Continuous Improvement -- Web Content 101

Manufacturers can actually lose customers with poorly designed and cumbersome Web sites.

Typically, when I visit a manufacturer's Web site for background or contact information I wonder whether the company actually wants me to be there. Oftentimes simple information such as headquarters location and a main phone number are either absent or require extensive navigation to track down.

Being a reporter, I'm used to people trying to avoid me. But what message does this send to trading partners or prospective customers? In this digital age of instant access to data and information, our patience and attention spans are shorter than ever. Forcing customers to wade through mounds of red tape to find what they need only results in the same type of frustration many of us feel when we deal with those pesky voice-activated customer-service systems.

Similarly, I don't have time to fill out a contact-information form that asks me for everything but my astrological sign and my social interests and then keep my fingers crossed that somebody will actually call me. Just give me the number to the main desk and an e-mail address! Is that really asking too much?

Maybe some manufacturers consider the Web simply an added convenience for the public. But a report recently published by ThomasNet.com, a New York-based Web consulting firm for industrial sellers, shows that 93.4% of industrial buyers use the Internet to research their purchasing decisions. The report also reveals that many manufacturers design their Web sites to serve their own purposes rather than to fit their customers' needs. For example, 74% of buyers expect pricing information for products while only 23% of the companies surveyed provide pricing information on their Web sites.

This either tells me a company is too lazy to post the information or it has something to hide. The less access a Web site provides and the more cumbersome it is to navigate, the greater the chance that customers will look elsewhere to purchase their needed supplies.

According to the ThomasNet.com study, industrial buyers want detailed information that includes:

  • Searchable online catalogs
  • Application notes
  • Extensive product information, such as specification sheets
  • Downloadable computer-aided design drawings, when applicable
  • Regularly updated information
  • Pricing

Additionally, many Web sites contain too many unwanted features. This includes pop-up advertisements (the most annoying, in my opinion), required registration, prompts to install extra software to view images or PDFs and dead or broken links. And some companies get too creative with their Web pages. Web sites should be consistent. That is, links shouldn't represent all colors in a Crayola box. Instead, all links should be blue and underlined, suggests Aaron Kahlow, vice president of sales and marketing for BusinessOnline Inc., a San Diego-based Internet marketing solutions company. Speaking at National Manufacturing Week 2006 in Rosemont, Ill., Kahlow also recommends that manufacturers conduct market-research surveys to gain a better understanding about their customers' online needs.

Also, don't get too technical. Your trading partners shouldn't need to reference an engineering dictionary to understand your Web content. Again, put yourself in your customers' shoes when designing a Web site. Ask yourself, who is my target audience? What are people looking for when they visit my Web site? And what are some of the keywords they'll use to search my Web site?

Ideally, customers also should have the ability to search for specific parts or products using a variety of search methods. This includes searches by part number, keywords or product specifications.

Such features simplify online purchasing for buyers. And what supplier wouldn't want to make spending money easier for its customers?

When effective, Web sites can increase manufacturers' exposure to customers and add marketing opportunities. But Web sites that lack critical information and require an atlas to navigate will discourage visitors and likely steer them toward a competitor's home page.

The full study that ThomasNet and Google conducted on industrial buyer behavior online can now be downloaded on ThomasNet.com at http://www.thomasnet.com/pressroom/wp.html?wp=Buyer_Seller_Disconnect_White_Paper


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