The 7 Deadly Sins of Digital

There’s a bunch of things that people who are just getting into digital always seem to propose at some point or another. I guess they’re things that are part of the learning process. Things that a lot of us have done, and hopefully learned from. I’m not suggesting that anyone is stupid for doing any of these things (I’ve done the majority of them at least once). But I’m hopefully going to explain why they’re not good ideas in most cases.

Of course they’re not deadly. And like all ‘rules’ there’s good reasons to break them. But in most instances these things are not good. I’ve left out the new ‘trendy’ things like Google Earth, SecondLife, UGC, etc. I’m saving those for 7 deadly sins of digital 2.0.

In no particular order…



They say: “A game where you have to feed this little character to keep them alive, and you give them stuff, and they do stuff”

You say: “You want to create something based on an obsolete early 90s toy that wasn’t actually any fun? And you’re expecting people who don’t give a toss about your brand of fake-cheese-based snacks to go though a bunch of meaningless interactions for no real reward why?”

Why it seems like a good idea: prolonged engagement, a ‘relationship’, the original tamagotchis had a certain amount of Jap-cool

Why it’s not a good idea: they weren’t actually fun then, they’re still not now, if you’ve created one in the past you’ll find that the involvement rate drops off faster than a D’angostini subscription after issue one’s free binder. And it’s been done lots of times before.



They say: “Let’s make a screensaver”

You say: “When was the last time you installed a screensaver? When was the last time you saw a screensaver on someone’s screen?”

Why it seems like a good idea: screensavers were kind of fascinating when we were younger, at the time they were much richer and more visual than most of the web stuff that was around. They were animated, they had flying windows, zooming starfields, even scrolling text! They’re full screen (so they look a bit like a TV). And the idea of something that’s sitting there in the background, hiding, ready to jump up and surprise you when you’re being lazy has some kind of appeal I reckon.

Why it’s not a good idea: screensavers are a product of a byegone era, people don’t like installing stuff, the only time they actually come to life is when you’re not there. And they’re kind of a beacon that says my computer should be off or at least asleep to save power, but I’d rather show off some fancy graphical nonsense.


Interfaces that look like the tops of desks or tables

They say: “We could make it look like the character’s desk, you can click on a file to read it, if you click on the answering machine you can hear a message… And so on…”

You say: “Oh FFS we can bend space and time and create things that redefine the way that the world works, but you want to use a clumsy metaphor that people are going to have to decompile in order to figure out how to get to a bit of information that in some rare case they might actually want. And it’s not extensible. And besides how many people watch youtube videos of their own adverts in the residue at the bottom of a coffee cup? And it’s not accessible… And so on…”

Why it seems like a good idea: its safe and familiar. Everyone understands atoms and physical things. Lots of people don’t understand navigation, menu structures and information architecture. So it’s easier to ignore them and cling to something comfortable and comforting, like a messy desk.

Why it’s a bad idea: Aside from the stuff above it just is, trust me. Perhaps this imagined conversation between me and Ridley Scott makes it clearer:

Me: Hi Ridley, please will you direct a commercial for me, it’s basically a 60 second spot and it goes like this. We open on the first page of a book. There are words on the page, we need to wait for people to read the words. Then a hand turns the page and we move to scene two. It’s the second page of the book.
Ridley: Silence
Me: It looks like an aged book, there are coffee ring stains on page two.
Ridley: Silence
Me: You still there?


Desktop assistants / characters

They say: “You know the Microsoft paperclip, can we…”

You say: “Stop right there sonny, don’t say another word! Nobody likes the paperclip. The only good thing that ever happened to the paperclip was death. Even Bill Gates hates the paperclip.”

Why it seems like a good idea: being helpful is good. Stepping outside of a web-page and having some form of permanence and ongoing relationship makes sense.

Why it’s a bad idea: people don’t like installing things, they want things on their terms, it’s been done a lot and failed a lot no matter what the sales guys for DeskBuddy(tm) tell you.


