Ling Valentine on Website Success

Ling Valentine on UX, SEO, and Running a Successful Website

Ling Valentine runs the mighty LingsCars.com , a site that’s been on Dragon’s Den, won various business awards, and is – quite regularly – criticised for being ‘ugly’ among other things.

Here she very kindly answers 5 questions about her experience around SEO, using videos to boost traffic, and how she moved £35m of cars in 2008.

1. How much of the work you do on the site is ‘gut instinct’ & how much do you & the team think about and analyse? Do you do any testing and optimisation of things?

Most of LINGsCARS website content and layout is gut instinct. This is not rocket science. In fact I would say that people who spend a lot on “advice” from so-called “UX professionals” are the crazy ones, not me.

Look, it is obvious what people want on a website – they want entertaining. That’s it. Yet 90% of business websites spend their time trying to bore people to death with conventional bloody Helvetica text, colours, fonts (usually grey), spitty pictures and discrete simplified design. All that is completely uninspiring to me. Boring. In-out in 3 seconds.

…On a website, you are competing with You Tube, porn sites and Facebook. You are not trying to out-bore your local council website. So, open the energy taps, eat sugar and get on with something exciting. Split testing/focus groups etc, is just a fast road to the lowest common denominator, just as you see in politics; boring.

2. You use tons of different marketing tactics: A really frequently updated blog, a youtube channel with half a million views, social media, PR, you rank for some big search terms, and much more. Which of these do you find most successful? How do you decide which to keep spending time & money on and which to ditch?

It’s hard to say which is the most successful marketing or positioning I do with LINGsCARS. Certainly Google is the most valuable referrer I have, but everything you mention adds up to success on Google. I just decide what to do, stick at it and make it work.

For instance, the half-million YouTube views would cost a conventional business at least £100,000 if they had to buy them… yet I see very few businesses uploading anything worth watching to YouTube. To get views, a video has to be fun, inspire, entertain etc. No one wants “educating”. Again, YouTube is like a load of mini TV programmes, so watch a few high-traffic TV programmes and copy some of the formats. I’m aiming LINGsCARS partly at “Top Gear” on TV. Quick editing, fast soundtrack, no excess film and in your face shots, plus personality. Plus add fun and laughter!

You don’t have to be Steven Spielberg, I manage with a budget of £0!

As an example, here’s one of Ling’s videos:

3. The design of the site comes up time & time again. Lots of people say it’s ugly, but it seems to work very, very well for the business. Would you say it’s ‘ugly by design’? Is there a big idea behind it?

LINGsCARS is not “ugly” at all. That’s rubbish. It is a beautiful website. What these people who say “ugly” are moaning about is that my website is not like every other asinine light grey apple-mac minimalist yawn-site, most of which are usually dead, inactive, static and loss-making. Like that Gok Wan says, add some C-O-L-O-U-R, dummy.

I want a website that 100,000 people a month walk through clicking and playing with loads of stuff on their journey. I want profit of over £100,000 (like I just managed in 2010-2011). It is like an adventure park, and by the way… I supply new lease cars. Due to such a long, long renewal cycle for most cars (at least 2 or 3 years), I need to attract people in, grab them, addict them to loads of stuff, so they have to come back again and eventually they may take a car.

For me, 10, 20 or 30 customers a day are enough. That’s a tiny percentage of visitors. The rest is just playtime. I am not trying to allow people to slide in and out in 10 seconds without interacting on a boring website with a paragraph-per-page. I want commitment and enthusiasm and emotion from visitors. I poke them with a stick to see if they are alive, and what the “ugly” comments from some torpid idiots mean, is that I have woken them up and made them jump.

4. You’ve had some experience with the Dragons Den. What do you think of the Dragons’ knowledge and skills around the web, and around business in general?

Oh, I am sure the Dragons are very good at making money. They know far more than me, and make far more I guess. But, I always worry that they rarely say “I don’t know about that”. You have to worry when people have an “expert” opinion about everything, however much money they have. My other concern is that there are so many gullible idiots out there who believe they can worship every word the Dragons’ (or even worse, other “mentors” that don’t have two beans to rub together – I could name a few) say, and that it will change their lives for the better. It won’t. People need to get on for themselves and ignore the so-called experts with their books, advice, and networking or mentoring programmes.

5. If you were starting a new business based around a website, what do you think is the biggest thing to get right?

Assuming you can fulfil the service or goods supply that you offer, the biggest thing to get right is simply to emotionalise your offering. Force people to have to make a definite choice NOT to use you. That is similar to “LOVE” and “HATE” emotion. It’s no good at all being averagely acceptable. You must put massive effort in. Most businesses are not big or good or well-financed enough to hit the big centre ground, so for goodness sake take an edge, and then you’ll pick up many centre-ground customers, too.

 

That’s it. Thanks, Ling! If you’ve never seen the site before, Ling’s Cars is very much worth a look.
Do share this post if you’ve found any of it interesting/useful.

14 replies
  1. Ling Valentine
    Ling Valentine says:

    Wah, thanks so much Dan!

    So many people criticise but so few get on with it, in business. It’s been really good to discuss this stuff with you. Now, I am off for a celebration weekend on the DFDS cruise-ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam (and back) with my team! All due to you publishing this blog :)

    Must do another one, soon!

    Hahhahaha, Ling!

    Reply
  2. Tim Leighton-Boyce
    Tim Leighton-Boyce says:

    There’s one big lesson which screams out from this: it’s all about content. In this case that would be the videos, the personality, the emotion, the story and so on. Too many sites are just order-taking facilities for people who have already decided to buy.

    This was great fun to read as well. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. James Chudley
    James Chudley says:

    Great interview, thanks Dan.

    As a UX professional I thought i’d chuck my 2p in.

