Is your Web site hurtful or helpful?

Web searches for mattresses are revving up. The Web has become the primary source of information for consumers shopping for a mattress and, in fact, has surpassed newspapers and retailers themselves as resources for learning about mattresses.

According to quantitative research conducted by the Better Sleep Council in 2007, 60% of mattress buyers conduct research before mattress shopping. Since 1996, the number of people “looking around in stores” and reading newspaper ads has declined steadily, while the number turning to the Internet has risen significantly.

Savvy manufacturers and their dealers are paying close attention to this trend. Owning a dynamic Web site makes sense and earns dollars: Web sites can deliver a lot of bang for the buck. They also level the playing field.

“The Web is the great equalizer,” says Tobias Dengel, senior vice president of business development for Web.com. “All brands, including the ‘big boys’, can leverage their strong brand online. Smaller (companies) can compete head–to–head with those much larger by ranking higher in search engine optimization.” (More about search engine optimization later.)

Although Web technology can serve as that great equalizer among companies, not all Web sites are created equal. Some lag while others pull ahead.

Fine–tuning a Web site’s performance can build brand recognition and boost sales. Web site visitors want easy–to–access, relevant content. And they want that content fast. You’ve got about 20 seconds before a visitor decides to stay—or click away.

Creating a Web strategy comes before creating a Web design. What’s the main purpose of your site? To build your brand? To direct consumers to your retailers? To provide detailed product information? To educate visitors about the importance of a good mattress? If you’re a manufacturer, the first two may be most important to you and your site should be built to reflect that. If you’re a factory direct, you may want to use your site to get customers into your store, announce special promotions and build relationships. You might want to add an opt–in feature for an email newsletter. If you’re not already, it could be time to start selling online.

The more information you share with your Web designer, the better job she’ll be able to do. Work also to develop benchmarks so that you can measure your Web site’s effectiveness.

Home ‘sticky’ home

Strong home pages are crucial. As we said, 20 seconds is all you’ve got to capture visitors’ attention. And if they do stay, you must deliver information quickly. Fast page downloads are a must.

“Studies indicate that keeping interactions within 2 seconds will keep customers engaged, whereas half of all people waiting for more than 8 seconds (typically shorter than a full page refresh) will lose interest and drop off,” says Paul Irish, senior experience design specialist at Molecular, a Web design and technology firm with offices in Boston, New York and San Francisco.

For companies selling online, the direct costs of losing site visitors mount quickly. Irish cites a Zona Research report that estimates that Web sites collectively lose $21 billion a year when customers abandon them because of excessive delays in page downloads.

Jason Swenk of the Atlanta–based design firm Solar Velocity says, “Welcoming visitors is a primary function of the home page.” After that, you want the page to move visitors through segmented categories, leading them where you want them to go.

If visitors find your information easy to access, quick to download and well organized, they’re likely to stay around. That’s called the “sticky” factor—and you want sticky. The longer visitors stay, the more time you have to accomplish your Web goals.

“Making a site ‘sticky’ can be as simple as having unique content on your site that doesn’t appear on any other Web site. Put in more product descriptions. Give consumers a reason to contact you. Your Web site is your 24–hour sales site,” says Alan Ainsworth, owner and lead designer at Jigsaw Inc. in San Jose, Calif.

Whether you are a factory direct or a manufacturer, you should have a prominent “Where to Shop” store locater on the home page—and on each subsequent page. Featuring a “Contact Us” link on every page also is smart.

Crafting content

Think about how people read Web pages.

As Web.com’s Dengel notes, “Humans (in the Western world) read a page from the upper left to the lower right. Information on the lower right is less important. Concentrate on the one to two key words you want to get across.”

Use text that speaks to your target customers.

For instance, the 2007 BSC consumer research shows younger women follow a shorter replacement schedule for their mattresses—6.9 years for 18 to 34 year olds compared with 9.9 years for 35 to 54 year olds. But younger women often feel less able to replace their mattress because of financial constraints. Younger women also are more strongly influenced by messages emphasizing the dangers of allergens and pests in older mattresses than are their older counterparts.

That means younger women are likely to be responsive to messages that feature mattresses with strong allergy–free benefits. Use headlines and subheads on your Web site that address those concerns: “What’s living in your old mattress?” or “You, your old mattress and allergies.” Value messages that explain the importance of purchasing the best mattress you can afford also would be good for companies targeting that demographic.

The BSC survey found that women age 55 and older are more likely to consider a mattress purchase an investment in their health but are more likely to feel they don’t need a new mattress. They keep their mattresses longer than their younger counterparts—14.5 years. Web content targeting this group could emphasize “Your new mattress: An investment in good health” or “How good sleep contributes to good health and longevity.”

Segmenting content—even making information available in multiple languages—can pay dividends. For example, if you sell in an area with a large Hispanic population, offering a Spanish language option on the site makes sense.

Manufacturers often fail to tap the potential power of testimonials on their Web sites. A customer happy with your products—especially those who say that it was your mattress that helped them sleep better or alleviate back pain—tend to be believed more by consumers than your own praise of your products. Use a photo of a satisfied customer and “pull quotes” from her testimonial, perhaps with a link to the full testimonial if it’s lengthy or to comments from others.

One thing to keep off your home page: Flash intros. Some visitors won’t have the technology to see the page properly; most will be looking for the “skip” button. “And others will simply ‘bounce’ or abandon your site altogether,” Swenk says.

Keep it current

One of the biggest mistakes companies make is to develop a strong Web presence and then fail to keep their content—even critical items such as product descriptions, prices, promotions, dealer locations and contact information—updated.

Periodically test your site’s links to ensure that they still lead somewhere. And regularly post fresh content. Visitors develop distrust when they find dated, stale and incorrect information.

