The seven myths of online loyalty – part three

In this seven-part series, I explore some common myths and misconceptions about building customer loyalty online, and more specifically, explain why many of the loyalty tactics employed on the Internet simply don't work. Previous instalments can be found online at www.strategymag.com...

In this seven-part series, I explore some common myths and misconceptions about building customer loyalty online, and more specifically, explain why many of the loyalty tactics employed on the Internet simply don’t work. Previous instalments can be found online at www.strategymag.com by searching for ‘Seven Myths.’

In this month’s column, I delve into online customer loyalty myth number three: The more content you add, the ‘stickier’ your site becomes.

In my last column, I discussed why some marketers are seduced into believing that constantly updating their Internet site is a means to increasing customer loyalty online. The adjunct to this belief is that adding content to your Internet site is equally, if not more effective in helping to build customer loyalty, because the more content you add, the stickier your site becomes – or so the adage goes.

Much of this belief, of course, is driven by a deep-rooted assumption that on the Internet ‘content is king.’ And in many ways it is. But what is it king of? And how does it relate to customer loyalty?

The role of content in a company’s Internet strategy and more specifically, the role content plays in building customer loyalty, is one of the biggest and perhaps most misunderstood challenges facing marketers today.

For marketers, there are really two aspects to the content conundrum: (1) What is the correlation between content and customer loyalty on the Internet? and (2) What behaviour does the content support in the context of customer loyalty?

Let’s deal with the second question first.

It is widely accepted that traffic numbers on an Internet site are an expression of ‘loyalty’ behaviour, often measured using some strange combination of metrics such as ‘page impressions’, ‘repeat visits’ and ‘average user session times.’

In fact, in typical Internet fashion, some e-pundit somewhere even formulated a new term to explain this combination of metrics: stickiness. If your site is said to be sticky, it usually means it has high traffic, high repeat visits and visits of long duration – that is, it has a demonstrated loyal following.

But this is not a universal truth!

‘Stickiness’ does not always imply ‘loyalty’ and in fact, for many Internet sites, it is often a meaningless measure altogether.

To understand why, we need to first understand why this measure exists to begin with.

The Internet began largely as an information medium based on the concept of electronic (paperless) publishing – in essence, the convergence of desktop publishing and network computing. That’s why we still use the term ‘Web page.’ And as a publishing medium, the first and still dominant revenue model to emerge on the Internet was advertising. No surprises there. But because the Internet evolved as an advertising-supported medium, the types of metrics that evolved with it came out of the necessity to track and measure advertising-related data.

For example, to price ad units, Internet content sites measure the volume of traffic their site gets (reach), the number of times users return to their site (frequency) and how long they hang around (length of impressions).

So in effect, stickiness was really intended for measuring advertising reach and effectiveness and not much more. And unless you’re in an advertising-driven publishing business, traffic and stickiness are relatively meaningless metrics on their own.

So that gets us back to the first question facing marketers – what role does content have in your business and in building customer loyalty on the Internet?

Of course, the answer to this will depend on your business. However, for most organizations – assuming you’re not in an Internet advertising-driven business – there is only one basic function that content plays in helping build customer loyalty online, and that is to support a purchase decision relating to your products or services, or to reinforce the purchase decision after it has been made. Sounds obvious, right? Unfortunately, not many organizations do this very effectively.

Whether you’re selling products directly online or using your Internet site as a product information channel, you need to consider what type and volume of content is required to help potential customers make a purchase decision. Why? Because an educated customer is always a more satisfied customer simply because they believe they have made an informed choice. And a more satisfied customer is more likely to be a loyal customer.

Allow me to share a personal experience.

I was in the market for a new clock radio – one that delivered a better audio experience than your run-of-the-mill tinny-sounding device that you find at the corner hardware store. My solution was to look for a mini-stereo with a clock timer function.

The first step in my search led me to the product sites of the major consumer electronics manufacturers – companies like Sony, JVC, Awai, and so on. All of them clearly paid significant attention to the design and branding of their sites. But I was astonished and frustrated to discover that on most of the manufacturers’ sites, I could not find content that adequately explained the differences between one product model and another, nor did they provide me with any third-party reviews or information on their products or product categories – for example, the difference between various types of speakers.

In the end, I found only part of the information I needed to make my decision. I still bought one of the products, but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Needless to say, I did not have a particularly satisfying experience, nor am I a loyal customer as a result.

Now, if you were using stickiness as a measure of success on any of the sites I visited, you may have concluded that you were doing quite well. In reality, I would have been much more satisfied had I been able to find the content I needed quickly and efficiently, in a single visit. But that, of course, would have made your traffic numbers look slim.

The bottom line is this: For most organizations, content should be used almost exclusively to support customer purchase behaviour. Look at ways to help educate customers on the features and benefits of your products or services, including third-party information such as reviews, product comparisons or general category information.

There are many content syndicators, such as iSyndicate or ScreamingMedia, which will happily license you content from newspapers, magazines or Internet publishers that relates to your products or services. (For a great example of this, take a look at how RadioShack.ca is using third-party video content to support the sale of computer equipment online).

Also look for ways to add content and meaningful information on how your customers can extend the use of your products in various situations. Ask them to register their purchase online and then ask them for permission to send product tips and new product uses via e-mail. And that is the quickest path to customer loyalty that I’ve ever seen.

Anyone interested in a slightly used mini-stereo?

Next month, I’ll cover myth number four – giving things away for free results in greater loyalty.

Michael Shostak is president of Vickers & Benson Interactive and has spent the past 10 years of his life demystifying technology and marketing. For rebuttals, platitudes or other comments, Michael can be reached at mshostak@vbdi.com or at (416) 480-7978.