After Your Customers Leave

As interactive marketers, we’ve become relentlessly, and appropriately, focused on understanding the behavior of people who come to our sites. We invest millions of dollars into demand generation programs that bring people to the site, invest to keep them there, and then invest in analytics tools to understand what they do when they get there. We’ve built an amazing industry around these activities and each passing month grow more sophisticated in understanding every aspect of customer behavior.

Well, almost every aspect. There are other questions to be asked: What happens when customers leave my site? Where do they go? What do they do there that might have been influenced by their visit? In short, what goes on once they walk out the door?

You could react to these questions in several ways. If you run a network of sites, you have pretty good visibility into customers who jump from one of your URLs to another. If you send customers to retail locations or a call center, you have some good data about their next steps. For many of us, once someone types in a new URL or clicks one of their favorites, you’ve lost them and all visibility into future behavior (or at least until they return). Should you care about where they go?

In retail, consumer behavior involves shopping around. People can go from store to store in the mall looking for the best price or the perfect item. If you could follow them, you’d be able to trace this behavior and try to determine what finally pushes them into a purchase. Online, a visitor can comparison shop without ever having to “enter” a store at all. Once in your store she might go elsewhere if she finds an item out of stock or dislikes your shipping policy. We all know customers are fickle.

Even if you can’t know specifically where a visitor goes after your site, you can gain insight into why they leave by looking at the last page they hit. You could uncover a dead end, error page, or that infamous last step before completing a transaction. Experience management software, like that from Tealeaf, can assist in identifying problems like this. Likewise a general analytics package from Omniture and others can offer important information. These are part of the overall solution, but still don’t provide key insights as to what happens after they leave.

Pop-up exit surveys and after-the-fact e-mail surveys afford another way to learn more. These can be highly subjective instruments, but help piece together the story. General market research also provides information about customer behavior.

If your visitors head to a competitor, a category blog, or a review/comparison site before they visit your site, then they may head back there after they visit your site. Check your inbound links to get a picture of the universe of sites that your customers frequent. Customers tend to bounce around a handful of sites when shopping for products or information. Your site may be part of an ongoing loop of the customer’s investigation.

There are some real challenges in determining what happens after a customer leaves, but being able to make reasonable assumptions — and to monetize based on those assumptions– is a good marketing practice. Future software or tracking technology may be able to provide more information about this behavior, but for now we’re limited to a handful of tools that paint an incomplete picture.

I remember working in retail when I was young and watching customers walk out the door and head across the street to a competitor. It frustrated me and also made me angry at the customer. Why did they have to go over there when I could have serviced them in my store? What could I do to get them back? Today those customers disappear into the cloud when they leave my site. It’s time to find out where they go.

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