It’s best to designate a point person to manage your site’s content. When redesigning or revamping a Web site, select a content management system that makes this task easier. You’ll save money by being able to post new content in–house, rather than being billed for each change done by your design firm.

Jon Jordan, president of Atlantic BT, a Web firm in Raleigh, N.C., says that “a manufacturer could create a strategy to disseminate content, updated product information, suggested prices and improve their branding recognition by having their Web master design a ‘content distribution network’—a defined channel for communication with retailers.”

Why do this? Because a content distribution network ensures that the latest, most accurate and consistent information from the manufacturer is distributed and downloaded throughout the network to each retailer’s Web site.

Search engine optimization

Choosing a Web firm that’s knowledgeable about search engines, especially Google, is as important as finding a firm that designs attractive, functional sites.

When people type a word like “latex mattress” or a phrase like “better sleep” into a search engine, you want your site to pop up early in the listings. The content of your site—headlines, subheads, captions, tags—plays a big role in how successful you are in doing this.

Jigsaw’s Ainsworth adds, “A Web crawler will also look at the page title, page description, key words, and file name. It will make its judgments on how to list your site based on these factors.”

Achieving a top ranking is a challenging—and ongoing—process.

“With Google, it’s like trying to hit a moving target. They’ve already changed their algorithm methodology 1,800 times,” says Web.com’s Dengel.

Pay–per–click is one way to rank high in search results. You’re billed each time someone clicks on your URL, but when you are keying to a very common search word like “mattress,” it may be worth considering.

New developments

Today, there’s a lot of talk about Web 2.0 and Web 3.0—social networking, viral marketing, user–generated content, video, blogs and rich Internet applications that can make visitors’ Web experiences fuller and more useful. There are caveats, including the fact that if you incorporate user–generated content into your site you run the risk of negative comments being posted about your products.

But there are nifty advantages to new technologies. For instance, Dengel says, “If selling online, consumers can’t touch or feel the bedding fabric, so show more details and photo close–ups. A new technology called Carousel can show photos of products in a film–strip format.”

Quizzes such as “What Kind of Sleeper Are You” or an exercise like “Design Your Own Bed” can create viral marketing opportunities. Visitors’ answers can point them to a mattress in your product line, personalizing the experience of visiting your site.
There’s much happening with Web 3.0. Successful manufacturers will keep up.

Five ways to spiff up your site

1. Improve ease of use Information must be well organized with intuitive navigation. Think about how people read (top left to bottom right in English and many other languages) and organize accordingly. Make page downloads lightning fast and have priority information available within one or two clicks. Make links and navigation buttons obvious and easy to locate. Avoid Flash intros and slow–to–load graphics: People are too impatient to sit through them.

2. Create high–quality content Make information relevant. Give people what they are seeking. Be brief and to the point. Post content that will appeal to your target customers and craft messages that touch on subjects particularly important to them (health, better sleep, allergies, pests, value). Encourage contact with your retail channel. Do you sell strongly to ethnic segments of the population? Have an option for messages in their languages.

3. Keep it current After investing in top–notch design, get your money’s worth by keeping information up–to–date. Assign a staff member to add fresh content, make appropriate changes and remove old links. If a new study appears that’s relevant to sleep or mattresses, consider referencing a snippet of the study on your home page and post a link to the main article.

4. Use search engine optimization You want your site to be found—frequently. Use key words. Decide whether to go with a pay–per–click service to climb to the front of search results. Use a Web firm or consultant that stays on top of fast–changing search engine technology so you can stay on top, too. Link to relevant sites with topical or related content, such as the Better Sleep Council’s site, www.bettersleep.org.

5. Be unique Set yourself apart from your competition with design elements, content and colors. Blue is the most common color used on Web sites, but green implies good health. Or tie into the colors of your company logo. Use large product photos and show people enjoying their beds. Consider using new Web technology such as Carousel to display product photos, including close–ups of fabrics and other features of the mattress. Write intriguing headlines. Incorporate the taglines and slogans you use in your other advertising to extend your brand.

Creating content for key customers

Unlike newspaper advertising or some other marketing methods, which tend to reach a broader audience, Web sites can be easily segmented to target different groups of consumers. Consider, for instance, constructing your site so that it asks consumers a few qualifying questions about their age group or health concerns to better direct them to products and information.

Take the demographic of women age 18 to 34, which relies more than any other age group on the Internet as its primary source of information. According to Better Sleep Council research conducted in 2007, this group buys new mattresses more often, though they may feel they are unable to replace their mattress because of financial constraints. They’re less satisfied with the quality of their sleep and more likely to voluntarily say their mattress is the cause of their poor sleep. They’re more open to recommendations to consider mattress replacement every five to seven years. And they are more strongly influenced by messages emphasizing the risk of allergens and pests in old mattresses.

That’s great market intelligence to use in crafting your Web messages. Because women in this group tend to be “early adopters,” pitch them information about new technologies, especially those that prevent dust mites and other allergens. To address the concerns of those in this group who feel financially constrained, craft messages about the value that can be found in a new mattress. Consider aiming special offers toward these women.

Women 55 and older have different habits and concerns. According to the BSC research, this group is more aware of the link between mattresses and health.

For them, put messages on your site about how sleep relates directly to health and how a new mattress can improve sleep. Headlines like “Is your old mattress affecting your health?” or “How investing in a new mattress pays health dividends” can appeal to this group.

Older women place a premium on the reputation of the retail establishment they visit, as well as the brand of their mattress. Use your Web site to talk about your company’s history, brand strength and commitment to customer service.

To get these women to your Web site—they still rely on newspaper and magazine ads more than their younger counterparts—put a link to your site in every ad you place.

 

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