• December 1, 2008
  • By Jessica Tsai, Assistant Editor, CRM magazine

Spiff Up Your Site!

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If you put your corporate materials in a beauty pageant, your Web site would probably stand up well in front of today’s judges—better known as your audience. It may not be Miss America just yet but it’s definitely a strong contender for Miss Congeniality, or at least Best in Swimsuit. The word “sexy” has certainly been thrown around the technology industry and it comes as no surprise that the rapid sophistication of Web sites is contributing to that perception.

Most sites don’t boast flashy images or personalized recommendations, but big names such as Amazon.com, Netflix, and Travelocity continue to raise the bar. According to research firm eMarketer, roughly 193 million Americans used the Internet in 2008, and once they’ve been exposed to a good experience, they’re not likely to settle for anything less.

The tremendous business opportunity online makes the need for a well-designed Web site even more compelling. A Nielsen report released in January 2008 found that 875 million (86 percent) of the world’s online population has made a purchase online, up a whopping 40 percent from 2006. And in North America alone, despite vendor and consumer concerns about security, 92 percent of online users shopped over the Internet this year.

And yet experts agree that there’s no single trick to converting site visitors. The following strategies and customer case studies are derived from the experiences of specific companies. While they may be a good place to start, it’s important to use A/B and multivariate testing to assure that each element works for you and your visitors.

“Think about the site as [the result of] many, many decisions,” says Seth Rosenblatt, vice president of product marketing at Interwoven, a provider of content management software. In doing so, you’ll soon see that each item can impact customer conversion. You’ll want each one to justify its piece of real estate.

Start Off Right
For those who have yet to put up a site—yes, there are a few—now is as good a time as ever. Like any part of your business, designing a Web site requires an intimate understanding of your company and, more important, of your customers.

When Anthony Rodriguez began his initial planning for StarvingStudent.net, he recalls aiming for simplicity. “A picture says a thousand words,” he says. “I used a basic publisher to make a picture of the layout I wanted, put a rectangle box here and there…[used] basic text to explain which [part of the site] should do what,” he explains. Having his idea down on paper made conference calls and conversations with his Web designer infinitely more productive.

What typically happens, says Tim Ash, president and chief executive officer of Web-site optimization solutions provider SiteTuners, is that many corporate Web sites are designed within the technology department or by a graphic designer rather than by those who are producing the content. As a result, companies typically end up with what Ash calls a “Frankenstein-type monster” where nothing fits quite right.

Rodriguez admits to having a very limited technology background—and he’s certainly not alone. More and more software providers are responding to the growing demand for business solutions that empower the business user. Rodriguez created his site using San Diego–based SharePoint360’s Web solution, one that aims to remove the need for a tech-focused Webmaster or any programming skills beyond copy and paste, drag and drop. The idea is to give the tools to update and maintain the site to the people who have the knowledge, and the vested interest, in the content that resides there. Otherwise, says Paul West, a principal for SharePoint360, your Web site may be at the mercy of a Webmaster who only updates when he has the time—and you risk hurting your business by having static, irrelevant content.

Before he publicly launched his site, Rodriguez invited a focus group of 50 students from San Diego State University (SDSU) to take the site for a test run. Based on the feedback, he made changes that were then presented to a second focus group of 30 students from the University of California at Irvine.

Rodriguez says he could have kept going, tweaking until no one could find a single complaint, but it’s unrealistic. Nobody’s perfect, and certainly not on the first try. “A site should always be evolving to some extent,” Rodriguez says. “You can’t always be planning. There has to be a time where the rubber meets the road.”

(Similarly, Intuit, the software company that makes popular tax preparation products such as QuickBooks, Quicken, and TurboTax, sought the voice of its customers to prepare for its site redesign in preparation for the 2008 tax season. Read more about Intuit’s experience in this month’s Real ROI.)

Let the Numbers Speak
The expert mentality still plagues many corporations, resulting in what Rosenblatt calls “HiPPO”—the highest-paid person’s opinion. Basing a discussion on the results of Web analytics and the words of your customer, you’ll find you have enough ammunition to get yourself heard.

Rosenblatt recalls one client, for example, that had a headshot of its chief executive officer on the homepage—and learned via testing that the design led to fewer conversions. Unless the CEO is clearly an influential figure in the industry, Rosenblatt has found that visitors simply don’t care. That can make for awkward conversations with the powers-that-be, but you can let the numbers do the talking. “It’s a lot easier to get things done when you bring the customer element into it,” he says, adding that there’s also an added benefit: “You’ll spare yourself from what are fairly long, agonizing meetings internally.”

