Keeping your eye on the 2.0 user

Jan 01, 2007 10:30 PM  By

An effective Website pulls sales and profits from the sweet spot where business goals meet customer needs. Managing your site for effectiveness requires that your team master a steadily expanding skill set: artful merchandising, pragmatic technology, customer-centric creative, online acquisition, and the emerging science of Web analytics. And it takes a big-picture understanding of how to put those pieces together.

You may wince at buzzwords, but the new ideas, technologies, and tools huddled under the header “Web 2.0” are changing the relationship between your site and the people who shop it. As a result, staying current and walking the “know thy user” talk are more important — and more potentially rewarding — than ever.

You may have caught the first glimmers of Web 2.0 in the round-cornered widgets you can drag around your personalized Google home page, Google Maps, and the many other sites using Asynchronous JavaScript and XML — a.k.a. AJAX. A loose collection of technologies, AJAX enables Websites to behave more like desktop applications — for instance, Web pages can change without the user’s having to reload them.

The features and functions that AJAX facilitates are helping to modify the relationship between merchants and customers. To better understand how the balance of power is shifting, let’s take a close look at the growing phenomenon of social tagging and its early e-commerce adopters.

Visit the Del.icio.us site (http://del.icio.us). At first you may be underwhelmed: Okay, you can create a page of bookmarks. But there’s a bit more to it. Surfing the Web as a Del.icio.us user, you bookmark the pages that interest you — and then give them the labels, or tags, that are useful to you. Then you can later use Del.icio.us to easily call up all your tagged pages: your “marketing” pages, your “howto” pages, your “toread” pages.

And you’re not alone. You can also use Del.icio.us to discover content that other users have placed under these same labels or to simply browse and drill down on the tags that are most popular among more than a million other Del.icio.us users.

Tagging becomes a new way to organize the Web. Tags create a “folksonomy,” an alternative taxonomy created by people just like you. And maybe, by allowing customers to tag products and create a folksonomy on your site, you can improve your site’s product navigation.

On the plus side, folksonomies can be yet another navigational alternative. Helping your users name and organize your products gives them more links to follow, greater engagement, and one more good reason to return to your site. And it’s a great way for them to find and refind the products they’re looking for.

Amazon.com has enabled tagging on its site. Look at the Amazon tag cloud (www.amazon.com/gp/tagging/cloud/), the big blue diagram showing the site’s most popular tags: It’s as if customers have created stores for yoga, vampires, anime…

On the minus side, folksonomies are in a sense subversive. You’re in charge here. You have sweated your site’s product organization. You read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, you learned that your site navigation is a chance to build credibility by showing customers how smart you are with the well-organized aisles and clean signage in your online store. Are you really going to cede that control to those amateur customers?

Look again at the Amazon tag cloud. One of the most popular tags is “defectivebydesign.” Click on it, and you’re led to a page of products that Amazon visitors have deemed, well, defective by design, complete with commentary. Yikes!

These new tools can shake things up on your site, but will they help you sell more stuff? It depends on what you sell. On “bazaar” sites selling tchotchkes or unique gifts, the navigational categories are often arbitrary and nonintuitive, so user tagging may indeed help create useful new store aisles for visitors to browse. They can also help customers find what they’re looking for when a strong on-site search is lacking. Savvy retailers will mine their customers’ tags the way they study their site search logs. But if you sell office supplies, will your customers teach you new ways to label staplers?

In the marketing blogosphere, questions have been raised about the usefulness of Amazon’s tagging feature. Some pundits cite Amazon insiders as saying that a useful folksonomy has been slow in coming; too many users tend to create labels that are relevant only to them, such as “gift for me.”

Is this really a problem, though? If we think we designed a floor polish but our customers are telling us it’s a desert topping, maybe we should listen. Perhaps some people at Amazon are disappointed that social tagging has yet to create an alternative taxonomy, but certainly a retailer that offers “recommendations for you,” multiple wish lists, a store with your very own name on it, and 19 e-mail subscriptions will find something to do with all those tags I’ve created like “IWantIt” and “BuyThisSoon.”

That’s the flip side of social tagging’s promise: We may be looking less at a way of recategorizing our sites’ merchandise and more at “wish lists on steroids.” That phrase has been used to describe sites such as Kaboodle and Stylehive, where users tag products from multiple retailers for future purchase.

These sites are good examples of 2.0 commerce raising the stakes on an Internet 1.0 idea: The competition is just a click away. And while price-comparison engines have long placed competitors on the same page, social-tagging sites let your customers build the pages themselves. More than ever, the user is in charge.

How will next-generation shopping really shape up? The Web evangelist in your company will probably have sent you a few e-mails about Web 3.0 before anyone is certain. But in the spirit of the New Year, here are a few pieces of advice:

  • Make sure your site has mastered the fundamentals

    The basics still matter. Clean design always builds trust, and now it’s essential if you want to layer in new tools without cluttering your online store. If you want to create an additional shopping path such as tagging, you’ll find the going easier if your site already has well-executed search and navigation. Likewise, your site offers the best platform for innovation if it already demonstrates proven online merchandising and selling techniques. Visitors may enjoy playing with an AJAX-driven drag-and-drop shopping cart, but it’s just as easy for them to pull the products out if your site fails to offer a compelling reason to buy.

  • Don’t lose sight of your user

    Smart online retailers aren’t afraid to trust their gut, but they keep their game sharp with a cycle of measurement, testing, and site changes. Web analytics software is key to this cycle.

    For the most part, analytics tools track how customers move between pages. But when sites use rich Internet applications such as AJAX, conversion-critical interactions can occur on a single page. To that end, Omniture and other analytics vendors have begun to offer plug-ins to ensure that their tools capture these interactions. Expect more changes on this front, as well as an increased need for smart people to analyze the data and respond nimbly to what they’ve observed.

    Web analytics software will continue to tell you “what percent” and “how often,” but they still won’t tell you “why.” Understanding how next-generation shopping will shape up requires a greater commitment to watching individual customers navigate your site and hearing them think out loud as they use new tools to shop from you and your competitors.

    Many merchants have been slow to adopt a usability-testing regimen, defaulting instead to design conventions suggested by research and market leaders. But while a best-practices approach may work well in a time of stasis, it’s dangerous to navigate solely with the rear-view mirror when the road is changing up ahead. Whether you rely on inhouse “guerrilla” user testing or the services of a third party, 2007 is a great time to get much better acquainted with your users.

  • Stop thinking like a marketer

    Just for a minute. Or at least pay attention to how you really like to use the Web. Don’t be glib; be interested. Then talk to the online marketers who you know are passionate and smart. Get with those netizens who always seem to have the cool new bookmarks. Try new stuff online and think about what these tools can mean to the shopping experience on your site. Then, once you’ve had a few “oh, wow” moments, get your team and get busy.

Larry Becker is vice president of marketing and business development at Rimm-Kaufman Group (www.rimmkaufman.com), a search marketing and Web consulting firm based in Charlottesville, VA.