Serial Dating or Long-Term Relationship?

Events are unique. They occur at a single point in time. They may be repeated, but they are not ongoing. Resources are valuable over time. We return to them, repeatedly, because we know they’re useful and available. We form relationships with resources and make them part of our lives.

How does this apply to the Web? It could mean the difference between long-term success and imminent failure.

When we design sites for our customers, we think of interactions as occurring at a single point in time. Special offers, coupons, discount pricing, flashy graphics, multimedia extravaganzas, and high-bandwidth intros are designed to catch users’ attention when they arrive at our sites. Making a purchase, finding product information, and downloading software are outcomes we attract users into. Attention is important, but the real goal is to convert the user from a browser to a buyer.

Short-term thinking can boost immediate sales, but it can also lead to the high-cost death spiral that’s been the demise of many a dot-bomb. Advertising attracts users; those users are converted (or not), buy (or not), and move on. An attractive offer, promotion, or special price may work once. But when that same carrot isn’t dangled on your virtual stick next time, they move on to another site with a new (and possibly better) offer. New customers need to be lured, so more money is earmarked for advertising. The cycle continues, and the burn rate accelerates.

Profits come from long-term customers. Long-term customers aren’t generated via loss-leader pricing, flashy graphics, and designs that lure first-time users at the expense of repeat buyers. Sites designed as compelling “events” for first time users that don’t also provide a reason for them to return are doomed to failure.

How do you keep customers coming back? Be a resource, not an event. Make users, once they’ve bought (or considered buying) your product, want to come back. Make them want to form a relationship because they need the value of the intangibles of your site: the tools, the advice, the content.

Will people find your site so useful that they’ll make it their home page? Probably not. The short-lived portal fad of 1998 nixed that idea. But you can become a resource for that corner of users’ lives your products occupy.

Who’s doing this well? Grainger provides advice on workplace security and safety awareness handily combined with products that meet those needs. General Electric‘s GE Lighting Virtual Lighting Designer provides managers, contractors, and designers with interactive tools to test products before buying. They can virtually light residential, commercial, and retail spaces. Herman Miller created a site for the Resolve line that allows users to explore office layouts and to see how the system defines workspace.

On the consumer side, both Microsoft and Apple have created sites that serve as ongoing resources for their customers. Apple’s iTools software and features make its site one that many customers use every day to swap files, read mail, and find new software. Amazon.com‘s edge isn’t its huge selection — it’s the resources (customer reviews, recommendations, and personalization) that help customers navigate that selection.

All these are examples of resources that bring users back. Users form relationships with these sites, albeit narrowly defined relationships around a particular product or product line. None of these sites expect to become the resource in the lives of their users — but they are the resource that matters when it comes time to buy.

Short-term event or long-term resource? The choice can make the difference between one-time buyers and long-term, profitable customers.

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