Designing and Maintaining an Effective Web Site to Facilitate Online Customer Relationships

Gary L. Geissler, University of South Alabama
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - The Web presents new opportunities and challenges to establish, build, and manage customer relationships. Some experts believe that the Web is more conducive to relationship marketing than other targeted media, such as direct mail (e.g., Krol 1999). To establish relationships with online customers, it is imperative that a firm understand the user experience and how people interact with the Web (Nielsen 1999). Although books and articles abound concerning Web site design, most published work is based on personal opinion or experience, not on research (D’Angelo and Little 1998). The present study provides a systematic research approach to examining a designers’ perspective on designing and maintaining effective Web sites. The study also addresses the need for a model to link key marketing approaches, such as relationship marketing, to Web site design and the customer conversion process.
[ to cite ]:
Gary L. Geissler (2002) ,"Designing and Maintaining an Effective Web Site to Facilitate Online Customer Relationships", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 496-497.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 496-497

DESIGNING AND MAINTAINING AN EFFECTIVE WEB SITE TO FACILITATE ONLINE CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIPS

Gary L. Geissler, University of South Alabama

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

The Web presents new opportunities and challenges to establish, build, and manage customer relationships. Some experts believe that the Web is more conducive to relationship marketing than other targeted media, such as direct mail (e.g., Krol 1999). To establish relationships with online customers, it is imperative that a firm understand the user experience and how people interact with the Web (Nielsen 1999). Although books and articles abound concerning Web site design, most published work is based on personal opinion or experience, not on research (D’Angelo and Little 1998). The present study provides a systematic research approach to examining a designers’ perspective on designing and maintaining effective Web sites. The study also addresses the need for a model to link key marketing approaches, such as relationship marketing, to Web site design and the customer conversion process.

The present investigation is grounded in recent theoretical frameworks. While it is useful to acknowledge the Web’s increasing role as an advertising medium, a broader perspective is needed to examine the Web as a relationship marketing tool. A communication-based marketing model for managing relationships links communication and marketing in terms of messages, stakeholders, and interactivity. According to the model, interactive communication leads to the brand relationships that drive brand value (Duncan and Moriarty 1998).

A model of the conversion process on the Web can best be described as a "relational" approach to marketing rather than a "transaction" approach. By illustrating the flow of marketing communications on the Web, the model emphasizes close, long-term, interactive relationships (Berthon, Pitt, and Watson 1996).

A total of fifty depth interviews were conducted among independent Web site designers across the United States. Thirty interviews were conducted via telephone; the other twenty were in-person interviews. The phone interviews provided detailed information from a nationwide sample of designers. Follow-up, in-person interviews were used to supplement the phone interviews, and provided an opportunity for the interviewer to closely observe and discuss designers’ work in even greater etail. Established guidelines for the interview method were closely followed (McCracken 1988). All interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. The transcriptions were read numerous times so that the researcher would become very familiar with and sensitive to the content. Themes were identified and developed, and supporting quotes were also identified.

The major findings indicate that the design and implementation of effective Web sites involves the creative use of both familiar and relatively new marketing approaches. Segmenting, targeting, and positioning is perhaps most critical in the design phase. Most designers understand that the "build it and they will come" approach is not valid in the increasingly competitive arena of Web marketing. To be effective, the Web site must be designed with the target audience as the foremost consideration. Web site designers must balance design considerations and capabilities with client objectives and with impatient consumers who possess various levels of technological sophistication. They must also communicate the "right" amount of information to target consumers, including the "essentials"Cwho we are, what we offer, what is inside, and how to contact us.

Web sites should be designed to facilitate relationship marketing, as part of an integrated marketing communications approach. Gathering customer information is perhaps the most important step in initiating and maintaining relationships online. Interactivity begins with establishing a customer database and encouraging feedback. Two-way communication is a defining advantage of the Web relative to traditional media.

Converting Web site visitors to customers and repeat customers is fostered by proactively employing relationship marketing strategies and an integrated marketing communications approach. Awareness of the Web site should be created via every means possible, including the use of other media and company correspondence to promote the Web site. Marketers must actively help consumers locate their sites via search engines, easily-guessed, descriptive domain names, and key words to aid searches. They should interact with consumers by gathering customer information, encouraging feedback, answering questions, reassuring customers, and inspiring trust in the information provided and in the ordering process.

Designers must make Web sites easy to navigate and should consider using "controlled navigation" to help familiarize consumers with the site layout and company offerings. The idea is to provide an incentive, such as offering something free within the Web site, for consumers to navigate through as much of the site as possible. Frequently updating the site will add to the consumer experience and will keep consumers well-informed of new products and services, specials, discounts, and other developments. In the dynamic Web shopping environment, unchanging Web sites quickly become analogous to unattractive stores located in outdated strip malls. "Freshness dating" makes the Web site more attractive and interesting and may encourage "approach" behaviors, such as future visits and purchases, that are indicative of an ongoing relationship.

Based on the research findings, a model for designing and maintaining an effective Web site to facilitate online customer relationships is proposed. The model illustrates fundamental considerations related to Web site design that may directly influence the online customer conversion process. Segmenting, targeting, and positioning, relationship marketing, and integrated marketing communications are thought to influence both Web site design and the customer conversion process. A follow-up, experimental study could be conducted to empirically test possible links.

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