Author: Dejan Petrovic
This report will outline the most relevant behavioural characteristics of online consumers and examine the ways they find, compare and evaluate product information. Comparison of the newly collected survey data with the existing consumer behaviour theory resulted in detection of a number of issues related to a specific consumer group. The purpose of this report is to translate these findings into a set of implementation activities on strategic and technological level. Execution of these recommendations will result in better conversion of visitors into customers and encourage customer loyalty and referrals.
The focus group of this study will be young adults aged between eighteen and thirty-four interested in buying a mobile phone or a related product.
Research by Shun & Yunjie (2006) showed that there are product types, which are more likely to be sold online such as software, books, electronics and music. Reason for this is that when purchasing these types of products, one does not require personal inspection and most, if not all features, can be outlined in the product description and images. Most products in the mobile phone family belong to this category.
According to the recent research on consumer behaviour on the Internet users (Cotte, Chowdhury, Ratenshwar & Ricci, 2006), there are four distinct consumer groups with different intentions and motivations:
Majority of young adults interviewed for purpose of this research tend to be active information seekers. A high level of technological confidence within this group tends to be an encouraging factor when it comes to product information research online.
The following analysis presents both, focus group results and behavioural theory in a parallel fashion divided into two main research topics:
- Information Retrieval and Search Patterns
- Perception of Product Information Online
These two areas are mutually dependent and particularly important in a market where consumers have the power to choose the right product from a number of competing suppliers. Well-structured product information that cannot be found easily online is as much of a problem as is having easily accessible information that does not meet the consumer’s expectations.
Information Retrieval and Search Patterns
Effect of consumer search behaviour on online promotions
Combination of practical tests, survey statistics and one-on-one interviews conducted with a group of volunteers, produced a first-hand insight into behavioural characteristic of the target consumer group. During the survey, participants were asked to respond to a list of statements with five levels of agreement and disagreement, each related to search habits, information retrieval, perception of information presented online and the way it can influence their buying decision. The interview was conducted on a conversational level as an opportunity for participants to elaborate on their survey input.
Practical Test: Stage one – Initial search
Fifteen volunteers were shown an unknown brand of a mobile phone were only logo was visible. Participants were then asked to find out more about this phone online.
The first search stage in most cases started with a major search engine (Google, Live, and Yahoo) in its non-local version. Before clicking on a first satisfactory search result, participants were inquired about the nature of their search, for example, how they searched through results, what they were looking for and what grabbed their attention in the result they were about to click on. As illustrated in Figure 2, participants mainly looked for the highest percentage match in the search result titles (blue text) where word proximity in the phrase played an important factor, following the search result description body (black text). Web address (green text) was largely ignored.
Figure 2: User eye hot spots in the search engine results.
Following is the search referral data for March 2007 for www.cellmaking.com that illustrates typical user searches that bring visitors to the site:
- brand new latest nokia cellphone price list philippines
- phone brand logos
- pantech and curitel logo
- imap cell phones
- iphone 8gb prize for cingular plan
- nokia n73 godfather
- sony ericsson w880i
- nokia 5200 browser for mac
- imap w880i
Practical Test: Stage two – Finding the product
As the research narrows down, consumers tend to localise the results (Example: “Australian Results Only”). Search phrases in this stage are likely to contain a brand name or a specific feature. Survey results show that consumers are willing to ‘drill’ down to the third page of the results. Majority however would only look at the first page of the results (seventy-three percent) while many will only look at the top half of the page (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Consumer search engine drill-down: How far are they willing to go?
A common assumption is that young adults tend to be more technologically minded than the rest of the population.
An interesting fact is that around a third of the interviewed individuals knew very little or nothing about certain aspects
of their research due to the nature of the product and rapid changes in technology. For example, ninety per cent of participants could not explain the purpose of WiFi, which is becoming a standard feature in all new mobile phone releases. For this reason, we must consider extensive problem-solving behaviour (Andreasen, 1997). which consumers will be going through in some stages of their product research. Extensive problem-solving behaviour occurs when a consumer engages in a decision making process without established evaluation criteria towards multiple product types, for example, comparing a large number of brands. Without point of reference and way to compare their current findings with previous experiences, consumers find product research activity to be a rather involved activity.
