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This chapter is from the book

Ongoing Research Is Critical

We recognize that our devotion to thorough research might not necessarily be shared by all your clients—especially those most eager to get to market now and figure out audience characteristics later. We nevertheless urge you to press hard for such research not only for the benefit of crafting the PR message, but also to ensure the overall success of whatever the client is selling. Thinking through the needs of the intended audience is an important exercise in solidly positioning a company.

One useful approach to figuring out what users expect from your client's Web site is to consider a theory known as the "five levels of product benefits," which suggests that customers who come to you to fulfill a basic need can be retained as you demonstrate the ability to meet their needs as those needs become more complex.1 An example commonly cited in textbooks such as Kotler's Marketing Management: Millennium Edition is based on the needs that hotels usually fulfill for their guests. This example explains that guests of a hotel come to stay for the most fundamental, core benefit, which is a place to sleep. The second level or basic product provides the hotel customer with the necessities, including a bed and a bathroom. The third level or the expected product is a step up toward more customer value with the customer expecting clean facilities and a room that is neat and tidy. The next level of satisfaction is the augmented product, a level that is meant to exceed customer expectations. A hotel room that includes HBO and Showtime and perhaps mints on a pillow might qualify as an augmented product. The final level of perceived customer value is the potential product or the level that seeks to be everything and more to its customer. At this level of satisfaction, the hotel guests are delighted at the great lengths the hotel goes to satisfy a variety of needs. However, as stated, with different levels of interaction by various groups of people, it is necessary for brands online to prepare to satisfy expectations of several groups, or know what it takes to satisfy that one group at all times.2 Research is crucial to identify this information.

Let's take the example of a dot-com that launched in 1999 called RegionalHelpWanted.com (regionalhelpwanted.com). This is a pure e-brand that makes its money (yes, believe it or not, the e-brand makes money) by partnering with local radio broadcast stations to design, build, and maintain Web sites throughout the country. The goals of the regional sites are to capitalize on the fact that most help wanted advertising is local (not national) and to get radio's fair share of the daily newspapers' $8 billion in annual help wanted revenues. RegionalHelpWanted.com helped itself in market positioning by researching local audiences, including radio station owners, local merchants, and job-seeking candidates. If we were to apply the five levels of product benefits to this Internet brand it would break down in the following way:

  • Core product: RegionalHelpWanted.com sites allow job seekers to find opportunities and advertisers to post job listings.

  • Basic product: Job seekers can navigate the site quickly to search for job opportunities locally and to post r?um?. Recruiters can place ads and maintain recruiter account information easily.

  • Expected product: A local employment site (the name gives the expectation) with easy instructions, quick access to information, and no lengthy registration process.

  • Augmented product: A high level of customer service with the ability to click on a live chat to ask questions or contact a sales representative immediately. It's a simple process, as basic as reading a newspaper.

  • Potential product: RegionalHelpWanted.com sites strive to offer better services for their customers and look to include additional services including real estate and classified ad listings.

Working with a client to consider how its offerings fit with the five levels of product benefits can be difficult because it can force a client to make some major decisions: What does the client want its brand to be? Which product level is the company aiming to satisfy? Where does the target audience sit on the spectrum of technological savviness? Can the client, for example, realistically hope to deliver an augmented product to an audience of innovators and early adopters?

Many brands launched on the Internet realized early on that they would not be able to provide augmented or potential products. They correctly tried to keep things simple, aiming to provide a reliable basic or expected product. However, many companies failed to see that their early customers were early adopters or early majority technology users who demanded increasingly sophisticated features on Web sites. They wanted more than catalog listings from an online retailer. They wanted photos of the items. They wanted the ability to customize merchandise. They wanted the ability to track their deliveries through FedEx or UPS. They wanted to be rewarded for their loyalty with points that could be used at other sites or for air travel. Then, on the other hand, there were brands that offered sophisticated features, such as Flash and Shockwave applications and 3D animation, and found out quickly that their audience did not find the glitz and glamour so appealing. In essence, they were looking for simple functionality and a better way to communicate with their favored brands.

Ultimately, many brands suffered great losses—losses that perhaps could have been avoided if appropriate research was done on audience needs, expectations, and technological understanding. Remember that a brand present on the Internet needs to communicate the same consistent message, design, and image. The brand must transmit the same value sought by its customers regardless of the communication channel. Building value is an inherent part of branding that is automatically tied to a company's image and reputation. There's not a moment when a PR person is not concerned about getting the right messages to the right audience and eliciting a positive public reaction as a result of the communication.

