Guerilla Research With Web Site Audiences

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In the world of web site development, there is a popular pastime and it’s not baseball. It’s the inevitable debate that arises regarding the content of a web site.

Prior to cognitive maps and paper-based prototypes, there is the traditional imbroglio: “The client wants this feature on the site,” or “the marketing department thinks that this would be a cool function.” Within the project team, everyone has an opinion. What’s missing from the debate? It’s not what – it’s whom: The Audience.

While the field of human factors aims to build a web site that is usable, the field of account planning (a.k.a. audience research) focuses on a web site that is useful. Usefulness is defined as the most appropriate features, imagery, content and tonality that connect with the audience.

Used by traditional advertising agencies for years, account planning is a research-based discipline that uncovers audience insights. These insights provide a perspective for building brand experiences that are engaging, relevant and compelling. By using techniques from account planning, the longstanding internal debate can be alleviated by identifying the optimal content for interactive projects from the audience’s point of view.

Admittedly the term “research” affects most people like sleeping tablets. It can also conjure up images of huge budgets, large surveys and hours spent observing focus groups.

As a result, many marketers and project managers often proclaim that there is no time or money research-based strategy. Which leaves us with the question: In the current business climate that is rife with uncertainty, how can we develop a solid, research-based strategy for our projects?

Guerilla research can support strategic development by tapping into audience insights on projects with tight timelines and shoestring budgets. But, these techniques require you to get up from your computer and go into the real world to interact with your audience.

What’s Cookin’?
One such example is Wolf Gourmet Ranges. Wolf competes in a category of premium cooking appliances among such category leaders as Viking and Thermador. With prices ranging from $1,200 to more than $12,000, this is not your mother’s cooktop. Being the underdog (so to speak), Wolf was challenged to develop a meaningful positioning against competitors that had a significant market lead and big budgets.

The marketing department believed that Wolf’s stainless steel look and trademark red knobs provided a distinctive positioning in the marketplace. The marketers believed that by simply showing the images of the appliances and their descriptions, the Wolf product line would practically sell itself.

However, a review of the competitors’ web sites and advertising revealed that all competitors had a similar stainless steel look. This left Wolf Gourmet Ranges in search of a point of difference.

The research team devised guerilla techniques to open the door to potential strategies. They sought an inexpensive way to tap into the minds of affluent owners of premium cooking appliances. If traditional research such as focus groups had been used, it would be expensive to locate and recruit this elite consumer into a study.

A review of such high-end publications as Gourmet, Bon Apptit and Epicurious revealed that these consumers perceived professional chefs as authority figures and celebrities. Many such chefs offer exclusive cooking classes targeted to “foodies” and affluent consumers. Fees for the two to three hour classes range from $60 to more than $300.

Researchers identified courses sponsored by such premium cookware retailers as Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma. Posing as fellow students, researchers were free to converse with affluent consumers in an under-the-radar investigation of how they chose their ovens and ranges. Insights gained from the affluent students were vital inputs in a preliminary positioning of the Wolf Gourmet brand and content for its web site.

A key learning: a celebrity chef would provide a positioning for Wolf as a superior professional appliance among audience members for its web site, advertising and product catalog. Subsequently the chef and instructor at the L’Etoile Restaurant, Eric Rupert was chosen as the web site’s professional cooking celebrity. For the product catalog, renowned chef Wolfgang Puck was selected as the spokesman. Research had also revealed that Puck used Wolf cooking appliances in his kitchens, both at home and in his restaurants.

Keep on Truckin’
When Nissan’s UD truck division was considering a new web site and renewed advertising campaign, it was looking for insights and a fresh perspective on its brand. The company saw the web site an important tool for presales information and directing prospects to a local dealer.

Traditional research would have required a difficult recruitment effort and a substantial budget. Because its commercial trucks are sold through franchised dealerships, the company has little direct contact with the owners or drivers. In pursuit of the audience’s perspective, the research team hit the road.

