By last summer, when they resolved to undertake a Web site overhaul, Universal Orlando's marketing executives had spent several years tweaking the theme park's online presence for incremental gains in conversion.
While the site had performed reasonably well up until then, it didn't seem likely further optimization would bring the big jumps in pre-visit commitments they craved.
"When we looked at the idea of redesigning the site, this had come after a good three years of making minor improvements to our existing Web site," said Algernon Callier, VP of brand and interactive marketing for Universal Orlando. "We did facelifts, redesigned key pages, and experimented with traditional conversion tactics. We got all the low hanging fruit."
The company set five basic goals for its new digital home. It should have improved navigability, increased persuasion power, higher pre-travel commitments, more appeal to mothers -- the true decision makers of American families -- and greater differentiation of the Universal Orlando brand.
Callier wanted to steer clear of the standard top-down approach to site design, including the fountain of visual effects one might expect from a splashy theme park.
"There's a traditional way of doing things that starts with the look, style, feel and navigation," he said. "There's a natural gravitation toward flashy tools, but people use them for their own sake, not necessarily to accomplish things. In the absence of a coherent strategy, people make it look sexy and hope it sells."
Upgrading your image, he said, isn't worth much if you don't address your fundamental business goals.
"You go through a lot of work and feel great about it. It looks different, but it doesn't necessarily convert more than what you had," he said. "That's what led us to explore people out there that specialize in conversions."
Universal Orlando tapped New York digital agency Organic and Web architecture firm Future Now to handle the redesign. Organic won the business because of its foundation in the travel and entertainment verticals, with clients like 20th Century Fox, SIRIUS Satellite Radio, and a major U.S. airline. Future Now was brought in for its unique persona-driven approach to Web marketing, a method it calls Persuasion Architecture.
Persuasion Architecture is a process for reverse engineering a Web site and marketing plan from the perspective of one's most desirable prospects. By carefully defining a series of hypothetical archetypes, which Future Now calls personas, Universal Orlando was able to project specific scenarios for its ideal prospects to interact with the site.
"The approach takes into account human decision making styles," said Callier. "It's beyond demographic, beyond male/female, young/old. It gets into the psychology of how humans make decisions and how they get comfortable making decisions."
That sounds rather vague, but Callier says it's the opposite. "What we appreciated was the process wasn't nebulous. It wasn't soft. [We said], 'When this is done we're going to have a concrete thing we can use as a reference now and in the future.'"
After a period of testing and conversion analysis, Universal Orlando sketched out the following personas, each with a different set of motivators and travel needs:
- A family with a wife, husband and two older kids. "Our product tends to appeal to families with older children," said Callier.
- A family with two younger children.
- A single parent family.
- A pair of fluid adults without kids.
- A single woman in her twenties.
- A teenage archetype, "someone who knows what he wants but can't do it unless he gets Dad on board."
- Two secondary personas, including a Florida resident and a U.K. resident.
For every one of these archetypes, Universal Orlando went through a period of research on the demographic and psychographic characteristics of families, older kids and younger kids.
Then, with the help of Organic and Future Now, it built the site -- always keeping in mind the decision-making processes and the information needs of each group, and of each member within each group.
"If this archetype is on the Web site and her husband is this other type of decision-maker, you've got to look at the Web site through not only her eyes, but also who she has to get on board," said Callier. "That was an eye-opening experience. It's a discipline I'm trying to instill within myself and our team."
So how's it working?
Universal Orlando commissioned Harris Interactive to conduct qualitative and quantitative research about people's experiences with the new site. Those tests, focused on moms, showed the new site was living up to its expectations, beating the old version on 30 out of 40 measures, including likeability.
Online ticket purchases, a key metric for the resort, are up almost 80 percent year to date.
Other goals, such as brand differentiation, will take longer to assess. Ultimately, Callier said, it's a process.
"I wouldn't want anyone to think we've achieved the Holy Grail," he said. "We have a better Web site. The results are favorable. We're spending money in an effective way. But everything about it, the offers we put out there, the Web site, the marketing, it all works together. Almost everyday I go online and see another idea and think it could have an application that makes our Web site better."
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
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