A good example of a brand that ventured onto the Internet and discovered early on how to satisfy its customers' needs is Ceridian, a business solutions company that developed a payroll and human resources administration service online for small businesses. Ceridian had a unit called MiniData that provided payroll services to small business primarily through telephone or facsimile communications. The start of the 1990s saw the advent of proprietary software, which enabled Ceridian's clients to have software on their computer systems to process payroll transactions via a modem using telephone lines. The launch of Powerpay (powerpay.com) took Ceridian's service to still a higher level by making it possible for clients to process payroll transactions anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether a computer was loaded with the proprietary software. Ceridian's extensive and ongoing research had enabled it to predict and meet the needs of its Internet-using customers. If we were to apply the five levels of product benefits to this Internet brand, it would break down this way:

  • Core product: Simple payroll service.

  • Basic product: Payroll with tax filing service.

  • Expected Product: Customers receive a high level of accuracy, affordable payroll service rates, and timely delivery of checks for their employees (exceeding the expectations of the offline payroll service and living up to a historical promise).

  • Augmented product: Via the Internet, customers have the ability to easily link to strategic partners for various opportunities and optimal services.

  • Potential product: Expanding to include real-time services that are not available offline including a human resources system that connects to payroll (401k plan) and same-day reporting for easier discussion between clients and their accounting firms.

Ceridian's ability to satisfy its clients' needs and exceed expectations has resulted in ongoing relationships with the brand's stakeholders. Years of continuing focus group research and usability studies have led to many successes for the brand and positive public opinion.

Now that the online payroll service has been launched, is it necessary for Ceridian to continue to put so much emphasis on researching new Internet efforts? Should the company be investing in research as a means to preserve reputation, image, and the satisfaction level of users even after a brand is already successful? The answer again is yes, absolutely. Remember, once a promise, always a promise from that brand.

That's one reason why Microsoft's free e-mail service Hotmail has done well when so many other free ad-supported e-mail providers have failed. Hotmail is a recognized brand because it grew quickly as a result of its uncomplicated nature. It enables users to register promptly and maintain a free e-mail account through MSN.com. Over the past couple of years, MSN has cared about its image and the needs of the Hotmail subscribers. Such concern is evident with the frequent change of the Hotmail Web design for simplified operation. Use of Hotmail is convenient and it provides an easy means for users to organize incoming mail. The site downloads quickly (also typical of MSN) and encompasses a site layout and navigation that is self-explanatory and absolutely mindless to operate. The expectation for every user is ease of use. Clearly, Microsoft has not skimped on whatever research has been needed to meet these expectations.

Another good example of a company that employs research and changes with the needs of its audience is 1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE (800giftcertificate.com), a brand that prides itself on taking the time to know its customers. Like many dot-coms, 1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE launched its site during the Internet boom, in hopes of attracting and retain a large consumer audience. "It didn't take long for us to revise the site," stated Dan Horne, director of research. "We quickly got into the habit of evaluating what others did. We're very fortunate to have people on board with talent and who work hard to analyze and tweak the site." 1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE did not let the time pressures of being a startup affect its ability to build a functionally successful site. However, despite the functionality, Horne discussed with us how through continued research, 1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE changed its audience focus from a consumer-oriented site to a corporate, business-minded site.

As the company grew, along with the growth came more resources. Horne felt early on that the company needed a consistent look and feel to all customer groups and that in the beginning it was trying to be everything all at once. In addition, although the company was positive about the product offering, what was exciting to management was not necessarily exciting to customers. 1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE took the time to evaluate customer habits and click-through rates. "Every person in the company was on the telephone talking to customers—even company president Mike Dermer," stated Horne. The information from customer feedback and site traffic led to a new direction for the company.

1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE relaunched its Web site in December 2001. Simplicity and a clean look and feel are the most apparent changes. Management decided that all the fancy features (e.g., holiday reminders and gift calendars) were not necessary. "They just slowed the customer down," Horne stated. It was at this point that 1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE began the shift of audience focus. The company found that corporate audiences made up almost 90 percent of the company's site traffic. However, there were still some consumer elements that remained. The revamped site is easy for the business purchaser to get in and get out of quickly and easily. Horne also noted that corporate demo programs including Points Express were especially attractive to business buyers.

1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE is a great example of a company that was fortunate to realize early the importance of research and how to apply the findings to its Web site design. "We were very careful all the way through. Most companies that start out on the Internet work in a vacuum. Not us, we were constantly in contact with the customers," stated Horne. "And, all through the process, many people were involved," he added. Horne explained that this slower, more conservative approach led to a thought process that more dot-coms should have adhered to. It's fine to step back, wait a minute, and determine if there is value to the customer. Horne, who has a PhD in marketing research, described 1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE as a logical company that is theoretically driven. "It's the way that academia [theory] and business should work together and it certainly worked for our company."

Before getting on with our discussion of the tools that can aid you in researching the needs of reporters (Chapter 4), we'll reiterate once more the need for PR professionals to think in broader terms in the new Internet age. Public relations has to be about more than just information dissemination because the Internet can accomplish that task so well on its own. PR is increasingly about reputation management. To serve their clients well, PR professionals must have access to the research that's needed to target the right messages to the right audiences and then to monitor those messages. At all times, research intelligence must continually be added to the communication process.

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