Garrick Schmitt was sitting in a meeting, listening to a client talk about the need to make its website "Web 2.0-compliant," complete with tag clouds and profile pages. "Tag clouds?" thought Mr. Schmitt, VP-user experience at Avenue A/Razorfish. "Really?"
The request seemed curious to him -- do that many people really use tag clouds that a brand marketer's website needed to incorporate them? Surprisingly, he couldn't find the answer to that question. So he decided to find out.
The following months, his team conducted a study of almost 500 connected consumers to figure out how people were using marketer websites and forecast what would be important in web design during the next year. It's a prioritization effort, said Mr. Schmitt. Marketers have to ask themselves how do they want to maximize their sites' real estate?
The report, out today, will serve as a "sanity check" for some early Web 2.0 adopters and technophiles. And, he said, "for more traditional marketers, there's a whole new world we have to introduce them to."
One of the most surprising things the team found was how many people are starting their online shopping with search -- more than 54% of the study's panel, in fact. The idea that more consumers are coming to brand sites through the side door of search means search engines are starting to circumvent brands when it comes to online shopping. While a consumer looking for a pizza stone offline might drive to her nearest Williams-Sonoma, in the online world she's more likely to just type the product name into Google and see what comes up.
"Marketers need to stop thinking so much about their site and more about what's happening outside their site, such as widgets, viral and search," Mr. Schmitt said.
It also means home pages are becoming less important as search drives those visitors deeper into a site, meaning marketers need to treat product pages like home pages, adding navigation and sharing functions.
Speaking of sharing, social recommendations continue to grow in importance. More than 85% of people on the panel used "most popular" links on sites to decide what to look at and more than 55% made purchase decisions based on user reviews.
"Peers still drive consumer preference," Mr. Schmitt said. "Nothing else even comes close."
Another trend: Incorporating more data into design. While designers and developers have many rich technologies at their disposal, they also have better ways to mine behavioral data and adapt their sites in real time.
Search logs, site analytics and behavioral data can provide guidance for design, as can offline channels such as call centers. The study highlights Red Bull as a marketer that's making its content fun and portable via RSS and applications for platforms such as Facebook and the iPhone.
"It's baked into its DNA to be everywhere its users are, and it's all fun, custom stuff," Mr. Schmitt said. "None of it pushes product, but it all reinforces the brand."
Oh, and what of those tag clouds Mr. Schmitt set out to analyze? Almost 65% of consumers never use them; a little more than 11% use them all or most of the time