A virus

They say: “Could we create an actual virus that spreads our message”

You say: “Why not do it in the real world instead – why not just make a branded version of HIV, there’s more people in the offline world that you can infect”

Why it seems like a good idea: massive unstoppable spread of your message.

Why it’s a bad idea: viruses are not a toy, they are really not good, you don’t want your brand to be associated with not good things, unless you work for evilcorp.


A ‘viral’

They say: “We’ve made this film, can you make it a viral”

You say: “I’m just going outside to suck on an exhaust pipe for 30 minutes – if I make it back I’ll stick it on YouTube for you”

Why it seems like a good idea: we’ve all seen ‘viral’ hits, they’re things that everyone has watched, that have been passed around, loved and genuinely become part of the culture of the web. We’ve not all seen the ‘viral’ wasteland, the thousands of clips that sit gathering dust at the bottom of the ‘exploding heads’ category on YouTube. And because most of us only see the good stuff that works we assume it’s easy.

Why it’s a bad idea: because it’s not easy. Now that ‘viral’ has become a dirty nasty industry full of paid for placements and seeding bungs you need to plan for it from the word go. It’s mostly not really about things being viral at all, it’s just about dark media buying.


Starting a list of seven things and not counting how many you’ve got.

I’m going to open this one up for submissions, anyone got any ideas for the 7th deadly sin? Best suggestion wins a book from my library. Seriously I’ll send a good book to you if you come up with the best suggestion – plus happy to replace any of my ones that are rubbish…

115 thoughts on “The 7 Deadly Sins of Digital”

  1. A website that does this and that and that and also this and they’re all funny.

    Problem with people who come from billboards and print ads. They always had to choose the best or strongest of their ideas to adorn one billboard. But when they get online every so-so idea becomes a “section” of one website.

    They think they don’t have to kill their idols anymore.
    But they do.

  2. How about heavy flash intros that take 5 minutes to load? And when you hit the back button it keeps you on the same page. And you can’t find the “music off” button? Those are great.

  3. How about websites that use the ‘grab-hold-of-the-corner of-the-page-and-drag-book’ idea? If I wanted to read a book, I’d pick up a book – not clumsily try and turn the pages of your digital book! Definitely a case of the first one being cool, the rest being old-hat.

  4. That is fantastic.

    Scroll bars for text? Or how about “can we make the site a PDF?”

    But my suggestion for the 7th would be the two versions. One for broadband and one for dial up. Or worse, one with flash and one without. That’s like designing one Annual Report in 8pt text and one in 20pt just in case people can’t read it.

    Design should be accessible and inclusive.

  5. Or this one that came about ever since Flash could read dynamic data and has lasted since:

    It’s a Flash movie but for it to start you need to put in your name and then you watch the movie and at the end there’s your name written somewhere IN THE MOVIE!

  6. Account Director sat in a huge fucking tower in NY: They Say: “Put this TV Ad on the internet now motherfucker!”

    Why it seems like a good idea: Because another cocksucker who’s the ‘digital guy’ in NY told them that YouTube was the shiznit.

    Why it’s a bad idea: Because if you ask me to do that again I’ll come to NY, sleep in your doorway to your building, drink special brew, use it as a toilet and ask you for change every time you enter and leave the building while coughing up blood all over your fucking Prada sneakers.

  7. Brilliant Iain. The two I would add:

    1. Let’s use a house floorplan as our interface. It’ll be brilliant. (It’s a dumb idea for all the same reasons as the desk doesn’t work.)

    2. Blog outreach. I think the vast majority of the time this strategy comes before actually having any clue why bloggers would give a shit about what you’re reaching out to them with.

  8. They say – Can we have a game? With a Lara Croft type superhero. She can have our brand plastered across her tight vest.

    You say – Are you insane? People play games to get away from fucking brands. They’re really not interested in having your piss-water (insert name of drinks brand) thrust in front of them by some improbable supervixen. They simply want to smoke weed and jerk off.

