Focus on Your Web Site's Usability

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The economy is bad. Budgets are tight. There's no time to start a new project amid the fourth-quarter rush. All legitimate thoughts. However, think about this: 50 percent to 70 percent of online transactions are abandoned before completion.


How much more profitable would your business be if you increased holiday sales by just 10 percent? Or 25 percent? These numbers are achievable with a limited effort paid to the root of your site's success -- its usability.


Before we start, it is important to understand a few facts about Web sites:


· For every dollar spent acquiring a customer, you spend $100 reacquiring them after they leave from poor usability or bad customer service. As direct marketers, this should be no surprise; acquisition is always far costlier than retention. Yet many e-tailers forget this when they let precious customers slip away to the competition. Always remember that on the Web, the competition is only one mouse click away.


· More than 95 percent of your customers will use less than 5 percent of your site's features and functions. Customers will never use about 75 percent of the functions. Again, this is not shocking given the universality of the 80/20 rule. The critical issue is to understand which features and functions are among the 5 percent being used and to ensure they are error-free, fast and easy to learn.


· The largest predictor of call center volume is your Web site's usability. Calls cost an average of $22 to $30. Besides the unnecessary call center expense created by poor usability, there is a hidden, added expense: Once customers call customer service for problem resolution, they are far more likely to become repeat users of phone-based problem resolution. So in real dollars, the actual cost per call is even greater.


· For every dollar spent improving the visual design of your site, you will receive virtually no improvement in sales. However, the same dollar spent improving core behavioral interactions with your site's critical "way-finding" and "form-filling" functions will return $50 to $100 if executed professionally and rigorously.


This has been proven in large studies in which some companies wasted millions of dollars making their site pretty instead of working to improve the interactive performance of their customers with their sites.


Though the holiday season has started for direct marketers, there is time to get your Web site in shape. Here are some initial steps:


· Confirm your business objective. Without business objectives a business can't meet its goals. The same holds true for Web sites. What is the objective of your site? What is the primary thing you want people to do when they get to your home page? Can they do it? Easily? Is it clear to the visitor how to navigate through the site?


· Find your 5 percent. We said earlier that only 5 percent of your site's features and functionality are used. Study traffic logs to see where the vast majority of your site's activity is. This will give you an idea of how people use the site and what they hope to accomplish. Ensure these areas function perfectly.


· Customer support. It is critical that visitors have access to customer support information during their visit. If their questions aren't answered quickly, easily and fully online, they will call your customer service phone line (thus increasing your cost per order) or, worse, they will abandon the transaction.


· Broken links break sales. Test all links. It doesn't take long to ensure that all links on your site work properly. Do it every time new pages are added.


· Measure your results. If the wheels are already in motion for a graphic or visual face lift of your site, measure user feedback before and after the changes take effect. This might not help you this time around, but it could save you a lot of money next time.


· The speed and cost-effectiveness of online research. A new breed of research tools is available that can measure user behavior and opinion. Thanks to the speed of Internet activity, results of these surveys are usually received within a week and most companies have online reports that are automatically generated. A word of caution: Many companies say that they do online usability research. But the vast majority provide only opinions of visitors' experience without also seeing the actual behavior. These studies will give you skewed data. Use a company that provides both user behavior and opinions.


The stock market may be down and many dot-coms have gone away, but the Internet is here to stay. With a little time, effort and investment, you can ensure your site generates the profitability you need and want.


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