March 18, 2004, 12:00 AM

The web can take the order, but does so for only 3% of potential buyers

A Forrester report notes web content usefulness and usability issues keep conversion rates low. The solution: guide improvements with “personas” that model key customer segments.

Though the web can do what other sales media like catalogs and magazines don’t – actually take an order – the average conversion rate among retail sites is only about 3%, according to Forrester Research Inc. Boosting that number will require e-commerce site to boost both the usefulness and usability of site content, says Forrester analyst John Dalton, who evaluated content at 20 sites for a new report on “Web content that sells.” Burdened in many cases by what Forrester identifies as poor copywriting and typography, none of the sites, drawn from industry segments including retail, consumer electronics and others, got a passing score of 5 or higher on a 10-point scale.

The research firm classifies usefulness as whether site content presents mission-critical information consumers need before acting, and usability as how easy the site makes it for consumers to understand the offer. A first step toward improving the usefulness of site content is to delete from the site content that’s useless. Forrester notes one site operator that tracked customers` paths over two years on conversions to sales and downloads. That exercise showed half the site’s content received little or no use, which promoted the site operator to cut unused pages and focus on improving content its customers actually used.

On the usability side, Forrester notes room for improvement on how sites use typography and layout to help visitors find and comprehend content. Almost half the sites it surveyed, for example, did not use links that communicate exactly what they link to. A common issue was long product descriptions followed by vague links labeled “learn more.” Forrester notes that the consumer web site of Hewlett-Packard Co. avoided this problem by breaking down its general “learn more” link into task-specific links such as “dock your digital camera.”

To guide improvements to usefulness and usability, Forrester encourages site operators to develop and use “personas:” models of mainstream customer segments. “Effective personas help designers and copywriters focus their efforts on satisfying real customer needs rather than resorting to personal preferences, habit, or a competitor’s practices,” the research firm recommends.

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