Marketers retool sites to exploit Web research boom

More Canadians than ever are making purchase decisions through online research - 74% researched product info on the Web last year alone

The rise of the Internet’s ability to provide consumers with instant information has also upped the stakes for instant gratification. More than ever before, consumers are jumping online not just to buy what they want, but to first research what they’re going to buy.

That’s created a new phase in the purchase cycle – research – that marketers can harness to make sure they get the sale come check-out time.

The relative ease and immediacy of Web research has accelerated the buying process for consumers, says one observer, and that puts a premium on the marketer Web site. ‘You don’t have to wait for Consumer Reports to come out,’ says Geoff Linton, marketing professor at Kitchener, Ont.-based Conestoga College. ‘If you don’t have information on your Web site, then consumers are just as likely to go over and possibly start looking at one of the competitors.’

According to Starcom IP Syndicated Research, 74% of Canadians researched product information online in 2003. And 30% of those actually purchased online, well up from 19% in 2000. It also reports that vacations and automotive were second and fourth among most researched product categories online in 2003 (number one was computers/accessories and number three was consumer electronics).

Certainly, for big-ticket items, the Net is playing an increasingly important role in consumers’ decision-making process. In the automotive sector, for example, Web use has steadily climbed as a purchase influencer among consumers. In 2001, Toronto-based automotive consultancy Maritz Research recognized the popularity of the Net by adding it to the firm’s yearly consumer survey, which tracks purchase influences for automobiles. That year, about 5% of respondents said the Net most influenced their purchase decision. By 2003 that number had skyrocketed to 19%.

Car companies have taken note. Toyota Canada launched its Web site in 1997 (designed by Toronto-based Saatchi & Saatchi) and did a major refresh last year as part of a change in overall brand design. In concert, the site was also re-engineered to improve navigation and functionality, which included the addition of a car configurator.

David Brimson, national manager, PR and marketing for Toronto-based Toyota, says the design and functionality of Toyota.ca is significantly influenced by consumer research habits.

‘Consumers are increasingly turning up at retail with an almost predestined vision of what they want,’ he explains. ‘So we have to ensure that we provide the best knowledge and information to help them make decisions.’

Toyota achieves this via the site’s structure, which Brimson says flows logically from one section to another along the ‘thought process’ that people follow when shopping. The site begins at a macro level at ‘Welcome to Toyota’ before taking the consumer through the model offerings and then the model variance areas where consumers can get more information on everything from safety to choosing a car colour. The consumer then moves on to the car configurator, then to pricing and finally to a quote on financing.

Interestingly, Toyota has modeled its offline sales process on its Web operations. Its ‘Access Toyota’ program, currently rolling out nationally, aims to provide the consumer with as much information as possible throughout the purchase process, thereby making encounters with dealers in showrooms less stressful. Toyota examined how consumers browsed its Web site to determine how to develop the Access program.

‘We are aware that customers don’t regard going to a car dealership as the most pleasurable experience,’ says Brimson. He says Toyota wants to make the purchase experience as pleasant as that of owning a car.

Making things simpler and thus more useful for consumers is also the goal at Toronto-based realtor Re/Max Promotions. Designed by Toronto design company Gryphtech and Toronto agency Yield Creative, Re/Max did a major refresh of its site last year. The reason? ‘We were simplifying the navigation,’ says David Brown, Re/Max EVP. ‘Consumers today want more information in fewer clicks.’

Like Toyota, Re/Max studied its visitors’ browsing patterns to determine what to put on the site and where. The real estate firm found that consumers were looking for information on specific realtors and for industry information they could use to help them understand the housing market – before they ever talked to a real estate agent.

Says Brown, ‘The most popular thing to do is search properties. The difference between using a branded site like ours, and a non-branded MLS site, is that [the consumer will] also look for realtors. So we really started to develop a lot of our profiles and build a lot of our information about our realtors.’

Re/Max also found that there was an almost insatiable appetite for the guides and news reports that were available online. As a result, the company poured significant resources into elements like timely market reports and the Smart Renovator program, a video feature produced with partner HGTV that provides visual home renovation tips for consumers.

Brown says the site has made a positive difference to Re/Max’s business, giving it a distinct edge over the competition, particularly since 85% of homebuyers are online. ‘Intelligent reporting on the marketplace is a great differentiator. That’s leading a path to the realtor. It plays a huge role with people who are not ready to talk to an agent – when they’re in that window-shopping decision mode. We see that the brand plays more than a swing vote in the selection of the agent.’

So far Re/Max is seeing positive results. In 2004, for the two-month period for January to February, unique visitors totalled approximately 153,000, up 38% from the same period in 2003. Total visits for the same period are up 52%.

Other industries are also making changes. While embattled Air Canada hasn’t had much to lift its wings over the past 18 months, its Web operations have been reaping the benefits of changes made to meet the demands of information-hungry consumers.

On the technical side, Charles McKee, senior director of strategic marketing for the Montreal-based airline, says the site is refreshed every month to add functional enhancements, such as improving server response times. But he also points to a recent, radical change in fare displays as being one of the most significant developments aimed at helping consumers better research fares and packages.

This has to do with actually showing the difference between types of economy class fares to dispel what McKee says is a popularly held notion that there are no differences. To that end, over 200 fare types have been distilled into five (the Freedom, Latitude, Fun, Economy and Tango fares) within the last 12 months.