By virtue of their job description, marketers have always tried to maintain control of the company and the brand. Nowadays, marketers are expected to guide and educate, putting everything on the table and letting the customer decide for herself. “Even the term ‘CRM’ implies that you have control over it,” Ash says. “It has to be [a] much more messy democracy. There’s a horde of barbarians knocking at your castle gates and our suggestion is to let them in. That sounds bizarre, but the customer is always right.”

Rosenblatt promises that it’s not quite the dramatic surrender it seems to be. “Have your customer in the process,” he says, “Integrate their opinion and actions…. Until you have that information, it’s hard to validate your strategic framework.” (For more on the trend toward transparency, see this month’s cover story.)

When it comes to Web design, you can do it on your own, hire an expert, or listen to your audience. Ash argues that doing it yourself is probably the worst option. “[It’s] not because you’re dumber than anyone else,” he says, “but because you’re too close to it.” Site redesigns take place on average every 12 to 24 months, but most of the time, the hermit is just grabbing a new shell rather than attacking the problems that prevent the visitor from having a better experience.

Less Is More
“Every page should have a goal,” Rosenblatt says. “If it doesn’t…you need to question whether it should even be there.” Many companies, however, find it hard to limit a single page to just a single goal.

Unfortunately, marketers tend to treat a Web page like a corporate brochure, overwhelming consumers with too much information on any given page. There needs to be a call to action and it needs to be obvious. Whether it’s downloading a white paper, signing up for email notifications, or making a product purchase, the call to action has to be prominent.

Moreover, Ash says that whether you’re providing content or encouraging a transaction, the worst thing you can do is overload people with clutter and choices. “Having too many choices to click on, too much text to digest, paralyzes [the visitor],” he says. “People have such a short attention span on the Web that they’re just a click away from your competitor’s site.” In short, give them a psychological breather. Provide one thing—one product, one article—for them to focus on.

If there’s one rule your Web site must live by it’s less is more. For example, Power Options, a provider of online stock-option trading tools, saw a 75 percent increase in post-trial conversions and earned $200,000 in annual profits simply by moving its free-trial form front and center, and cleaning up the clutter.

On the other extreme, look at Gmail, Google’s free email service. Users may love Gmail for its seemingly infinite storage space, but Google has its own motives. The amount of targeting power contained within each message can make a marketer’s mouth water: “Knowing what our customers email about enables us to show them what they want.” But not every business needs to capture the same level of detailed information.

“Every time you require the visitor to give you something more, to fill out more information, that’s one more opportunity for them to abandon you,” Rosenblatt says. Phone numbers, for instance, often don’t follow the categories of work, mobile, or personal anymore. Instead, give visitors the simple option of providing a primary or secondary number.

While visitors may be interrupted or distracted by external stimulus out of your control, it’s best if you, too, avoid providing potential distractions. This is especially important at the point of purchase. After all, the last thing a customer wants to see just as they’re checking out is an offer anywhere on the page for an entirely different product. In general, do not display links that will lead customers away from completing a desired objective. (See Figure 1.) Large retailers like Macy’s take this advice a step further to display a pop-up box that acknowledges that a product has been added to the cart. Customers can decide whether they want to checkout or resume their previous activity. (Figure 2.)

“Retailers today who still require a user registration prior to check out…should reconsider,” says Jason Meugniot, chief executive officer of Guidance, which builds e-commerce Web sites. Especially now, as we enter the heart of the shopping season, retailers need to create opportunities that make it easier for customers to buy.

At the old Web site of arts and crafts supplier A.C. Moore, for example, visitors had to become registered members to join the mailing list. Now, the bottom of every page gives them the opportunity to sign up. Over the course of three months, the site saw nearly 100,000 subscribers and an email-to-site clickthrough rate of 23 percent.

Personalization remains key to effective marketing in any channel. When you do have personal information, use it. For new visitors, adapt the experience based on the keyword they used in the search that led them to you, the page or product they visited previously, the channel they’re coming from, at what time, etc. Trying to get a solution for a group, Rosenblatt says, will ultimately result in a suboptimal solution for the individual.

