Posts Tagged online strategy
Q. Should I have a blog on my company website?
It depends on your customers and business sector you operate in.
If your business is owned by a figurehead or well-know personality, then it may make sense to leverage off that and have that person blog. In general, most customers really don’t care what the CEO has to say otherwise. They’re more concerned about meeting their own needs.
If you already have a one-to-one relationship with your customers, then a blog is a very good way to add value. For instance, if you already have a newsletter mailing list. Think about using the newsletter content on your blog and let people make comments. You may be surprised how much value a dedicated customer can add to your business through a blog comment, and it makes you appear open and honest about your business.
A useful business benefit from blogging is to help build or strengthen your relationship with your customers through the comments and replies to your blog posts.
Many people now expect to be able to interact with a company through the web by leaving suggestions and comments, in either your blog or your social media site. They want more than just a simple Feedback page, mostly because so many companies don’t monitor the feedback page or bother to respond promptly (I’ve never understand why companies do this – you wouldn’t setup an 0800 line and not have someone manning it).
Blogs often allow people to leave comments, perhaps about something the someone said in the blog. It’s a great way to get tips from your customers, but only if it’s natural for your customers to use the web for this. I’m unlikely to visit the website of my local butcher, just to see what the owner has to say, but I’d definitely be inclined to let Telecom know what I think of my broadband being offline.
Be prepared for the negative comments though, take them on the chin and respond professionally. Within the bounds of decency, don’t censor negative remarks – it will make you look more honest if others can see what was said. Better still, make a plan for a PR disaster and how you will handle it through your blog and website.
But isn’t blogging dead?
In many ways, Facebook has replaced blogging as a way of interacting with a marketplace. Like a blog, it can certainly be a very good way to get feedback from customers. But you have less control with Facebook than you do with a blog and it can back-fire on you, so consider how you want to interact with your customers.
On the other hand, many blogs have become successful communication additions to a business and some have even spawned a profitable sideline.
At Wired we blog to share ideas and thoughts with our market. Hardly anyone comments. And you can always turn off commenting on a blog if you wish!
Some links for more reading:
Most of you are probably aware that here in Christchurch we’ve recently experienced some major seismic interruptions to ‘business as usual’. This has been pretty noticeable in Lyttelton, where I live. There are very few commercial premises that are actually safe and usable in the wake of the quakes. Sadly this also applies to bars, so I recently found myself at the bar of the local working men’s club, which has opened to non-members since there’s nowhere else for us to go.
I got talking to a neighbour, Simon, who has a business selling high-end designer furniture. I knew that his premises had suffered damage, so I expressed my commiserations about the general disruption and downturn in sales that must have followed. ‘Oh don’t worry about it’, he replied, ‘it’s worked out really well. This has proved what we already suspected, that keeping shop is a waste of time. We don’t really get many sales from the showroom. The real result of the whole mess is that we’ve been able to get out of our lease. It’s pretty good, actually!’
I was delighted to hear this, but still rather surprised. I asked him exactly what he meant. He replied that prior to the quake they were selling over 60% online through their website, mainly out of town – and that the main result of the quakes was that now their local customers were also ‘visiting’ their online showroom and as a result online sales were now over 80% and growing.
‘We just need a small warehouse’ he explained. ‘I’m sorting that out now. Any customers who really want to see our products in the flesh can go there by appointment – so we’re completely free of the need to keep shop hours: more time for fishing and drinking!’ And drink he did, with a broad smile of contentment like we haven’t seen often enough lately.
I swear, with my hand on my heart, that this exchange really took place – purely by chance, in a local bar. I say this because it totally confirms my own prejudices and beliefs about the power of a good website to drive all sorts of businesses, including furniture sales. While I was surprised by what Simon told me, this was mainly because I hadn’t thought of him as an enthusiastic adopter of new technologies, and I was unsure if customers at his end of the market (low volume, high value) would embrace online shopping.
This story also conveniently confirms one of my other recent concerns – what can we learn from this disaster that will help us live better and more sustainably in future? Shortly after the big quake in February I was interviewed on Lyttelton’s community radio station. The discussion was on two main topics, improvised toilets, and urban recovery planning. On the latter topic I was pretty clear, that the first step in the new development was to ensure that the whole city had a more workable transport and communication infrastructure (light rail and fibre-optic broadband, please). And after that I said I was sure that we need to direct our economic growth towards leveraging our technology, communication and information skills to build better businesses.
Simon’s designer furniture experience is an example of how even small-scale enterprises can do that by harnessing the power of online sales. He’s got a pretty good website, which allows customers to contact the business if they want to, or else to simply order the item they want to buy. They don’t have to negotiate our currently terrible roads, they don’t have to worry about whether the business premises really are safe, and they don’t even have to waste time whether trying to find a working cash machine within a mile of their shopping destination. No wonder they’re lining up to buy from Simon, he’s one of the few in his business sector who was already prepared to respond to the challenge of post-disaster business conditions.
