The Direct Approach: The back of the net

Companies must put digital at the heart of their communications strategy if they want to take full advantage of the web's potential.

When the web was in its infancy, it was excusable to rush to get something - anything - up and out there. Websites were popping up like prospectors during the Californian Gold Rush. Everyone had to have a website and there was little discussion about what it was for or who was expected to visit it, never mind why anyone would want to visit it. People with any internet expertise effectively had a licence to print money as companies flocked to share their corporate visions with those early web surfers.

Remember that frontier feeling? Remember the excitement and the fear of missing a huge, yet unquantifiable, opportunity? Cash flooded into website development. Everyone wanted a portal with as many digital bells and whistles as the technical experts could provide, even if it took the user 30 minutes to download.

Digital technology was in the hands of technical experts who developed over-specified websites, many of which still exist. They are draped with virtual cobwebs, dusty from a lack of use, both from customers and the companies that built them.

The digital medium is no longer a novelty. However, digital solutions are failing to meet customers' basic requirements. There are still too many diabolical examples of irrelevant, untargeted, inexplicably complex and downright pointless online communication, part of the old "let's do a viral and see what happens" syndrome.

So what do customers want and why aren't companies delivering? In most cases, customers have practical and task-focused needs - to do their banking, check prices, research a holiday, download a tune, catch up on the news - but very often these basic functions are not being delivered properly.

Whatever customers want to do, they want to do it quickly and without encountering hurdles. They want to get to the information they need and then complete their online task with the minimum fuss.

However, often they are hampered by over-designed sites, complicated user journeys and a rigid adherence to existing processes, all of which make it hard for them to undertake even the simplest transaction.

A study by The Hewson Group shows that if companies improved their websites to best in class, they could double or triple sales. Another, from DoubleClick Research, reveals that 90 per cent of online shopping baskets are abandoned - despite being full - owing to poor website design or lack of relevant help.

This and the ever-increasing amount of spam that fills customers' e-mail inboxes mean it is not surprising they often feel frustrated and unwilling to engage with a brand's digital offering.

This has happened because all too often customers are not placed at the heart of digital solutions. Online activity is planned separately from the rest of the communications mix.

Now, more than ever before, it is imperative that we understand the role of digital within the purchase cycle. We should be leading people intuitively from stage to stage in their decision- making, delivering the right message at the right time, while learning from customer choices and offering information and help intelligently.

This requires us to behave consistently across all channels. It means planning digital campaigns and website content holistically so consumers can move seamlessly from one point of contact to the next without feeling that they are being handled by separate divisions or organisations.

This involves real-time behavioural targeting, reacting immediately to customer choices and offering tailored content to help customers move closer to making a purchase. It means clear journeys and next steps, regardless of which path a consumer uses to take their decision. And it also means building consumers' trust and offering something in return for their participation so they are happy to provide personal information.

It is all about usability - making it easier for people to get to the information they need and achieve their tasks when they interact with a brand online. If it saves just a fraction of the sales lost through abandoned baskets, the effort will be worth it.

But to do this you need to understand people and the journeys they take.

This is at the heart of everything we do as direct marketers. It is not enough to elicit responses. We have to think through every stage of a customer's subsequent journey - one that is likely to cross multiple channels.

In planning these journeys, we have to apply what we, as direct marketers, know about maximising effectiveness. We know that our executions have to cut through clutter, that single-minded, motivating propositions work, that consumers need a clear call to action and that our response must be quick, measurable and appropriate.

Rising opt-out rates suggest that brands are neither engaging consumers nor adding sufficient value to these interactions. Consumers have been quick to learn that subscribing to some e-mail newsletters puts them at the receiving end of a rush of inappropriate offers. Subscribing to others can mean a long wait before realising you have joined something that has long been forgotten about.

Online communications have a responsibility to at least meet - if not over-deliver on - consumer expectations. We will probably never know if we fail them, but at least 14 of each disgruntled customer's friends will.

So the channels have multiplied along with the opportunities, but the importance of good planning and consumer insight has not changed. We now have access to a lot more data, which should allow us to delight as well as manage our customers.

However, this great opportunity will not be realised unless we put online solutions squarely where they belong - within the communications planning function and with the consumer. By doing this, we can ensure that consumers' behaviour, their relationships with the brand and their buying processes are always at the heart of our strategic thinking.

- Jackie Stevenson is the deputy managing director of Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel.

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