Never Pull Sofa Duty Again: Stop guessing what your audience wants and start asking


As online markers and business owners, we have this self-imposed pressure to continually come up with tests to improve what we guess users might want. Yet, in talking with our Research Partners and other marketers, I find there is a real lack of direct communication with end users to help us actually know what visitors want.

We literally create test or optimization ideas in our cubicles, internal focus groups, and mass email conversations around the department. And then we leave out the most important people – our actual users or visitors.

If you just rely on your own analytical skills and creativity without consulting your users, two things are bound to happen. You will burn out by taxing your limited resources to constantly try to develop what to do or test next out of thin air. And eventually you will end up totally disconnected from your users.

When I bring up this topic, I often hear, “Now wait a minute…I have tons of metrics I can collect and pages to test. I can surely figure out my users.”

This is a valid point to a certain extent. We have our web metrics, click map reports, page testing, sales analysis, and the list goes on. However, even with all of those tools, what we are really trying to do is intelligently deduce what our visitors want.

Since it is the holiday season, I’ll use the example of the husband that gets the wife an iron for Christmas. He made the assumption (the keyword being assumption) that since she spends a lot of time ironing she would appreciate a gift that improves her ironing experience.

Mr. AssumptionsIf Mr. Assumption had actually listened to his wife more about what she would like, maybe he would not have had to spend four days pulling sofa duty as a result. While we all laugh because we either connect to the mistake of giving or receiving such a gift, we have to ask ourselves if we are making the same assumption errors.

We often forget the tools that we have at our disposal to make a direct connection to users and learn what they need from us. Here are three often overlooked techniques:

Exit Surveys
While we all hate to add an extra step, some people do not mind giving information about their visit. This feedback can be invaluable in learning what areas of your website are worth testing to possibly lift conversions and ultimately provide a better experience for your users.

Exit SurveyRemember, these exit surveys do not have to be just for people that are abandoning the process. Query visitors that have successfully made it through your signup process, lead capture form, ecommerce purchase…you get the idea. If you have never dabbled in the murky art of exit surveys, there are many companies out there that can help get you started.

A word of caution – don’t be greedy and ask 15 questions, especially all on the same page. People complain about exit surveys and completion rate, but I think the root of the problem is that they ask too many questions. Put yourself in the user’s shoes – would you take the survey? Perhaps test putting just one question per page and see if that leads to a higher completion rate or at least some partial data.  I have also seen some audiences respond better to a breadcrumb-type approach.

Cheat Sheet

  • Engage your users through customer service response surveys
  • Keep your questions to a minimum or completion rate will be abysmal
  • Thank them for their feedback and let them know they are helping make a better future product
  • Do not incentivize this area too much or data will not be accurate since people may be looking for a handout instead of trying to help

Actually talk to your users
OK, you may now get your brown bag out and hyperventilate a little before continuing.

Feeling better? Good. For many companies you already possess enough contact information to reach out to your customers. So pick up the phone or mouse, call or email those customers, and communicate directly with the people that make the Herman Miller chair you are now sitting in possible (or comfortable generic cloth one in my case).

If you are looking for feedback on a process, such as checkout, request it as close to the completed action as possible. This will ensure things are still fresh in their mind. And don’t just send a cold auto-responder email.  A personalized email or call will show how important you are taking this process and more likely elicit a better response.

Cheat Sheet

  • Reach out to your users and ask them how to make things better
  • Ask in a very personal, human fashion to avoid the “system-generated message” feel
  • Thank them for their time and perhaps even reward them, but do not mention an incentive until the end to ensure you are not skewing the data
  • Follow up as quickly as possible so users have the steps fresh in their mind

TeamInteract with your sales and customer service team
The  teams that interface with users on a daily basis can give you insights to your customers’ kudos and complaints. They might compare your offering to a competing product, request an easier-to-read features page, or need a more robust FAQ section. You can learn a lot by taking the elevator down a floor and talking to the teams that have some of the best internal insight into your users.

