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How Deep Is Your Web Site? Testing for Immersion
Agency.com, a New York-based interactive marketing agency, has developed an online tool to test the effectiveness of corporate web sites in immersing users in the total brand experience.
Posted Jun 5, 2000
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Build a truly interactive Web site, say the experts, and customers will beat a path to your URL. But online strategy as distinct from business strategy is a dead-end. Many companies see CRM and e-business as two separate initiatives, says Carol Ferrara, senior retail analyst at Gartner Group. That leads to fatal errors both for business and for customer relationships alike.

Online systems for tracking knowledge about customer likes and dislikes can help a company recover the kind of life-long customer relationships that, in simpler times, were a given. But too often companies forget that this relationship is a street that runs in both directions. An ineffective online presence can be worse than none at all.

If visitors to your Web site can't find the products or services they are interested in quickly, if there's no way to place an order, if navigation is confusing, they're likely to throw up their hands in frustration and take their business elsewhere. Your customer's online experience must carry over into the real world. If transactions made online aren't reflected when they walk into a store or call customer service, they're likely to lose faith in the idea of e-commerce entirely and you'll lose the opportunity to maintain a customer history.

It's not enough to build a Web site with fast, easy access to information. A successful Web site today incorporates the ability to give consumers individually relevant products and services while providing them with the opportunity to offer feedback that improves the site's ability to meet their needs now and in the future.

For example, British Airways allows members of its Executive Club to log in to a special section of the airline's Web site to change their seating preferences, order special meals, and otherwise personalize their travel. Recently, after receiving e-mail from many frequent flyers requesting a way to check their miles online, the airline added that feature to the site. The result: increased brand loyalty from happy passengers who felt the airline was listening to their requests.

"After 70 years of mass-market advertising, people are sick of being talked to and talked at, and they're ready to be talked with," says Kyle Shannon, co-founder and chief people officer of Agency.com, the New York-based interactive marketing agency, which built the British Airways site. "We call the process of helping our clients deepen customer relationships through technology Interactive Relationship Managementâ„¢. It's about immersing [customers] in the total brand experience via electronic media and [allowing them] to say what they think."

Measuring Success
What customers say, Shannon explained, is that they expect four things from e-business:

  • Immediacy of information
  • Transparency, the sense that what they see is what they get
  • Interoperability--for example, the ability to do their banking via ATM, telephone, in person, and online, with no one method working better than another and the results reflected cross-platform.
  • Information that is relevant to their own individual needs.

    If a site meets those expectations, customers will return again and again, building brand loyalty and becoming ever more willing to tell the company what works and what doesn't. That, in turn, allows the company to become increasingly effective in managing its customer relationships. In order to start that cycle, Agency.com uses a proprietary tool, the Immersibility Index, which measures how successful a site is at deepening the relationship between client and customer.

    The Web-based index measures a site's success at delivering branding and visual impact, usability, functionality, and content by quantifying how the site performs on multiple criteria in each category. Companies that want to see how their own sites stack up can try the index at no charge on Agency.com's own Web site.

    Shannon noted that in order to capture and retain customers, a Web site needs to score well on the most vital aspects of brand immersion and service. A banking site, for example, must be high on functionality and usability, even if its content is unremarkable; whereas a site intended to build brand awareness must place visual impact and content ahead of functionality. By using the Immersibility Index both for planning a site and for fine-tuning it after deployment, Agency.com and its clients can see where the site is working and where it needs improvements. Common mistakes that bubble to the surface include:

  • Creating a site with nothing more than static text and pictures rather than leveraging the Web's interactive possibilities. Users want additional personalized customer service features they can't get from a catalog, features like cross product selling and package tracking.

  • Giving little thought to making the site user-friendly. Can a customer update her shopping cart without having to go back to the home page and drill down five levels to add an item? Is there any way to get help?

  • Letting the site get out of date. In a retail store, holiday decorations come down on January 2, but it's not unusual to see holiday greetings on a Web site well past Groundhog Day--which leads the customer to believe the site is offering old merchandise that's out of stock.

    On the other hand, companies, which extend their commitment to customer satisfaction to the online channel, have thrived. One such company is Lands' End, which has tapped Burlington, Mass.-based WebLine Communications (recently purchased by Cisco) to provide its Web site with a variety of innovative tools for Web collaboration.

    Most notably, the catalog clothing retailer offers a unique "collaborative shopping" application which allows two people to connect their browsers via password and shop the site simultaneously, exchanging comments via text-based chat. The site also allows users to contact a live sales agent who can answer questions in real time, even pushing out pages to guide users. According to San Jose, CA-based Gartner Group analyst Ferrara, aborted orders and merchandise returns have dropped sharply since Lands' End implemented these features.

    "[To] incubate new customers while extending your relationship with existing ones... you have to present a single face to your customers across channels and across technologies," Ferrara notes. "Why would you want different organizations with different strategies for the same customer?"

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