If you've figured out the kind of Web site your business needs, a question I address in a separate article, it's time to discuss how to attract visitors to your site and to keep them around long enough to develop a relationship.
Back in the 20th century, we surfed for the joy of the ride. But nowadays the online experience is all about getting immediate right answers. As usability guru Jakob Nielsen has pointed out, all we care about anymore is how fast we find the precise page that delivers the exact information or solution we are seeking.
Rarely do visitors bother to begin on a home page and navigate from top to bottom. (The exception, says Nielsen, is a well-organized e-commerce site, where you move from shopping to fulfillment to confirmation.) So your work is cut out for you. Your mission is to:
Motivate visitors to spend time exploring your pages
Persuade customers to keep clicking from page to page
Prompt visitors to return after their first landing
Here are 10 ways to make your site "sticky."
1. Comfort your visitors with familiar items and navigation. Think about walking into a department store or supermarket for the first time. Previous experience tells you where to go to find what you need because there are conventions — established and traditional traffic patterns for you to follow. Similarly, there are online standards now to help orient visitors, making them comfortable and ready to learn more.
In a recent study, Nielsen's consulting firm, the Nielsen Norman Group in Fremont, Calif., found the following page elements on roughly four out of every 10 sites.
The term "site map" for the site overview
A different color after links are clicked and expired
Shopping-cart links in the upper right corner
Left-hand navigation for peer-level links
Logos in the upper left corner
When used, search boxes on the home page
There may be other standards that apply to your business or industry. Check out competitive sites and, if you decide to flout convention, have a good reason.
2. Keep it simple. The faster and easier the navigation, the happier your customer will be. If you're launching an e-commerce site, it might pay off to outsource some of the complex management and tools you'll need, such as with Microsoft's Commerce Manager. And set up a plan to monitor every page periodically so that you catch broken links and make sure every page loads quickly.
3. Offer a guided tour. "Find out who your visitors are and make suggestions about where they might want to go," says Thomas Obrey, co-founder of PixelMEDIA, a Portsmouth, N.H., Internet services company, explaining that it can be done via navigational cues or by a click-by-click page tour or demo. "It's the same concept as a salesperson greeting you at the store, understanding who you are, and guiding you to what you want."
As an example, Obrey points to the ECCO shoes site (www.eccousa.com), which his company recently redesigned. "The site is 100% engineered to lead visitors around." It has a "front end that markets shoes and a back end that sells shoes," Obrey says.
4. Tell your story. "A Web site is like a mini-broadcasting station," says Terry Isner, creative director at Jaffe Associates, a Washington, D.C., marketing consultant. "It starts right on the home page, which should set the stage by telling a compelling story that positions the company against its competitors." Include clear, concise information about whatever differentiates your company in your industry or niche.
Having an "About Us" section enables you to present the human side of your business by profiling your management team and detailing your company's history. Also, a section devoted to company news allows you to announce new clients, new hirings, new products or features — through press releases you post there. These are "conventions" to many users. Don't discount their value.
5. Update your content as regularly as possible. If you want repeat visitors, you need an answer to every returning user's question: "What's new?"
Even if your site is not content-rich, a key to getting repeat visitors is to offer something new when they return — new graphics, new product information, new offers, new article links, new company news, whatever. If you sell products or offer services, updating your online catalogs and product or services pages regularly will let people know you're still active in the business. It also gives you a chance to vary the offerings you tout and test what resonates with your target audience.
Also, if your business caters to a particular community of users — such as outdoors enthusiasts, musicians, movie buffs, or even retail store owners — consider having a communities section on your site, or a blog. (For more on blogging, see this article.)6. Say yes to archiving pages. When designing or upgrading a site, it takes little additional cost and effort to add an archiving channel for press releases, investor bulletins, media clips, company fact sheets, sales presentations, product announcements or specs, conference briefings, white papers and other content that you originally posted in more prominent places. You never know when a client will remember some data point or presentation you had on the site and return to forward it to your next prospective customer.
7. Test your labels and links. Before signing off on copy or design, put it through a usability test. Watch a live customer click page by page through your site to see if it's intuitive.
You should also test all top-level site labels, suggests Marcia Yudkin, marketing consultant and author of "Web Site Marketing Makeover." "It's essential to learn whether the labels you've come up with make as much sense to your audience as they do to you." Also use phrases or call-to-action sentences instead of one-word labels for your active links. "Granted, longer labels can pose design challenges, but what's the point of an aesthetically perfect home page with options that perplex visitors," Yudkin says.
8. Always fine-tune your site after launching it. The most common mistake, say many experts, is doing everything right in taking the site live — but then walking away from the considerable consumer information it can yield.
You should be checking into your server logs to monitor visitor and consumer behavior and traffic patterns. What site or search engine does which kind of customers come from? How long do they stay? On which pages? How do they move through the site? What products or information do which customer segments focus on?
Inexpensive, automated software such as Microsoft's FastCounter Pro can quickly analyze Web traffic and provide you with easy-to-understand reports. Once you get these reports, do something with them! Use the information to edit your pages, fix the navigation, change links, change content, and alter your search engine marketing to respond to customer needs. (See this article to learn more.)9. Establish trust in your users. Many consumers have now been burned by online experiences, so you must quickly establish business bona fides. Web design conventions (see No. 1 above) can help put customers at ease, but you must also establish individual credibility. The options depend on your business. For example, Richard Solomon, a New York State attorney and author, runs SmallClaimsBook.com, which helps people learn about winning in small claims court.
"I post my television and radio interviews, in addition to book reviews. This shows visitors to the site that I have a product [a book] and a service [public speaking] that are recognized by the media," he says.
Prominent bio or expert credentials
100% money-back guarantees
Free or discounted shipping
Perks or discounts for second-time buyers
Generous and clear product return policies
Live chat online sales support; see Microsoft Office Live Meeting for details
Letting customers track their orders
Contact information, with a phone number, on every page
Online customer access to your inventory
Online client access to your appointment calendar, such as with Microsoft's Appointment Manager
10. Empower your visitors. Design your navigation and online applications so your visitors can find what they want. Yes, the site's overall look and feel is important and, yes, your copy and content must be assured and professional. But the main mission of your site should be to make each visitor feel that he or she is in charge of the experience.
That's the route to attracting customers — and motivating them to return.
Joanna L. Krotz writes about small-business marketing and management issues. She is the co-author of the "Microsoft Small Business Kit" and runs Muse2Muse Productions, a New York City-based custom publisher.