June 6th, 2018

What Actually Is a Link? — ‘Evolved Link’ Part #1

In its truest sense, a link is a connection, relationship, point of contact, or association between people or things.

As humans, we create links every day – linking to the people around us, linking with our environment and our surroundings, and linking with brands and organizations that help us, inspire us, entertain us or sustain us.

Linking with people, linking with brands

Ultimately, we as humans want to link to people we trust and recognize.

The same goes for our connections with brands. And in today’s world, the need for trust with the brands we use in our lives has never been greater, whether it’s in-store, at home, or online.

Are brands currently showing the best possible version of themselves when linking to their customers?

More importantly, as we as brands grow and diversify to meet the needs of our shareholders, are we providing our customers with the reliable links they need to trust us like they used to?

How we use links everyday

When we step back for just a moment, we quickly see that ‘links’ exist all around us, often in places where we may not consider them ‘links’. Even in the way we interact with our favorite brands on a daily basis, we’re constantly using links.

Many of us reach for our phones as soon as we wake up in the morning. When you scroll through your emails and click to view the latest statement that just arrived from your bank – that’s a link. Of course, there’s security measures attached to your account, so you receive a text message that asks you to click to verify your identity – that’s a link.

As you’re approaching the office, you also happen to see a billboard advertising a new pair of shoes you’ve been considering buying as an early birthday treat for yourself. On the billboard, there’s a call-to-action to visit the website to purchase – that’s a link.

Switching on your favorite podcast to tune out the rest of the commute, the presenter thanks one of their sponsors and encourages listeners to visit the website and use their promo code for a special deal – that’s a link.

The offer actually sounds pretty good, so when you get to the office you visit the site and make a purchase, and shortly you receive a confirmation of your order to your email inbox, containing a transaction number and tracking ID so you’ll know when to expect the delivery … which you quickly click through to see the estimated date – that’s a link.

Every time we interact with others, and with brands, we’re using links. Each one of these links impacts our relationship with these people and organizations – for better or for worse, depending on the experience it provides us.

A brief history of links

However in the world of digital, of course we best understand links by their Internet definition – I’m talking web addresses, hyperlinks, domain names, URLs … arguably the most common understanding of the word ‘link’ today.

And at its core, we use these links because we’re humans – rather than connecting to information via IP addresses, a series of meaningless numbers, we’re able to type in recognizable and memorable words and phrases that make sense to us, and technology does the rest of the work for us.

But as the Internet grew, and websites became larger and more complex, these links started to get long and unwieldy. Navigating to a page deep on a company’s website could mean the URL was hundreds of characters long – not something the average consumer is going to remember and type in directly.

This is one of the reasons we’ve seen less advertising on television using websites as their call-to-action. It’s simply too much to ask viewers to remember a long, complex domain name with lots of randomly generated characters.

For example, of the ads displayed during the 2015 Super Bowl (often considered the cream of the crop of television advertising), 51 percent had no call-to-action at all. Some of the CTAs that were used included downloading mobile apps, calling phone numbers or using a social media hashtag.

So to make web addresses a little more user-friendly, one tactic that evolved was the URL shortener.

In short (get it, because they’re URL shorteners?), URL shorteners serve an important function particularly in the world of social media, where character counts and user experience are key. And as they became more prolific, organizations started to look for ways to put their own stamp on the practice.

Branded URL shorteners (sometimes called branded short links, or vanity URL shorteners) such as bit.ly, Google’s goo.gl and Twitter’s t.co gave digital marketers the chance to keep their brand front and center in every link, even when their full company web address needed to be shortened.

Again, let’s consider the customer. Have we inspired trust by hiding our branded domain name for a shortened link? Have we accepted that simplicity over identity is acceptable?

Or have we just settled for an inferior solution due to a lack of viable alternatives?

(Side note: One organization, Rebrandly, published a great History of URL Shorteners, which is well worth a read for more detail on this.)

What’s next for links?

In the way we link to each other, and our links with brands and organizations, we’re building connections and forging relationships – and every interaction, or ‘link’, counts.

But in a world where brand, trust and data are paramount to our success, the tools that got us to this point may no longer be capable of powering our future.

In my next article I’ll look deeper into why branding is essential when using links – and how many organizations are missing out on countless opportunities to truly use their brand to its full potential.

*This article was originally published on Medium on June 5, 2018.

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