Voice of the Customer
This year more than any other, Guidance has seen strong client demand for user forums, message boards, and customer ratings and feedback channels. “Getting users and customers to talk amongst themselves is by far the most important thing retailers can be doing today,” Meugniot says.

A.C. Moore launched its e-commerce site in October 2007, replacing a site that only provided instructional content and updates about the company. The existing site had 8 million unique visitors a year and the hope was to convert that community into customers. Since the launch of the revamped site, the company has more than doubled its traffic and sales are now expected to exceed original projections by 70 percent.

“Personally, I’ve put in a lot of CRM tools,” says Dennis P. Hodgson, the company’s chief information officer. “But I’ll tell you that none of the systems can hold a candle to the insight we gleaned from [customer] forums.” Good thing, too, since the streamlined email collection required a tradeoff: “The difference between registering and simply adding the email is that the email just requires you to give less information,” Hodgson says.

A.C. Moore’s forum launched in mid-July 2008 and within the first 48 hours gained more than 5,000 members. What started as eight categories of project ideas (e.g., scrapbooking, knitting, jewelry) soon expanded to 25, which go beyond just crafts, allowing visitors to enter contests and even interact with each other.

But the email newsletter continued to be a concern. “We were achieving just as many opt-out [and] stale addresses as we were signups, keeping the subscribed count relatively flat over two years,” Hodgson recalls. “During the first three months [of the new site format] we increased our subscriber count by 32 percent.” As the number of subscribers went up, neither the clickthrough nor the opt-out rate was affected. In fact, all statistics remained virtually unchanged but the total number of subscribers increased; applying the same conversion rate to that higher total translates into more sales driven by email.

Those sales feed back into a more-robust site. Not only does A.C. Moore let its customers talk and share with each other; the company itself is an active participant. “We used it a lot to solicit feedback before we jumped in the water,” Hodgson says. For instance, when customers started complaining about shipping costs, the company started brainstorming some solutions. Staffers thought a flat rate of $4.99 might work, proposed it to the forum, and found it was well-received. (See sidebar, “Give Them Something to Talk About,” below.)

Ash also advises companies to talk to their customer service representatives to find out what consumers are complaining about. If it’s about the Web site, complaints provide excellent feedback into what should be fixed. If it’s about issues that hadn’t occurred to you that can be easily resolved on the site, then you’re saving time and effort for your customers—and your contact centers.


SIDEBAR: The Not-So-Little Things
Web Analytics—Google’s Website Optimizer is a free tool that can get you up and running in just 15 minutes. The only technical knowledge required is the copy-and-pasting of a couple of lines of JavaScript code. Web analytics provides detailed information about the activities on your site, such as which pages have high bounce rates, what terms people are commonly using to search for products, and what words led visitors to your site. Moreover, you can track at what point customers are dropping out of the buying cycle. This can even be converted into a tool for the consumer as well. Helping them visualize their progress can help provide confidence and encouragement. In addition, services such as ClickTale and Crazy Egg show you what parts of your site are actually being viewed based on factors such as where cursors hovered. Web analytics may point out your problems, but it doesn’t provide an explanation. For this reason, Allen Sebrel, online marketing manager for Amtrak, the transportation services company, explains that Web analytics is only one-fourth of your analytical framework. The other factors, all of which carry equal weight in promoting the success of your site, are: competitive analysis, market analysis, and customer analysis.

Search-Friendly—Though seemingly tiny, one huge mistake is a disregard for search engine optimization (SEO) best practices, the most basic of which, obviously, involves search. Inadequate search and filtering options on the corporate site are guaranteed to inconvenience your customers and drive them to other, potentially more difficult and expensive, means of getting to you—or even to the competition. Sites that produce incomprehensible Web addresses (URLs) stretching to exorbitant lengths need to pursue a URL-rewrite initiative, Meugniot says. URLs should be as simple and specific as possible. Moreover, they should align with how you index your site map.

Security and Credibility—The impressive penetration of online shopping is likely attributable to its convenience, made possible by an increased commitment to best practices around secure e-commerce. Consumers are learning to associate trust when they see a green browser bar or a logo from VeriSign or McAfee. Logos and testimonials, and “As seen on” credentials, offer an extra layer of legitimacy to a product. (See “Heavenly Virtue #2," below; SiteTuners found that adding more third-party sources increased conversions.) Rosenblatt warns against using what he calls “negative-assurance language.” While you may be good-intentioned in telling a customer “We will not sell your identity,” or “We will not send spam,” the assurance itself triggers concerns that may cause her to second-guess her decision. “Positive-assurance language,” on the other hand (e.g., “Your privacy is protected”), tends to restore good faith and increase conversions.