    Tim has nailed it. Ling has taken a product and turned it on its head. She’s selling something in a way it’s never been sold before. That’s is why it’s interesting to people and why we are discussing it here. From a PR perspective it’s genius.

    Usable sites don’t have to be boring. I wish half the sites I worked on had this much character and personality. If something that is potentially boring (like leasing a car) can be made more interesting then that will differentiate this service for a certain audience of this kind of website.

    I think the criticism this site gets around the design misses the point. I’d be more interested in the design of the buying process and how that has been optimised. How was the site designed to meet user needs as well as to entertain them?

    It’s fascinating when something like this breaks the mould. Especially in the way it challenges the established ‘rules’. What would be interesting is seeing how people react to this site from the perspective of factors like trust, usability, expectation…

    If Ling lets me have a go in her rocket launcher i’d be happy to do some user testing and find out ; )

    Reply
  4. Paul Gerst
    Paul Gerst says:

    I enjoyed that. The main lesson I got from Ling is to trust your instint: go with your gut, particularly with content and website design. I totally agree with her about the boring minimalist web sites. My only question: is it all about price. Does she have the lowest prices (I dont know UK car prices)? Can you use the same design, tactics to achieve success if you do not compete on price. I am not sure you can. Something to ponder. Thanks for introducing lingscars.com

    Reply
    • Ling Valentine
      Ling Valentine says:

      Paul,

      The way car leasing prices are displayed by most firms is corrupt and illegal. They often avoid the VAT, have non-standard initials in order to make monthly payments look cheaper. They use strategies of confusion marketing, often hiding things like metallic paint, delivery charge, “document” fee etc, in order to advertise cheaper prices. They are idiots because their whole USP is based on price – it has to be, they have nothing else.

      What I do is treat visitors like adults, disclose everything, add in the VAT and put every car on a level playing field so they can be compared. I allow all car prices to be compared back to back. BMW to Kia. The manufacturers hate that. May the best car/price ratio win!

      Once you get down to price on its own, that is a losing strategy of Dutch auction. My prices are damn good, but there is always some fool selling cars for no profit, or pretending they have a price in order to switch-sell (“oh, we’ve just run out of those 3dr cars, the 5dr ones are just £20 more…” etc). But these are the unreliable suppliers with bad service.

      Ling

      Reply
  5. Ling Valentine
    Ling Valentine says:

    James,

    In truth, my processes hasn’t really been optimised professionally, but just by using it. It is just that I use the website too for work, for quoting people and navigating stuff, so I like it to be bright and welcoming and usable.

    I have my own IT staff. Some web things are massive investments, that took months to complete. Things like my CAR QUOTE FORM http://www.lingscars.com/quoteform.php which IS a work of blood and sweat. Try it, add “testing form” after your surname eg “Chudley testing form” so I don’t respond.

    My car proposal form (private customers) we internally describe as the best form in the world. It took 6 months to make. My business form is nearly ready, too, at the moment that’s an older more basic version. How to get people to continue filling massively long forms is an art I think, but today for example over 20 people have applied a car on my car proposal form. That’s good.

    Because cars are a massive thing/big decision, selling them at all online is a miracle. Few others manage it. it is emotion/trust. And there are dozens and dozens of variables in cars, but what managing this on the web means is that I can service customers 100% online, not by phone which is terribly inefficient. No other car company in the UK can do this 100% online. Sometimes I never speak to customers at all between original enquiry and car delivery etc.

    This is the key to profitability: volume, efficiency and a sausage machine. Customers love it.

    You should note there is a full customer website CRM behind LINGsCARS, called LINGO (my original build). It means I converse with customers on an indelible transcript chat room, so everything is in writing. Cars are big things, often >£30,000 at stake in a car order. I don’t want them going wrong. There are often 200 customers in process and a further 100 having quotes etc at one time. Cars take a LONG time, these days, a 6 month wait is nothing special. Maintaining customers for that long is VERY hard.

    Other companies use Excel, access, paper, phones etc. That is regressive and inefficient and cannot sustain volume with a small number of staff. That’s why often, other companies service can be bad, as can that from car dealers. Lack of systems and communication. Whereas I measure response time in minutes and publish current times (usually within 5 minutes), averaged over the last 4 working hours. So customers know how long they have to wait for a reply. No one else does that.

    It’s not a simple thing, this online stuff. The front end is just the start :) I believe in heavy online investment building stuff that works. As an indication how big… my mySQL database has 420 tables. Immense.

    Thanks for all comments.

    Ling

    Reply
  6. Andrew B
    Andrew B says:

    I love this post. I’m working on a Test & Target implementation at the moment and some of the quotes in here are gold. It reminds me of the story of Douglas Bowman (http://news.cnet.com/google-designer-leaves-blaming-data-centrism/).

    I strongly believe that there is a limit to the value of split / multivariate testing and as someone with a major in econometrics I strongly doubt the principles of T&T science. No matter the sample size, you cannot treat T&T outcomes as proof as the competitive landscape (and hence the sample) changes every day in an online environment.

    There is a lot to be said for backing the artists in your design team to deliver a good outcome. Great art creates conflict and healthy conflict generates traffic….

    Reply
    • Ling Valentine
      Ling Valentine says:

      Andrew, I don’t quite have “artists” (heh), but certainly allowing someone to have an opinion is great. Most businesses are worried about having opinions in case someone disagrees with them, but honestly… you have to stand for something.

      Ling

      Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. [...] -Ling Valentine, owner of LingsCars.com (do yourself a favor and click over to check it out) on the user experience on the web. Courtesy of Dan Barker. [...]

  2. [...] on a student website circa 1996. However, it works. In fact it works remarkably well indeed, as Ling revealed in a recent interview with Dan [...]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>