The recession may have ended, but most marketers continued to embrace austerity—doing only minimal work to keep their websites current and functional. This year, experts said, the thaw is over as marketers move to make big changes to their sites.
Psychology, or what user experience specialists call “behavioral economics,” is becoming a bigger part of the design process, said Jennifer Cardello, a user experience specialist at usability consulting company Nielsen Norman Group. “A lot of us come from information architecture or visual design. We think about [design] logically and then are surprised that people don't behave logically,” she said. “Much of what users are doing is dictated by their gut rather than their head.” For instance, many companies are putting client company names—independent of case studies—as well as the logos for mainstream media outlets and the Better Business Bureau logo on their sites. “They're going for the "halo effect' because we see people are swayed by what they see even in their peripheral vision,” Cardello said.
In addition, marketers are making design choices and adding personalization elements based on past purchase behavior. While they have always presented specials and marketing elements based on this information, they are now adding features that give site visitors a more personalized experience overall, including customer service as well as pre- and post-sale content, said Paul Eisen, principal user experience architect at design and usability company TandemSeven.
Site visitors are also far less willing to wait for pricing, which is one of the reasons many sites in the b2b realm have started including a pricing page or pricing widgets to deliver that information immediately, said Kelly Franznick, CEO of user experience, research and design company Blink. “Historically, it was always hidden; but we now know that customers will go somewhere else if they can't find or can't understand your pricing models,” he said. “This might be hard to do if you're a Cisco or an IBM because your offerings are diverse; but it's something that has to happen.”
This may be one of the reasons that so many marketers are abandoning stand-alone microsites, having the unique URLs redirect back to the main site, Eisen said. “Companies don't want to isolate a product from the overall brand and other products anymore,” he said. By bringing everything back to the main site, pricing, as well as features and reviews, presents a cohesive view of a company.
Finally, marketers are concentrating on the idea of “zero-click” websites—sites that bring a visitor right in to where they want and need to be, said Ben Sargent, senior analyst at Common Sense Advisory, an independent market research company. “So, for instance, if someone is coming to your site from another country, how do you remove the barriers? With a zero-click strategy, the browser uses geolocations from the request header form so the browser can automatically serve up the right local site,” he said.
Marketers are also adding pervasive navigation and a link that automatically takes the site visitor back to the page that they first landed on when they got to the site. “There's definitely a better grasp of prioritization in the user navigation,” Cardello said. More white space and better, more readable text and fonts are adorning the best sites, Franznick said.
From a pure technology standpoint, marketers are focusing as heavily on mobile as they did last year, but they are also designing for iPads and other tablet offerings as well, said Bill Rice, president of the Web Marketing Association. “You can do a lot more on a bigger screen; but you still have to worry about speed and slim graphics,” he said.
Much like last year, social media is on marketers' minds. The most successful company sites are adding to the social sharing buttons they've already installed by integrating content from social sites on their websites. Internal blogs are featured prominently, as well as Twitter feed widgets that track both what a company is tweeting as well as what's being tweeted about a company. Some sites are also introducing widgets that detail Facebook and LinkedIn activity. These elements function as “social proof,” said Nielsen Norman's Cardello. “We determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct—and we believe opinions of people we view as similar to ourselves,” she said.
There has also been a refocus on search engine optimization. Earlier this summer Google updated its search engine algorithm to reflect user experience. “It's not enough to have a page for everything,” Franznick said. “You need to have usable information on those sites.” Some sites that duplicated information on too many internal pages actually saw their rankings drop once the new algorithms were in place, he said.
Video is still a popular addition to websites, but what's changed is its execution. Companies are making it easier for users to view video by shortening the duration of their videos and doing a better job of embedding links to relevant pages on the company's site, Cardello said. There's also less Flash as marketers attempt to satisfy iPad and iPhone users. HTML 5 provides a lot of the same animation functionality and it can be viewed on an iPad, unlike Flash.
Finally, marketers—now in the habit of working more closely than before with sales—are tying their CRM systems into their websites and content management systems so they can track return on investment of display, PPC search marketing and email marketing programs. “Marketers and salespeople can track the customer from the entry point to where they are creating revenue,” Franznick said.