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Friday, September 18, 2009

Businesses need to use their websites more effectively

Most businesses are still taking a very hit-and-miss approach to the design and navigation of their websites.

A recession is no time to be taking a stab in the dark with promotional activities of any kind, yet, with the exception of some forward-looking companies, most businesses are still taking a very hit-and-miss approach to their websites – arguably the most powerful shop window they have.

In a bricks-and-mortar store, the layout of the aisles and displays will have been carefully designed to steer customers to buy the most during their shopping experience. The high-street retail experience has been researched in great detail so that, not only does the customer fill up their basket, they will keep coming back for more. This means they need to enjoy the shopping experience, and be able to find what they need easily.

On the web, all of this applies equally. So why is it, then, that websites are still being designed backwards – without any feedback from customers until it’s too late?

A sub-standard shopping experience

E-commerce has been a booming business for a long time now, yet the majority of online store experiences remain dire, and the very opposite of intuitive - from failing to include search facilities, to wiping clean forms if the customer goes back to a previous page, and numerous shambolic omissions in between.

The result is that customers are still being bounced around poorly put-together websites in such a way that they are left dizzy and frustrated by the time they shut down their PC, with their basket still empty.

Given that many people now shop exclusively online, this lack of customer-centricity and quality control is shocking. It doesn’t matter how ‘expert’ the web designer. If they are not monitoring customers and tracking their preferences as they move around a website, they are missing the point.

Test as you go

Bricks-and-mortar stores invest heavily in testing the layouts of their stores to maximise results. One thing that retail store designers can’t do, which web developers can, is test out thousands of slightly different variations in a live environment to see which yields the best results. It is also very easy and affordable to do – and has been shown to represent much greater value for money than search optimisation.

Multivariate testing enables designers to be as creative and innovative as they want to be and then, crucially, see if it works, by gradually feeding out test pages to designated groups of real customers.

Amazon does this all the time, testing every tweak to its page layouts and content on its customers without them being aware of it.

What’s exciting about live, multivariate testing is just how well it works. The smallest and most subtle change can have a surprisingly significant impact on conversions and customer stickiness. One of the most astounding success stories saw a leading news and careers website gain a 1,000% uplift in completed registrations simply by changing the structure and layout of its forms. The content itself remained the same.

Subtle text changes deep in the checkout process for National Express, meanwhile, boosted the flow through that page by 14pc. The subtle changes that can have a massive effect on success are all too often missed by marketers.

Marketers miss the point

No example illustrates this more clearly than that of DIY supplies chain, Wickes. Four different designs of a proposed sign-in page were shown to a sample of around 500 marketers. They were asked which one delivered 11% uplift during live visitor testing. When the responses collated, it was discovered that only 4.6% of the marketing experts had guessed right!

This is the kind of thing that can’t be predicted.

What a risk these companies are taking, with their flashy glorified marketing brochures! The most effective websites are works in progress, which use ongoing, iterative changes to continually hone the customer experience.

Being innovative needn’t mean making radical or costly changes. It’s about paying more attention to the detail of how customers navigate and behave on your web site, and then responding with enhancements that can be delivered quickly – without having to wait for the next development cycle.

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