It’s apparent to any interested observer that the pursuits of marketing and marketing communications have made, and will continue to make, a dramatic move from offline to online.

A rapidly increasing section of the population has transitioned from offline to online purchasing.

This swing in purchasing habits has forced marketing professionals to re-examine their media buying and overall marketing budget, driving the shift in marketing expenditures to the digital arena.1 About 2 in 3 CMOs (respondents) said they would be devoting at least 25 percent of their budgets to digital marketing next year (2014), up from 46 percent who said they would allocate that much this year (2013).2 This escalating trend has redefined the industry and caused a redistribution of marketing expenditures. While these changes are taking place, the allocation of marketing budgets to research efforts has been in decline.

The corporate website and online/mobile advertising presence are top digital contributors to today’s successful marketing endeavors.3 To ensure these mediums make a significant and positive contribution to the bottom line, it’s imperative that marketers capitalize on available, up-to-the-minute optimization techniques. With the evolving Web and the proliferation of corporate and eCommerce websites, users can easily abandon a site to access another, competitive one, without any hesitation. As Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D. (Co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group) states:

“On the Web, usability is a necessary condition for survival. If a website is difficult to use, people leave.”

Additionally, the introduction of Penguin 2.0 – Google’s new algorithm – serves to improve search results and rewards websites that offer a great visitor experience.5 If a website is deemed to be “unsatisfactory” based on user experience, it will not rank highly in popular search queries. These sites then become irrelevant to the “search world” and may not rank in the first few pages of a user’s search results. With Google dominating search engine usage (67 percent market share), it is crucial that marketing executives apply rigorous usability research methods to ensure high and frequent ranking of their corporate websites.6

Because of these evolving trends, it is becoming more important than ever for marketers to ensure that their website is “sticky.” So, what of usability, the difficult-to-define state that keeps all visitors happy, engaged, sticky and now, in many cases, consuming? This process of conducting website usability testing is a complex proposition, but an absolutely essential one for marketers aiming to keep their visitors “stuck” to their online properties.

Website usability research is a well established tool employed to improve visitor satisfaction of a company’s website by assessing various factors. These may include: effectiveness, efficiency, learnability, memorability, error prevention and recovery, and search (user) satisfaction.7

The method of conducting traditional in-person website usability research consists of recruiting and screening to obtain the right audience to test, and ensuring these participants are able to travel to the research lab at a designated day and time.

Once at the lab, each participant is asked to complete a series of tasks. The researcher observes mouse clicks, navigation choices, responses to direction and corresponding timing, and draws conclusions about the relevance of content, website feature viability, etc.

In order to ensure the results are not contaminated, the researcher must ensure the test audience completes the tasks on their own.8 This enables the researcher to learn about the specific pitfalls of a website when it is in use by an actual customer. accordingly, it is essential that the researcher leading the study has the relevant expertise to collect the insights that will provide the key data points to marketers that will ultimately serve to optimize the visitor experience.

Online Website Usability

Session – What is it and how Does it Work?

The method of conducting online website usability research is very similar to that of traditional website usability. The process includes recruiting and screening to obtain the right audience to test; asking these participants to complete the right tasks; and finally, actually observing the individual without interruption to fully and completely analyze their experience of the website.9

Instead of recruiting an individual to meet in person, the recruited participant simply downloads an easy-to-use applet and logs in to the platform along with a moderator, at an agreed upon time. Participants are then asked to perform a series of relevant tasks, monitored concurrently by the moderator who can interact with the participant via chat or telephone. The system will capture mouse clicks, navigation choices, responses to direction and corresponding timing. The user behavior is captured in the back end, which is easily accessible for further analysis. Essentially, the platform combines live-screen capture technology with chat-based communications to deliver behavioral and attitudinal data, from which the researcher will draw insights.

Flexibility

Today, and as a result of many factors including increased demand, executives have little choice but to take advantage of the benefits associated with virtual website usability testing. The costs associated with conducting these tests, at minimum may include facilities rental fees, transcription and recording services, travel costs, accommodations, meals, increased incentives, etc. Additional costs, including the time commitment required to recruit for in-person sessions, not only as it relates to the participant, but also the company conducting the research are substantial in comparison to remote testing.

