What to Ask Your Users

Regardless of your site, there are two types of information you will need at first. The first type can be captured from your log files (informational files about your site traffic and usage). This will tell you such things as how many people are visiting, how long they stayed on the site, how much information they downloaded, where they come from, what type of platform they use, and what pages they visit. A number of programs allow you to capture this information. One of the most popular is called Webtrends. In effect, this allows a Web site to download its log files and analyzes them. Whether this is a daily, weekly, or monthly report is a factor of how many times you want to download your log files.

The second type of information you will need is basic demographic information about your user. This is information that almost any advertiser or investor will ask for. Providing such things as who is visiting, what they like and dislike, and what their buying patterns are is essential to driving business. The most important questions that most advertisers will ask for are usually age, gender, household income, geographic location, and education level. After this, the information really depends on the site's core business.

A site selling advertising or an e-commerce Web site will probably want to know purchasing habits such as "How much do you spend annually on shoes?" or "How much have you spent purchasing items on the Internet?" or "When was the last time you purchased a television set?" An online news service will probably want to know reading habits such as "How often do you read the newspaper?" or "What type of news is most important to you?"

In addition to demographic information and buying patterns, finding out what consumers like or dislike will become important to developing future content. Learning what hobbies the person enjoys or what publications the person reads begins to create a complete profile that not only helps you describe who your customers are, but helps you sell to them in the future. Ideally, from all the information you capture, you want to be able to build a complete customer profile and update it over time so you know exactly who your customer is.

In addition to who uses a site, how they use the site is just as important. To find out how a person uses navigation buttons, locates information, and responds to icons and graphics can greatly increase traffic. Consumers want to have the most pleasant experience they can. They are willing to give information if they know it will help their experience in the future.

How to Ask Your Users

As important as the questions you ask is how the questions are posed and how often they are asked. This means that any consumer question should be posed as unobtrusively as possible and should be incorporated into the content as much as possible.

The first rule is never ask all of your questions at the same time. It is almost useless to ask any customer to respond to 30 questions, hoping to get an easy-to-read data sheet. First, the consumer who has the time to spend on a lengthy questionnaire is probably not your primary customer. Second, the accuracy of such a questionnaire is usually suspect, as most consumers completing such a form will invariably slip over a number of responses.

The key to creating a large database out of a series of questionnaires or surveys is to use a central locator, such as an e-mail address that all of the responses can eventually be tabulated around. Once a database is set up in this way, surveys, e-mail responses, and questionnaires can be combined quickly and easily.

The second rule is not breaking the consumer's experience. Like intrusive advertising, an intrusive survey breaks the consumer's experience. Having a series of questions pop up when a person clicks on a general navigation button is intrusive. Creating a specific button that sends consumers to a questionnaire is unobtrusive and puts the control in the consumer's hands. Asking a person to answer five relevant questions when entering a sweepstakes is unobtrusive. Asking a person to answer twenty questions is intrusive. For the best results, any questions should be incorporated into -- and relevant to -- the content surrounding them. At times, content could be created to lead the consumer toward the questions of a survey. In some cases, a sweepstakes is little more than content designed to induce consumers to respond to more questions than they normally would.

In the same vein, the consumer should be made aware of why the questions are being asked, and reassured that the questions will only be used en masse, not as a tool to market to individuals. An example of this would be prior to a site redesign. Most online consumers are more than happy to comment on a Web site and suggest ways to improve it. A Web site that states, "We are undergoing a redesign and would like your comments to help us create a better site," is more likely to get constructive responses than a site that simply asks what someone likes or dislikes about its design.

This story was excerpted fromMake Your Website Work for You, from CommerceNet Press.

Copyright © 2000 by Jeff Cannon. All rights reserved.