Capturing Customer Loyalty

It often seems that in our rush to create killer web sites, we often forget the most important audience of all: the customers.

“Huh?” I hear you saying, “What the heck are you talking about? That’s who we’re creating the site for in the first place! You’re out of your mind, man.”

Maybe so (that’s a subject for another column), but when you look at what’s really motivating people and compare that to what goes on with a lot of web sites, it seems pretty clear to me that we site creators and marketers are often assuming that our customers care as much about our companies as we do. Well, they don’t.

For a recent example, you don’t have to look any further than ActivMedia Research’s “Capturing Online Markets” study. While the study covers lots of ground on customer loyalty, the part that I found most interesting was that regarding e-tail inventories. The report found that customers see the availability of merchandise as one of the key factors influencing their decision to purchase from a retailer.

It makes sense: If you’re going online to buy, you may actually want to receive something. Not a big stretch. You hit “buy,” wait a day or so, and get the goods. When you don’t, you really start questioning the value of online purchasing. It’s a no-brainer. Letting your customers know if you’ve got the goods you’re selling is a vital part of retailing.

At least you’d think so. In their survey of more than 1,000 web site executives, ActivMedia found that only 25 percent of online retail sites were capable of displaying real-time (or near real-time) inventory data. In effect, you’d probably be better off flipping a coin to determine if the product you want to buy is in stock – at least you’d have a 50 percent chance.

Another example that got me thinking about this subject was a talk given last week by Jared Spool at the ClickZ conference in New York. Jared’s the principal of User Interface Engineering, a company that does extensive usability testing to help designers and web architects create better sites.

Jared’s talk looked at changes in brand perception based on a user trying to accomplish a simple task on two web sites. Users were asked to figure out whether or not they could fit their growing families in a Ford pickup truck – a typical kind of task that might drive someone to the web when making a buying decision.

Some users went to the Edmunds site, and others went to the Ford site. The Edmunds’ users were able to find the cab capacity info they were looking for in something like four clicks. Unfortunately, users of the Ford site took more than 11 clicks to find the relevant data. The result? Users of the Edmunds site actually had a better perception of the Ford brand after they looked up the information. Users of the Ford site had a much lower perception of the Ford brand after wading through the morass that is the Ford trucks site.

In all fairness, the example he used was several years old, and the current Ford site is much improved. But the example still stands as a great illustration. Goal-directed users found what they were looking for on Edmunds and felt good. Goal-directed users couldn’t find what they were looking for on the Ford site and formed a more negative opinion of Ford.

So what do these two examples have in common? A lot. Both examples lack of inventory information and difficult-to-navigate sites neglect the most important fact about the online consumer: He or she is selfish to the extreme and really doesn’t care about your product.

OK. Sure, that sounds a little harsh. But it’s true. The only reason that a consumer’s on your site is because he or she has a need that your site must fulfill. And you better believe that need is not to receive more fluff and happy-speak from the marketing department.

Nope, that need is directly linked to a goal the consumer had when he or she logged on. Maybe he or she wants to buy something. Maybe he or she wants answers to a technical-support question or is trying to decide which product is right for him or her. Maybe (and this is rare, but it can happen – see LifeSavers Candystand) the consumer is looking to be entertained. Whatever. The bottom line is that the consumer is on your site to satisfy a personal need, and anything that stands in the way of that fulfillment is going to be seen as a black mark against your site and your brand.

Since “advertising” is rarely sought out by consumers, it has to be constructed to grab consumers’ attention and hold it, and get across a message in a short period of time. Advertising intrudes into consumers’ consciousness because of its placement: in the middle of their favorite TV shows, between their favorite songs, in the newspaper, on the back cover of their magazines, outside the windows of their cars. Some ads may seek to inform (especially in print), but they’ve gotta grab you first.

The web is completely different, and, even though after several years of practice, many of us pay lip service to this ideal, it cannot be treated in the same way we treat “advertising.” Web sites aren’t ads. They’re places where people go in order to fulfill a specific need. In addition, there’s an expectation of interactivity that no other medium has. People don’t “read” or “see” sites as much as “experience” them in their quest to accomplish what they came there to do. Don’t stand in their way.

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