Accessing your customers via the internet lets you gather a heap of data on them, whether it’s broad strokes (blue is more popular than red) or very detailed (customers tend to buy this item at 3am on a Friday) however, more and more brands are asking if analytics have gone too far, and looking for a new, customer-first user experience.
Going back to basics
In bricks-and-mortar shopping, there’s a big difference between what we’ll call a consumer experience and what we’ll call a patron or valued-customer experience. Multinational fast food chains, for example, tend to treat all their customers as consumers – the product is the same every day, and visiting for breakfast, lunch and dinner wouldn’t get you any special perks or better service. Local services, such as a family-run garage, tend to provide a valued-customer experience, singling out individuals who seem to be loyal to the business and offering them incentives to continue to be loyal. A lot of the time this isn’t done with any particular strategy in mind – small businesses are often run by their owners, who have a lot more leeway to be nice to people they like (valued customers) than someone working the tills on a zero-hour contract. Multinationals recognize the value of turning consumers into patrons, and try to recreate the valued-customer experience of a small business. Strategies include loyalty cards, encouraging staff to learn customers names, supporter clubs and so on.
How does this translate to online?
Every interaction between a business and its customers generates data, and if it’s online it’s almost trivially easy to gather and analyse this information. Online shopping, social media, e-newsletters, pay-per-click advertising and other data sources can be used to create a slick and seamless website and marketing strategy designed to funnel customers into making a purchase as quickly as possible. This is, in effect, treating customers as consumers, not as patrons. This model works well for businesses which are producing fairly generic items – if you’re selling white label goods on a major selling platform, and are in competition with a dozen (or a thousand) others selling similar items, there is probably little value in trying to create loyalty to your particular brand. However, most small and medium sized businesses do a significant amount of sales through their own, independent, website or under their brand name, and for these businesses creating patrons has significant value. A patron, in this sense, is someone who wants to shop with you or use your service in preference to a competitor, simply because they support your values and – critically – feel that you support them.
Wait, are you saying I should abandon my sales funnel?
No, of course not. Sales funnel analytics are essential as all too many websites lose sales for utterly trivial reasons, such as customers struggling to find the ‘buy now’ button when using a smartphone or getting annoyed that they have to register or enter their address three times. However, simply funnelling customers into making the purchase they first thought of as quickly as possible is no longer the most effective strategy for many brands and businesses. In this case, you should be developing a customer-first user experience.
What is a customer-first user experience?
Putting the customer at the centre of your user experience design means creating a space that is easy to use and lets your customer do what they want to do, rather than trying to funnel them down a particular path. This is the online equivalent of independent bookshops which scatter comfy chairs around and encourage their patrons to linger and read a chapter – or two, or three – of whatever book takes their fancy. Sure, many people will come to browse and leave again without buying anything, and yes, a few people will take the piss a bit by reading War and Peace chapter by chapter without ever buying it, but over time the bookshop builds up a community of readers who visit the store again and again. A growing community and customer feedback can often lead to profitable new ventures in both online and offline businesses.
Fine, but what’s the online equivalent of a plush armchair?
This varies from industry to industry, and will depend on the type of community you’re trying to create. In many cases, you may be able to tap into a larger, pre-existing community, for example one which has grown up around a trade publication or professional accreditation. You may also find that an existing platform is the best place to park your virtual armchairs, perhaps creating a community on Instagram, Pinterest or Twitter which links back to your online business. For other businesses, regular e-newsletters may be the way forward. Whichever platform or strategy you choose, the same factors remain critical: you should be welcoming, personal, and experience driven, instead of results driven.
What do the numbers show?
Somewhat ironically, we turn back to analytics to determine whether the customer-focused, patron-creating user experience strategy is the right one for a particular business. It’s not the right choice for every brand – few people want to build a personal relationship with their utility company, or make their choice of anti-fungal cream part of their public identity. However, in today’s image-conscious and socially connected world, customers are more than ever ready to become patrons, supporting and supported by brands they value than ever before. Even previously taboo products such as toilet paper and sanitary towels have created loyal groups of patrons who no longer shop around. Customers who feel valued are more likely to turn to the brand, shop or business for other items, more likely to linger on a website or browse through a product catalogue, more likely to view and respond to e-newsletters or advertising, more likely to recommend a product to a friend, and, ultimately, over the long term, more likely to spend more money with the companies they patronise than with those that treat them as mere consumers.