No longer forced to use a physical, in-person usability “lab” with the aforementioned associated expenses of travel, time and large budgets, today’s online, moderated methodologies ensure that the benefits of cost reduction and speedy turnaround of results, are realized. Additionally, specific demographic and geographic targeting is much more easily accomplished, given the ease with which the online population can be approached.

In the past, in order to ensure a representative sampling, researchers were forced to conduct in-person sessions in multiple locations across the country. As digital capabilities have developed, previously unavoidable expenses associated with in-person studies have been eliminated because the requirement to travel cross-country to obtain a quality sample has also been diminished.

Recruitment: Difficult-to-Reach Segments – Youth Audience & Ethnic Groups

The ability to reach a specific segment of the general population is particularly relevant today with respect to the highly in-demand segment of 12 to 18 year olds – the “youth audience.” With this demographic previously identified as difficult-to-reach, the online world has allowed access to their drivers and motivators, and broadened the potential opportunities to capture insights and improve the overall understanding of this audience.10 This broader, available scope allows access to previously difficult-to-reach individuals and provides marketing professionals and CMOs with a richer representative sampling, so they no longer have to concern themselves with potentially skewed results.

The online space has also afforded easier access to other highly in-demand segments that are challenging to reach – that of diverse ethnic groups. As online accessibility to these specific ethnic sets improves, researchers are increasingly able to utilize Web-based methodologies to target them, in their own environment. When conducting a study, it’s imperative that marketing research professionals identify all relevant groups of individuals to ensure insights are not skewed as a result of any cultural or demographic biases.

Cross-cultural research must incorporate standardization techniques to guarantee that the data points aggregated can be compared across all participants.11 By initially eliminating subjectivity in the research design, marketing research professionals are able to assess the viability of all associated Web properties and the concurrent customer feedback, without concern for the influence of predisposition or cultural preconception.

As the platforms and vehicles of communication widen and transform, the vocabulary used is also altered, as it allows for special jargon and creative symbols to be incorporated in the website, marketing communications and/or branding to amplify and intensify the volume and content of these conversations with various segments of the target audience.

Shortcoming of Online Website Usability

An online website usability session allows participants to remain in their natural environment, as opposed to being tested in a controlled lab. Although the benefits far out-weigh the disadvantages, in some circumstances, CMOs and marketing research executives prefer the in-person interaction that labs offer when conducting website usability research. This interaction enables them to view the participants’ physical reactions and body language during the session, adding context for the respondents’ profiles and the research study as a whole.

When compared to an in-person experience, the online environment does not generally provide nuance in the interaction (non-verbal cues, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.). One method for overcoming some of the online restrictions is by use of webcam technology, which can easily and effectively compensate for long distance conversations. In addition, by implementing eye-tracking capabilities, researchers are able to obtain a first-hand understanding of the interaction between a user’s physical senses and the overall design of the website.

In-person website usability research is becoming more difficult to conduct, especially with the introduction of more innovative ways of collecting insights. Executives across industries have realized the various deficiencies of conducting traditional, in-person research to optimize their websites. Now that they have the option of the high value alternative to offline research techniques to assess visitor satisfaction, they’ve made the transition to online moderated website usability testing. As technology adoption increases across industries and throughout various audience segments, it’s important for marketing professionals to take advantage of new and available opportunities to connect and communicate.

REFERENCES

  1. http://www.gartner.com/technology/research/digital-marketing/digital-marketing-spend-report.jsp
  2. http://www.marketingcharts.com/wp/interactive/cmos-predict-sizable-budget-shift-to-digital-marketing-29108/
  3. ibid
  4. Dr. Jakob Nielsen (2003)
  5. http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2279845/Googles-Penguin-2.0-Algorithm-The-Definitive-Guide
  6. ibid
  7. http://searchengineland.com/website-usability-101-for-seo-professionals-108558
  8. ibid
  9. http://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-101-introduction-to-usability/
  10. http://www.sisr.net/publications/0701brackertz.pdf
  11. http://www.victoria.ac.nz/psyc/about/staff/pdf/standardization.pdf