Increase the stickiness of your website

Four out of five users never revisit the average website, so how do you ensure yours is the one in five they do come back to?

Four out of five users never revisit the average website, so how do you ensure yours is the one in five they do come back to?

According to a recent survey by Engage Technologies and Nvision, four out of every five visitors never return to the same website. Another finding was that 35 per cent of Internet time was spent on only 50 of the Internet's top sites.

What is stickiness?

One way to increase the stickiness of a website, (that is, how often people return to it) is by including personalisation. This involves two stages. The first is identifying the audience. Some sites (like this one) do this by inviting users to register. This helps predict what the audience wants from the site and aids tracking their navigation through the site. The second stage is making the site interactive with its visitors, offering them special privileges when they return. Research suggests that even small privileges, like including their name on the page, helps to increase return traffic. Some sites are almost totally bespoke for their visitors.

Services like Individual.com (a personalised news service) are showing the way of the future. Users register, pick the subjects they are interested in and have tailored news displayed when they visit the site. Subscribers also elect to receive emailed news headlines to draw them back into the site. All this is personalised to increase return traffic (and thus sell advertising to fund the site).

Users demand more of websites now then ever before. Pages must download quickly, have relevant, recent content and also interact with viewers.

Most failing websites have two things in common: they fail to understand the requirements of their audience or think that because they supply a service, people will want it, even if it is not tailored to their needs; and they do not make provision to build loyalty. This is often not only a lack of knowledge, but compounded by a lack of staff, and a hardware and software deficiency. To build loyalty, to create a strong web brand costs money. Targeting incentives cost money to set up, even if they are only virtual incentives (come back to the site and we will remember your name and greet you with it) and they are often overlooked in the struggle to complete all the technical and content related tasks required for launch.

Follow the KISS method

KISS stands for "keep it simple, silly". Simple changes can make or break a website and if a company is banking on

e-commerce making a profit (which is, in itself, a rare thing), these lessons will need to be learnt by heart.

Simple registering

Make the operation of the site childproof at an early stage. If people are asked to register, make the registration button prominent and don't hide it away on the bottom right of the page. If the front page is a proposition (sign up to us and we will give you, be clear about the benefits. Write the proposition as if addressing a search engine. So, rather than talking about the Chief Executive's promise to make their shopping experience easy, tell them about what products are available on the site, the vast range and delivery options. Give enough information to entice them into registering, but don't tell them about things that aren't relevant (e.g. unless the company is a major name, then saying it has been trading for 109 years is not successful on the web where people have little loyalty and customers are potentially global).

Once visitors arrive at the personalisation screen, make sure it is as simple as possible. Allow users to opt out of giving personal information if they are uncomfortable. If you are purely trading online, don't ask them for addresses (other than postal towns if you require this for marketing). Visitors are suspicious of companies who demand all this information and it always has to be a trade off between their information and the benefits of the proposition. Do offer online help and email help links. Some visitors may experience problems and unless they are readily provided with sources of help, they will surf on to the next site that does. You will also probably never know that the site doesn't work with a particular browser version unless a potential customer lets you know.

Directing traffic

If visitors cannot find their way round a site easily, they will leave. If they have to go through four screens before they get to the page they want, they will also leave. If we take a leaf out of the books of employment websites, we will see this in action.

People visiting such sites either spend their leisure time looking at vacancies or furtively log on from the office and quickly see what's available. If in doubt of the latter, check out the Edge's website, which even has a "boss" button which jumps to a search engine if users are discovered looking at it during work time.

Either way, they are usually excellent examples of sites that are very easy to navigate. Some of these sites require log in, some don't (those that do tend to offer tailored job searches or lists of jobs that match the applicants skills) and they include lots of buttons and links to help visitors navigate.

Avoid directing traffic away from your site. This may sound obvious, but many websites include links to other sites on the front page. It's fine to reference other sites, preferably with encoding that opens a new browser window, but try not to show visitors an exit when they have just surfed through the doorway.

