Agency Websites - Keeping your audience within your site

Much thought goes into creating an agency website. But don't forget to examine what keeps viewers there, and what drives them away.

Much thought goes into creating an agency website. But don't forget to examine what keeps viewers there, and what drives them away.

An agency's website is nearly always a potential client's first point of contact. That much you can assume. But when it comes to who's looking at your site, that's where the guesswork should stop.

Increasingly sophisticated software and services are available to tell you not only how many people have been visiting your agency's site, but who they are, where they come from, what they read when they're there, and - most important - what it was that sent them away.

If you work at one of the global agencies with extensive resources and more office space than NASA, odds are these kinds of statistics already come to you on a regular basis from your IT staff. But small firms might be where that information is needed most. If the majority of surfers happen upon your website only after doing a Google search for "litigation PR" or "Des Moines PR," rather than from searching for you by name, then you need to be sure it will draw these casual surfers in, not send them clicking away in frustration, searching for something that's more user-friendly.

Tracking tools can tell you how far into your site these people are getting and help identify obstacles preventing them from taking the next step: making contact.

Even the smallest agencies can access that kind of information. You just need to know what to ask for.

When hiring someone to build and manage your website, you will (or at least should) receive access to your log file. A log file records the most basic information about traffic on your site: what other sites people come from to get to yours, where they are located geographically, and what pages they view on your site. Obviously, these are vital statistics; they can go a long way toward telling you what kind of information your visitors are interested in.

But the limitations of a log file nearly outweigh its capabilities. For example, it can tell you what pages a viewer visits, but it can't tell you how much time they spend there. It can tell you where viewers go, but it can't tell you when they go back to look at something a second time. It can't necessarily tell you what someone looked at last before leaving altogether, possibly frustrated. And thanks to the configurations of certain big-name service providers, you may think, for example, that half your potential clients live in Vienna, VA. In reality, that's simply where AOL is located and log files can't penetrate that technology to tell you where those users really are.

One step above the log file is website analytic software. This may give you more information than a typical PR agency needs (do you really need to know what screen resolution people are using to view your site?), but it will also give you some statistics that can go a long way toward improving the effectiveness of your web presence.

"Website analytics will provide you with a user-centric view of activity on your website as opposed to a log-file analysis, which will just give you activity on a server," says Reid Carr, president of Red Door Interactive, which has designed websites for several PR firms. "You know how a lot of people in PR say, 'Fifty percent of my marketing budget is wasted; I just don't know which 50%?' This helps you figure that out."

How? For one, if surfers are finding your site via a search engine, it can tell you what search terms brought them to you. This can help you figure out what the people most likely to spend time on your site are really interested in. You can also see which referrers are sending you the most traffic, thereby deciding where your ad money is best spent.

Unlike a log file, this will tell you where users are actually located, not just where their proxy server is. You can see which pages people view and how long they stay there. You can also see in what order they view them and what pages they return to.

But perhaps most important, you can see where people exit your site.

Experts say that most sites have a sticking point - a page that most people get to but never get beyond. Website analytics can help you identify those trouble spots.

Sally Falkow, an independent website-content consultant and PR veteran, used this kind of software to help an author understand why he was getting so few "conversions" (when a viewer submits personal information) despite having a highly viewed web page.

"He was getting about 6,000 hits a day on his home page, but his conversion rates were pathetic," she says. "It turns out they had set up the home page to take you right to a quiz that required you to submit your e-mail address. The quiz would have given him great market research information, but only 300 out of the original 6,000 were ever making it to the 'thank you' page at the end of the quiz."

But some of the most useful tools for gauging your website's impact are not technological. Fleishman-Hillard now offers a service best described as a website focus group. A group representing your agency's target audience is brought into a "lab," (in this case, a computer room outfitted with a one-way mirror) and observed as they navigate your website. This allows you to see firsthand what some of the more sophisticated web software tells you, with the added benefit of verbal feedback.

"We give (the participants) 10 tasks to go through. It could be some simple task like finding the contact information for your office or, if you're facing potential litigation, finding out if this company has services that can help you," explains SVP and senior partner David Lowey. "Your traffic report numbers may tell you that no one ever goes to your crisis litigation support page, but what you'll learn through (our service) is that's because no one can find it."

Fleishman charges upwards of $10,000 for its service, and besides, it's unlikely a PR agency wants a competing firm tweaking its website anyway.

Luckily, there are independent companies that offer similar services.

But even if you can afford that kind of service, the most important thing is not the raw data you get, but what you do with it. Even log file statistics can tell you a lot if you know how to read them. The trick is to know what they reveal about your visitors - and what they don't.

TECHNIQUE TIPS

Do ask your webmaster for access to your log files

Do consider upgrading to website analytic software

Do analyze the data closely, bearing in mind your software's limitations

Don't pay for services or software that give you more information than you can realistically use

Don't take log file statistics at face value. Their worth comes out in their analysis

Don't read too much into any traffic statistics. Consider doing a live analysis.

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