April 2, 2004, 12:00 AM

Content as salesperson: Why it doesn’t sell more

Too much web content fails to deliver basic usefulness and usability to consumers, says a new report from Forrester Research.

Compared to the number of potential customers that visit retail sites, the number of shoppers who close the deal online is still relatively low - about 3.2%, according to Forrester Research Inc. A new report on “Web content that sells,” sheds some light on one reason content doesn’t sell more: too much of its misses the mark on basic usefulness and usability.

The research firm sees 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. Forrester analyst John Dalton evaluated content at 20 sites, drawn from industry segments including retail consumer electronics and others, on a scale that ran from minus 10 to a positive 10. The tests involved a series of user goals defined for each category of site tested, framed against a back-story modeling the needs of a typical user. The sites were rated on criteria such as whether images and graphics supported decision-making, for example, and whether product descriptions were easy to scan and read.

Burdened in many cases by what Forrester identifies as poor copywriting and typography, none of the sites got an overall passing score of 5 or higher. A first step toward improving the usefulness of content is to delete any content that’s useless. Forrester notes one site operator that tracked customers’ paths over the past two years on conversions to sales and downloads. That exercise showed half the site’s content received little or no use, which prompted the site operator to cut unused pages and focus on improving content on pages its customers actually used.

In terms of usability, Forrester found typography and layout that could have done more to help visitors find and comprehend content. A common issue, for example, 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.”

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