Websites and Email are Back!!!

We’re constantly hearing that websites are dead. Facebook and other social networks are replacing them. Similarly, the social media experts often bemoan email as only for the old fuddy-duddys. Wrong. The most recent research clearly shows that websites are CENTRAL, and email newsletters and updates are also important ways to interact with customers—ways they find valuable. Oh, and guess what, Search is still crucial.

Several studies have shown that websites are one of the top resources for consumers researching products. Razorfish’s extensive survey of consumers also shows that they rank the company website at the top in terms of engagement value. Personal emails and newsletters ranked near the top as well. These same studies also show that most users go to Search to learn about a company and access its website or other content.

If you think you’re golden because, well, you’ve got a website—think again. It’s not enough just to have a website. Nor is it enough to send out a newsletter. What research like Razorfish’s makes clear is that consumers value an efficient, consistent website that delivers relevant information to them. Likewise, they want newsletters and email updates that are pertinent, timely, and valuable to them.

That’s not news to any good usability person, web designer, or user experience professional. We’ve known that’s what users want for a long time. In fact, it’s often resulted in tension during website design. The desire of Marketing departments to sell can be at odds with the designer’s desire to make a website meet user goals. Of course, the best sites manage to do both.

With the more recent research, savvy marketers will realize that the scale must tip towards the user. Your best bet to build trust with your customers and get them to stay opted-in to contact is to deliver the goods they want when they want—and no more. That means your website needs to work for your users. Website owners need to really understand the goals the customer has when coming to the website, where they are coming from and in what context, and how to deliver to each segment exactly what it wants in the most efficient manner.

Likewise, when you design your newsletter(s) and email updates, you need to really understand the audience for them. What information is relevant to each segment—and what isn’t? How can you deliver only the information each segment—and ideally each individual customer—wants? How can you do it in the most efficient way that takes the minimum of effort and time for the customer, while still meeting their needs? If you’re doing that, your customers will be willing to continue getting your newsletters and updates. If not, they’ll opt out. Our online lives are just too crowded for fluff and excess noise.

That’s why, as we look to the future, we’re going to see a growth in personalization. The advertising industry has used demographics and behavioral information for many years to target ads. Facebook is determinedly expanding to pull in your social information along with more behavioral information for ad targeting. With Instant Personalization, they are starting to share some of that information with websites, to enable a more personalized experience on these partner sites. We will see more and more services and tools for gathering information about individual users (while keeping their identity anonymous) and leveraging it to provide a personalized experience on the website. That information will be gathered explicitly–by asking users or through the actions they take. (Remember, when you Like a page, you are explicitly conveying your interests to Facebook.) It will also be gathered implicitly, and not always terribly ethically, as it has been for years by the Search engines and ad networks.

The good news is that most people are willing to share that information and give up their privacy if the results are more relevant and personalized content. Even now, there are ways to deliver a much more relevant and valuable experience to your users either through good segmentation and design, or via well-designed memberships and logins. In the long run, through widely-available tools, services, and code, we’ll see highly personalized experiences for each user on each website. Likewise for newsletters, email updates, and SMS updates.

In the meantime, keep your website and your newsletter. But bring in a good website designer to help you make it work for your customers. If it works for them, it’ll work for your business, as well.

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