Web to Mobile—The rampant popularity of Apple’s iPhone, with its full-browser capabilities, has unfortunately led marketers to neglect the importance of mobile-friendly Web sites. Roughly 36 million people are mobile Internet users, a number expected to reach 64.8 million by 2011, according to a 2007 study by eMarketer. So success means more than merely shrinking your site to fit a smaller screen. “When someone is browsing on their phone, they’re telling you that they’re mobile,” Rosenblatt says. In other words, they’re probably not by a computer. That’s why it’s critical that mobile sites make accessing information fast and straightforward. Avoid, for example, wasting screen space on links that require a longer engagement process, such as signing up for a rewards program. Based on customer-survey responses, for example, Amtrak realized it needed a mobile component, which launched this past May. On-the-go customers want to quickly check their train status, book or cancel a reservation, or even just check the weather. Results, Sebrel says, have been well worth the effort. He reports that for every dollar spent on maintaining the mobile site, Amtrak sees $25 in returns.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.—Any good online marketer will tell you that he’s tracking his site at least daily, if not hourly. Deep cleaning and basic decluttering of your Web site can have lasting improvements, yet even in this game nothing stays top-notch forever. Depending on your business model, and the products and services you provide, testing should always be performed to validate whatever decision you make. “There should never be a moment you’re not testing something,” Rosenblatt says.

Perhaps the worst thing you can do is be too afraid to make your site work for you. “You’re not going to break it,” Rodriguez says. It’s a never-ending challenge, but the single hardest part is diving in.


SIDEBAR: 7 Deadly Sins/7 Heavenly Virtues

Sin #1—Pride: Focusing the content in a “look at how great we are” perspective, unless it’s used in a way that benefits the customer (e.g., 150 years of great service).
Virtue #1—Humility: Giving customers the option of doing what they want, when they want.

Sin #2—Envy: Just because it worked for someone else, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Test!
Virtue #2—Kindness: The Internet is an interconnected platform. Leverage the power of third parties to add validity to your own site. This will also help draw attention and increase traffic.

Sin #3—Gluttony: Providing customers with too much information that may confuse them or waste their time.
Virtue #3—Abstinence: Cut to the chase and give them a direct call to action.

Sin #4—Lust: Don’t be enamored with the latest technology if it doesn’t work for you or the product/service you're trying to sell. Instead of looking cool, it may just be a distraction, especially when it leads visitors away from a more important action.
Virtue #4—Chastity: Don’t be too quick to leap on new technology just to be first. Being on the cutting edge has its risks. It’s okay to stick with what's worked. A.C. Moore, for example, transferred instructional videos from its old site to its new one.

Sin #5—Anger: Alienating your customers by making them feel inferior and therefore in dire need of your product.
Virtue #5—Patience: Giving them information that allows them to make the best decision that’s right for them.

Sin #6—Greed: Asking for too much customer information, even information you may never use.
Virtue #6—Liberality: Asking only for the information necessary to give your visitors the best experience going forward.

Sin #7—Sloth: Not testing to see what works best for your visitors and your site’s conversion rates.
Virtue #7—Diligence: Testing on a regular basis to ensure that your content is relevant and directs visitors to where you want them—and where they want to go. Make sure your site is helping your visitors complete their tasks.


SIDEBAR: Give Them Something to Talk About
Getting folks talking requires more than just creating a venue. Jason Meugniot, chief executive officer of e-commerce site-builder Guidance, says there are four critical characteristics to maintaining any social environment.

  • Camaraderie—Even if all you know about the person giving you tips on how to get the perfect golf swing is his screen name—”MisterParfect56”—you still feel connected to him because of a shared common interest.
  • Consistency—Whether it’s a blog or a product page, people want to know that you’re either posting new content on a regular basis or that you’re not constantly changing things around (which might make it tough for them to find what they’re looking for).
  • Recognition—Taking the time to acknowledge a frequent commenter or reviewer is a very powerful way of creating a brand ambassador. Give them shopping credit, their own biography page, or even an invitation to be a guest blogger.
  • Access—Give them quality content they feel they can’t get anywhere else.

Contact Assistant Editor Jessica Tsai at jtsai@destinationCRM.com.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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