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Miracles happen on the Web everyday. And one just happened on your Web site, so don't blow it.

Imagine all of the things a consumer could be doing in her daily life. Now think of all the Web addresses she could visit. Yet she just sat down at the computer and navigated her way to your digital doorstep.

A miraculous combination of events must occur for someone to visit a Web site. When it happens to yours, you have almost a sacred obligation to not waste her time by being irrelevant.

Think about it. When someone visits your Web site, she is extending to you a phenomenal courtesy: A few moments of her time.

To waste a user's time is perhaps the most common offense on the Web. When a Web site proves irrelevant or unclear to a visitor, it violates the premise upon which the medium is based: user control.

Accordingly, the Web is perhaps the ultimate medium for segmentation, although very few marketers fully embrace the opportunity. Segmentation strategies require brands to be highly relevant—particularly online. Compared with other media, the Web requires an incrementally smaller investment to create alternate messaging.

By doing so, a brand is able to speak to audiences more specifically on the basis of language, geography, age, ethnicity, gender, product interest, usage differences… virtually any criterion by which you segment your audience.

On the Web, the overriding goal is to be relevant as quickly as possible. Otherwise, users will press the Web site button of death—aka, the browser's Back button.

I have long maintained that the dominant behavior on the Web is to “seek.” The self-directed navigational nature of the Web makes it so. Therefore, relevance is crucial. However, two other qualities must accompany relevance for a Web initiative to be effective: It must be engaging and it must be compelling.

  • Engaging means that your Web site will be salient and will attract the attention of your audience. This is the means by which your relevance is facilitated. Engagement is in large measure a byproduct of creative strategy and execution. Without engagement, your relevance will never be established.

  • Compelling means your online communication will have an impact, that the user will be transformed by virtue of encountering your online message. If successful, you will have changed the visitor's attitude, intention or behavior in a manner that benefits your brand, cause or organization. This is highly measurable and trackable over time.

In part 1 of this series, you read that companies sometimes cannot see past their sense of delight or wonder with their own pet Web projects and favored online features. Today, you will read about how to ensure that you are not wasting time for your online audience.

Not surprisingly, the keys to ensure relevance on the Web are not really that different from other types of communication research. The following is a template of questions and techniques used by leading advertising agencies to produce broadcast commercials and print ads. These have proven to work for the Web equally well:

  • Why are you communicating? This is a fundamental and important question, the answer to which is rarely committed to paper. This takes the form of a communication goal with a desired outcome. Getting consensus within your organization for this goal is essential, yet it can be trickier and more political than you might think.

  • Know your audience. Describe your target audience: characteristics, demographics, traits, psychographics and relationships to your brand. It could be a homogeneous audience or multiple segments to address. Think you know the answer to this? When did your organization last conduct a segmentation study to define its target customers? Some companies mistakenly believe that it is sufficient to profile their existing customers. If you truly want to understand the marketplace, you must include your competitors' customers and non-customers too.

  • Qualities count. Which attributes and qualities of your brand are important and meaningful to customers? Chances are your brand has multiple appeals to the marketplace. Take Honda automobiles as an example. Some customers praise Honda for its fuel-efficient cars and some for its drivability, while others like Honda for its reliability. By listening to customers, you can determine the “ownable” qualities for your brand that should be manifested on your Web site. By using conceptual testing, you can identify the features and functions that best reinforce the qualities supporting the favorable consideration of your brand.

  • Changing mindsets. What do your users think currently? What do you want them to think after encountering your Web site? Most importantly, how is this transformation expected to benefit your brand, organization or cause? After people visit your Web site you want them to act or think differently—in favor of your brand. If not, your Web site is so much electrons without a purpose.

  • The singular idea. What is the single, most-important idea that you want users to come away with? This is more difficult than you may think at first. It is a succinct statement—a mantra that you want customers to associate with your brand. More than a simple catchphrase or slogan, this must convey the emotional and rational justifications for your brand. This requires communicators and strategists to burn away all irrelevancies to get to the pure diamond-like essence of your brand. Avoid clichés and write the most compelling thought in a voice that sounds like Main Street, not Madison Avenue. As you might imagine, qualitative research and insight play essential roles in discovering and expressing this singular idea.

  • The “S” word. Yes, strategy. Develop a solid research-based strategy by tapping into user insights. As you move toward the development of graphic design, features and content, team members and marketers will all have preferences and opinions. Disagreement often occurs when those assessments are based upon personal preferences. Yet it's unlikely they are even members of the target audience. So put your strategy in place first, then use it as the litmus test. This provides a common focus for all stakeholders. In this way, the development team and marketers will tend to evaluate Web site elements on the basis of supporting the strategy rather than whether they like it or not.

  • Testing—one, two, three. Without a doubt, research with your users can play a pivotal role in developing and confirming your communication strategy. This should include audience identification, messaging and content, usability, functions, features and creative executions. Do your conceptual testing first, followed by research on alternative creative and features, and a final round to confirm and refine your final executions. Don't have a lot of time or money? Guerilla research with friends outside of the company is better than nothing. Throw a pizza party and get some insights from outsiders.

Does a lot of this sound familiar? Yeah, you've heard it before. But mom also told you not to run with scissors, and it's still a good idea today.

A research-based strategy can ensure that your Web site is relevant for your users—inarguably the approach that offers the greatest evidence on how to proceed. Moreover, research makes doing the right thing more defensible.

Why don't more Web developers do it? Probably the knee-jerk excuses of no time, no money or lack of other resources.

Remember, Web site production often requires the same financial commitment as producing a television commercial. And most major television ad campaigns have the bejeezus researched out of them.

Perhaps it's time that the Web grew up to become a more mature member of the media mix… starting with your next project.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mitch McCasland (mmccasland@moroch.com) is director of insight and brand strategy at Moroch Partners (www.moroch.com) and a leading advocate of using customer insights and competitive intelligence as a basis for brand strategy, advertising, and new product design.