‘Each one of these is a highly differentiated fare package and our Web site has been changed to reflect that,’ says McKee.

It’s an important development because in the past only the lowest fare was ever displayed. But if there was no low fare available, the fare displayed was automatically the highest fare.

The change was prompted by studies conducted by Air Canada looking at how consumers research on- and offline (the studies included focus groups and the results of a monthly satisfaction survey sent out to 800 customers).

‘They essentially said, ‘We don’t understand your fare structures and we don’t understand how pricing in the airline business works.’ We’ve considered that and created what we think are good models for pricing, taken them back to the marketplace and tested it before rolling it out.’

It’s paying dividends. McKee says that over the previous 12 months, online penetration has moved from 10% of tickets booked online to 40%.

Travel site Expedia.ca only exists online and so, unlike bricks-and-mortar marketers like Air Canada, lives or dies by its Internet operations. Sean Shannon, director of marketing at the Toronto-based company, says Expedia Canada is acutely aware of how critical it is that consumers have a good experience while on the site. He says how and what consumers research for their travel plans factor heavily into the design.

‘It’s about making it easier to research, and if it’s easier to research, then that should lead to it being easier for people to buy,’ he says.

A year ago, Expedia.ca noticed that increasing numbers of people wanted more flexibility in their search options for planning travel. As a result, consumers are now asked on the home page whether or not their travel plans are flexible – an item that didn’t exist a year ago. If they are flexible, the search returns a variety of packages that conform to wide parameters such as ‘warm and sunny,’ substantially increasing consumers’ options and their ability to compare different packages.

To keep on top of consumer needs, Expedia.ca conducts usability testing, where consumers are brought in to go through fixed exercises and have their habits and concerns noted.

Shannon says usability is key to ensuring consumers choose Expedia.ca as their starting point for researching travel plans. For instance, Expedia runs features off the home page that reflect travel seasons.

And he adds, ‘We use price points on the site because people like to come in and get a quick idea of what the going rate is on a hotel in New York City or Vancouver.’

Volkswagen launches English-Canadian site

Information and emotional experience at root of VW.ca’s ‘e-sense’

For the first time in its online history, Volkswagen America has made available an English-Canadian version of VW.com, called VW.ca. No, that doesn’t mean all the sentences end with ‘eh.’ It means that, like its francophone cousin, English-speaking Canadians now have something distinct from the U.S. version. Great, eh?

Tesa Aragones, e-business leader for Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Volkswagen America, says there are real differences between English-Canadian and American consumers.

‘Canadian customers’ Internet usage is growing more quickly than that of some United States customers,’ says Aragones. ‘Also, there are a lot of cultural things that we can pick up to really help those customers connect to the VW brand in a relevant way.’

She points to lifestyle promotions involving skiing, music and film sponsorships that are all uniquely Canadian and therefore justify an English site. But results from its existing sites also suggest it makes good marketing sense. The company’s tracking of customer behaviour revealed that Canadian leads submitted through VW.com were up 30% in 2003 over 2002 (on the French site, leads were up 60% in 2003 over 2002). The closing ratio (people who submit leads online and then proceed to actually purchase) was 30%, much higher than any other trackable medium, says Aragones. She adds that 15% of total sales volume in North America can be matched back to people who submit leads online.

Created by Montreal-based agency Palm Publicité (which first developed the French-language site in 1999), VW.ca, which launched on February 24, was designed from the ground up to function as a research tool and information source. So much so that VW even lists competitors’ models alongside its own (via a third party), so consumers can make their comparisons on the spot.

Geoff Linton, marketing professor at the Kitchener, Ont.- based campus of Conestoga College, says this is an extremely shrewd move on Volkswagen’s part to establish trust and credibility with consumers. ‘It puts all the cards on the table and compares apples to apples,’ he says. ‘And it saves the consumer time. You’ll see consumers print it out, take it to the dealership and talk to people.’

Volkswagen employed its own research as well as best practices usability studies from firms like Maritz and J.D. Power, to help shape its content. Through the information gleaned, Volkswagen discovered that in 2002, 82% of vehicle purchasers in North America visited the manufacturer’s Web site before buying and that consumers often visited a year ahead of the purchase.

‘We needed to have content that was available for people who are coming maybe 12 months ahead and who like the brand but aren’t sure which vehicle is best for them,’ explains Aragones. ‘So we created tools such as the model chooser so they can understand what [the vehicles] come with and all the possibilities for each model.’

After building their vehicles, browsers are encouraged to contact their dealer for a quote.

But visitors to the site will no doubt be struck by the experiential approach to the design, which is perhaps the automotive equivalent of Apple computers – sleek, stylish, hip. It has Flash movies. It has music. (It doesn’t have lattes.) It’s what Palm’s Elana Gorbatyuk, interactive account supervisor, calls Volkswagen’s ‘e-sense,’ an attempt to capture the emotional aspect of the brand online.

Still, it isn’t style for style’s sake. Gorbatyuk says that e-sense is tied into the media plan. For example, if Volkswagen is doing a campaign for Jetta and it takes up 60% of the money and resources for Q1, then e-sense for the Jetta will be pushed on the home page for a corresponding amount of time.

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sokalow@brunico.com