What Do People Want Online?

What do people want online? That’s a question we all ask ourselves constantly. Whether it’s developing a new web site, a new online campaign, or a new web-based business, understanding a consumer’s motives once they log on is a necessity.

Yet, in many cases, we don’t seem to agree on what people want. Some folks out there see the web as a vast, new field for advertising messages, assuming that while people may want to do something else, if we can entice them with flash (lower-case and upper-case) we can sort of trick them into paying attention to our products and services. Other folks seem to subscribe to the notion that people online are looking for entertainment and construct messages aimed at persuasion-through-playing. And, in other cases, the direct-response model wins out: Grab people when you can, get ’em to take an action, and then market, market, market. The answer may be that the consumer has (and wants) a lot more control than we give him/her credit for.

Recently, two new studies were performed. One was conducted by Zatso (formerly ReacTv) using questions previously designed by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation. The other was conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, part of the Pew Research Center. Both shed some interesting light on what people want to do online. The answer, it seems, is very utilitarian: People want to accomplish something online. They’re not aimless “surfers” looking for a fix or a novelty. Instead, the average Net user seems to be a goal-oriented person interested in finding information and communicating with others.

Look at the Zatso study. Not surprisingly, “A View of the 21st Century News Consumer” looked at people’s news reading habits on the web. Surprisingly, though, it did discover that reading and getting news was the most popular online activity after email. One out of three respondents reported that they read news online every day, with their interests expanding geographically local news was of the most interest, U.S. news the least. Only one in ten respondents said they didn’t feel that it was important for them to keep up with events.

Personalization was seen as a benefit, too. Seventy-five percent of respondents said that they wanted news on demand and nearly two out of three wanted personalized news. Overall, the subjects that were surveyed liked the idea that they, not some media outlet, controlled the news they saw. They makes them feel that they’re better equipped to select what they want to see than a professional editor.

The Pew Research Center study (as part of its Pew Internet and American Life Project) garnered a significant amount of media attention when it revealed that regular Net users were more connected with their friends and family than those who didn’t use the Internet on a regular basis. Yet, other data also revealed some additional interesting insights about online behavior.

Almost two-thirds of the 3,500 respondents said they felt that email brought them closer to family and friends significant when combined with the fact that 91 percent of them used email on a regular basis.

And what did people in this study seem to be doing online when they weren’t doing email? Half of them were going online regularly to purchase products and services, and nearly 75 percent were going online to search for information about their hobbies, or about purchases they were planning to make. Sixty-four percent of respondents visited travel sites, and 62 percent visited weather-related sites. Over half did educational research, and 54 percent were hunting for information about health and medicine. A surprising 47 percent regularly visited government web sites, and 38 percent researched job opportunities. Instant messaging was used by 45 percent of these users, and a third of them played games online. And even with all the hype in the media, only 12 percent said they traded stocks online.

Interesting numbers, especially when you look at how closely some of them correlate to the news study I mentioned earlier. But what’s really interesting is that in all these cases, what people are doing is looking for information (news, product information, hobbies) and transacting business. They aren’t surfing, aren’t aimlessly wandering, and definitely don’t seem to be focusing on “entertainment” specifically. Remember, 47 percent said they were visiting government web sites on a regular basis!

So what does this all mean to us e-marketers? Mainly, it means that if we’re constructing sites for goal-oriented consumers, we’d better make sure that we can help facilitate their seeking. Rather than focus on entertainment, flashy doodads, and useless splash screens, the most effective sites are those that help people get the information they want when they need it. Straightforward data, information that invites comparison, and straight talk are going to win the day.

I once had a participant in a focus group damn a site my company was working on because “with every click [he felt] we were getting halfway to the truth!” Let’s use the clue that people want to accomplish something when visiting our sites.

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