The Sense of Scent

Kudos to my heroine and comrade-in-words, Holly Buchanan, who recently presented an electrifying teleseminar on persuasive online copywriting. We were reading through the impressive feedback when I came across this: “I would have liked more examples of scent.”

Holly and I looked at each other (she still isn’t sure which of my eyes to gaze into), and smiled. What seems so obvious to us obviously isn’t obvious to others.

So I want to be crystal clear about scent, because scent is important. Understanding what it is and how to maintain it is critical to the success of your persuasive mission. Let’s start sniffing.

How scent trails work

You’ve seen those cartoons where Mickey Mouse catches a whiff of something that smells great. Minnie has set a pie to cool on an open window sill. The pie sends out tendrils of aroma that target Mickey’s nose and pull him inexorably to the source. That’s a scent trail.

When the scent trail meets Mickey’s nose, it captures his interest. If his interest is strong enough, he’ll decide to follow the trail. And if the aroma tendrils remain unbroken, Mickey will follow them until they lead him to the pie. But if Minnie closes the window, the scent trail evaporates. Mickey won’t be led anywhere.

It works pretty much the same online. The right scent, carefully chosen, captures the interest of a customer. Instead of using cartoon tendrils, we maintain an online scent trail with words and pictures that reinforce the scent, and clicks that take the customer closer to the goal. If we don’t interrupt the scent trail, it will lead the customer where she wants to go (which also happens to be where we want her to go). (My illustrated article on AIDAS echoes this concept.)

If we interrupt our scent trail, we leave our customer stranded. The path she was following becomes a dead end. Where’s she supposed to go? Do you really want to trust that she’s motivated enough to continue on her own? When it comes to scent trails, dropping the ball is one of the leading causes of site abandonment!

Establishing and maintaining your scent trail is essential to persuasive momentum. You simply can’t motivate folks to move from click to click without it.

Lost confidence

There’s more than just persuasive momentum at stake. When you establish a scent trail, it functions like a sort of contract. It says, “I have something you will like – come, follow me.” As long as you keep fulfilling your side of the contract by honoring the inherent promise of the trail, your customer continues to build confidence in your ability to meet her needs. That’s monumentally important – your customer needs to feel confident enough to take action.

When you abandon your contract midway through, you communicate an unfortunate message: “We got your attention, now you do the rest by yourself.” Maybe you can see how lots of folks might find this a disagreeable experience.

Your ability to maintain your scent trail, to keep delivering on your promise, is essential to establishing your credibility and building your customers’ confidence. If they can’t believe in you, they’re not going to buy from you.

No portfolio for moi

It’s actually pretty hard to find examples of good scent trails. Businesses may understand the concept, but most don’t seem to be applying it. That’s why my colleague Howie Kaplan was so pleased when he discovered a Victoria’s Secrets banner ad campaign that nailed the scent trail idea. Anthony Garcia, our Senior Persuasion Architect, has been creating nifty audio-visual presentations that demonstrate the concept of scent. Check out his instructive critiques of the GoDaddy and Blockbuster Super Bowl ads.

Meanwhile, here’s my most recent experience with an undermined scent trail.

A promotional email landed in my inbox today. The subject line read, “Love is … HUGE Savings on Portfolios and more!” Now, I actually happen to be in the market for an 8 ½ x 11 portfolio, and I like Dick Blick Art Supplies, so I opened the email.

With “portfolio” in the subject line and featured in the Huge Savings red type, it would make sense (and scent) to feature a portfolio instead of a tote bag. Yeah, there is that presentation case, but that’s not exactly a portfolio.

Already, the scent trail has been severely compromised. The promise of the subject line hasn’t panned out in the graphics within the email. Whenever this happens, I start preparing myself for disappointment (others start bailing). Still, there was that exclamation-pointed red type screaming portfolio. I figure if I clicked on that, the scent trail would lead me to a special landing page where I’d find all the sale portfolios. So I clicked and landed here [on the home page].

It’s the home page. Except for the logo, no other graphic echoes the graphics used in the email. No Huge Savings red type that might provide continuity. No portfolio images.

This is when the bulk of readers bail. I bailed here the first time.

Then I returned to get screen shots and … holy bovine, a single portfolio link in the center area: “Prat Start 1 Portfolios”! I missed that the first time; I hadn’t even seen it. Small wonder. But this couldn’t be what the email was talking about. The email had me thinking this event was BIG. HUGE. I was still seeing all manner of portfolios dancing in my head … I just figured Dick Blick hadn’t done a very good job of directing me to them.

Too much effort

I decided to see how many portfolios were actually on sale in this “Huge Savings on Portfolios and more!” You can eventually find a page listing all the portfolios Dick Blick carries by clicking through their letter index (P, then Portfolio), or by figuring out that portfolios are included in the “Transporting/Carrying” link (not the “Archival/Conservation” or “Presentation/Display” or “Storing/Organizing” links) in the left nav. But it isn’t easy through either of these to discover which portfolios are on sale.

So, as a last resort, I tried the “Clearance” link.

Dick Blick’s clearance page is visually daunting – all text, no images. In a field of ninety-six sale items, there were three portfolio lines on sale (Dick Blick had forty-five portfolio lines on their portfolio page). Frankly, this doesn’t come anywhere close to my idea of huge.

I was major bummed.

Making scent work

Laying a decent – I’m not even talking brilliant – scent trail really isn’t that hard. Ask yourself, at every point in your process, “What would my customer expect to see next? What promise have I made that I need to keep in the next click?” If you’re not sure what you’ve promised, ask others what they think you’ve promised. Then execute the answers. In my example, if you put “portfolios” in your subject line, it’s reasonable to assume I’ll expect to see a portfolio in the email. It’s also reasonable to assume I might want a link so I can see all the portfolios you have on sale.

Ideally, you want to create unique landing pages targeted to the message that delivers folks, whether that message comes from a banner ad, an email, a pay-per-click, a television ad, a radio spot, a billboard or a brochure. This is the strongest scent trail you can provide. If you have to use your home page to catch the folks clicking through from your promotional entities, then create a special area that reinforces the promotional messaging, so folks can identify the continuity. In my example, Dick Blick could have created a “Huge Savings” graphic link so I could go to a “Huge Savings” page (that featured portfolios).

Make your scent trail incredibly easy and obvious to follow. Never assume your visitors will take the time to figure out where they need to go next. Yeah, I was able to finally locate the three portfolio lines Dick Blick had on sale – it can be done – but very very few folks will go that distance. Remember the caveat: “Don’t make me think.” When you do the work for your visitors, more of them convert.

Lastly, always keep in mind the contract you establish through your scent trail. Avoid hype. It has a habit of creating expectations you might not actually be prepared to meet. A single link to one portfolio line does not make for a HUGE sale.

Dick Blick actually does a pretty good job with qualification on their home page – they provide different ways for visitors to narrow down their criteria and get to the product they’re looking for. Cheers! But I wasn’t trying to narrow down my criteria. I was coming to the site on a specific scent trail that Dick Blick created in the email they sent to me. To abandon me on the home page and then hope I’ll start my quest from scratch is asking me to think like the company. In this day and age, the company has to think like the customer.

Make scents?

This article was originally published in [], a newsletter published by Future Now, Inc. Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg the co-founders of Future Now, Inc. are also the co-authors of New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller book “Call To Action” and “Persuasive Online Copywriting.”