    Why it seems like a good idea – Games – they’re great for reaching elusive young guys and the games industry’s bigger than Hollywood.

    Why it’s really not a good idea – The games industry may be bigger than Hollywood, and there’s a reason – developing a kick-ass game with a coherent storyline, well realised characters and amazing graphics costs millions. You’ve only got 20 grand.

  9. Nice try peter – you’re thinking I’m just going to pick you to save on postage, but you’re wrong.

    And Noah, agree on the ‘floor plan’ thing. But like I said, we’ve all done them, in fact I think I might have even worked on v1.0 :-)

  10. The absolute worst is an HTML email with an embedded image. I know so many clients asking for this, and they seriously assume people would fall for such a nonsense.

  11. Widgets, you have blogs that look like Lewis Hamilton’s overalls, stop being a cheap skate and buy some banner ads.

    Why it seems like a good idea: SEO – inbound links. Apparent groundswell support

    Why its bad – limited control of brand usage/association,doesnt respect the audience as it increases upload time and it looks messy on the sites

  12. Presenting the recently finished TV spot as the brief for the digital campaign.

  13. “Hi Ridley, please will you direct a commercial for me, it’s basically a 60 second spot and it goes like this. We open on the first page of a book. There are words on the page, we need to wait for people to read the words. Then a hand turns the page and we move to scene two. It’s the second page of the book.”

    This is a great metaphor. Thank you.

  14. The Basic Deadly Sin of Digital.

    They say: Let’s do what everyone else is doing that worked.

    You say: It worked because it was an original idea. By the time you get it created and approved, it’ll be an old, boring idea.

    Why it seems like a good idea: See #1

    Why it’s not a good idea: See #2.

  15. Social Networking / Community –

    They say: We’d like to build a proprietary online social network for consumers that are interested in insurance (or fiber, soap, soft drinks etc. etc.).

    You say: Genius! That’s exactly what your consumer needs from the brand. Take a look around, there isn’t an existing social network of any scale that serves that topic or need right now…for good reason.

    Why it seems like a good idea: You’ve heard that social networks are a big deal in rags like Ad Age…why else would Rupert Murdoch have spent nearly $600 million dollars buying MySpace. Gazillions of people are using social networks and supposedly, there’s a lot of that good ol’ “word-of-mouth” that happens in these social networks.

    Why it’s not a good idea: People are pretty good about organizing themselves around topics, ideas and brands that they’re passionate about. If there isn’t any evidence that there’s already some good conversation and momentum happening around your topic it’s doubtful that a dumbass branded social network / community is going to do much to change that…and if there is some conversation happening why in the world do you expect that those people would rather “social network” on your site?

  16. Brilliant stuff Iain. Someone suggested a screensaver in the office on Friday. I aksed them when was the last time they had installed a screensaver and they said, “Yeah, but the target are into that sort of stuff.” Aaaaagh! It’s just laziness I think.

  17. Can we put the TV ad on the website? Because people really, really, want to seek out and watch a tiny compressed version of the thing they ignored on telly.
    Loading bars………… because I just love……….. hanging around waiting for ages………………. while your poorly engineered video concept……………….. grinds its gears. “Optimised for a broadband experience”. Just go away.

  18. very nice – here is my 2p’s worth:

    1. sites that have a door bell type entry
    example 1:
    example 2:

    2. client: “we need a microsite…”
    agency: “cool – lets do it in video where the user* can build up a sentence using preshot stuff. we could even let them put their friends name in the middle and send it on ..”


    * people not users

  19. Instead of copying link and pasting into existing email/facebook/blog whatever, let’s get people to give us their friend’s email address by allowing them to forward it on directly from our site!

    Then, we can hassle their friend to sign up to some kind of opt-in so we can spam them with an email camapign that we might brief you on in six months if we’ve got enough budget.

    Let’s make an easy thing difficult and then annoying!

    I’m ashamed to say it, but an error that direct agencies tend to make a lot….

