Send the right signal

By Alan Gleeson on March 12th, 2012

In the past few years, the internet landscape has changed dramatically, with increased competition and growth in the use of mobile devices and tablets used to access the web. But jaded e-commerce websites are evident in abundance, offering poor user experience, inadequately addressing trust concerns and resulting in depressed conversion rates.

Many entrepreneurs familiar with their site analytics will also notice a few on site trends such as rising bounce rates and declining visitor time spent on their sites. Less time on site equates to a more difficult task engaging and converting visitors, and text-heavy sites originally designed to game Google’s search algorithm no longer perform as effectively as they once did.

These sites, easily identifiable by the 8 point font size, will struggle to keep visitors long enough for them to engage with the content, never mind to convert. Today’s visitor has much higher expectations, while they are also keeping a much closer eye on the purse strings.

On the flip-side, those sites recognising the shifting sands scale up their AWS servers for quicker page loads, improve the quality of their on-site design and imagery, and focus on ensuring a strong User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX). And ultimately these site owners are also cognisant of the need to send out strong signals that they are reputable and can be trusted, with the likes of HuddleMade.com and Secret Escapes representing some good local examples.

This reduction in time spent on site is not surprising. Our time is limited, and the increasing number of sites and volume of content competing for our attention seems to be growing exponentially. As Herbert Simon (1971) so eloquently put it:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it…”

Marry this to what Barry Schwartz described in The Paradox of Choice as the “debilitating effects of [too much] choice” and it is clear we have a growing problem. We are simply being overwhelmed with choice. Barriers to entry for internet businesses are low, and modest capital requirements has resulted in a deluge of entrants, building an increasing array of offerings.

The resultant poverty of attention described by Simon and the debilitating effects of choice are a huge problem for entrepreneurs trying firstly to generate awareness for their fledgling offerings, and secondly to convert visitors with limited attention spans.

Investing heavily in your brand is one way to overcome both the attention deficit problem and the paradox of choice. Of course, this was easier before the waves of brand extensions, media and product proliferation we have seen in recent years, which have served to exacerbate the challenge. Brands are designed to generate demand, to differentiate offerings and to facilitate effective marketing and communication with a target audience.

Brands have personality, and they convey trust and certainty, as well as serving to generate awareness. Strong brands promote confidence, and from a return on investment perspective, typically correlate positively with market share. In a world of abundance and choice, brands tend to significantly influence purchase decisions by enabling the customer to cut through the clutter and to reduce their option set so they can buy with confidence.

For most internet entrepreneurs, this is a problem. Branding is an expensive exercise, and while significant brand investment makes sense for certain industries (in particular, products and services with widespread demand and distribution), it is difficult to justify the investment for offerings with a more limited market appeal.

For many entrepreneurs, brand awareness for their offerings will be negligible, so they seek to generate demand through social media marketing, with modest budgets and often relying heavily on the likes of Google AdWords, given its unrivalled ability to identify and target prospects on a cost effective basis.

While much of the effort goes into attracting visitors to the website, if these entrepreneurs are to drive meaningful conversions through their sites, they will need to ensure that once the visitor arrives, the site engenders a high level of trust and readily facilitates a transaction. In the absence of strong brand awareness, on-site design, strong UI and various trust signals help to reassure the visitor leading to a conversion.

Visitors often arrive at these sites following a search for a solution to a problem they have, for example a generic keyword search rather than a branded search. Hence, for unfamiliar sites, first impressions mean a lot.  With an abundance of choice, an absence of brand equity, and with time so pressing, web visitors increasingly rely on snap judgements and heuristics to inform purchase decisions.

At this point you may be thinking: “So what? Is this not obvious?”

I would suggest that it is not. The bar has been set a lot higher in terms of website design, and I would posit that many sites are not adapting quickly enough.

About us

Many sites use their About Us page to focus on what the site is about rather than who the people behind the site are. But an About Us page devoid of people puts many prospective customers on red alert straight away. For example, the Money Dashboard site requires users to provide financial data to them, yet the about us page is devoid of detail as to who is behind this offering.

Zartis and Ovation are very strong on these elements, which immediately engender trust. There are real people behind these businesses (the latter even includes links to LinkedIn profiles). People buy from people.

Contact us

The absence of a phone numbers is another common phenomenon. A typical justification for the lack of a number is that the site wants to keep costs down.

But it is very difficult to have any confidence in a site that is unwilling to provide a contact phone number in an age where Skype numbers can be set up easily and cheaply and routed to a mobile phone. Its absence reduces the trust visitors have that any problems can be resolved by a real person.

Social media

Blogs offer entrepreneurs an ability to communicate directly with visitors in a more informal manner and to give a window on the personality of the people behind the business. Contrast, for example, the richness and frequency of the blog posts for Sugru with the Money Dashboard News blog, which at the time of going to press had not posted since August 2011.

Blogs also offer a forum for users to engage in real debate and can be used by companies to address public concerns as the recent Seatwave example.

Adding social media links to Twitter accounts and Facebook pages can also signal that the site is open for business and is happy to engage with customers in a meaningful and transparent manner across a range of channels.

Dated Design

It is pretty easy to differentiate between sites that have been built this year and ones built five or ten years ago (which do not instill much confidence, especially when the copyright symbol is dated 2010). A more contemporary site will typically have a quicker load time, a higher image to text ratio, modern fonts with higher point-sizes, fewer options for visitors to choose between, fewer links, less dense text, social media links and more prominent search boxes.

The Cart

Most entrepreneurs with e-commerce sites will be au fait with “funnel” conversion rates and the importance of ongoing testing to ensure these conversion rates are optimised. A well-designed, fast-loading cart conveys confidence and facilitates a speedy transaction. In-cart validation badges and brand logos from the likes of PayPal, Verisign and McAfee also help engender trust in the transaction.

Independent Endorsements

The days of people accepting short testimonials at face value are also coming to an end, in my view. While simple text-based testimonials may be acceptable for one off, low-value items, service-based offerings have to demonstrate identifiable customers, across a range of industries, who are all benefiting from the offering. MailChimpHuddle and Sugru all have an extensive range of customer stories showcased on their websites.

In summary, as internet commerce continues to grow apace, UK tech entrepreneurs will need to ensure their sites continue to evolve. Time pressed-customers are making judgement calls based on an increasingly diminishing time on site. Quick page load times, intuitive navigation and a strong visual base are obligatory requirements.

Simplicity is back in vogue. Offering visitors too much choice is lazy design. Websites are now being accessed from a multitude of devices, browsers and locations and search continues to dominate as a source of traffic. But it is ultimately a website’s ability to persuade visitors through on-site signals and so-called “calls to action” that they can be trusted to engage and transact with, that will determine whether or not a site is commercially successful.

For an alarmingly significant number of internet businesses, these realities have yet to hit home.