The End of the Hit Parade

An ad making the rounds on the radio airwaves has a guy touting a new Web site called iClock. "It tells the time," he enthuses, trying to sell a friend on investing in the venture. "Ticktock, baby."

The ad is a parody of dotcom hype. But part of its humour lies in the fact that it gets at a deeper truth: once upon a time, if it was on the Web, it was good. If it did tricks, so much the better. And how did a company know if its Web site was really good? Of course, by measuring traffic. The more traffic, the better, right?

Well, if you're still just counting hits to gauge the success of your company's site, ticktock, baby - it's probably time for a redesign. Chances are good that your site isn't really delivering what your customers want and isn't giving your company a return on its Web investment.

Why? According to Forrester Research (US), many companies still use hits as the primary measurement of Web site success, followed by page views and session length. Yet few companies make good use of this basic server data. They don't know how to slice it and dice it, and even if they do, the information they glean is often too simplistic: hit levels alone can't demonstrate customer loyalty or satisfaction, nor can they tell a company whether its Web site has helped reduce costs or bring in new business.

If measuring hits can't tell you how your Web site is doing or how to improve it, what can? At furniture maker American Leather, customer surveys showed the company how it could use its Web site to play a role in a furniture shopping excursion - without alienating its dealers. At natural foods and wellness products retailer Whole Foods, careful tracking of customer responses to an e-mail newsletter revealed the need for a new Web site. And at online learning site Hungry Minds, analysing users' movements revealed the potential for lucrative partnership deals.

Investing any more money in your Web site without evaluating how well it meets the customers' needs - or whether it is delivering enough of an ROI to justify its existence - is about as stupid as investing in a Web site that tells the time. This story will give you tips on how to measure whether your Web site measures up.

Clocking Customer Satisfaction

Getting into the mind of the Internet consumer is a job not just for IT alone. Marketing and IT must come together; indeed, the entire executive team needs to get involved. Creative Good, a customer-experience-focused Internet consulting company in New York City, uses "listening labs" to help clients through this process. In the labs, Creative Good employees conduct one-on-one interviews with a typical Web site user. Creative Good founder and president Mark Hurst favours the one-on-one approach over large focus groups. "A big group feeds off each other," Hurst says. Rather than leading users through sites by asking specific questions, Creative Good interviewers ask users to simply navigate the site as they would at home and talk about what they are doing. "We get a lot more truth about a site's efficacy that way," Hurst says. "That will lead to a better redesign process."

User surveys are another way to find out what your customers want - and they can help a company put a personal strategic spin on industry-wide research. American Leather used both industry research and a customer survey to carve out its Web strategy. Furniture industry research showed that buyers still want to feel how comforable a chair is before they buy it; the research also showed that furniture Web sites have far higher return rates than American Leather's own .03 per cent return rate from its brick-and-mortar retailers. Given that research, it simply didn't make sense for the manufacturer to sell direct over the Web and undercut its distributors. "[It] would not be profitable for us because each piece is custom-made and not easily resaleable," says Cary Benson, American Leather's vice president of sales and marketing.

American Leather's survey of its own customers revealed that they wanted a Web site with product information so that they could do research online. "That way they could come to our site and really spec out what they wanted before they went to a retail outlet to buy," Benson says. That led American Leather to add a dealer locator online. Future site improvements in the works include adding a room planning tool and a tool for checking the production status of furniture ordered through a retail store. But the company seems to already be reaping some benefits from the dealer locator and expanded product information, Benson says. In 1999, furniture shipments rose 42 per cent, which Benson credits in part to the Web site; many retailers have told him that customers learned about the company via a magazine ad that listed the Web site as a way to get more information.

Mining E-Mail and Visitor Trails

Interviews and surveys aren't the only ways to figure out what customers want from your Web site. At Wholefoods.com, Whole Foods' online store, tracking customer responses to a monthly e-mail newsletter sparked the idea for a new Web site. The monthly newsletter contained health alerts as well as information on laws relating to whole foods and health care. The rate at which new customers came to the site and bought goods skyrocketed following the mailing of the newsletter. "We realised we could develop a whole site based on providing this kind of information," says John Fischer, director of Internet marketing at Wholepeople.com, the new site that, in addition to selling natural products, offers information on health-care protocols that combine alternative and traditional medicine. Customer queries and requests for more information triggered by the Wholefoods.com newsletter also revealed that customers wanted to be able to e-mail articles on the site to someone else. They also wanted personalised content and collaborative filtering - that is, when looking at item X, they wanted to know that other people who bought item X bought items Y and Z to go with it.