This appeared to be the most sensitive part of the research and most participants required a high level of concentration in order to gain a satisfactory level of information. Participants were slow to respond to questions and appeared to be lightly irritable when being interrupted.
Consumer research (Raymond, 2003) showed that brands, which interrupted an intellectually engaging task, received an instant dislike. Further research into task interruption online (Moe, 2006) discusses a possibility of positive effects of various forms of interstitial promotions, such as pop-up ads, pop-under ads, bridging pages, and in-page animations, depending on the industry and placement context. The fact that this type of advertising is still commonly used across the Internet indicates that there are potential benefits of this method (analogous to spam industry) otherwise; it would have been abandoned by publishers and advertisers.
A task interruption test had to be conducted in order to determine whether this possibility applies to the selected consumer group.
Five participants were asked to find out more information about a specific model of a mobile phone online (SonyEricsson W880i). Their browser’s home page was purposely set to an online portal that contained a single popup and colourful animated ads (ring tones, emoticons, computer wallpapers and screen savers). All participants have closed the pop-up ad and spent an average of twelve seconds looking at the portal before visiting their favourite search engine.
Incredibly, none of the participants remembered the model of the phone while one could not even recall the brand. Consumers tend to rely on short-term memory while accessing various resources across the Internet. Remembering everything does not seem to be practical in the initial stages of the search due to the amount of potentially visited resources. Interruptions caused by interstitial promotions could therefore permanently disrupt the research and displease the consumer.
Perception of Product Information Online
How consumers see and understand product information online
When buying products and services online, consumers are facing two fundamental differences: removal of physical presence and (as a compensation) abundance and versatility of product information (Kurnia & Schubert, 2006). In other words, a physical product has been replaced by product information.
Practical Test: Stage three
The third stage in the product research involves product information collection, pricing and feature/benefit evaluation. Search engines at this stage do not necessarily represent the main resource any more. Survey participants were at this stage just as likely to visit product reviews or news websites, seeking human advice and consumer reviews.
Figure 4: Search behaviour and response to online advertising
Due to rapid growth in technology, information collection and organising is has become a rather feasible activity and more consumers are turning towards their own research “pulling” the information than information being “pushed” to them as that would be the case in most forms of non-interactive media.
According to study on Australian consumers (Lindstrom, 2001) one of the main emerging characteristics of online users is the growing lack of patience (Figure 5). Lack of patience is especially prominent when a consumer engages in product research, feature and price comparison. This has been tested with a focus group and the survey results confirm that this is still the case. A majority of interviewed individuals stated that they are willing to wait only up to five seconds for a page to load.
Figure 5: Amount of time consumers are willing to wait for a page to load.
Online consumers are time conscious and are often willing to gamble with their money rather than time as it is impossible to recover lost time, where a moderate financial loss can be compensated (Koiso-Kanttila, 2005). Consumers will appreciate businesses, which value for customer’s time by employing technology, tools, information and customer service.
Focus group interview findings on the product information appear to be contradictory. Consumers are not willing to read extensive amounts of data. They prefer to ‘scan’ through volumes of information very briefly while looking for key benefits (Figure 4). For this, they require moderate amounts of summarised information. At the other hand, consumers are also not likely to buy anything online unless complete product information is available. Having to inquire about a certain product due to lack of information available on the website delays the transaction, however most participants were willing to wait extra time for a human response to an online inquiry (Figure 6).
Figure 6: How long are consumers willing to wait for a reply to an online inquiry?
Zingale and Arndt (2001) discuss the importance of private time. A sales person can interrupt a customer in a physical store while they are engaged in their initial research. This is particularly harmful if occurring prior to the stage when the customer is ready to buy or even ask any meaningful questions. Removing consumers from their ‘safety zone’ can delay or cancel the purchase.
