Selling Your Brand by Using Your Web Site as a Customer Research Tool

August 4, 2008

With companies moving business online, the Internet has become a source of profit for them. We all know how this works. You establish an online presence, sell your brand well—and you make money. Let’s rewind. We are selling our brands online, but doing it well is the challenge. To do it well, keep the following in mind:

  • Customer research is an important factor in generating business revenues, so it must be done right—that is, at the right place and at the right time.
  • The online medium should not be the only way of gathering customer information.
  • Recognizing emerging trends—behavioral, demographic and emotional—helps companies move forward strategically.

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What Should a Brand Do?

A brand should exude confidence; it should reflect what it’s selling; it should express the true essence of what it offers to its audience.

A brand is like a persona with a clear function to perform. You build a brand according to what is and what should be. People look to this persona—read brand—to identify and recognize its worth among many others. It is always focused, persistent, persevering toward an intention, and aims to win it all.

Looking at the online world, a brand’s aims are ownership and recognition. A brand used to be merely a symbol to help people recognize and differentiate it among its competitors. But today, a brand does more. It’s a positive force in driving marketing and profits. It is the power that pushes a company to greater heights.

Using Customer Research to Build Your Brand

To build your brand, you can do customer research either offline or online. Offline methods of customer research include:

  • interviews
  • surveys
  • contextual inquiries
  • focus groups
  • ethnographic studies
  • case studies

Online methods of customer research include:

  • behavioral advertising
  • social networking
  • email messages
  • mobile advertising
  • comments and discussion forums
  • quizzes
  • surveys

Conducting customer research online is an effective approach that lets you gain knowledge and understand your customers better. If you’re doing it online, get it right.

How Should a Brand Sell Itself?

The following factors, shown in Figure 1, make a brand effective:

  • identification—Are customers able to identify with the brand?
  • recognition and projection—Is the brand able to deliver recognition, recall, and awareness?
  • trust—Are customers able to trust and value the brand?
  • marketing—Is the brand able to project itself through the various channels available?
  • sustenance—Is the brand able to sustain itself within the competitive marketplace?
Figure 1—Branding factors prospects and customers perceive
Branding factors

Getting Customer Research Right—or Wrong

Choosing the right medium for customer research depends largely on the marketing strategies a company holds. Let’s look at how Web sites, taking different marketing perspectives, get customer research right or wrong:

  • marketing from a customer’s perspective—Customers, or users, expect a Web site to sell them what they want. This means a brand needs to sell both itself and what the company offers to its audience. Target your market and ensure that they get what they are looking for.
  • marketing from a business perspective—When you create a brand, collect customer information and gather feedback that, in turn, lets you create a database for use in further promotional purposes.

For example, social networking services can also gather information about their customers through other services like Orkut. Through Orkut, five years down the line, Google will know you better than your best friend does. Some of the status-casting providers like Twitter also do this well. And email services display contextual advertisements based on the keywords in your messages.

The Web Should Not Be Your Only Customer Research Channel

The Web is an effective customer research channel, because you can do customer research online in the most subtle ways. The more blatantly you ask prospects and customers for information, the more hesitant they’ll be to continue using your service and become loyal customers.

However, reasons why the Web should not be the only medium through which you collect marketing data include the following:

  • You might overlook a major persona, because a particular segment of customers does not use the Web.
  • The validity of the data you collect can be uncertain.
  • Hunting customers down on the Web infringes on people’s privacy.
  • Throwing questions at customers at the wrong time could lead to frustration that might overwhelm them.
  • People can easily fake their responses and emotions online.
  • It’s very difficult to convince people to engage in online research activities.

How Are Companies Doing Customer Research on the Web Today?

Let’s look at current practice for customer research on the Web. Some Web sites get customer research right and others don’t.

The Right Way: Marketing from a Customer’s Perspective

The right way to do customer research on the Web is to be less intrusive and more interactive with your prospects and customers. People look for

  • engagement and interaction
  • subjective pleasure
  • benefits
  • relationship management

Example 1: New York Times

The New York Times cross sells its newsletters well during their registration process, as shown in Figure 2. This helps prospects grasp what the Web site is selling, while enabling the company to obtain customers’ email addresses. This clever technique is both less intrusive and more engaging.

Figure 2—The New York Times markets its services well through email
NY Times

Example 2: Dove

Dove engages customers through a quiz, which makes the interaction less obtrusive. Thus, they’re able to sell their ad campaigns as they gather information online. Figure 3 shows the Dove quiz.

Figure 3—Dove promotes its ad campaigns by taking customers through a quiz

Example 3: Sunsilk

As shown in Figure 4, Sunsilk does a good job of using an online expert to gather customer information. Customers can ask questions about a specific topic, and the expert answers them online. This effective technique encourages customers to provide their personal information in return for the information they receive.

Figure 4—Sunsilk’s online experts gather information from their customers
Sunsilk experts

Example 4: Another Sunsilk Approach

Sunsilk connects emotionally with customers by involving their friends and family. This is an excellent approach. Many other brands just ask for personal information without establishing any emotional connection with their audience. Have a look at their tagline in Figure 5. It’s a perfect fit for this brand’s audience.

