Each day, consumers are exposed to thousands of brand messages by watching television, reading the newspaper…even by walking down the street. As a result, people have expectations from brands.

When a brand goes online, what expectations do consumers have? What information is anticipated? Motivating?

And which features of the Web site will best reinforce the value of the brand with the customer? Pre-development audience research provides insights about online consumers and the content and Web site features that are compelling and motivating for them.

Audiences in traditional media, like television and radio, encounter a brand's messages in 30-second increments. However, online audiences encounter the brand for a much longer duration—often 10 minutes or more. Therefore, the depth and appropriateness of a brand's messaging and content becomes more critical online.

Why should you conduct pre-development research on content and imagery for a Web site?

For years, many companies built Web sites based upon what the corporate staff thought their Web site's visitors might like to see. However, this philosophy has failed, as evidenced by the dot-com bust, scores of unprofitable online businesses, and hundreds of brand sites that don't succeed in capturing the attention of the online audience and motivating them to a desired action.

Part of the solution lies in using pre-development research to understand who the online users truly are—their personas, capabilities, demographics, psychographics—and what is meaningful to them in terms of imagery, features and functions.

Unfortunately, online users often don't innately recognize what their own expectations will be. Typically, they recognize when their expectations are not being met at a given moment.

Consumers online can be disappointed and even mad when existing brands online don't meet their expectations in messaging, functions and features. And companies can do more harm than good by jumping to conclusions about what the online audiences might like to have.

Consider a client who manufactures air conditioning units. The client wanted to become the online authority for air quality in the home. The company assumed that this was important to buyers of air conditioning units. It hoped that this association would position the brand to consumers as a credible source of expertise for indoor air quality.

As part of this strategy, the client wanted its Web site to feature a weekly Webcast on the topic of air conditioning repair, hosted by an industry expert. The client LOVED this idea and already had selected the “perfect” host for the show.

This is where research entered the picture. By conducting audience research on the brand, the development team set out to learn if the concept of air quality expertise was important and compelling to consumers. Research revealed that the connection between the air conditioning brand and air quality made sense to the consumer, but only in selected areas: Air filters, mildew control and ventilation.

Not surprisingly, the consumers unanimously rejected the Webcast concept, citing a lack of interest. After all, who really wants to spend his or her free time visiting a Web site to watch a show about air conditioning? Sure, it sounds silly now, but at the time, the client was fully committed to this Webcast.

The research saved the company more than $1 million in development and operational costs by avoiding Web site features that would not have been valuable to their online users. Instead, the savings were applied toward features that reinforced the value of the brand with consumers.

In conducting research with thousands of online consumers, I've started thinking this way about brands online: Site features and functions create a frame to surround and enhance the image of the brand. As with different pictures, different brands require frames of varying size and depth. Through the use of pre-development research, marketers can identify the features and functions that are the most engaging, relevant, and motivating for the brand's consumer.

A brand's Web site is a promise—a promise of what the brand will deliver in its actual use—emotionally and functionally. If the Web site over-promises the brand, the user will be disappointed in its actual performance.

Conversely, if the Web site under promises, the user will not be sufficiently compelled to try the brand. Pre-development research determines the type and number of features needed to find the balance between the promise and brand performance.

In traditional media, advertising agencies test and retest television commercials as they are being developed. Why? Because there is financial risk associated with the cost of developing advertising. With budgets of $100,000 to more than $1 million, television commercials and Web sites represent equivalent financial commitments for brands.

Pre-development research also reduces risk for the brand by ensuring that site features and other online initiatives work to enhance the brand's image and sales, rather than detract from them. As a result, an effectively planned Web site can outperform its well-funded competitors that are less focused and strategic in online branding efforts.

In today's economic recovery, providing competitive advantage for your brand vs. your competitors' brands is essential. And in that sense, consumer insights and pre-development research can ensure success online.

Coming next in part 2…the nuts and bolts of how to do it.

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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.