There’s a lesson there for all of us, one that I’ve started discussing with my colleague Greg Comfort, who has a few ideas of his own. I’ll report more on this discussion shortly.
“We’ve spent thousands on that website, and its bringing in no business at all. None of our customers seem to use it – we may as well have written it in a foreign language!”
No one should be saying this kind of thing about their organisation’s online presence, yet this problem is depressingly common. Very often the problem is the process used to design the site. Every variable was seemingly taken into account – except the most important one: “What do our customers actually want from our web site?” The solution is a new way of stating the questions that form the basis for web design: a perspective known as ‘user experience’ (UX) or ‘user-centred design’ (UCD).
Web initiatives are now a commonplace strategy for business and government alike. Increasingly web sites form the centre of organisational communication and marketing strategies. As a result, most of these organisations have got over the thrill of simply having a presence in cyberspace.
Now people are asking the hard questions, like:
- “What’s our website really for?”
- “How do we use the web to make our business grow?”
- “Are our customers satisfied with the experience of using our site?”
In the early days of web/business integration it was often enough to just decide that a website was a ‘must have’. Few businesses actually made the effort to find out whether their customers really wanted a website, and if they wanted one, what they would actually want to use it for. Those days have well and truly passed now!
If you take a look at businesses that have succeeded in using the internet to grow, there are a few common features. These features are the ones now known as ‘user-centred design’ or ‘usability’.
A classic example of an NZ site that succeeds through using the user experience perspective is Trade Me. One of the keys to Trade Me’s success was that they have always put the site user – the customer – at the centre of the equation. The site was designed to easily give customers what they wanted – not what the management team or the web designer wanted them to have.
Many sites present information that the owners think is important, but that ‘real people’ – actual users of the site – find unhelpful: as unhelpful as if it was written in a foreign language.
Other under-performing sites organise their content under poorly-designed headings that aren’t comprehensible at first glance – or have ‘working parts’ that are hard to use. A common design error is to animate the navigation links so that they move around the screen as you try to click them. Some web designers will tell you this is ‘cutting edge’ – your customers will use words that are much less complimentary!
‘User centred design’ (or UCD) focuses on user needs and goals. It will be one of the essential characteristics of future net success. Many studies have shown that for every dollar spent on user experience, businesses have gained ten dollars in increased revenue.
Sites with ‘good UX’ have a number of key characteristics, including:
- their navigation is intuitive – it can be understood ‘at-a-glance’
- their content is written specifically for online delivery, not simply re-used from hard copy marketing collateral
- your customers don’t have to ‘learn’ how to use the site – they can immediately see how to ‘do’ everything they need to
- ‘usable’ site content is often internationalised, so it can be easily read by those for whom English is not a first language
- accessibility guidelines are followed, so that all customers can use the site, even those with poor eyesight or low dexterity
- online help is visible on the screen where it is needed if users do become confused
- all the site features work properly, regardless of what browser software is being used
Usability consultants, also known as information designers, can design usability into new sites, or evaluate existing sites and make them more usable. A key strategy is to ‘test’ sites with real users. Test subjects are asked to interact with sites and their reactions are observed. If the methodology is right, this can be done cheaply and quickly, with as few as three participants.
Wired Internet Group is one New Zealand web design company that has risen to the usability challenge. Wired has applied the concepts of UCD to the sites of some of its key clients. Wired’s usability consultants have developed a range of services, from full usability testing to quicker and more flexible approaches.
A good first step is to assess the users’ actual experience of using a site by means of an expert evaluation. An information designer reviews the site and uses the information gained from this to interview both the site owners and some actual users. This process reveals what the site owners’ goals actual goals are, as well as what the users’ really need. From this we can see where the two sides’ intentions and expectations fail to match. A written report outlines both findings and proposed solutions to specific usability concerns.
A usability test expands on this approach, the expert evaluation is used to identify ‘usability concerns’ with the target site. The test consists of asking up to half a dozen representative users to try looking for specific information or performing specific tasks while using the site. The usability consultant observes the test with a video camera and notes where groups of users are having trouble or misunderstanding the site. From these observations a report can be written recommending improvements that will enable people to enjoy trouble-free interactions with the site under review.
As awareness of the ‘usability revolution’ spreads through the business and public sectors in New Zealand, demand is growing for web design and review services that match with the objectives of user-centred design. As more and more business is done online, there is less and less room for those websites that seem to be written in a language that customers don’t speak.
When considering web design and communication in general, I’m wary of the ‘c’ word. People who claim that their ‘point of difference’ is to be creative tend in my cynical experience to mean one of two things:
1. Either they are woolly thinkers who try to dress everything in extraneous and distracting fancy dress to distract us from their inability to think and communicate clearly about essentials.
