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The role of Web sites in both consumer and business-to-business markets is changing and evolving, enabling customers to engage brands increasingly on their own terms. Users expect more today from Web sites, and competition online is fierce.

Web sites are part of a brand's presence and an integral part of the customer multichannel experience. The Web site experience plays an important role in the multichannel strategy, and good marketers should be aware of the best ways to take advantage of the online channel.

Marketers should be considering how to change their sites to keep up with customer expectations of the Web, and to increase conversions and enhance the brand experience.

As a result of these developments, all companies with public-facing Web sites may soon be challenged with a redesign. There is opportunity for marketers to take the lessons of customer-centricity and put them to work to optimize customer relationships online.

Put the Customer in Charge

A Web presence that is truly customer-centric will give the opportunity to the visitor to interact with the brand... drive conversion if that is its role... perhaps embrace the tenets of social media... and attempt to leverage viral marketing.

To put customers in charge of their online experience, the Web site should be built with the customer in mind:

  • A persona-based design will help ensure that the site is being built for behaviors that customers may exhibit.
  • The site should also provide choices for customers to interact with the brand, including but not limited to email, mobile, chat, and blogs.
  • Tools should be intuitive and relevant.
  • Web sites that put customers in charge may also provide multiple ways to receive content such as through dynamic text, RSS, podcasts, or video.

All of these elements are determined through Web site strategy, which is the required starting point.

Web Site Strategy

A Web strategy starts with data—research, analytics, and competitive data. Current site data should be examined for usage statistics, referring sites and search terms, and conversions.

It is important to analyze both current placement of offers and architecture usage.

Moving from current to future state also requires a thorough understanding of the marketplace. A competitive analysis should be done for both online and offline competitors to discover commonalities and take advantage of tactics those others may be employing or are missing.

If possible, marketers should pull data from Web analytics back to the marketing database and match Web click streams (the direction of a visitor's travel) to visitor profiles—only possible when the customer is identified when entering the site. From there, models can be developed and used to plan a redesign.

The overriding concept is that users seek out relevant content and their traversals on the Web can be used to plan better designs and user experience.

Planning for User Experience

In planning a site, a marketer is wise to view it as would a customer. Focus groups or user testing can help determine whether an intended approach is correct or needs adjustment.

Organize a site map and architecture around site goals. Remember that every page of the site is a potential entry point, so be sure that search engines can index all pages.

The user experience may be developed using market research, personas, and/or user testing to ensure that the site meets the needs of its constituents.

Design for Conversion

Digital marketing success hinges on conversion. The definition of conversion is unique to each site and company. The "Conversion Point" could be a registration, view of a goal page, depth of interaction on the site, a sale, or any other point that the marketer considers would make the visit successful.

Every point of interaction needs to prepare for the conversion points for the site, and that conversion should be able to be tracked.

Visitors may spend as little as three seconds on your homepage, so use this precious little time to provide obvious calls to action; for instance, place call-outs in the upper right side of the page. Update and change offers frequently to keep content fresh. Avoid continuous banners; use call-outs to bring attention to special offers on the homepage. Don't lead visitors down lengthy paths; if visitors must click more than a few times to get what they need, chances are good that they won't.

Conversion on interior pages is just as important as on the homepage given that natural-search visitors often enter the site on interior pages. Pages should have persistent calls to action and provide easy access to the rest of the site.

Get Social

Social media has emerged as a driving force that may play a role in your Web site strategy. It may make sense to incorporate social engagement into the site by providing the means and ability for visitors to communicate with each other.

Social engagement creates community and enables better one-to-one or one-to-many communications. One strategy may be to plan a destination for customers outside the brand Web site.

Decisions on social media strategy are best made through customer research.

Measure and Optimize

A marketer can't optimize what can't be measured. It is critical to measure all types of Web site elements, such as interaction levels (e.g., number of pages viewed per visit), sales, registrations, time spent on pages, and clickstreams.

It takes planning and continuous analysis to optimize interactions on a Web site effectively. Keep in mind the overall multichannel strategy, and make sure that the Web site fills the needs of customers.

Optimization decisions should take into account all of the channels that customers use, and the role the Web site plays in the multichannel strategy.

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Companies that effectively embrace the needs of its customers by providing a user-centric online and offline experience will engage visitors and keep them coming back through the channel of their choice.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeannette Kocsis is vice-president, digital marketing, for Harte-Hanks (www.harte-hanks.com), a worldwide direct and targeted marketing company. Contact her at 845-339-0022 or via jeannette_kocsis@harte-hanks.com.