Online behaviour: Study decisions not sites

There are major benefits for clients choosing a specialist digital research agency, for evidence shows that traditional research techniques which focus on how people think do not transfer well into how consumers will actually behave online. By Pete Ballard

Pete Ballard
Foolproof Founding partner 

2002 Founding partner, Foolproof
1994 Marketing director, Virgin Money

Without a doubt, we have seen the coming of age of usability as a mainstream marketing discipline in the past couple of years. Most marketers now understand that user experience research is an essential part of the online design process. And organisations are reaping the benefits of putting their online offerings through usability testing before launch, helping them to avoid expensive mistakes and costly rework. In fact it’s pretty much accepted that if you don’t do basic usability testing with end users you deserve what you get.

However, it is also true that most online marketing has developed tactically, not strategically; testing and rolling out only what makes money today, not what builds value for the long term. Marketers can no longer just look at their own sites; they have to understand how the whole market works from a consumer’s point of view. The more sophisticated marketing teams are taking a step back and asking themselves some searching questions. How do consumers use online to investigate and inform their decisions? How do these insights inform our ideas and strategies for sites, messages, media and product? 

In this “new world”, where comparison sites, social networks and search dominate consumers’ shopping horizons, and where online channels routinely deliver the lion’s share of profitable sales, the user-experience industry is leading the way in studying online consumer decision making, not just websites.

So how does today’s marketer get the depth and breadth of insight required? Traditional market research agencies have been slow to embrace the ergonomic aspects of consumers’ online behaviour and influences; they are still only equipped to find out what people think, not analyse what they do.

Behind the decisions
To get the whole story, organisations need to invest in a proper relationship with a user-experience specialist. These people understand how to monitor, measure and evaluate consumer decision making online and can get to the heart of the process.

For example, we have conducted a number of quantitative and qualitative studies to gain an insight into how people research, apply for and buy a wide range of products and services online, and this is valuable information for clients. Marketers would only get this level of detail by going to a specialist.

But marketers from all sectors can benefit from gaining a deeper understanding of online usability. The following points, which emerged from a Foolproof Online Shopping Survey, may provide useful insight into the subject.

The first is that brand preference and intention don’t survive the search process. Consumers visit the sites they are presented with on the search engine results page, and that appear on comparison sites or in the high-profile advertising environments. Very few shoppers continue to seek out the brands they were originally considering before starting their online shopping session if they are not immediately visible to them.

Next is that shoppers are goal focused. Early use of search and comparison content helps shoppers form a focused information goal. People are pretty single-minded in their pursuit of useful and relevant information when they arrive at sites, and this limits their receptiveness to the other sales messages and promotions that typically dominate home pages. However, once shoppers have satisfied their goal, they are more open to other messages and promotions.

Take%20adviceProof of competence
The third important theme is that companies should establish their brand’s competence early. Shoppers typically interrogate a number of different brands’ sites at speed during a short shopping session. Their multi-site browsing experience creates a model of what “normal” looks like. They aggregate the experiences they get from those sites to establish expectations of what a good site experience should be – anything that doesn’t conform is seen as lacking in credibility.

In the initial moments of interacting with a site, shoppers will make instant decisions on whether the site matches those “norms”. They leave sites that cannot quickly establish their competence at providing important information.

The fourth theme marketers should be aware of is the need to support channel fluidity. Online is becoming the centre of gravity for many forms of shopping. Most consumers expect to be able to review the market and shortlist brands for consideration purely from online resources. However, once the basic information has been collected and a brand has made it onto the shortlist, consumers become much more receptive to multi-channel offerings. Deciding when and how to promote human help is a central issue for multi-channel brands.

Understanding the buying process, from first search, through the shopping grounds, and on into the provider sites, is the biggest responsibility that today’s marketer faces. Having that information can help marketers make the right decision about a brand’s online strategy. Take, for instance, the following case study. It highlights that marketers should not draw conclusions about how consumers will behave towards their brand online based on their behaviour in other channels.

During fieldwork for a survey into the personal loans market, we discovered a consumer behaviour that challenged the conventional view that having the lowest rate was all that mattered to shoppers seeking a loan. It became apparent that the sites that had the most “playable” calculators, giving users the most freedom in experimenting with different monthly payments and length of borrowing period, achieved a greater level of engagement with users.

Tailor-made solution
Subsequently, those sites were more likely to appear on users’ final shortlist of lenders, often replacing cheaper lenders on that list. What users really valued, was the ability to tailor the loan to their exact circumstances.

All marketers, no matter what their discipline, would do well to consider online usability. Online marketing is achieving the level of impact and importance that has traditionally been enjoyed by the more “glamorous” broadcast media, and so brands that do not understand the role that search engines, aggregators and affiliates play in the customer’s decision-making process will increasingly fail to make ground in a very competitive market. 

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