This applies to plug-ins as well. Animation, flashy graphics and video clips all require plug-ins. These may or may not be resident in the visitor's browser. If they are not, a large proportion of your audience will be lost because they will not wish to download them from another site. Home users, wary of their phone bills and the (presumed) threat of viruses in downloads, are more likely to leave at this point, so bear this in mind if they are your target audience. Always offer a "skip introduction" option for visitors to sites with a flash introduction for users with slow connections or older browsers.

If your site is slow to download because of large graphics, change them for smaller graphics or smaller file formats. Don't rely on visitors waiting because, between 8 and 12 seconds later, they will go to another site rather than wait for a page to download.

Profiling

To increase customers returning to your site (and spending money while they are there), it's necessary to find out more about their behaviour while they are there.

You can do this by registration processes and tracking their visits or you can use analysis tools that log visitors and track their progress through the site. Successful profiling will also help increase the marketing argument for investment and advertising. If a site can prove it has 10,000 users from a particular (sought after) group who are regular visitors, or better still, regular customers (i.e. they buy as well as view), then the company has a better case for funding than if they have 25,000 anonymous viewers and aren't sure what they do when they arrive, how long they stay or what parts of the site are popular.

If you have collected the information about visitors, use it! If the logs show that they all leave on a certain page, then change that page. Look at successful areas, if a particular page gets a million hits, analyse the content and use this analysis to shape the future of the site.

It's also important to use customer information to shape the site for the future. If processes can be automated so that the customer is saved hassle, then make sure this is done. Fill in fields automatically for forms from their profile, this allows them to change incorrect information, but also saves them filling out the same information several times. If you have a secure site, you can keep credit card details and ask them whether they wish to use the same method of payment. This will save time for the visitor and create the impression of personalised virtual customer service.

Add value to build relationships

Brand trust in the shops does not automatically transfer to the web. In fact, the opposite is sometimes true. Supermarkets that have gone online have lost some of their brand trust by letting customers down due to poor technical or personnel infrastructure.

Luckily, the Internet does give smaller companies a chance to make a name for themselves. To increase brand trust, use the analysis described above to target customer interests. If they show an interest in buying cycle helmets, include cycling route maps or information on bike safety.

Incorporating a forum or area where people can exchange messages can engender trust in a site. Amazon allows users to submit their own review of a book and this is one of many key reasons they are successful. If this is part of your site plan, it's worth having a dozen registration addresses to start the ball rolling because if the forum or noticeboard looks unused, the site looks unsuccessful and this does not help develop customer trust.

If customisation is available (the facility to allow customers to tailor information to their needs), then use it to its optimum. Offering customers an emailed bulletin is a good way to bring them back to the site, but remember to make it easy for them to unsubscribe and make it easy for them to navigate once they are back into the site.

Update your pages often

If you don't update the content of the site's pages, customers will not consider the site as a source of information they can trust. It's important to change page content regularly and to make new content both prominent and accessible. If you have an overhaul or re-launch of the site, email registered users and ask them to take a look. They may send vital feedback!

If products are sold on-line, make sure all details are up to date. If you can't link to the company's stock database, then you will need to be especially vigilant, removing out of stock items from the gallery or online catalogue until they can be supplied.

Say thank-you to your customers

A long-standing customer is worth protecting. Use loyalty schemes to keep him or her visiting the site. There are a number of loyalty scheme running successfully on the net. Beenz is a good example. Visitors get Beenz for visiting a site or looking at a new product that they can then use as virtual money off vouchers for an online transaction at that or another site affiliated with Beenz.

Offer competitions and advice to your customers to keep them visiting. Make them appropriate to your visitors' interests. Customers return to particular services for a multitude of reasons, not just because products are cheap or available quickly. Good customer service will promote your brand and keep the traffic flowing to your site.

Finally, remember to include contact information prominently for your customers. It's vital to make them feel secure if you want them to part with their credit card details. Take regular trips to the site as a visitor, you may realise there are blindingly obvious problems that you can easily solve.

Rachel Hodgkins

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