Since Tim O'Reilly coined the phrase "Web 2.0" back in 2004 at a new media conference, companies have been scrambling to figure out how to deploy Web. 2.0 applications... but for all the wrong reasons.
I've observed CEOs pointing to competitors' sites, insisting, "They've got user-generated content so we need to do it," or, "A blog will help with our PR efforts during this downturn."
But where is the customer in the equation?
For all the buzz about blogs, wikis, widgets, and other forms of user-driven Web interactions, the question that's rarely asked is, "Is this what our customers want?"
Recently, when I helped a client pose that question to its Web site users, only 1 out of 10 users asked for social applications. The majority wanted the company to improve its site's core navigation and search functionality.
Essentially, they were asking my client to "walk before you wiki" by enhancing core functionality they use every time they visit the site.
Given the exposure of social applications in the media and in the boardroom, now's the time for Web business owners to make the case for building engaging online interactions with customers.
First, you need to recognize that customers will engage with site features they need and want. Simply put, you can design the most useful, elegant application, but if your customers don't need it—it will eventually languish on your site as another "distraction."
By listening to your customers, you'll understand what they value and need on your site and be able to prioritize new projects based on this information along with business and technical considerations.
Learn to Listen
How can you learn what customers and prospects need from your site? Based on your budget and target audience, there are several ways to effectively glean information. Ideally, you should use a mix of tools and information to get a holistic view of your users to understand what they want from your site, their preferences, behavior, and Web savviness.
To get started and obtain broad insights into your target audience's online needs, consider leveraging third-party research. Research conducted via a consumer panel should provide you with statistically significant data that, when coupled with primary research (see below), can help you make a business case.
If you have a well-defined and narrow target audience (e.g., male, married, age 35-54, high education and income levels, etc.), you can leverage third-party research from firms like Forrester Research (www.forrester.com) that survey consumers and report out on specific online activities they engage in, like banking, shopping, participation on social sites, etc.
If your user base straddles age brackets, income levels, geographies, etc., or your online offering doesn't fit neatly into a typical retail or services category, then you should conduct your own research. There are some very effective—and inexpensive—methods you can use depending on your objectives:
- Web analytics: Tap into your analytics data to understand how your site's visitors behave. Are they exiting certain pages at a high rate? Do they tend to search for the same products while ignoring or missing others? Analytics will surface those trends but won't reveal user intent. So while you might not be able to pinpoint what is causing visitors to leave certain pages at a high rate, or search for certain products, you can tee up those issues as scenarios to test in a usability setting.
- Surveys: There are a variety of inexpensive survey tools, including Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com), Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com), and Zoomerang (www.zoomerang.com) that you can use to quickly build and launch customer surveys either on-site or via email. Surveys generate quantitative data about why users visit your site and how they perceived their experience, but, again, they won't reveal user intent.
- Usability testing: Once you've identified a list of user needs and potential issues—based on your analytics and survey data—you can run any problem scenarios through a usability test. Are users telling you they primarily come to your site to find product information but give your site a low rating on its search and browse functionality? Run these kinds of scenarios through usability testing to uncover specific problem areas that you can then work to fix.
Walk Before You Wiki
Before you launch a blog, or enable user-generated content on your site, make sure you can answer the basic question, "Do I know what my visitors need and am I delivering it to them?"