were so proud of did not actually work for them. After all, it revealed to them the extent to which people responded to the website’s story more than its looks.

They discovered that although head-turning imagery and special effects raise web design to a higher level, they will only work if they are built on a good concept. The cool stuff is in the content. When an idea translates into a compelling content with which audiences can relate, it causes them to hook up psychologically to the website. When it makes an emotional bond by showing people an idea or experience they’ve had, an idea or experience they’d like to have, or the information they’ve been looking for, real cool content stuff happens.

The website connects to the audience.

In this case, the premise of Burny’s story connected to the audience. And it turned out that they wanted more.

You never really appreciate a story until you enter the door of a character’s head and walk around in it. But Burny’s original website was a beautiful door that opened up to nothing!

The Power of a Story

So Burny and Nona said goodbye to the techie beauty and built a simple HTML website. No cool effects. It only uses Burny’s original artworks to illustrate the story. The only thing that moves in it is the visitor’s cursor.

In this new website, they continue telling the story, revealing that while Burny’s mother insists that his burning condition is a symptom of demonic possession, his stepfather is forcing him to burn and heal others for a huge fee.

Because of this revolting development, Nona has decided to launch an online campaign to save Burny from burning to death.

Nona’s message connected to people all over the world.

The website generated five times more hits in just one month than what the old Flash website made for an entire year. This time, people are coming back to the website several times a week. They are sending Burny and Nona e-mails. Some of them post messages on the blogs.

And a lot of them are now buying Burning Man stuff!

A Site of Secrets

It’s almost a real success story, except for the fact that Burny and Nona are not real persons. They are just characters from the illustrated online novel and screenplay “BURNY” by Gil De Palma. He put them online to help him develop their characters and write the story.

But people react like they’re real persons just the same. Some are even too happy to receive a personal e-mail (not auto-responder generated) from fictional characters. The whole situation has become like an uncanny experience that gets people hooked on the website. A secret they must keep.

Now it seems like Burny and Nona have developed a life of their own. They even have their own online friends.

Burny and Nona still do not know that they are just fictional characters. They are still running the website, posting new content, reading and answering e-mails. If you visit the website and click the “author” button, you will understand why.

Accidental Viral Marketing

Gil De Palma passed on Nona’s blog letter to a few friends who got so amused by it – they passed it on to others. Without really trying, it became a form of word-of-mouth advertising via e-mail, going around the world in a matter of seconds. The website got over 50,000 hits the next day!

So if you receive Nona’s letter from someone you know, he or she probably got this forwarded e-mail from a friend or colleague or even a family member who also got it from someone, who also…well, you know.

People have a subconscious desire to communicate about things that have no relevance to their primary needs for existence. The urge to tell others about Burny’s predicament is actually working for the website.

Content is King

A techie beauty is not a bad idea at all. Stretching one’s imagination to push technology far beyond its comfort zone to create the coolest visually stunning websites in cyberspace can certainly bring a big thrill to the senses. But they will only work if they fulfill the primary mandate of a website – to connect to the audience.

Burny and Nona are doing it with a simple interactive story. Their website may be weird and ugly, but it might as well be its own revenge for being so.

“You’ve got great content,” the persistent web designer said in his recent e-mail to Burny, “even I keep on coming back to know what happens next. It’s a shame that you didn’t give its overall design much thought.”

Burny did not hire him.