March 3, 2004, 12:00 AM

Seeing is believing: How e-retailers are boosting conversion rates with automated demonstrations of web sites

Web sites are designed by technology developers--and the prospect of working on a web site often attracts the smartest of technologists. But it`s one of the truths of the Internet that tech developers don`t often come into contact with real users of web sites. They look at moving through a site as a logical progression from cyber point A to cyber point Z and design sites that other developers quickly grasp.

But the reality is that even the most sophisticated users sometimes can`t make out how to call up a product description, choose a size, check availability, place in shopping cart, then return to shopping to buy something else. And the problem of befuddled users at web sites becomes even more acute as the market moves beyond the enthusiastic, early adopters to mainstream users whose mission is to find what they want, buy it and move on.

Thus many users look for online guidance. But a guide is often difficult to find and many users just don`t know where to turn. "The web is complex, it`s new and the user has total control, which is a wonderful thing," says JC Stites, CEO and founder of Autodemo LLC, which creates flash demonstrations of web sites. But total control often separates users from others who might help them figure out a way around an obstacle, Stites points out. "As you sit in your bubble in front of your computer and click away, you`re not seeing how anybody else is doing it," he says. "You`re not getting a broader understanding of how anybody is navigating the particular site you`re on."

That insight into the isolation of the web user, coupled with a background in software-demonstration CDs, led Stites to establish Autodemo in 1998. In 2001, Autodemo landed its first client who wanted to escort customers around its web site: Amazon.com Inc.

Amazon, which has invested millions in improving the shopping experience at its site, saw the opportunity right away. Amazon had recently established its one-click ordering process. It saw the ease of checking out with only one click as a competitive advantage, but also saw that, because no other web site was offering that sort of checkout, customers might not understand how to use it or what a great convenience it offered. "They saw right away a need related to one-click ordering," Stites says.

Amazon found almost immediate success with the Autodemo. Almost 5,500 customers a day click on the demo. Amazon and Autodemo solicit feedback from users and 91% say they find the demonstration useful, 87% say it increases their likelihood of using the one-click feature. But more importantly, to Autodemo, is that 87% say they would view online demonstrations of other topics. "Customer feedback has been extremely favorable," says Jessica Scheibach, group program manager at Amazon.

Think strategically Creating an Autodemo demonstration typically costs about $10,000, Stites says, and most retail sites are good examples of the kind of site that can benefit from Autodemo. "You have to think strategically about why people come to your site," he says. "It makes sense to create a demo if your goal is to convert browsers to buyers or if you host a lot of people who have never been to your site before."

Autdeomo reports that a major customer, who paid $10,000 for a demo, gets 150,000 clicks a month on the demo. "In the first year, this client paid less than a penny a click to increase conversions, enhance usability and reduce call center costs," Stites says. The demo is still in use 30 months later.

But not only is the demo a good way to help shoppers use a site and capture more sales, it`s also a way to improve customer service while reducing costs, Stites says. "Retailers must identify the pain points of a site," he says. "A lot of call center issues and returns problems can be addressed this way." For instance, he notes, a retailer who e-mails order confirmations could include a link in the e-mail to a demonstration of how to track an order online. Or in e-mails that welcome customers who register, a retailer could include a demo on using the site and the benefits of various features of the site.

In addition, demos could be used throughout a site to help shoppers along and forestall calls to customer service. "They`re not just for showing people around," Stites says. "They`re also for offering customers a helping hand. A retailer could have 30 of these. When someone appears to be having a problem on a page, a message could pop up with something like, `Have you thought of doing this?`"

But just offering the demo is not good enough, Stites notes. Customers must have a good reason to click on the demo link. "The title must be correct and the content needs to be compelling," he says.

Small footprints In spite of the high degree of content that demos contain, bandwidth is not an issue, Stites says. "We create files with very small footprints," he says. "It`s a real craft and you have to understand the nuances to be able to build demos that way."

In addition, it`s a real craft to make sure the demos provide enough information but not so much that people will grasp the concept and move on while the narrator is still talking. For instance, he says, writers make sure there are no extraneous words in the script. "Our writers will take a sentence that is eight words long and tune it so the customer isn`t tempted to click the button before the end of the sentence," he says.

Today, Autodemo provides site demos for a coterie of well-known brands, including Nordstrom.com, eBay, Yahoo, NYTimes.com, Bank of America, Forbes.com, FedEx and HotJobs.com.

The Autodemo company was an outgrowth of Stites` background as a multimedia producer for high-tech clients. He realized he could use his experience in educating consumers about how to use technology to develop a business that demonstrated how to use certain types of software. The company went on to create software demos for such major technology developers as Microsoft Corp., Citrix Systems, 3M Corp., Intel Corp. and others.

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