Making your Web site pay

How can we make our business’s Web site spur new customer growth?Has your Web site helped to grow your business? If you’re like many business owners, you’re probably thinking: “Nah, we just built one because we thought we ought to. Didn’t expect much, didn’t get much.” Or: “What a waste of money! We were told sales would increase, but nothing’s changed.” And yet a few owners speak glowingly of the Web’s charms, claiming it has opened new markets, sparked big sales gains and transformed many curious, uncommitted surfers into repeat clients.

Why the difference of opinion? One of the keys is getting to know (instead of assuming) what your potential customers really want to see on your site, and finding out if it is there in a way that makes sense to them.

You, your employees, and your friends all know your business too well to be able to provide an objective view. Similarly, site designers know computers too well: if they hit a snag on a Web site, they know how to get around it. Potential customers don’t.

Building or revising a site without putting it through independent user testing is like buying a bathing suit without trying it on, or a house based only on what the realtor has told you about it.

There are many ways to get feedback about your site. We don’t have room to talk about all of them here, so I’ll focus on a few that are most relevant to small businesses.

The art of the focus group
Six to 12 people, who may be chosen from your existing customer base or recruited externally, go into a meeting room, drink coffee, nibble cookies and discuss your site. This exercise, known as a focus group, can be a good starting point, especially for brainstorming when you are about to build your first Web site. But (and this is a big but) a focus group is a waste of money when it comes to designing or fixing a site. At best, participants retain a general memory that your site was “nice” or “rustrating” — nothing specific enough for you to base any changes on. Thereís also a risk of groupthink.

Web site (pop-up) surveys
As with focus groups, pop-up surveys can give you general feedback. However there are a few problems:

  • People won’t spend more than about two minutes on it.
  • The number of people willing to answer is dropping, and consists of mostly new Internet users — the folks least likely to buy online.
  • Pop-up blockers screen out many of the people who are most likely to buy online.
  • You won’t get the details that tell you exactly what needs changing.

Site stats
Your Internet service provider should be able to give you statistics about who is visiting your site, how many unique visitors you’re getting, which pages they’re visiting, where they came to the site from, and more. This is useful information, but you are left to guess at customer motivations. You may learn, for instance, that 63 per cent of your visitors abandon your site at the first page of your product order form. But why?

Unsolicited customer feedback
Almost everybody gets customer feedback on their site from family, friends and other site visitors who feel strongly enough to take the time to send an e-mail or call. Since you get it, use it, but don’t assume it’s all the feedback you need. The people who take the time to comment are a vocal minority who tend to perceive things in more extreme terms than most. Again, they’re not typical users.

Remote usability testing

One new approach to testing for small businesses is to have 30 or more people — chosen to match your target market — work on their own computers to try to complete tasks at your site and report on their progress by answering questions about each and every page as they view it. The method provides lots of insightful detail about where people are getting frustrated and why and how you can fix things to make your site work better in the eyes of your customers and prospects. As a bonus, you’ll get the advertising value of having 30 prospects studying your site and thinking about your offering.

Tema Frank is the president of Edmonton-based Web Mystery Shoppers Inc., which helps companies improve their Web site effectiveness by providing recommendations based on independent user evaluations. She can be reached at (780) 444-5645 or

© Web Mystery Shoppers Inc. 2006

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