  20. Nice one Martin – ‘Send to a Friend’ was on my original list. Even better when it’s done in a flash site where it’s impossible to actually get the URL of the bit you’re in, so you absolutely have to use Send to a Friend.

  21. Explaining the whole site on the homepage.

    You don’t put book descriptions on the front cover of books, you just try to make people want to pick the book up. On the web we often try to be too quick, get everything on one page so they don’t have to click anywhere and cram it all above the fold so they don’t have to scroll…

  22. Great post! Better than most business books I’ve read this summer.

    Regarding the screen savers. Wasn’t there a “truth” before that the screen would die or have the content “burned” on the screen forever if you let the computer on and that the screen-savers would prevent that…?

  23. The obligation to use humo(u)r:

    They say: “This needs to be tongue-in-cheek so people ‘relate to it’ and buy into our shallow conceit”

    You say: “You are joking? Seriously, you must be”

    Why it seems like a good idea: Humour is universal.

    Why it’s not a good idea: The universe is not exclusively humorous.

  24. funny stuff…

    The Myspace Page

    they say: “let’s pay rupert an absurd amount of cash to build a page with static content where all our customers can ‘be our friends'”

    you say: “Why not spend the money on something original that your customers will find useful or entertaining?”

    why it seems like a good idea: everyone’s seen the myspace stats

    why it’s not a good idea: everyone’s seen the myspace stats about users & habits. (never mind the 29,000 sex offenders)

  25. Let’s have some really irritating insect noise that really grab their attention – better still if it sounds like a failing hard drive – that will really engage the user.

  26. I quote:

    “There’s a bunch of things that people who are just getting into digital always seem to propose at some point or another. I guess they’re things that are part of the learning process.”

    Sometimes digital agencies seem to put up a low barrier of knowledge for people ‘getting into digital’ and starting the learning process.

    Maybe sin #7 should be The Sin that quite often is the cause of the first 6 sins?

    They say: Let’s hire someone who’s not “infected” by the new media way of thinking. Someone without digital background and experience. Someone who can come up with fresh ideas and not be buckled down by what’s possible or not.

    Why it seems like a good idea: New, original, fresh ideas. Ideas you, as a digital person, wouldn’t think of.

    Why it’s not a good idea: See sins #1 to #6.

  27. Great post and great responses. I particularly identify with trying to use shit games to engage your audience. Best one I’ve heard ‘People find Financial Services boring, people love games, so let’s make a financial services game.’

    Anyhow, you’ve all missed cardinal sin 101: ‘Welcome to our website’ as the main heading on the home page. Of course they’re welcome to it and of course it’s a website.

  28. Why don’t we get people to take pictures and upload them to our site or send in their ideas for how our campaign should evolve and then use them to mkake our next ad.
    Why it seems like a good idea: because it encourages people to inetract with our brand and take ownership of its values
    What it’s not a good idea: because they’re not interested in your brand, they don’t care what it’s values are and they won’t interact – and if they do it’ll make a crap ad.

  29. I think a new website which includes the features discussed above could do quite well in a retro sort of way. Shouldn’t be hard to find a client anyway.

  30. Thet say: Lets invent the wheel…
    Why it seems like a good idea: transport will be much easier.
    Why it’s not a good idea: people are dying driving cars, motorcycles, bicycles, …
    Blablabla… I understand tamagotchi, paperclip but what decided rest of things are here?

  31. They say: Let’s have a Myspace or Facebook page!

    Why it seems like a good idea: People will really start to engage with our brand and get closer to our staff.

    Why it’s not a good idea: because no-one cares. Who the feck wants to engage with an imaginary character? Or read about insurance on Myspace? Or poke some singing, prancing brand puppet on Facebook?

    If you want imaginary friends, invent them in your own head (and don’t try to network them with my imaginary Facebook friends).

  32. Saying they want a site on Second Life would have been much too easy, and I’ve written about that much too much already. So, here’s mine:

    They say: “Hey, we should do a blog!”