Researchers visited the dealerships to gain first-hand experience in the sales process. In absence of being able to talk directly to customers, the insights of the sales force were used to leverage customer insights. After all, each sales rep had contact with hundreds of customers each year. Moreover, they also sold competing trucks and understood how certain customers made choices between brands. The research team even took test drives to understand the value of the experience behind the wheel.

The research team learned that UD trucks were designed from the driver’s point of view. The engineers at UD considered the perspective of the driver throughout their vehicles, from the reduction of blind spots in the cab interior to the location of the oil dipstick. This insight was used to identify web site features that highlighted the drivability of UD trucks. The guerilla research also identified the online content that helped support the sales process and directed prospects to the dealerships for a test drive.

High-Speed SOHO
When GTE decided to compete in high-speed Internet access, it wanted to target the small-office-home-office (SOHO) customer. Unfortunately, it lacked a clear understanding of how to talk to the SOHO customer about the value of high-speed access and the additional cost over standard dial-up service.

The company considered an online survey of existing customers. Unfortunately, the customer database did not have sufficient information to identify the SOHO customer. Moreover, GTE also wanted to include the perspective of their competitor’s customers who were not in its database.

Online searches and phone calls to local groups (chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, Internet user meetings, et al.) identified organizations that had a significant number of SOHO members. By attending these meetings, researchers were able to engage individuals in discussing the challenges of running a SOHO and the role that high-speed Internet access could play in productivity and income generation.

The insights from these meetings were used to design a direct marketing campaign that creatively and clearly demonstrated the value of high-speed access. An interactive demonstration featuring hyper warp spaceship game provided an understandable metaphor that was engaging for the SOHO audience. At the conclusion of the game, prospective customers were directed apply for high-speed service at a special discount on the web site or via a toll-free mnumber.

Get Out There
If you have the luxury of ample time and budget, you can explore a full range of traditional research techniques. However if you are like most developers, you have constraints on time, money or both. Guerilla techniques may be the answer.

First step in your guerilla efforts: Understand everything you can about your target audience. Who are they? What is important to them? How do they make everyday decisions relevant to your web project’s objectives? Develop the questions that must be answered to provide strategic direction for your web site.

Next, think about where your audience is. Do they have clubs or associations? What types of events do they attend? Where do they go in their daily lives? How can you engage them in a discussion that will answer your questions?

Finally, get out there! Once you have targeted the venue, go out and be among the audience members. Consider it role-playing — don’t be timid.Think of it as going undercover to gather intelligence from the field. Have fun while you learn. Remember, the perspective of the audience is vital to the success of a web site in terms of both usefulness and usability.

Keep in mind the big picture: Web projects are sponsored by marketers who have business objectives. Web sites are also expected to foster audience behavior and actions that are channeled toward those business objectives. Therefore, web developers must understand how to create web sites that are engaging, relevant and compelling.

Usability and account planning share a common mission: Advocates for the audience. Amidst the plethora of internal opinions from a web development team, the voice of the user must ultimately prevail to ensure the success of online initiatives.

mitch@brandinquiry.com founder of http://www.BrandInquiry.com , is a brand strategist and leading advocate of using research-based customer
insights and competitive intelligence for powerful brand positioning and marketing communication. With more than 20-years of experience in marketing and research, he has built value for such Fortune 500 brands as Anheuser-Busch, AllTel, Eli Lilly & Company. Wolf Gourmet Ranges, Freddie Mac, Campbell’s Soup Company, GTE/Verizon, Dr Pepper/Seven Up, and Procter & Gamble.

Guerilla Research With Web Site Audiences
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About Mitch McCasland
mitch@brandinquiry.com founder of http://www.BrandInquiry.com , is a brand strategist and leading advocate of using research-based customer insights and competitive intelligence for powerful brand positioning and marketing communication. With more than 20-years of experience in marketing and research, he has built value for such Fortune 500 brands as Anheuser-Busch, AllTel, Eli Lilly & Company. Wolf Gourmet Ranges, Freddie Mac, Campbell's Soup Company, GTE/Verizon, Dr Pepper/Seven Up, and Procter & Gamble. WebProNews Writer
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