Site Specifics - Does Your Web Site Pass Muster? (1,327 words)
By Brian Howard
The dot-com crash notwithstanding, your Web presence should be part of your business plan, regardless of your business goals.
Sure, it comes with all sorts of problems, but no other tool is as adept at task-accomplishment. And no channel provides anywhere near the wealth of analytic data. But since the Web is still a relatively new medium, there is no shortage of models and postulates for how to run a site. Spend any time on the Web and you'll find that many of them are dead wrong.
Like most companies with a Web site, you probably could be doing a better job with yours, but perhaps aren't sure where to start.
Author/consultant Jim Sterne, who runs the Target Marketing of Santa Barbara consultancy (no affiliation with this magazine) and recently published "Web Metrics: Proven Methods for Measuring Web Site Success," warns that before you start tweaking and troubleshooting, you need to make sure you have a clear idea of what it is you want your Web site to do.
"It's breathtakingly simple in the explanation and shockingly obtuse in the execution," he explains of companies that, when sitting down to troubleshoot a site, can't first agree on what it is the site is supposed to do.
Is your goal simply to sell? Are you supplementing your call center? Building an online community of your products' users?
Only once you know what you're trying to do can you go about measuring how well you're doing it.
Design of the Times
One of the most basic areas to look at is how your site is designed. The graphical interface is important here, but so is architecture.
We've learned from IBM ads that your logo in flames looks "really cool" but does next to nothing for sales.
What you should be looking for in terms of a graphical interface is something reflective of your company's brand image and marketing campaigns, and, above all else, intuitive and easy to use.
"It should be easy for them to accomplish what they're trying to do," explains Sterne. If this sentiment seems gee-whiz self-evident, think back on some of your recent Web experiences.
"Are you trying to sell stuff? Well, it should be as easy as possible to buy stuff. It should be as easy as possible for people to discover, compare, contrast, try, configure, join, subscribe ... whatever the action word is, the focus should constantly be on ease of use ... and it seldom is," Sterne says.
There are several ways to go about discovering whether or not your customers are having an easy time navigating your site.
First off, you can ask them:
• Conduct a usability study wherein you set people down in front of computers with your site and then ask questions about the experience.
•Another option is to employ a pop-up survey that asks, between pages, why certain choices were made and what is expected of the next page.
Or, says Sterne, you can just watch them:
•Sites can offer discounts to customers who let companies track their keystrokes to "see all the times I hit the 'back' button or all the times I didn't fill out the form completely."
•Other sites simply analyze server logs to see what paths customers take through the site, where bottlenecks occur and where they exit.
Make It Personal
The great thing about the Web is that it can be hardwired to your database. From there, you can do all sorts of personalizing based on what you know about your customers. But because you can do something doesn't necessarily mean you should.
"We're into some really deep black magic here," warns Sterne. "There's an awful lot that's possible; the question is: 'How valuable is it?'"
From simple recognition ("Welcome back, Dave"), to customizable pages (like My Yahoo!), to personalized extra-nets, there's a world of options. But are there any rules about how and what to do?
"No," says Sterne. "Everybody's experimenting as we go along."
Since personalization is such a vast frontier, the best way to proceed is to stick your toe in.
"First you look at your budget," offers Sterne, "and then you start trying things and see what works. There's nothing that says you absolutely have to have personlization. Can you afford it? When you try it, is it working? Are your competitors doing it?"
You're a direct marketer, and testing online is cheap, so test different approaches to see what works and what flops.
Are You Interacting?
While the spam deluge means that e-mail prospecting will remain problematic, the Internet still is magic when it comes to dealing with your house file.
Where your Web site factors into your customer service and CRM programs is through cost avoidance. Think of your Web site as a 24-7 customer service rep.
"Pulling a number out of the air, say it's $10 to talk to somebody on the phone," reasons Sterne. "But if I put up a FAQ document and that answers your question and you don't call me, I've just saved $9.50," assuming the document costs 50 cents per view to maintain.
"The thing people are forgetting is they have to figure in customer satisfaction," continues Sterne. "If I can go to your Web site and get an answer at 11:30 at night, I'm a happy camper, and that's worth money."
Sterne offers Cisco Systems as an example. "Every time you run through a problem situation, you open up a case, work it through either on their Web site or with their people. The last interaction is, 'Was this good? How can we make it better?' If you do it all on the Web, the last interaction is, 'Did this save you from a phone call?' Half the time it does."
You've Got to Keep It Integrated
If you see having a Web presence as just another channel to keep tabs on, well, you're right. Activating an additional channel for sales, customer service, etc., can be like opening Pandora's Box.
Out-of-sync inventory, marketing and back-end fulfillment can unleash untold havoc. And there's really not much, from a metrics perspective, to be done here other than track complaints. "How often are people complaining that there's a price difference or an availability discrepancy?" beckons Sterne. "How often is your distribution chain coming to you with lawsuits," he laughs.
Integrating your Web site with the rest of your company is an organizational philosophy. "You have to make that an area high enough up in the food chain that they have the authority to make it happen," says Sterne.
The key to a strong Web presence is a sense of purpose. During the e-commerce explosion of the late 1990s, many sites went up willy-nilly. Residue of that mad rush remains on many companies' sites.
Sterne recalls interviewing, a few years back, 25 companies for a white paper he was working on. The purpose, he says, was to find out what was being measured, how the information was being analyzed and what steps were then being taken.
The overriding response was that companies were overwhelmed with data, and didn't know what to do with it. This year Sterne inverviewed 50 companies for his book and asked them the same questions. Progress is being made, but we're not all the way there. "They said, 'Well, we're collecting a ton of data, we are cleansing the data, we are analyzing the data, we are crunching the numbers and creating these really lovely reports, and we're sending them out to the business units.' I said, 'OK, and then what?' They said, 'And then we do it again a week later.'"
All the metrics and analytics in the world will amount to nothing if not acted on.
"There needs to be better education in Web marketing in general," says Sterne. "But the vast majority of decisions are made for political reasons. We need to start maneuvering the politics so that Web metrics can have meaning."