Listen Up for Content

Are you listening to your Web site users? You may be surprised at how inattentive you’ve been, especially when it comes to providing the type of content users truly want.

Consider the case of many major hospitals. About a year ago, a number of health systems rushed to develop an interactive tool for paying patients’ bills online. Repeatedly, those of us in the industry heard pundits say users wanted to see their bills on the Internet.

Yes… users wanted to see their bills. But that’s about all they wanted. The industry learned that although users wanted to see their bills online, they didn’t necessarily want to pay them there. These pages got a lot of traffic but precious little in the way of transactions. It was a classic case of listening to users but not listening very well.

Hopefully, we’ve become better listeners. It’s not easy, especially with Web audiences. You can’t see, hear, or — heaven forbid — touch them, which means some of our initial feedback can be a little skewed. Many of us marketers cut our teeth on studying physical cues relayed by participants in focus groups. If focus group Subject A told us, “Gee, I really love your product” and raised her eyes to heaven, we’d know Subject A wasn’t really too thrilled with us.

We have to probe a little deeper with Web visitors to find out what they’re really thinking. Jakob Nielsen recommends the rudimentary exercise of corralling a few typical “users” in a room and having them mouse around your site while they mumble obscenities or squeal with delight. It’s a good idea. Just cover your ears for the truly profane comments.

Another no-rocket-science-here exercise is to study your user-response email. I mean, study it. That means look for insights in user mail, don’t just dash off an answer to users’ questions and consider yourself done for the day. Take a good look at what your users’ concerns are. They’re telling you some very important things about your site and your company.

For example, if you’re a big-time sporting goods retailer and you’re getting quite a few questions about ping-pong equipment, don’t send these folks an email saying paddles, tables, balls, and so on aren’t sold on your site but can be found in your retail store. All these requests should hit you like a shower of ping-pong balls on the noggin. The correct response is, “Aha! We need to have more ping-pong content on our site. Thanks for the feedback!”

User mail can also tell you if you’re hitting the mark with online branding efforts. If your site is positioned as “your one-stop pet food center” and user mail screams that you’re not providing the products or services they need, you’ve got some holes to fix.

Of course, there are those of you who will say your emails tend to be from the complainers, the distraught, or the just plain weird. True, every site receives its share of missives from the Twilight Zone. However, as a decent marketer in the interactive age, you should try your best to respond to every message, even if it’s just a courteous note. It may surprise you how many seemingly strange emails turn into something that merits your attention. We all remember the story of the university professor who made several attempts to tell Intel he could not perform an arcane math function using the Pentium processor. Intel dismissed the prof entirely. It ultimately spent millions trying to fix a public relations nightmare.

You may find that truly interesting correspondents may be potential columnists or helpful critics as your site evolves. Don’t milk the situation, but do reward those who provide interesting or frequent feedback with coupons, recognition (if you get permission), or other services.

Another thought: If you truly want to listen to your readers, move your “contact us” page to where it will be visible. Some sites bury the link so deep, you’d think the Webmaster was hiding in a cave in Central Asia.

Listen, and listen well. It’s one of the best ways to develop — and refine — content.

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