Research and the Future of E-CommerceBack before the e-crash this spring, when e-commerce sites focused primarily on dreams of "capturing categories," understanding the needs of customers sometimes seemed an afterthought. Certainly, true customer-centered strategies were rare. At first, "customer needs" seemed to mean effective navigation. Then, after that did not seem to build sales, branding was seized upon. A little later, right before the crash, "customer experience" became the rage, though the translation of that rather amorphous idea seemed to be "navigation, with a bit of branding mixed in for good measure."
With the carnage that has been taking place, it appears many dot-coms are taking a new look at the idea of a "customer-centered" approach to building their businesses. Much of the new effort is centered on making better use of consumer research. If approached correctly, research can make the difference between succeeding and failing in this new world.
In the pre-crash period, research primarily involved navigation testing. Consumers were brought into a facility and asked to engage in a series of activities designed to determine how easily they could find what Web site management wanted them to find. On occasion, brand concepts also were tested to ensure that whatever the agency dreamed up resonated with people, at least to some extent.
In both cases, however, research was employed at the end of the marketing process, for tactical purposes. In the case of navigational research, the site was already built, and the tasks researched focused on what the dot-com wanted people to find, rather than what people might actually be interested in. In the case of branding, advertising agencies drove the process, devising progressively less relevant campaigns (from the point of view of customers) and testing their ideas only to find the least awful option on the table. Though such research is better than nothing, neither of these approaches is customer-centered.
For research to help a dot-com be truly centered on customer need, it needs to be employed in different ways. First and foremost, dot-coms need to approach customers with empty hands and, essentially, say to them, "We don't have any particular idea what to offer you. Help us understand how your lives are changing, so we can build something that directly relates to your changing needs."
This sort of approach makes the most sense, because, as we have all seen, simply offering products via the Web channel is not a sufficient reason for people to buy through it. The experience of buying online needs to offer some real advantages in spite of the greater risks involved. Those advantages do not ultimately have to do with a catchy brand name or ease of use. They have more to do with specific needs of specific segments of customers.
No one can generalize what those needs may be. They can only be unearthed through unconventional research techniques such as ethnographies. In ethno work, the researcher lives with the respondent for a while (hours, not days) to understand the context of product usage in a changing world. Understanding the context by seeing it for yourself is far more useful than talking with people in a focus group facility about their perceptions of their own needs. It makes it possible for the dot-com to understand what truly is behind people's behavior, as opposed to what people think they are doing.
Ethnographic work can take place in person, or it can happen through digital technologies. You can, for instance, call respondents at unplanned times to learn more about what they are doing. Or, you might set up a Webcam in someone's house (with that person's permission) to observe how he uses products over a long period of time. These techniques can be employed in both the consumer and the business realms and have led to the development of far more effective sites, whether they are e-commerce sites or intranets.
The main idea here is that rather than asking people what they think they do and why they do it, one should watch directly. Ultimately, such intimate acquaintance with customers' real, evolving lives offers the greatest potential stimuli for developing truly relevant Web sites. At this point, the only alternative is hoping that you have stumbled onto a great idea. While that does, on occasion, lead to success, the track record of dot-coms suggests that they need a bit more than intuition alone. With ethnographic research, your intuition can be channeled and facilitated, with a far greater chance for commercial success.
• Steve Diller is partner, e-business and media strategies at Cheskin Research, San Francisco. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.