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Published July 3rd 2012

What Customers Want From Online Activity

Last year we did a project for a company that was interested in whether small companies could really compete online with large ones.

So we picked a series of markets ranging from hairdressers and restaurants to IFAs and divorce lawyers and picked one small and one large company web site in each sector.

We ran a couple of focus groups and then put it out as a questionnaire to a sample of 200 chosen to give a spread of age and gender.

Putting the two sizes together resulted in a clear demonstration that David was regularly beating Goliath. However what was more interesting was why.

People preferred sites that were easy to use and clear about what you had to do to make your purchase or communicate with them and which were completely transparent in their business practices. They wanted to have a sense of the people that were running the site and they wanted to be sure that they would be looked after.

What was important was easy to access contact detail and above all accuracy – typos and broken links are a real turn-off and the older and more female the demographic, the more important this is. There was also some evidence that customers were more inclined to trust a smaller company and above all, one that is local. The ability to lead someone gently by the throat, if needs be, still seems to have relevance in the cyber age. This Wordle summarises what people said they wanted from a site.

I think the psychology must be that people are so fed up with the way that corporates often use confusion and hidden charges as part of their business model that they are actively looking for a company run by people who take their responsibilities to look after their customers seriously. They use the accuracy of the site as an indicator of this. If your site is clear, simple, lets people know how to contact you and demonstrates that you have taken the time and trouble to get it right, then you will have a massive competitive advantage over people who don’t.

In short, the users wanted to be able to get into a dialogue with the company and smaller companies seem better able to allow this to happen.

Go forward 12 months to the recent #SB100 competition and we see some of the same patterns.

As judges, we were looking for evidence that the organisations actually engaged with their audience in social media rather than just treat is as another broadcast channel.  What we found was that for most of the Corporates, social media was just broadcast as usual. Not much sign of anyone else other than them posting on their fan pages and not much evidence of them retweeting anyone else’s stuff on twitter.

Small companies, charities and other not for profits like sports sites seemed to do a lot better and actually had some real sense of community.

The lesson for brands is that people want to engage with their suppliers on their own terms. Social Media gives them the tools to do so but they’ll tune out if what’s there is effectively just advertising. We’ve all got many years practise at tuning out stuff that’s self serving.

We know that you feel you need to maintain your brand values at all costs and that your legal department is terrified that someone says something actionable but the ghastly truth is that in the long run transparency, dialogue and honesty will win.


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