Online stores have an obvious advantage in this case. The absence of the sales person allows website visitors to research products in their own time and pace, with no external pressure or time restrictions. After receiving a satisfactory level of information, consumers either make a further inquiry or complete their purchase.
Figure 7: Consumer opinions towards place of purchase – Part 1
A website can traditionally be seen as a place of purchase, however, for consumers it is also a store, a brochure and a sales person, and is expected to serve quickly and perform well. Survey results show that the quality of presentation and information breakdown can affect consumer attitude towards the product and buying confidence. For example, basic quality standards are necessary in order to create consumer trust (speed and structural integrity). Second most prominent factor seems to be simplicity of the checkout process. Majority of participants have stated that they prefer not to fill out long registration forms.
Survey participants responded best to the product information available on the actual product description page.
As visible from the Figure 8, consumers favour almost all timesaving tools such as:
- Pop-up descriptions
- Photo galleries
- Product summaries before full product information
- Product comparison
An interesting observation is that most interviewed consumers considered automated product suggestions either irrelevant or unnecessary, therefore most would not follow such leads An example of this would be Amazon’s “Customers who bought this item also bought the following…” and eBay’s “Related products” section. Instead, members of this consumer group choose to do their own independent research, compare their own findings and read other people’s reviews and recommendations. In addition, very few consumers were willing to read FAQ, as they tend to appear too generic and broad, therefore requiring extra effort to find the required piece of information.
Figure 8: Consumer opinions towards place of purchase – Part 2
Summary of Findings
Implications with promotion:
- Consumers use search engines on both global and local level
- Result pages are scanned for context corresponding to a supplied search term
- Pace of search decreases in proportion to the depth of the research
- Intrusive advertising campaigns can create negative image
Place of purchase and product information:
- Amount of information online directly affects consumer search behaviour
- Online consumers value integrated timesaving features
- Information breakdown is required to prevent information overload
- Consumers value human reviews more than automated recommendations
Search Engine Promotion
Based on the analysis of consumer search behaviour, it is evident that the typical consumer is likely to ‘scan’ rather than read search result pages. In order to maximise on potential traffic it is necessary to enhance search result page positioning and increase visibility of search terms in result page titles. This can be achieved by SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and semantically relevant surrounding content in order to satisfy the LDA signals (Petrovic, 2010). A Pay-Per-Click campaign can be used as an alternative for more immediate results.
The focus consumer group did not respond well to aggressive advertising methods. Although not recommended, this type of advertising could be implemented in a subtle contextual advertising campaign. Ad placement could, for example, compliment the website content and be accessible on consumer demand. Article link ads, for example, would outperform banners or pop-up ads.
Main consideration when it comes to product information is segmentation and lack of physical presence. As discussed in the behaviour analysis, consumers prefer to read and compare short summaries before choosing to read the full description. Quality and amount of product information will compensate for the lack of physical presence, while implementation of timesaving mechanisms and human-based recommendations would encourage product research and purchase.
Online pricing strategy may strongly affect consumers in a number of ways. Part of the research paper on consumption decisions and personal rules (Amir, Lobel & Ariely, 2005) focuses on pricing consistency impact in online environment. An example used in this paper was Amazon.com and the consumer outrage caused by price inflation for the frequent buyers in order to generate extra profits from the most loyal customers.
Figure 9: How much are consumers willing to spend on a single purchase?
This example also implies the importance of online and offline price synchronisation. As illustrated in Figure 10, consumers expect online prices to be lower or equal to those in the physical stores. Increase in choice contributes to a more active research process and more prominent selective criteria (Bellman, Johnson, Lohse & Mandel, 2006). Failing to satisfy their expectations can reduce their interest in the product and direct their research toward better-priced product with similar or matching features.
Figure 10: Expectations from online pricing and payment options.
Figure 11: Privacy and security.
Figure 12: Physical proof.
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