Figure 5—Sunsilk connects with customers through their emotional needs
Sunsilk connects

Example 5: LinkedIn

The well-known social network LinkedIn uses a clever behavioral technique that lets them get to know their customers over a long period of time. This Web application builds customer relationships by tracking their online behavior, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6—LinkedIn attracts customers and gets to know them better by understanding usage behavior

Example 6: MySpace

Fox Interactive Media strategically engages in getting to know their customers through their social networking service, MySpace, shown in Figure 7. They track customers’ behavior on a regular basis, which profits the company through understanding and analyzing online usage.

Figure 7—MySpace, a social networking service

Example 7: Nike

Allowing customers to interact with each other on a Web site clearly facilitates natural observation. This is the best way to get to know what customers really think about a brand. Nike provides an online forum, shown in Figure 8, that results in a constant flow of interaction that helps the brand gather and understand their customers’ direct feedback. Feedback forms can sometimes be intrusive and are less engaging than a forum that allows instant feedback from customers to which a company can respond online.

Figure 8—Nike provides an online discussion forum where it can get to know its customers
Nike's forum

Example 8: Survey Mountain

Show me the money! Trying to entice customers to complete a survey without offering them a reward is usually futile. People need to know they will get something from it, and offering a monetary reward is especially effective. Figure 9 shows how Survey Mountain uses this strategy to reach their customers.

Figure 9—Survey Mountain entices customers to take a survey
Survey Mountain

The Wrong Way: Marketing from a Business Perspective

Often, brands do not realize they are being obtrusive, and this realization occurs to them only when they are able to put themselves in their customers’ shoes. People do not appreciate it when companies

  • interrupt their task flows
  • annoy them with popup surveys
  • ask for too much personal information without creating the right context or giving them something in return

Example 1: Asking for Lots of Personal Information

It is important to avoid attempting to gather personal information when customers or prospects are trying to get something done. The example Web site in Figure 10 asks for detailed information they should not be asking for in a registration form. Asking for so much detail in the midst of a long task can be irritating.

Figure 10—A Web site that gathers marketing information when prospects register
Asking for information at the wrong time

Example 2: An Obstructive Popup Survey

The last thing a Web site should do is to display a popup survey just as prospects and customers enter the Web site. Customers enter a site to have a look at what a brand is offering—to find information that sells them something. The kind of popup survey shown in the example in Figure 11 is clearly unadvisable.

Figure 11—A Web site displays a popup survey when customers arrive at the home page
Popup survey

Example 3: A Passive Feedback Link

Like most Web sites, the Web site shown in Figure 12 asks customers for feedback via a link in its footer. A passive form of feedback like a feedback form is the weakest approach a brand can take to collecting information. Instead, a better approach would be to ask customers for their feedback through some interactive means like a quiz. Always provide an interactive context. For a feedback form, the context is passive. Customers are unlikely to click a link that does not entice them to click it.

Figure 12—A Web site provides a passive feedback link in its footer
Feedback link

The Deadly Sin of Mixing the Two Marketing Approaches

Most Web sites today find the need to do both marketing and customer research online. Unfortunately, some companies think, “So, let’s save some money. We can use our Web pages both to gather customer information and market our products and services online! Why not? It’s a win-win situation here.” Well, they’re wrong.

Gathering information in subtle and seductive ways provides a positive path forward. Forcing prospects and customers to give you information only makes them inefficient in completing the tasks they’ve set out to accomplish. It slows them down and makes them resentful.

Conclusion: Emerging Trends

Looking at the examples I’ve provided, you can clearly see what trends are emerging in today’s context for customer research. With the Web growing company revenues both across the world and across varied audiences, brands are finding out how important it is to keep customer research going through this online medium. Some emerging trends are

  • behavioral—When gathering information, you can also capture the online behavior of prospects and customers. Targeting behavioral trends is the key here.
  • demographic—Customer research and demography are the keys to every successful customer relationship. Helping customers get what they want based on their demographic profiles helps companies get to know them better.
  • emotional—This is the most important trend when it comes to grabbing the attention of prospects. To transform a prospect into a loyal customer, meet their emotional needs and keep your business and its revenues rolling.

The cycle shown in Figure 13 reflects every step of customer satisfaction.

Figure 13—The cycle of branding factors that prospects and customers perceive
Cycle of branding factors

With the right approach, a brand can build trust, which in turn brings sustenance and joy. 

I want thank my entire MindTree family for spending their time in helping me get this article out. Thank you, guys!


BC3 Strategies. “Experiential Branding: An Introduction.” Whitepaper, 2006. Retrieved on August 3, 2008.

Lazzaro, Nicole. “Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion Without Story.” XEODesign, Inc., 2004. Retrieved on August 3, 2008.

Wright, Kevin B. “Researching Internet-Based Populations: Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Survey Research, Online Questionnaire Authoring Software Packages, and Web Survey Services. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 2005. Retrieved on August 3, 2008.

Senior Omni-Channel Commerce Consultant

London, UK

Afshan KirmaniWith over ten years of experience in customer experience, Afshan delivers ecommerce experiences based on omni-channel content and commerce solutions. She specializes in conversion-centric design, using behavioral psychology to persuade and drive conversions. Her projects focus on discovery and definition for content management and commerce platforms, and her design solutions have a proven track record of delivering growth in strategic accounts and revenue streams within global enterprises. Afshan has worked on Web sites and applications that take a mobile-first, responsive approach to produce designs that span hand-held devices, wearables, and retail kiosks. Her experience touches on social media, analytics, applications that leverage personalized content, and user experiences that optimize customer retention to increase sales.  Read More

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