The Web Versus Real Life

As you read this article, what other things have you been doing online? Sending e-mail? Reading news? Writing a blog? It would be ego-centric of me to presume that the only reason you are online is to read this article. In fact, you probably found this article as the result of other things you were doing online, like browsing this Web site or reading e-mail.

Your life is the context into which this article must fit, not the other way around. It’s up to me, the author, to entice you with a clever title and give relevant examples to which you can relate. I do this to establish a connection with you, the reader, so that I can then share with you my perspective on how Web sites should understand their customers. If I succeed, then my opinions will become part of the context in which you think about Web sites and read other articles.

See Your Site in the Context of People’s Lives

The same principles of engagement apply to e-commerce Web sites. After potential consumers arrive, Web sites must engage customers by piquing their interest with targeted promotions, good navigation headings, and meaningful images. These draw customers deeper into the site and move them along toward both their goals and, presumably, the site’s goals.

However, once customers are engaged on a site, life still plays a role in the eventual outcome of that visit. Nearby people cause distractions, family members may want to be consulted before decisions are made, and scheduled events, perhaps as mundane as lunch, can put a transaction on hold. Every Web site owner needs to acknowledge that these are the realities of customers’ lives. At a minimum, Web sites must be tolerant of these distractions and intrusions. Great Web sites actually embrace the context of customers’ lives to help customers become even more engaged.

Distractions Are a Normal Customer Experience

Paying bills online at night is an activity during which I am almost always disrupted. Sometimes it’s related to the bill paying process itself, like opening and reading the bills, other times it’s the kids or the TV distracting me. What used to bother me most was the automatic time-out of my session, requiring me to log back in and navigate back to where I was. How frustrating! But now, in recognition of the normal distractions while banking online, my bank prompts me with a message about impending time-out so I have the opportunity to click and keep the session alive. This is an example of a Web site adjusting to my life instead of requiring me to fit into its scheme.

Shopping online is rarely isolated to a single Web site, and usually not just an online activity. My last online purchase of exercise equipment involved two search portals, three manufacturers’ Web sites, a trip to a local sports equipment store, visits to three Web sites of out-of-state stores, six e-mails and a phone call with a friend, and a hearsay story about equipment failure. Granted, this was a US$300 purchase of something I expect to last at least 10 years, so it was more than my usual amount of research. The best sites I encountered helped me aggregate the information I needed to make a decision, and they kept me on track in the purchase process.

Features That Engage Customers

The features that engage customers are those that cater to the natural decision process and time frame:

  • Customers want to collect and share information with friends or family that might have a valuable option or be affected by the decision. “E-mail this product” (or in other domains, “E-mail this itinerary” or “E-mail this article”) lets a customer solicit direct feedback from friends about the item being considered. Also, e-mailing product information to oneself helps customers collect what they see so they can process it later and keep track of the sites they’ve visited.
  • Customers want information from knowledgeable others. Product reviews from current owners give customers practical information about products that goes beyond the standard marketing materials and product descriptions. A site with good product reviews is a unique resource that competing sites cannot replicate.
  • Customers want to resume the purchase process after they gather more information, without starting from the beginning. Saving a product to a wish list or storing recently viewed products lets customers resume where they left off and saves steps of having to re-locate a product.

Each of the features above is a service to the customer. Each one also has an important business benefit — they keep customers engaged with your site and in the purchase process. E-mail lets you touch the customer and their friends directly about the product and about your site. Useful product reviews build trust with customers and bring them back when they consider future purchases. Wish lists and recently viewed products remind customers of the purchase process and re-engage them unobtrusively.

Know Your Customer Beyond Your Site

Had any of the Web sites I visited in my recent purchase process tried to understand me based on the behavior data it could gather, they would have missed 90 percent of the picture. Any number of misguided conclusions might have been drawn, and these sites would miss the feature opportunities that I would value most in a significant purchase.

In order to get the big picture of customer experience, Web site owners need to do customer research in ways not tied solely to a single Web site. One methodology for doing this is Open Web Research, pioneered by Keynote. Open Web Research lets participating customers explore any Web site with any number of browser windows as they go about a task. There are no artificial restrictions on how they navigate, process new information, or decide what to look at next. Participants have the option of answering questions before, during, and after their tasks. All the attitude data is captured alongside behavior data so the analyst knows what customers think in the context of what they actually do.

A recent Competitive Intelligence study conducted by Keynote on purchasing vacation packages employed the Open Web Research methodology. It assigned participants the intentionally broad task of researching a vacation that they would like to take, including transportation, lodging, and activities. As a result, people used a wide variety of sites and features: search portals, destination sites, hotel and airline sites, and special vacation sites. Even though only 28 percent began their search at a search portal, 70 percent of people used a search portal at some point. Clearly, the customer decision and research process is not linear and often has multiple points of origin.

The Vacation Package study also showed that there are many external sources of information that come to bear on a vacation decision. First, only 7 percent of people planned a vacation for just themselves, so this task almost uniformly required information sharing with another decision influencer. Second, only 22 percent of people confined their information gathering to just the Web. Sixty percent of people consulted friends or family, and many people used print media and professional travel agents.

Customer Acquisition Opportunities

The Open Web Research methodology also provides invaluable data for improving customer acquisition. By taking a broad perspective on problems customers are trying to solve, you discover many of the places they go before they get to your site. These places are opportunities for advertising and customer acquisition.

Great Web sites proactively research the complexity of customer decisions and the customer experience. A single Web site is usually just one small part of a consumer’s online experience, and the Web is usually one small part of the overall decision being made. For Web professionals immersed in the customer experience on their single site, it’s easy to adopt an overly narrow view of customers. However, your interests and your customers’ interests will be best served if you expand your perspective of them to include more than just their Web site experience.

Dr. Paul Moore is senior product manager at Keynote Systems, Inc.

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