At Hungry Minds, an online learning site, carefully analysing online visitor movements helped turn a redesign into a new revenue opportunity. Rather than simply tracking how many users came to the site, CTO Bill Schaefer and his team analysed the way users jumped between pages. They tracked user actions at the page-view level and plugged that data into a business intelligence system that was able to create "what if" scenarios. "We might see that a lot more people jump from music classes to books about music than vice versa," says Schaefer. "What we then do with that information is develop a relationship with a partner that sells music on the Web and create a jump from our page to their page."

Advanced data warehousing and data mining tools can cross-reference Web site data in multiple dimensions, helping companies get a broader picture of customer activity, says Lou Agosta, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group (US). "Data warehouses allow you to take transactional data from e-commerce sites and aggregate it in such a way to see which brands are hot and what customers are looking for," Agosta says. Knowing which customers are buying what - and when they are buying it - allows a company to better manage the physical flow of products and better manage fulfilment. That, in turn, can help them cut costs and maximise efficiency - numbers that will help demonstrate a site's ROI.

Data mining tools can be difficult to use, Agosta says, requiring a high level of analytical proficiency. Companies that don't have the expertise or resources in-house can outsource the job to marketing services integrators, according to Forrester Research's "Measuring Web Success" report. Some vendors offer turnkey packages, while other vendors charge monthly fees; costs range from as low as $US15,000 a year to $US200,000 a year and beyond. But Forrester's report states that any company that wants to be an e-commerce leader should develop an in-house "Web intelligence" infrastructure - that is, a way to aggregate, store and distribute Web site intelligence throughout the company; expect to spend well into six figures for products and systems integration help. The rewards will be greater than just being able to measure whether a Web site is successful, the report notes; good Web site intelligence will help a company develop better site personalisation, more targeted marketing, hotter sales leads and stronger partnerships with other e-commerce players.

Remembering the Basics

Even so, Creative Good's Hurst notes that pricey software isn't a magic bullet. Indeed, companies sometimes make the mistake of buying elaborate software packages that analyse data a million ways, and then neglect to look at the most basic, day-to-day measurements of how a site is doing in its primary function: promoting business. For an e-commerce site, those basic measurements are conversion rate - that is, the ratio of buyers to visitors - and average order size. For sites that make money via advertising banners, they should measure the number of ad banners viewed; other sites can measure traffic from return visitors versus traffic from new visitors.

Once a company has settled on the simple measurements that matter most, Hurst says, it must make sure that everyone in the organisation who works on the Web site is aware of those numbers - every day. "This should be a simple task too," Hurst says. "A daily e-mail is just fine." The e-mail should contain a short list in bulleted form stating the key measurements and highlighting any changes; a drop in conversion rates or order size could be a red flag about more serious problems with the site.

And beyond these numbers, experts say, companies would do well to remember one of the most basic elements of delivering a good customer experience: making sure that pages load quickly, even when the site is barraged with traffic. Performance was a key consideration for Web portal AltaVista when it underwent a redesign last year to add e-commerce, live chat, real-time news feeds and stock quotes, among other features, says Charles Rashall, the company's vice president of marketing. To make sure the new additions wouldn't drag down site performance, Rashall says, AltaVista increased its server space to 23 terabytes - enough to store a copy of the entire Internet.

Most companies can't afford to power up their server farms to portal strength, however. So Steve Telleen, managing director of Giga Information Group's Website ScoreCard, advises companies to avoid using flashy technologies that eat up server space and slow down page loading times, such as unnecessary streaming video or audio, or "virtual" room models.

Even the most basic technology and design decisions can sour a customer's experience. Formatting content in such a way that it can't be viewed by earlier versions of a Web browser can be a real turnoff for customers who have yet to upgrade to the latest version.

Another design faux pas is using images and icons for navigation without offering plain hypertext links. Images may look snazzy, but if they don't load properly - and there's no backup hypertext link navigation - users will be lost. "They have no idea where to navigate," Telleen says. "That is a surefire way to lose customers." At beer-brewer Heineken's site, he says, the lack of text navigation in the slow-to-load company store would make it impossible to buy a product should the images fail to load.

Above all, companies embarking on a redesign must remember the age-old exhortation to keep it simple. "Increasingly Web developers are enamoured of special effects and forgo the kind of simplicity that's key for a good customer experience," says Telleen. "Consumers come to the Web for ease of use. Take that away from them and they're not coming back."

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