Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Stickiness: Your Website Needs It

By Ben Delaney © 2007

How to get people to stay for a while when they visit your website

Let’s assume that you have optimized your website so all the search engines find it, and you’ve started a pay-per-click ad campaign to help bring more visitors to your site. Now, the question is, how do we direct people to what they are looking for, and what we think they will find useful. We are asking for more of our visitor’s time, and getting people to give up that most precious commodity is not easy. In the web-management business, the trait of people staying a while is called “stickiness.” Your website needs to be sticky.

Log files: the marketer’s friend

Almost all web hosting services provide detailed logs of events related to your website. Log files tell you how many visitors have come to your site, which pages they have looked at, what browser they use, and much more. Data may be organized by time, requestor, directory, file type, or any number of other parameters. Some of this data are more important that others. Here is a list of items, along with brief descriptions of them, that you may find in your web server log:
  • Browser used: Did your visitor use Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera, Mozilla, or some other browser?
  • Entry page: The page in your website that your visitor saw first.
  • Exit Page: The page from which the visitor left your site.
  • Failures: The files that were requested that could not be served. (These are “404” errors.)
  • Hit count: The raw number of files served over some period of time.
  • Number of pages viewed: the number of .html or other viewable files presented.
  • File type analysis: A listing of files types and the number of times they were served. Types include: .html (web pages), .gif, .png and .jpg (images), .cgi (forms), .pdf (Acrobat), .mov (QuickTime movie), and several other types, depending on the types of files you offer.
  • File requests: This is a list of each file served to visitors. This is a key item – showing you exactly what people are seeing when they visit your site.
  • Hit count: The raw number of files served over some period of time.
  • Referrers list: The previous site you visitor viewed.
  • Source IP: The IP address of the visitor’s computer. Often this is incomplete, to preserve your visitors’ privacy.
  • Time on site: How long the visitor stayed on your site.
  • Visitor count: The number of individual visitors to your site.
The most important of these statistics, in my opinion, are file requests, visitor count, entry and exit pages, and referrer. Analysis of these data can tell you what the typical visit to your site looks like – which pages are looked at, what files are downloaded, and how long the visit lasted. These stats make it possible to tell if the things you think are important are those that your visitors look at. These stats can also tell you if a press release increased visits to your site, and by how much. These are the minimal, bottom line numbers you need to determine if your website, and particular sections and pages in it, are doing the job you expect. The other data in your web logs gives your further insight, and can be very useful as you analyze your website performance over time.

Analysis of your web logs tells you how sticky your site is – that is, how long visitors stay and how many pages they look at. That obviously raises the next question: How do we make our site stickier?

I believe that there are two key to website stickiness: good content and good navigation.

Good content is pretty obvious. Interesting articles, enticing headlines, offer of contests or games, intriguing possibilities – these are the types of content that make people want to read more. If your website bores you, it will bore others. Make it interesting, and be sure that it is relevant and unique.

A good technique to keep your website interesting is to have frequently changing content, especially on the home page. This can be as simple as a slide show, perhaps pictures of volunteers on a project, or your staff at work. Also good is a up-to-date list of news items, a calendar of events, and ad-like sections that promote your programs. What you use will depend on your organization, but changing content encourages people to check your site frequently, and increases the chance that they will find something interesting and stay awhile.

Another good way to keep people on your site is to include user involvement techniques, collectively known as Web 2.0. there is a lot of hot air being blown about on Web 2.0, but essentially it means that there are interactive features that encourage visitor participation. Such features include:

  • Blogs: A blog is simply an area where people can freely discuss whatever is on their minds. I strongly recommend that this be moderated to avoid liable profanity, and spam. I strongly DO NOT recommend censorship of any comments simply because you disagree with them, or they conflict with what your organization thinks about an item. Free speech keeps blogs going, and people will quickly stop bothering to comment if you censor their remarks. Possibly worse – they make a big deal of your redactation, and spread nasty remarks and rumors elsewhere on the web.
  • Video uploads and sharing: This is a simple feature that encourages your visitors to get heavily involved in your organization. Again, be sure to look at uploaded content before it goes live to avoid embarrassment.
  • Podcasts: these are audio files that are easy to download for offline listening on an iPod or similar device. Same rules apply – be careful about what you allow to go live, but encourage free commentary.
  • Photo sharing: This can be a great way to have people document your event, and otherwise share good times.
Also important is good website design. I always recommend that you work with a good web designer, either on staff or on contract. Web designers know the ins and outs of making things look good on computer screens, which is a somewhat different science that print design. Here are a few key design factors to keep in mind:
  • Use a different font for headlines and text and make them big enough to read easily.
  • Keep your site design narrow enough to fit on a standard screen and moderate resolution. Not everyone is using the hottest new screens, so design for the lowest common denominator.
  • And finally, be sure to test your design on Macs and PCs and in Internet Explorer, Safari, Mozilla, and Opera – the most used browsers.
Good navigation enables your visitor to find and go to the information she is looking for as easily as possible. Here again, a good web designer can make a great contribution by providing navigation that is easy to use, works well, and looks good. While there is no simple manual for good navigation, there are a few rules of thumb:
  • Build your main navigation so that visitors can see where they are going. Drop-down menus or similar tricks make if possible to see what each section of your website contains before going there. This makes navigation through your site much quicker and easier, and helps to keep your visitors from getting frustrated and leaving.
  • Keep your site shallow and broad. If you diagram your site like an org chart, you want to see many second level (below the home page) choices, and you don’t want to go beyond three or four levels deep. Keeping the site shallow means it takes fewer clicks to get to information, and that makes for a more satisfying experience for the visitor.
  • Have a feedback mechanism that shows when a button is pushed. You can change the button color, or use sound, for example.
  • Make your navigation big enough for boomers to read.
  • Have a search box. Often your visitors will not know exactly where to find what they want. A good search function helps them get what they’re looking for with minimal effort.
  • Have an easy to find site map. And be sure your site map is detailed enough to be truly useful.
Once your site has good content and good navigation, and you have optimized it for search engines, it’s stickiness should increase. And the longer each visitor stays, the more opportunity you have to tell your story, and solicit donations. So go to it. Get sticky!

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