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Is your Web site dynamite?

You may think your online operation is doing the trick, but some companies found big payoffs by making some seemingly small changes.

It's amazing what software can do when you apply a little common sense.

Executives at NorthernTool, a retailer selling tools and power equipment, looked over some recent clickstream analytics reports tabulating the pages on its site that customers were visiting. It noticed that before online shoppers checked out, many clicked on the "customer help" page to find out when they could expect delivery of their orders. The extra click distracted some shoppers, who then left the site before finalizing their sale. @4858

So, the Burnsville, Minn.-based company moved its estimated delivery-time graphic onto the "shipping options" page of the site. The result: Fewer customers abandoned their shopping carts. This simple fix spurred sales.

"We're using the information we have to try to streamline the [online] process, making it as simple as we can," said Nate Miller, NorthernTool's e-commerce marketing manager.

NorthernTool, which recently topped 1 million monthly visits to its site, tracks more than a dozen site metrics using software from Burlingame, Calif.-based Coremetrics Inc. It investigates everything from sales conversion rates to the types of searches that customers perform. An analysis of that data adds up to "a lot of little changes" in the name of usability, Miller said.

For instance, NorthernTool added a link from its "contact us" page to a list of frequently asked questions. One in four users checked the FAQs before submitting a question. Small fixes like that have helped NorthernTool triple online visits without increasing the tide of incoming customer e-mail. If e-mail rates had kept pace with the increased site traffic, Miller estimates he would have had to add four customer service reps, or about $100,000 in payroll. How's that for ROI?

Most companies with a significant Web presence have defined a process and installed technology to measure the effectiveness of their online operation. In addition to Coremetrics, several software vendors, including WebSideStory Inc., Omniture Inc. and WebTrends Corp., make a living off analyzing the online operations of big businesses.

What to measure

Just about every company keeps tabs on some common site stats, such as the number of visitors, what they're looking at and how much they buy, download or sign up for. But many wonder which other metrics they should track.

"Every Web page has to have a purpose," said Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing in Santa Barbara, Calif. Sterne has helped some of the nation's largest companies refine their Web operations, including AT&T, General Mills Inc. and Pfizer Inc. He said that before organizations decide what to measure, they need to define some granular goals for their site. @4857

One possible goal, he suggested, might be to increase market share in a particular segment for a particular product. Businesses can then assess the site's "persuasion path," or the set of online steps needed to gather information about that product. If that path isn't direct, it likely needs repaving, Sterne said. That might mean changing online copy, reducing the number of steps required to access an important page or even altering the site's colors.

Just like NorthernTool, Kinko's Copies got a big payoff from a small change. It shortened the number of pages users had to navigate for submitting printing orders and saw sales jump 25%, according to Sterne.

He said that businesses with sites focused on customer service should measure cost avoidance, their ability to deflect service requests from more expensive channels, such as a phone call to a contact center. Companies trying to drive online sales should track revenue per visit and shopping cart abandonment rates.

Everyone, however, should survey customers to see how satisfied they are with their online experience.

Sterne recommends greeting customers with a pop-up window asking why they're visiting the Web site. End the visit with another pop-up asking if they accomplished that goal.

"Ask people to tell you where the Web site is failing, then use Web analytics to tell whether you're solving the problem," Sterne said. "There is absolutely nothing more important than the voice of the customer."

Listening to the customer

That's exactly what Logitech.com discovered. The Fremont, Calif.-based company sells a wide variety of products, including Web cams, keyboards and headsets, mostly through partners like electronics superstore Best Buy. A relatively small percentage of Logitech's overall sales come from the Web.

However, the Web is an important place for customer support and research.

"My goal is to have a site that builds brand loyalty," said Hal Kalish, Logitech's director of Internet marketing. "My goal is to drive sales through any and all channels."

In addition to tracking some common site metrics, Logitech has another source for gathering online feedback about one of its most popular products. It uses a discussion forum. Using a hosted service from Participate Systems Inc. in Chicago, Logitech created an online forum for its Logitech io Personal Digital Pen, a ballpoint that records written words in digital format.

Participate Systems tracks user conversations and supplies Logitech with quarterly reports on the forum's content. The company can then monitor what's being said and decide, for instance, if recurring questions about the pen should be answered in an FAQ.

"We're getting great feedback in being able to capture how people are using things, and are finding solutions that maybe we didn't even know about," Kalish said.

Warning: Data can be misleading

Keep in mind that the online information you collect isn't valuable unless you're analyzing it properly. Sterne suggests that companies pay careful attention to who is drawing conclusions. He said it should be a trained statistician. @4856

For example, a customer may spend an hour on his home computer investigating a lawnmower purchase, then log off and visit a nearby store to get a look at the different mowers. That customer might then return the site again from his office computer, head straight to the mower he wants and buy it. On most analytics reports, this one customer would appear to be two different shoppers.

Sterne said that companies with a significant online presence -- where quick action can spark sales -- are wise to have full-time staff devoted to gauging Web effectiveness. NorthernTool's Miller is someone who is doing just that. As a result, he's seen Web sales grow from 12% of all mail order sales in 2002 to 20% today.

"If you have a physical store and notice everyone who comes in wants to navigate to a specific area, you bring that area to the front of the store," Miller said. "You can do that very quickly electronically."

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