Cheat Sheet

  • Like Ziggy in the complaints department, front-line employees have unique insights into what your customers want and don’t want
  • Take the elevator down a floor and ask probing questions about their customer interactions
  • Then take the elevator up a floor and brag about how these insights have helped you deliver ever-increasing net profits

In conclusion, I present you with this challenge. Do not view your users as the sleeping dragon in the cave that you do not want to disturb. Ask, probe, explore, and create a working relationship to increase your site’s performance while delivering for your customers. This will ensure that you are actually creating processes and web experiences both usable and relevant to your users.  I know we only covered three ways to interface with your clients, so comment below on some methods you use to gather customer feedback.

How do you interact with your users and customers? What is your favorite metaphor for making assumptions about what your visitors want? Share your triumphs and ideas in the comments section of this post or start a conversation with your peers in the MarketingExperiments Optimization group.

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  1. Jason Markantes says

    An extremely fast and easy way to set up a survey is using Google Docs and a spreadsheet form. We’ve linked “Feedback” in the top header of our newsletters for a while, along with the usual “View as webpage”, “Preferences/Unsubscribe”, and tiny Facebook/Twitter icons. We’ll also quarterly ask for feedback within the newsletter. And we barely get responses. These are short (5-6) question, non required, surveys.

    Our signup confirmation email and unsubscribe email also asks for feedback.

    We also specifically mention in the newsletter to just reply to contact us. That hasn’t happened once yet.

    Overall I feel like we’re really doing things right and allow feedback at every possible contact point. I can only assume everyone’s very happy with things, as we hardly hear a peep back! 🙂


  2. Corey Trent says


    Thanks for the comment and great tip with Google Docs.

    On the email parts, do you track how often the Facebook and Twitter icon are clicked?

    Have you ever tried sending a personalized one-off email asking for feedback?

    My concern is too often us as marketers and business owners provide outlets for people to contact us, but we assume they will try to hunt for that information. Sometimes being a bit more direct and out right will yield better feedback.

    Hope you have a great holiday season!


  3. Jason Markantes says

    @Corey Trent
    I agree, we need to explicitly ask them, and we’ll do that with a big feedback campaign in January. In the meantime, we just try to have feedback channels all over the place. So if a customer does have something to say, it should be easy to find- on our facebook page, main website, ecommerce site, newsletters and signups, and on every email invoice for online orders. I’d like to even add it to our printed in-store receipts, a short url to our feedback page (I think Best Buy and others do that).

    As for your email question about tracking clicks on the mini icons, I don’t think we’ve had a click, but would have dig a little to confirm. We have larger icons and call to actions further down in a sidebar on our newsletter, and those get clicked with a moderate frequency.

    Great holiday season so far, hope yours went well. Have a happy new year!

  4. Corey Trent says


    You are correct that a multichannel approach to customer communication is not only key, but necessary in this day and age.

    In addition, the printed URL idea is great. I would caution on over incentivizing this feedback as a lot of retailers do. I strongly believe that over-incentivizing feedback can lead to people giving non-genuine opinions to get the incentive.

    Keep us updated with everything.


  5. Jason Markantes says

    Hi Corey-

    We sent out a newsletter last week highlighting our feedback channels, with a call to action to give us feedback. We also posted on facebook this morning to give us feedback. The response has been great- 65 and counting.

    In this case we did offer an incentive. We were a little iffy on doing that, but decided to go with it anyway. Instead of offering everyone a small incentive, we’ll draw one name for a gift certificate, so the incentive is not guaranteed.

    Our goal this round is to make sure customers are aware of these feedback channels, and hopefully use them unprompted in the future. We’ll likely do another call to action later this summer for feedback, but won’t offer any incentive at all at that time. We’ll see how it compares. It’s also been a great learning experience for us when it comes to figuring out which questions to ask. We’ll make some minor adjustments after this.


  6. Corey Trent says

    That is great to hear Jason. Keep us updated!

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