    You say: “You mean you want to speak openly and honestly with people? You wanna get transparent? You want to give them an open forum for dialogue and discussion? Wow! That’s great! Too bad your [pick one] company, brand, product … [pick one] has, is, will … [pick one] kill people, pollute the environment, make the world a generally shittier place, isn’t very nice, has nothing good to say, lies all the time, does not like giving up control ….. ”

    Why it seems like a good idea: Because blogging looks like an easy way to do online PR. And, folks on the board can use the word ‘blog.’

    Why it’s not a good idea: Because most brands simply cannot do it. In addition to the reasons above, add conservative corporate counsel, timid PR folks, marketing folk with low vision, angry stockholders, ambulance-chasing lawyers and who knows what else. In the end, it take weeks for most CEOs to post.

    Great post, btw.

  33. – starting a blog that has no purpose other than praising the brand
    – clickable menu items that move/rotate on rollover or just move/rotate continuously

  34. Digital agencies thinking they will steal the ATL dinosaurs’ crown/s

  35. Sites with too many pages and too little content on each, causing the top of page link to sit above the fold.

  36. Did you see the intro to the dare school thing that was doing the rounds last year – they had a similar rant about digital no nos, including the desk metaphor.

    They also had the page turning thingy, which someone above mentioned. Which reminds me of a story I heard last week from some digital dudes currently working at a very famous and well respected ATL agency.

    Basically the offline creatives at said ATL agency had this amazing idea that you could use a metaphor of “turning pages in a book” which they wanted to talk to the digital dudes about. When they were duly told that it was a pretty played out idea, the creative director erupted, shouting that he’d had enough of being told that “he didn’t get digital” and they were going to do it whether they liked it or not.

    Which cheered me up immensely, because I’d been worrying about these fuckers going after digital budgets, but they still obviously have no fucking clue what they are doing.

  37. The thing that amuses me about the DareSchool film (I was their first Technical Director and had the nightmare job of bring them down to earth with the first DareSchool site from a sensible technical perspective – no you can’t have zero latency live streaming video with a synchronised phone call. Let me explain this this called the internet to you.)is that they did most of the stuff that annoying actor is ranting on about until recently!! The Martin Parr Walkman site was the ‘defacto’ desk metaphor that everyone raved about until someone suggested it was uncool. Ditto on Post-its and all that stuff. There is an extreme arrogance about it all that supposes that any clients actually gives a shit what they think on such matters, which i seriously doubt. If I was a brand client and I liked the idea of a top down view of a desk and my digital agency said ‘no no that’s so uncool and been done’ i would say well do it better then and make it more interesting because i like it and i’m paying you to come up with good ideas and a good idea isn’t always a new one. It’s a good idea done well. The thing that used to me me chuckle at Dare was the amount of creative self-backslapping that used to go on even when an idea was not particularly good or worse when it was completely shit. Hey ho.

  38. James – I totally agree that it doesn’t have to be a new idea to be good. Otherwise the whole industry would have been fucked years ago.

    But when you know something to be wrong from bitter experience you have to try to make it better. That’s not to say reject it out of hand mind you…

  39. Actually, i was ticking off the things they were saying were no-no’s that I was pretty sure they’d done as I went along.

    In their defence, I’d say that some of these things were good the first time they were done, and have become shit with overuse. It’s certainly not true of all of them though.

    I actually interviewed for that tech director job – but i really didn’t like the set up. The first interview i had they told me they had a guy there who had been really loyal and a great support but they didn’t think he’d make tech dirctor.

    I asked why he wasn’t in the room interviewing if he knew the most about tech in the agency and they told me he wouldn’t be happy about someone coming in over him, so they hadn’t told him yet. So I asked what they’d do if they hired me and he had a problem with the fact someone had been brought in over him, and they said they’d get rid of him.

    To be honest, I’m sure it makes perfect business sense, and I don’t want to single out Dare as an agency that follows this kind of bullshit practise, because most of them do, but I’d heard anough to know I wasn’t ineterested in the job. Luckily enough, they didn’t want me either :)

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