Having a website has become essential for most businesses, but until recently, it has been difficult to gauge how customers respond to them. This is now changing as technology enables companies to analyse visitors’ behaviour so they can structure their sites to the best advantage.
If website owners can get visitors’ permission to merge their anonymous data, that is, details where the identities of the subjects is not known, with freely shared information, high quality data can result.
Freeserve marketing data manager Helen Litvak works with application service provider WhiteCross to analyse Freeserve’s customer data related to Internet usage.
She says: “The amount of data that any Internet company has is enormous. Everything we collect is valuable to Freeserve. WhiteCross captures the registration demographic logs, the dial-in logs from people who make their calls to the ISP, and the web logs of all the page impressions. This helps us develop a one-to-one view of the subscriber.”
The registration form each customer fills in is the key to this merging of data.
“By law there are only certain fields of data that we can capture. We don’t pressurise anybody to fill in anything they don’t want to, but with the information we do receive we can start to set up some predictive models by looking at different clusters of people on the site.”
This data has uses even beyond Freeserve’s immediate environment.
“Because of the technology available at WhiteCross, we can correlate the data, not just on the Freeserve portal, but through our different portal sites. We can begin to understand different types of behaviour. This helps with media planning, because if we know someone’s profile, it gives us an idea of what media to use in other advertising. Companies can also target ads for specific groups on the site.”
For some sites, an overview of user location and interest level is sufficient, as was the case when Philips wanted data on awareness of its new PC-linked camera. According to Edwin Mitchell Finch, digital media director of PSD Associates, which carried out research on behalf of Philips, the company used a package from solutions provider Web Trends to analyse visits to the site.
“The idea was to attract children and schools to the site through a competition to win the cameras. Web Trends provides a web log analysis on a monthly basis for the website. This yields data about what is being hit and from which countries. Unsurprisingly, it was pages that contained downloadable items that were hit the most, including an interactive game that we had on the site, a screensaver and videos for download,” says Finch.
A significant limitation of this type of program is that it looks simply at traffic through the site, without distinguishing between new and repeat users. In contrast, Net Value, a French-owned Internet measurement company which launched in the UK last year, offers feedback of a very individualistic nature by signing up ordinary people to have their Internet usage analysed. The deliberately unobtrusive program operates on the basis that its informants soon forget they are being watched.
Managing director Alki Manias explains: “The best kind of research is where you don’t ask anybody anything. We are the only company in the world to monitor every single keystroke that our panel makes. Working with research company Taylor Nelson Sofres, we have a panel of about 1,000 households.”
Net Value monitors all Internet activity undertaken by the panel, including e-mail.
Manias says: “Users are assured of complete anonymity and when they sign up at the beginning it is fully explained. They download a megabyte of software and that is it; they never see us again. It takes a few weeks to bed in, for example the level of pornography viewed drops tremendously for those first weeks, but then goes up and sticks at a substantial level. That says to me that these people regard this as a very protective environment for them. The only way they know that we are there is that they get a drop-down menu so that we can register every household user,” says Manias.
Ian Robinson, planning director for Insight@tmw, the strategic planning arm of direct marketing agency Tullo Marshall Warren, points to database marketing as the foundation of all good web research.
Foundations of web analysis
He says: “One of the best methods of website analysis is based on database marketing, using technology to track people’s behaviour as they move around the site. Through analysis software, companies can investigate key issues that impinge on their business, for example, people abandoning their shopping basket. Analysis will identify the route these people took through the website, the source they came from and at what point they abandoned their shopping basket. Armed with the results, companies can restructure their site to minimise the number of baskets abandoned, and can predict which people are likely to behave in this way and direct them to different places in the website.”
Advertising is a crucial part of any analysis of hits, says Steve Laitman, marketing manager for LeisureDistrict.net, an interactive family entertainment channel. “The research facilities are increased if you measure ads on the website or on interactive TV. We recently signed an agreement with Engage which offers online marketing solutions through data services and technologies. Engage will sell sponsorship and banner ads as well as a new form of interstitial ads [a screen which appears when users are moving between one web page and another] on LeisureDistrict in all regions.
“Engage AdManager will manage the distribution of all advertising across its platforms, with the data linked to other back office systems.”
This analysis package will include a subscription to Engage Knowledge, a database containing over 52 million anonymous profiles of observed consumer online interests across 800 main interest categories. Laitman predicts that this will help improve online targeting potential.
Research consultancy FIRM has developed a market research solution called Confirmit. Essentially a website evaluation tool, it has been used by Air Miles to conduct quantitative research among its online customers about its website.
FIRM marketing manager Aruna Carver says Confirmit operates on the basis of an invited response, giving site visitors the opportunity to comment on site design, content, navigation system, interface and other areas.
“It is an opportunity for visitors to leave their comments and get automated feedback. This creates interaction between your company and visitors, and visitors feel that the company has staff waiting for them to arrive and ready to interact with them,” she says.
The fact that the process is automated does not detract from its impact, says Carver. The results gathered by Confirmit can be used for registration and automated response purposes, and can be exported to the standard MS Excel spreadsheet package.
Focus groups are at the heart of research company Morpace’s website analyses, says director Sue Fox.
She explains: “There is an increasing need for people to understand the use and effectiveness of websites. It is not a matter of counting the number of “mouse clicks”. Our focus groups consist of up to eight people and we record what catches people’s eye and how they navigate around a site. If a client asks why their site is not doing well, we can analyse it online with live groups.
“The beauty of websites is that we can do this very quickly. We run the groups at our offices, where we have lots of ISDN lines that provide the good bandwidth and uniform speed of access needed for everyone in the group.”
Older Net users
There is growing interest in older Internet users and their potential for online selling. Classic Selection, a mail-order catalogue which targets the 45-plus age range, recently launched on online service. According to customer relations marketing director Guy Stainthorpe, the company is involved in ongoing research into responses to the website as part of efforts to establish a customer relations programme. A sample group of 100 existing customers answered questions on their attitudes to and experiences of the Internet.
He says: “People in this age range become highly active users once they become involved. They use the Internet as much for home shopping as for communicating with friends and colleagues and gathering information. We also found on the whole that people were generally quite positive about a more active dialogue through e-mail. We were pleasantly surprised by how many of our customers have access to the Internet, principally through work.”
Without permission to access personal data, one of the main dilemmas facing website researchers is that many people surf both at home and at work, says Paul Toland, chief technology officer for E-Marketing, an online business consultancy.
Problems identifying users
“If I go to a site at home and again at work there is no information – unless I have registered – that tells the web server that I am the same person. The other problem is that the external presentation of many companies’ site address (the IP address) is the same whoever is using the system. So you may see 3,000 accesses from one address but this may represent many different people.”
Understandably, clients are impatient to resolve such anomalies, says Toland.
“We are moving towards step-by-step incremental acquisition of information. In the first instance, the visitor may just choose a user name and a password. On subsequent visits they may be asked for some additional information such as whether they drive a car, and later for more targeted information relating to a particular set of consumers,” he says.
He predicts greater use of methods such as pop-up windows which solicit information.
Toland adds: “We are seeing more interstitials and superstitials [pages which appear while the user waits for requested pages to load]. This is very big in the US but can mislead site visitors. Often, while they click on a window the other windows are hidden. The question is how to solicit information without annoying the user.”
It seems clear that as organisations extend their online activities, they will need increasingly sophisticated methods of verifying their credentials to customers and stakeholders. This will continue to constitute good business for those companies that can give them user-friendly methods of proving their worth.