2. They have previously worked in advertising.
Usually both, now I think about it a little more.
The key indicator that a communication product is ‘creative’, is that they make you do all the work to work out what they are really telling you.
The website or billboard or print ad or TV ad will be about something mundane like financial services, but you’ll have to play a guessing game to work it out, because it seems to be about fish/birds/monkeys/flying cars or about taking grandma for a walk in a wheelchair or getting someone flowers or children in danger in a war zone.
I’m writing exhaustingly long sentences because thinking about these damn things is exhausting. People who think this way are HAPPY if all you can remember is children in danger in a war zone, even if the ad was about travel agents or milk… or financial services.
This problem is at its worst when the communication product is a website, because web users have a real aversion to needless thinking. There’s a ton of research that supports the idea that making customers at a transactional site think for a split second about which menu header to click can cost a business tens of thousands of dollars.
So what do we make of a web consultancy that offers visitors a first point of contact on a splash page (just ignore how stupid that is for a moment, as that’s not my point here) which offers them two clickable ‘jet plane’ jelly sweets – one red, one green – and tells them that some bogus percentage of visitors ‘choose the red plane’? (Please note that the percentage varies each time you refresh the page – so it really is bogus.)
At this point I ask you to think again about the last paragraph.
This outfit seriously think we might hire them as some sort of web/advertising/brand creation consultancy, and they offer us a splash page with a frankly meaningless bit of snake oil vending about red and green sweets, demanding we choose one or other before we are even worthy to peruse further evidence of their alleged ‘hire-ability’.
Having an ‘attitude’ is one thing, but making people evaluate your frankly meaningless brand pitch for even a tenth of a second across such a patently non-choice ‘decision’ as this, has gotta be the online marketing equivalent of that ‘Kick Me’ sign your sister stuck on your back when you were seven.
Why does this matter, and what does it tell us about ‘creative consultancies’?
Well in my opinion it tells us that the communication product they will produce with their clients’ money is firstly all about THEM, the agency, and their cleverness, and by implication, about their unfeasibly large invoices.
Secondly it’s about the client and their brand, and how everyone needs to be thinking about that brand all the time, even if they don’t want or need any services it might represent.
And only thirdly (if at all) is it about you and me, the poor saps who are trying to work out what it is they are really telling us and whether we (frankly) give a damn about any of it.
The ‘creative’ approach works like Andrew Loog Oldham, who famously said a propos of the Rolling Stones – whom he was managing at the time – ‘no publicity is bad publicity’.
The creative approach is to get you thinking about their product at any cost and at all times: effectively – ‘no customer attention is bad attention’.
This is the opposite of the user-centred approach, which begins from the principle that making your users think more than they have to is wasting their time – and since the user is king; wasting their time is likely to get your head cut off – and not to earn you a knighthood.
The user-centred approach can also be genuinely creative, in finding economical ways to communicate complex information clearly and pleasingly. This is creativity of quite a different order, however. It is audience-regarding and goal-oriented creativity – not self-regarding and solipsistic creativity.
The key question is ‘communicating complex information clearly and pleasingly to whom?’
Not to the agency getting plated with gold to do the communicating. Not to the CEO of the client company – who knows all this stuff about his company anyway, and who is already gold-plated himself. But pleasing to you – the user – the poor sap who wants to buy milk, or financial services, or even help poor children in war zones – and who needs to interface with a communication product in order to achieve these goals.
I often interview real users about their needs and objectives in cyberspace, and real users seldom cite ‘solving puzzles’ or ‘playing guessing games’ as their top priority. They’ll play Tetris, or Blokus or Champions’ League Trivial Pursuit if they want to do that. But if they’re looking for information about goods or services, they want it to be clear, easy to use, easy to understand and easy to remember.
I don’t think being ‘creative’ trumps any of this. On the contrary, if you look at it a bit more deeply you’ll see that it’s rather like the Emperor’s new clothes – or as they say in Texas: ‘all hat and no cattle’.
What are the basic steps to great online experience for your customers?
Like writing a letter, or having a one-on-one meeting, the internet is just another means of communication. This is a basic fact that we often lose sight of in all the hoopla.
So – all online experiences are about communication between two parties, you and your customers.
In order to make this work there are a few basic first steps to settle, before we start getting too technical. The goal is to create a win/win interaction, in which each party achieves their primary objectives – you communicate your message, and the customer gets the information, the service or the product that they require
First, define and rank your business objectives. What are you trying to achieve with your online presence? Increased subscriptions, more sales leads, cutting delivery costs…?
