December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

High-tech harassment: Is your web site making these marketing mistakes?

Online marketers are a lot like dogs watching television: They see the screen moving and know something is happening, but they can’t seem to make sense of the picture.

It’s hard enough to build a commerce site, and even harder to engage visitors so they buy what you’re selling-and not just once. On the web, the maxim “know your customer” poses new difficulties. Visitors move through electronic storefronts by the millions, and shopkeepers only see shadows of their behavior. What’s worse, many customers don’t complete sales on the web-they call support lines and leave transaction records in legacy purchase systems.

In their attempts to catch the attention of web site visitors, Internet marketers often resort to brutal tactics that can backfire when trying to control customer behavior. These high-tech plays for attention have much the same effect as a harassing salesperson in a bricks-and-mortar store.

Hard to sell the hardsell

Everyone knows the buyer/seller drill in the local department store: You enter the store. Salespeople approach and ask whether they can help you. You keep saying “just looking” until you need more information. Trust begins to build when a salesperson’s offer to help coincides with your needs. A rude salesperson tries to close the sale too soon by forcing you to make a hasty decision or second-guessing your interests.

A similar dynamic occurs online. Many web sites scare the daylights out of customers by requiring them to fill out lengthy forms before they can place an order. Or, they are personalizing the experience with irrelevant ads and offers that emerge like multiple attackers in a Doom game. Instead of learning and understanding implicit behavior, marketers try to control consumer responses through preconceived notions about their interests.

Marketers should realize they can change more than just ad banners and page content. They can alter the entire visitor environment and experience. Stores like IKEA are successful because they know how customers shop for furniture, and they organize the store and shopping experience to elicit the best purchasing response.

Similarly, the best web sites give online customers control over the pace of their learning and purchasing. Web marketers that demand low or no commitment from visitors will achieve the greatest level of success in attracting new customers.

Not requiring registration prior to entering a site, giving up more information free of charge and offering educational content, for example, could make visitors feel more comfortable with the sales approach.

Think holistic

How can e-retailers stop chasing their tails? By operating with a new level of e-customer intelligence-a mixture of online customer segmentation analysis and pattern discovery-concerning the lifecycle of online customers. That can only happen in the context of real-world marketing and business factors.

We need to look at the online customer holistically, in the context of the business, and apply a more scientific process to understanding consumer behavior. Once we’ve analyzed what works, we can make changes in site design and content.

A new marketing approach can offer unexpected results, leading to insight, experimentation and better customer experiences. Take, for example, a major chocolate manufacturer that bought portal keywords to increase site traffic. With some analysis, it discovered the keyword that drove most sales wasn’t “chocolate,” but “diet.” So much for prediction.

The technology and discipline for e-customer intelligence is just beginning to reach the business professionals who need it most. In the offline world, these business managers are often experienced in methods for determining and segmenting customer behavior. Only recently has visitor analysis technology evolved to the level of real solutions for online managers. Marketing on the web is still a long way off, but when dogs start buying food over the Net, we’ll know some company is reaching its customer.

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