Softlinking: offline URLs are important too

From hardlink …

The term hardlink is used by mobile industry to represent the connection between the physical world with the mobile web. QR codes for instance, allow users to capture the data and translate it into a URL.

Mobile technologies offered us multiple solutions to connect the physical to the virtual. And yet, we seemed to forgot one of the most widespread form of these connections: the URLs printed in ads, on the back of business cards, displayed in TV commercials, even in our own skin or landscapes.

dot com
Photo: Christian Johannesen, under Creative Commons License

… to softlink

Shortening the description of “URLs used in offline promotion” i’m calling them a SOFTLINKs. They are indirect hyperlinks between a physical object or media and the web, with the intent to create a future recall on the consumer and induce him to visit the website. Hyper-graffiti, call-to-action or content traps, offline URLs have a increasing importance in a brand’s image.

Do you remember the URL?

So what’s in a softlink? What’s the effect of placing it on your marketing materials? Do people actually remember it?

According to the The Magazine Publishers of America and The Newspapers Association of America, they do.

  • Offline media perform well in driving web traffic and search, with media sinergy being a strategic asset. Ads with URLs are more likely to drive readers to advertiser sites overall, with study subjects 13% more likely to visit advertiser websites.< br />
    MPA, Accountability Guide

  • 47% of people who responded to a newspaper ad by going online went directly to a URL they saw in the advertisement, but a full 31% chose to use a search engine (overwhelmingly,
    NAA, Newspapers drive online traffic

Web Response
Source: Clark, Martire & Bartolomeo and Google study for NAA, Newspaper Drives Online Traffic, PDF

Not only do these studies highlight the importance of a web presence, but there’s a sweet irony in being print associations to reinforce it.

While a web presence is obvious to big US centric companies, many small businesses are yet to get their URLs and companies in developing countries are still looking for the right way to build their web strategy. It’s still quite ordinary to find small business owners that don’t realize of the web’s importance on the purchase funnel, so these reference studies should help broaden their minds.

Keeping your customers URL happy

It sucks when reading a newspaper article and realizing you can’t bookmark it for reference or later review. Perhaps that explains how the Amazon Kindle is performing better that expected. Or why QR technology is booming, even if it’s mostly used as a hack to insufficient advertising real estate and excuse to accountability..

Google Qr print ads
Photo: Chika Watanabe, under Creative Commons License

When creating an offline media ad, it should be taken in account that people do take mental URL notes for later reviewing, so let’s keep their task simple. A memorable URL is even more important offline, and from big brands to small business, it has become common practice.

It’s my opinion that prefix subdomains should be used only if there’s a clear need to reinforce the brand name. Web aliases and brand/campaign domains are much better way to insure a later recall (heck, they’ve got less dots).
As for the long, long URL, with dozens of query parameters, don’t do it unless you invested in some heavy SEO. You’d better use URL shortening services like TinyURL, that now even allows a custom alias (altough i never seen it offline).

I know unique names are hard to get, and with all that cybersquatting around (now with the new ICANN brand TLDs), it’s a legal and brand manager nightmare, but if you want your consumer share of mind you have to play the game.

Softlink like Google Adwords Adwords

The next time you need to choose a softlink for offline promotion, do it like you’re optimizing for AdWords, with some of their performance tips:

  • Choose an effective keyword: that means find a short, distinctive and sticky domain or alias
  • Make your URL bold: don’t put it a 7pt size, near the footer, in a 2 frames sequence or whisper it on a radio spot.
  • Avoid the use of similar or confusing character sequences (I and l, or example). ALLCAPS is a bad idea, but you could try Camel case for a change.
  • Target your softlinks by using several matching options: i wouldn’t go as far as Converse did recently by using dozens of URLs in a campaign, but registering similar domains, synonyms or type mismatches are all valid domain options to consider.
  • Optimize your softlinks with a focus on themes and call to action phrases: That means that sites like or should be awarded also in this category.
  • Include prices, numbers or promotions. It doesn’t get closer to direct marketing than this:
  • Use your powerful brand name in the softlink. If your brand isn’t there yet, you could try your luck with some unique domain names, like this one
  • Drop the http:// and the www. Your users are not that dumb, and your webmaster should know how name servers work by now. Save a few keystrokes, save the ad.

With this info and tips, go ahead and spread some softlink love on your next campaign.