The Difference Between Thinking and Knowing What Site Visitors Want

Assumptions are bit like verbal agreements—for the most part, they aren’t worth much. An assumption, of course, is what you think you know. When you make business decisions based on what you think you know, you are driving blindfolded. Especially dangerous are the assumptions that you mistake for truth—you don’t even recognize that they are assumptions; they are accepted on faith alone. That’s like driving blindfolded on a twisty mountain road.

All of this applies, of course, to any part of running a business, but it seems especially easy to make assumptions—and to mistake them for truth—when it comes to making website decisions. Making assumptions about what your site visitors want can lead you down the wrong path in many ways: design, functionality, target audience, product or service offerings, and more. Not giving site visitors what they really want will reliably turn them into former site visitors.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

So how do you get from what you think you know, to actually knowing what your site visitors (or potential site visitors) want? At the risk of emphasizing the obvious, you have to ask them.

Of course, it’s not practical to ask them about every little thing. They have patience for only so much in an interview or questionnaire, and surveys can be time-consuming and expensive. How do you choose what questions to ask? You evaluate everything you want to know, and classify each one according to the risk of not knowing. “Will it kill my business, or drive customers away, or give me a bad reputation, if I don’t know X?” Once you have these classified appropriately, you ask about the ones that involve the most risk. The other ones can be considered “safe assumptions.”

To use an overly simple example, suppose you looked at every decision you need to make about your collectible-spoons e-commerce site and concluded that there are five things that you really don’t know about your visitors:

  • Age range
  • Income level
  • Color preferences
  • Hobbies
  • Music genre preferences

Not knowing their music genre preferences probably poses little risk, unless you have a large inventory of music-themed collectible spoons. (It could happen!) Hobbies? Well, they probably wouldn’t visit a collectible-spoon site if one of their hobbies wasn’t collectible spoons, so that’s probably a low risk too (unless you are thinking of branching out into other collectibles, like plates and lunch boxes). Color preference could be important – if they tend to like yellow spoons and your stock is mostly purple, that could be a problem. Age range and income level probably pose the highest risk, because they can drive your marketing plans, site design, and price points.

So, in this example, you would probably focus your efforts on age range, income level, and possibly either color preference or hobbies, at least for now.

What’s in it for them?

How do you go about getting this information? There are a number of approaches, but they all pretty much boil down to addressing your visitors’ “what’s in it for me?” factor—you need to provide incentives, which means you’re going to have to spend some money.

For a web-based business, you may not have many local people to ask, so much of your information will have to come from the website itself, or from an online survey service. Keep the questionnaire short, and offer a reward at the end—an online gift card, or a discount at your own site, or some other incentive.

Two more things to keep in mind about getting information from your visitors:

  • Don’t be disappointed by low response rates. Even with incentives, survey response rates are typically very low. The good news is that even a handful of responses can give you valuable information.
  • Keep doing it! Assuming (there’s that word again) that the information you had last year is still good this year is just as dangerous as not knowing last year’s information in the first place. Styles, habits, preferences, and attitudes do change over time; the successful businesses are the ones that keep up with (or lead) the trends.

In the information economy, there’s no substitute for good information. The alternative is making assumptions—and you know what happens when you assume.