Audience Dialogue

How to lose an audience online

Does our cascading model of website effectiveness seem boring and obvious to you? If so, imagine you have a website with a potential audience of 1,000,000 people. Work through the nine stages, and see how the numbers fall away...

1. Awareness: you can't afford a big advertising campaign, and your ads are not highly distinctive. So only 20% of the target have seen your ads, and only half of them remember them (better than normal, actually). But 10% of a million is still 100,000: that's plenty.

2. Findability: your URL is a fairly long one, and some people can't spell it (or type it). Suppose your company name is "Oranges and Lemons", but your website is orangeslemons.com (missing the "and"). Potential users might try to remember your URL, and get it wrong. A pity you didn't buy several variants of the name, and redirect those inquiries. Most users don't try very hard. After all, there are plenty of other websites they can visit. So at this point you lose half of the potential visitors. Down to 50,000, but that's still plenty.

3. Availability: A potential customer visits your site, having overcome the first two hurdles. But this person is using Firefox, and your site only works with Internet Explorer, because of some fancy scripting you've done. And you never got around to using Alt text for your navigation button images. So this visitor comes to your site and sees a mess - not even a page saying "this site works best with Internet Explorer 6". They give up. But no big deal: 90% of your visitors use IE, and 90% browse with images on.

4. Popularity: This is not a filter (like the previous aspects) but just a measure. In this case, you still keep 81% (90% of 90%), and you still have 40,000 potential customers.

5. Accessibility: You lose a few more because they can't read the words on your site. Do your pages have the fashionable mid-grey type on pale grey background, in quite a small size? You might expect users to enlarge the type size in their browser, but a lot of people don't know that's possible. So at this point you lose a few percent with poor eyesight, and/or small computer screens, and/or high-resolution settings.

6. Usability: this point is where users drop out like flies, specially on a big site that uses a content management system. For example, have you visited the new OECD site? Try finding something on it: an exercise in pure frustration. If your site is well designed, you might lose only half the remainder at this point - that's about the average we've found in our research. So in this example, you're down from 40,000 to 20,000.

7. Trust: this is a big stumbling block. For a small organization, one that is unknown to most of its visitors, a website can go only so far. If you are trying to sell things online, users will be asking themselves "Why should I trust my credit card details to this site, when it doesn't give its street address, doesn't have a clear privacy policy, doesn't give me the name of anybody I can contact if something goes wrong, and doesn't even seem to have an email address that I can contact to ask questions?" From the research we've seen and done, many sites will lose about 75% of potential customers at this point. So now you're down to 5,000.

8. Fulfilment: But do you answer emails from prospective customers? (Amazingly, many sites don't.) Are you actually selling what those 5,000 people want? Are you describing it clearly enough that they know they want it? And when they order it, will it actually arrive? And on time? Even if the logistics problem are the Post Office's fault, the customers can't be sure of that - you'll share the blame. So typically, of 5,000 who reach this point, 2,000 find something they want to buy, but half of them are frustrated by your complex purchase form, and they give up. Of the other 1,000, 500 receive the product on time, 400 get it late, and 100 say they never get it, and you have to send another one. That leaves 500 satisfied customers.

9. Reputation: Some of those 500 will mention their satisfaction to others, increasing the reputation of your organization and your number of customers. So you're down from a million customers to 500. Of every 2000 who you want to attract, only 1 ends up buying. The above figures are not exaggerated. We've seen worse, at each step. And a Forrester Research study from 1999 reported in the McKinsey Quarterly found that two thirds of Internet retailers had conversion rates of less than 2%. A conversion rate is the percentage of people visiting a website who buy something during that visit. In the above example, where the number of visitors was 50,000 and the number of buyers was 5,000, that's a conversion rate of 10% - a lot higher than average. (And we've seen no evidence that things have improved since 1999 - with the growing complexity of websites, conversion rates could well be lower now.)

The main point with those obvious-seeming seven steps is that it's all too easy to dismiss them, saying "yes, of course our site does that." So here's a suggestion: try to do this type of numerical estimate for your own site. If you know the potential audience and the actual number of customers, try to work out at which points they are being lost, and how those losses could be reduced. If you can't even find out the figures, that's a warning sign in itself.

To relieve the gloom of the above picture: it applies only to first-time customers. For regular customers, some of the stages won't apply. For thoe who already know the site, can find their way around it, and trust it, the main potential problem area is fulfilment. If that doesn't work well, the site's reputation won't grow well.

Back to the Audience Dialogue model of website evaluation