While you may have lots of business objectives, it’s critical to identify your primary objective – otherwise it’s easy to lose focus and let secondary desires get in the way of your primary mission. This can happen where more than one person or team is trying to drive the process. At the end of the day, your success will be measured on your ability to deliver on the primary objective.
Second, get a clear understanding of what you users need and want. Then consider what you can do to help your users achieve both their goals and yours?
Create simple scenarios involving your company and its customers. Identify potential solutions that solve the key problems outlined in the scenarios. For instance, your primary objective is to inform customers about new products, and you discover the main decision driver for the customer is price. Ensure that new products are grouped in one place, clearly linked from the homepage, and price information is situated at the top of every product window. If the price appears at the start of every product page, it is more likely to appear in search result summaries as well.
Finally, use your primary objective as the decision-making filter: Does the information, the technology and the design presented in your site help you achieve your primary objective – or not?
A frequent conflict is the desire to collect as much information about the visitor as possible. Many sites unwittingly make this the dominant impression for customers, often by making it impossible for them to ask the simplest question without giving you a comprehensive set of personal data. While you may want to know more about your prospects, your prospect may not be ready to share that information with you. So how do you decide between the two desires?
If your primary goal is to increase sales and customer satisfaction, e.g. then the answer is simple: Do whatever will help you achieve that goal – and that typically means removing anything that reduces your conversion rates, such as filling out lengthy forms. If your customers realise that you have what fulfils their needs, they’ll voluntarily give you the information you need when you give them the chance. The key thing is to make it seem in their interests, rather than yours.
If you get these basic communication issues straight, both your customers and you will get what you want from your website. Every one of these little successful interactions will go on to build the bigger business success we all need.
In winter 2008 I organised a comparative review of the homepages of the fifty biggest NZ companies not in state ownership. This revealed a few interesting things, including that in NZ good homepage usability is at present largely the preserve of B-to-C transactional sites. Currently NZ companies are not regarding the web as the primary, or even a major, means of investor or customer relations management. But that’s a separate story.
What I want to discuss today is what happened next. After a month or so I decided to check the sites and find out what changes had occurred, since we were getting ready to mount a bit of publicity on the back of this thing. My curiosity was roused by the discovery that five sites had had pretty major makeovers in the intervening weeks. Could we discern any trends, I wondered?
And the answer, friends, is yes we can.
The sites that had been worked on are the following:
The sites themselves gave some background to this. The BNZ site was redesigned in order to introduce enhanced customer security, Works was redesigned because of a corporate rebranding exercise, and the others stated no reason. Obviously I don’t know what these exercises cost, but my guess is that at least three of these were fairly expensive.
And the bad news in summary? Two went up in ranking, and three went down.
Those that improved were:
AFFCO was rated at 44%, now 86%, that’s a climb from 47 to 2 out of 50.
Fisher & Paykel was rated at 52%, now 69%, that’s a climb from 44 to 21 out of 50.
Those that became worse were:
Works was rated at 73%, now 45%, that’s a drop from 12 to 47 out of 50.
BNZ was rated at 78%, now 69%, that’s a drop from 4 to 21 out of 50.
Guardian Health Care was rated at 67%, now 57%, that’s a drop from 27 to 37 out of 50.
To my mind, these results are actually fairly random, and that’s a trend in itself.
I would honestly have thought that a business that is going to expend some serious shareholder coin on revamping its website would give thought to the issue of making the homepage more usable to site visitors.
I don’t feel I have to justify or explain that – it’s a no-brainer, even if there’s an ulterior motive for the redesign, such as rebranding. And yet, whether or not their usability improved is pretty much a coin toss. If there is any trend, it’s towards declining usability.
Frankly, I find these results a little shaming. Is this how poorly our major corporates are ‘getting’ the web? Sadly, I think that’s true.
In fact, if I may be permitted an anecdote to support this contention, the case of MacquarieGoodman is even more damning. In a separate study of the NZX Top 50, I rated this homepage as second most usable of all the Top 50, on 85% [http://www.goodmanintl.com].
A week after the study was made public, they rebranded the company with a major ad agency-driven makeover. The homepage plummeted to a 56% rating, taking itself down to 49th out of the 50. You could smell the money they’d spent, wafting out of the monitor – and the net result was, you couldn’t tell from the homepage what their business was about, who the site was intended for, nor what content you might expect to find in it. It looks very glossy, but usability isn’t just a beauty contest – and this thing looks good in a bikini but can’t name the current president of the USA.
It’s really hard to credit, but so many businesses still think a good website has to look uber-glossy and utterly minimal, and consequently be completely opaque as to your actual meaning. This is a sign of terminal corporate self-regard, rather than an indication of a mature user-centred web presence.
Please work with me people. Repeat after me – in preparation for that next web strategy meeting with your managers: “What is the web? The web is a medium of communication… Stupid!”