Discovery Surveys, Inc.
Specializing in Employee Opinion and Customer Satisfaction Surveys

By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. President, Discovery Surveys, Inc.
This article originally appeared in Folio magazine

Focus groups and surveys of visitors can give you critical data
about who is visiting your site and why, and how they feel about what they see.

Publishers have been conducting research on their print properties for years, and most can cite detailed studies showing who is reading their magazines and how readers feel about them. Few publishers, however, can claim the same level of insight about their web sites.

Considering the high costs of maintaining your site in both money and staff time, wouldn't the answers to the following questions be extremely useful to you?

  • Do your Web site visitors have a different demographic profile than your print subscribers' profile?

  • What percentage are subscribers or potential subscribers?

  • How do your visitors feel your site compares to sites operated by your competitors?

  • What do visitors like and dislike about your site?

If you knew exactly the types of people visiting your site, you could create more appropriate content and speak more intelligently to potential advertisers about the value of placing ads on your site. If you knew why visitors were visiting your site, you could create content that would maximize the value it provides to them. And, if you knew how visitors feel about your site, you could redesign it to better reflect the lasting impression you want it to create.

There are three basic research methods you can use to gather this information: registration, surveys, and focus groups. Which method you use depends upon whether you want to know who is visiting, why they are visiting, or how they feel about your site.

  • Who is visiting?

    The editors and other members of your print publication staff need to know what content is most appropriate for the type of visitors coming to your site. And before advertisers will be willing to pay for impressions or click-throughs, they will also want to know what types of people your site is attracting.

    There are two methods for determining who is coming to your site: installing a registration entry process on the front-end of your site, or conducting a survey.

    • Registration:

      Although the registration process is often used by sites where users must pay for access, it can also be used in free sites. First-time visitors are required to answer a series of identifying questions to receive a userid and password. During registration, they can also be asked many other useful questions--such as occupation, organizational affiliation, interests, and purchasing habits.

      The registration method has its shortcomings, however. Marcia Yudkin, author of Marketing Online, warns, "It is important to strike a balance between information advertisers want and turning people off by being intrusive." People may simply leave because they decide it is not worth the time to register or the risk of revealing personal information about themselves. One possible compromise is to ask users about their interests and purchasing habits, but not their name.

      Another problem with the registration process is that the profile of first-time users may not accurately represent the profile of your typical traffic.

    • Web-based survey:

      Typically, Web surveys are housed on a separate site that visitors access via hyperlink. A special pop-up screen can also be used to prompt all or a random sample of visitors to complete the survey. The survey can contain both rating scales and open-ended questions. For example, in a recent online survey for a magazine's site, we asked visitors if they were subscribers to the parent print publication, how often they visited the site, what other sites they visit, their interests, affiliations, and education. Incentives--such as a small gift or entry into a raffle--can be used to increase the number of respondents.

  • Why are they visiting?

    Your editors and advertisers not only want to know who is visiting your site, but why--what is attracting them? According to Gabrielle Boguslawski, recruitment advertising manager for the journal Science, "The web is a new frontier for advertisers. They are used to buying print advertising, but many are unfamiliar with the benefits of online advertising. Therefore, you need to gather lots of intelligence."

    A Web-based survey can explore the major reasons visitors are coming to your site and what would entice them to return. For example, visitors can be asked to rank order the major reasons they came to your site that day, as well as what is most important to them. Questions can also explore the critical issue of what information visitors prefer to receive in print, versus online. And for advertising purposes, questions can be asked about buying habits and purchasing plans.

    A focus group is another useful strategy for gathering this kind of qualitative information. Participants can be either former visitors or the types of people your site is targeting. During the group, ask open-ended questions about why people visit your site, and what they like and dislike about it. You can also show selected pages of your site to get reactions about content, as well.

    We recommend that you invite 8 to 10 participants and conduct the group at a focus group facility--which lets you observe the session from behind a one-way window. If you decide to conduct the group yourself, make certain that you carefully prepare questions that will not bias the group.

  • How do they feel about your site?

    For today's Web users, it is no longer enough to just have an informative site. It must be attractive, easy to use, easy to read, technically sound, and feel good to visitors. Linda Stone, a Microsoft researcher and adjunct faculty at New York University in the Interactive Telecommunications Program, asked a group of Internet-involved graduate students how many preferred to buy books at rather than The answer: No one. When Stone probed to determine at what price they would make a switch, she discovered that books would need to be a whopping $3 cheaper. They felt that although Barnes and Noble matched Amazon feature for feature, the Amazon site radiated a friendly, stay-a-while spirit rather than a cold, get-your-business-done-and-leave impression.

    You don't need a focus group to ask "feeling" type questions. A Web-based survey also works. For example, visitors can be asked to rate your site on dimensions such as friendly-unfriendly, attractive-unattractive, organized-disorganized, current-stale, relevant-irrelevant, and valuable-useless. A survey can also be used to ask people for their general overall impression of your site as well as the likelihood that they will return. You can also explore interface issues, such as how users feel about the location of icons on the screen, readability of the screens, and the ease or difficulty of navigation.

Keeping your site current and valued by visitors is key. Whether you use registration, survey, or focus group methods, it is important that you continually gather information about the characteristics and perceptions of your visitors. Without this information, your site may become lost and forgotten in the dark recesses of cyberspace.

  • Create a Review Panel to Evaluate Your Site

A cost-effective approach to improving your site is to assemble a group of people to evaluate it independently. They can provide feedback on technical aspects of the site, as well as its look and feel. The panel can include subscribers, potential subscribers, Web site developers, and graphic designers. They can be either volunteers or paid for their services. Paid panelists are more likely to provide their feedback in a timely manner. Be certain not to include members of your staff or others that may have a vested interest in your current site. It may also be advisable to change the composition of the panel periodically so that fresh ideas are brought to the table.

A panel can be ongoing, used on a one-time basis, or used periodically as events warrant. (An ideal time to use a panel is prior to a site redesign.) It can be coordinated internally or by an outside research firm. A written report should summarize the panelists' views and provide suggestions for improving the site.

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