by Joanne F. Gucwa
[The first of three monthly articles beginning with the March, 1999 issue of Alert!, the monthly publication of the Marketing Research Association]
We all know that the Internet is like the weather: we talk about it, but about all that most of us do about it is to carry an umbrella. You've been there; information overload, can't find what you're looking for, there's nothing but junk out there...
I'd like to reveal some secrets on mining the Business Intelligence (BI) treasures the Internet, and the Web in particular, hold to those who can decipher the map. (After 25 years of consulting, the ONE thing I've learned is that just when you think you've got it all figured out, something comes along that adds another dimension to what you think you know. I call this the "AHA" factor.)
What are these AHA's? How can we as smart market researchers extract what mere "surface surfers" give up on? The three truths:
Let's take a closer look at the first of these three truths to see how you can transform the most boring, uh seemingly straightforward, of a competitive Web site (and the lowly tool of e-mail) into killer business intelligence apps.
If you want a full 3-D, holographic image of an organization's business strategy, it's important to analyze its Web site from at least three perspectives:
Content is the substance, the material that is contained within the site. It's what meets the eye. It's what is written or graphically portrayed. Fair enough? Actually, content is comprised of two types of information:
Explicit and Implicit.
The explicit material is the obvious, such as:
These are the obvious messages the organization wants you to get. You can extract valuable information even with these overt messages.
For example, are the press releases focused solely on new products, or do they also brag about their new hires and their community involvement? Do they send out releases about their triumphs in court?
Do they provide links to other sites at all? (Links to "My favorite movie sites" don't count) Or are they operating in a market vacuum? How about their banner ads (if any)? Is there a meaningful relationship behind the ads? What could that mean about their business strategy?
What can you imply from other content, such as:
Positions open: What kind of programmers are they looking for? Engineers? You can tell a lot about the future direction of R&D from their professional "help wanted" section. Are they requiring foreign language skills? A good clue about their market expansion plans into new geographic areas.
Careers: Does it sound like a great place to work? You can get a pretty good idea of their turnover relative to the rest of the industry if you check out how competitors treat their employees. Do they seem to be constantly advertising for the same position.
Communications: Do they make it easy for visitors (i.e. prospective and actual customers) to contact them? Is there an e-mail link on every page, do you have to go searching for it, or is there one at all? In the process of conducting a study recently, I was surprised to find that some of the biggest consumer companies provide no means of direct communication (we won't name names, but one of the world's largest [overseas] consumer electronics company and an American automotive company are among the offenders). Now, we all understand that companies are frequently inundated with e-mail, but if their competitors make it easy to talk to them...
Check out Sun Microsystems, which provides on-line support tools and extensive contact information: http://www.sun.com/service/online/index.html
Do they encourage a sense of community through a user group discussion area or bulletin board? A good example is Intel, which provides several dozen forums dedicated to different products and technologies. See http://newsgroups.intel.com/ . You can tell a lot about a company's image among different segments of their constituencies from the tone of news groups, whether they're hosted by the company or set up independently. By hanging around a company-hosted news group, you'll also get the idea whether they are truly customer focused or just paying lip service to the notion. (Intel learned, to its dismay, how costly it is to ignore grumblings about an arcane bug in one of its chips from the user community!)
Information: The origins of the Internet are based on sharing of information. What does it say about a site that offers nothing more than a glorified catalog? Or mega consulting firms that tease you with detailed "Table of Contents" listings for expensive reports, with nary a free article in sight. On the other hand, visit http://www.wilsonweb.com for a phenomenal number and variety of free articles on Web marketing and links to other sites. This is neither altruism nor an academic exercise. The payback is in numbers of hits and direct commercial activity.
Compare with the competition.
Atmosphere: Is the site clever? playful? Or is it loaded with photos of the founder(s) and a 10-minute download of what turns out to be a picture of their manufacturing plant?
Process is how the site works. Things such as:
Here's an experiment you can easily do to benchmark an organization's communication response process. Send an inquiry e-mail directly from a site (provided they offer that option at all). Now, sit back and wait for the response. Here are a couple of possibilities you will experience:
> Automated response (that may or may not apply to your inquiry)
> Automated response + "live" response via e-mail, fax or phone call
> Silence + eventual "live" response
This is a GREAT test of how customer focused they are. And because automated responses arrive within minutes, or occasionally within a day or two, you'll know pretty quickly whether they are serious about fulfilling customer needs and building customer loyalty. I've probably experienced every permutation there is. So have you. Though I've not tried to derive any statistically-valid correlation between response process and market share, there seems to be a positive relationship between the two...except for the Goliaths in some industries, as noted earlier. However, one day the Davids of their industries will surprise them.
Can't get back to where you started? That's probably because the site is merely "brochure-ware" created with do-it-yourself Web page software with little attention paid to the navigation capabilities of the Web - - or the navigational needs of their visitors. A state of the art knowledge map is impressive but not essential; the simple addition of a top-level site map, a rudimentary site search engine, and a "home" button on each page reveals as much about a company's attention to customer needs than how it chooses to communicate (see above).
What about the use of other customer-friendly technology on their site, such as secure shopping cart software or customer feedback forms? Are they actively looking to form relationships (especially 1-to-1 relationships)? Compared with their brethren, is the site a pioneer, an early follower, or a me-too when it comes to using technology.
What about customer-hostile technology. You know what I mean...distracting animations, totally irrelevant banner ads, flashing colored words in BIG, BOLD type...all that makes you wonder "what were they thinking?" (Perhaps they weren't).
How successfully is technology deployed ? Run a series of searches on the top 5 or 10 search engines, selecting key words that customers might use to find the company. How does the company rank (if at all)?
Location on the search engines is a matter of registering, content and meta tags (the words in the description and key word that do not appear in your browser; you can read them by going to the "view" menu in your browser and click on "document source"). How does the company (or your own) stack up? Pay particular attention to the meta "description" words. These are the words the search engines show after the title of each file. If you see something like "this site is best viewed with a Netscape browser" or other non-informative jibberish, it means there were no meta descriptors used and the search engine picked up the first words of the file itself. A sure indication of an amateur.
In all the above, how does the company stand up within their own industry? To the rest of the Web? Are they a benchmark? Or an also-ran?
There's more to an organization's Web site than meets the eye. This first truth promises you'll find treasures that "surface skimmers" miss, hidden below the visible surface. What do these hidden treasures mean to you, the savvy researcher?
Just this. You'll progress from focusing on merely getting information to getting understanding, i.e. being able to interpret from these hidden facts what a company's current and future strategic direction might be in areas such as:
And these barely scratch below the surface.
In a competitive environment, additional insights such as these provide a formidable market advantage in, for example: discovering unmet product and service needs in the marketplace, identifying strategic partnership opportunities, alerting you to emerging trends. Couple this with on-line SEC, D&B and other financial data.
All this from researching a company's Web presence. Powerful results from an apparently-simple task!
Reprinted with permission from the Marketing Research Association, PO Box 230, Rocky Hill, CT 06067-0230, © 1999, MRA, 860-257-4008, http://www.mra-net.org
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