San Diego Business Journal How to Build an Internet Audience

Here's a quick quiz about San Diego growth: What local community added 300,000 new people since 1997 and today has a total population of 1.1 million?

(Hint: this huge community didn't add a single car to our crowded freeways.)

The answer is San Diego's online, or "virtual," community of adult Internet users.

Of San Diego's 2.1 million adults, 53 percent, or 1.1 million, are online. By 2003, the percentage of adults online in San Diego is expected to reach 66 percent.

San Diego businesses increasingly will need to know how to reach and serve this local virtual community just as they serve customers or prospective customers in our physical communities.

Leading New York-based Internet research firm Jupiter Communications projects $2.7 billion will be spent annually on local online advertising throughout the United States by 2003. The spending will be driven by increased consumer use of local Web content and the ability of advertisers to target ads geographically, according to Jupiter.

- Who's Online

In San Diego?

Media Audit, an independent national research company that has surveyed local media habits for 20 years, began profiling Internet users in San Diego in 1997. Here's a snapshot profile of San Diego's online community based on Media Audit's October 1999 survey of 1,081 online San Diegans:

o 60 percent are 25 to 54 years old

o 70 percent have incomes above $50,000

o 51 percent are men; 49 percent women (This reflects the national trend of increased Web usage by women.)

o Central San Diego has the highest percentage of users, 33 percent, followed by North County at 27 percent, South County at 19 percent and East County at 14 percent. The 7 percent balance declined to provide area of residency.

o Seven hours per week is the average time spent on the Internet. Nationally the time is the same. That's more than with newspapers and magazines.

- Consumers'

Online Attitudes

San Diego companies doing business on the Internet should take note of the three dominant attitudes consumers have toward the Web, as learned by Jupiter Communications in an August 1999 survey of more than 3,000 Internet users throughout the United States.

o Consumers are satisfied with their experiences on the Web. About 46 percent of the survey respondents said they feel highly satisfied with the Internet, and 51 percent expressed moderate satisfaction.

o Consumers are concerned about speed and security. When asked what changes would cause them to use the Internet more frequently, 65 percent said faster transfer speeds, while 40 percent cited increased security of their personal information.

o Consumers prefer the Internet for utility over entertainment. About 48 percent of survey respondents said they use the Internet more for utility , E-mail, Web search, product research , while 36 percent considered it more of an entertainment resource for playing games or watching videos. An overwhelming majority of online users say they use the Internet either to make purchases (23 percent) or to research products (51 percent).

The recent Christmas season saw online sales increase fourfold from 1998 to an estimated $12 billion. In addition, early research indicates higher customer satisfaction with the online shopping experience, although concerns about service and security remain.

- Audience-Building

Tips For Web Sites

Here are five tips you may find useful in building an audience to a Web site:

1. Fast downloads are key. People will wait 8 to 10 seconds for a Web page to download to their screen. Every second over that you're likely to lose customers or prospective customers.

For E-commerce sites, slow pages translate directly into lost sales. There's a tendency to think that high-speed office connections and broadband connections in the home might alleviate this issue. Not yet.

According to Media Audit, 46 percent of San Diego's 1.1 million online said they access the Web from home as well as work. One in four users said they access only from home.

While broadband connections like high-speed cable modem services from Cox@Home and Time Warner RoadRunner are penetrating the home market, the vast majority of home access is over slower dial-up connections.

2. Make information easy to get, quick to read. Communicating your message quickly on screen is as important as downloading your pages quickly to the screen. Ask your Web hosting company to provide information about the average time spent on your site by visitors.

- Web Site Visits

May Be Brief

Time spent on many Web sites is measured in minutes and, frequently, just seconds. A local real estate company was stunned to discover the average visit to their site was about 15 seconds. Visitors weren't finding interesting information on the home page, so they were clicking off as quickly as they clicked on.

Getting users deeper into your site means you have more time to capture their attention and get them to interact with you. Would you rather have five minutes or 15 seconds to market your message?

3. Make the site useful. Remember, 48 percent of users told Jupiter Communications they use the Internet for utility. The Web's strength is interactivity, and that should be leveraged on your site. Let your site visitors , customers or potential customers , engage in activity designed to save them time, give them information or just make their life easier. Examples of these activities include: get a price quote, order a product, ask a question, participate in a survey, join a free E-mail newsletter.

4. Close the loop. Give site users an easy way to tell you they have walked into your "virtual" lobby. It's exciting to see your Web site traffic grow, but that is just the first step.

Unless a person's visit leads to interaction with you, it is equivalent to someone poking their head in your front door then leaving. Just as when someone walks to your front desk or calls your business, you want to know who they are, what their needs are, how you can help and how you can provide them more information.

- Close The Loop

With Web Visitors

There are several ways to close the loop with visitors to your site. The standard "Contact Us" page should be effectively designed to step customers through qualification questions.

Avoid using as your contact form a blank E-mail box that doesn't give your visitor a clue as to what information you need from them. A well planned online response form will provide your business with useful information about the prospect's needs so you can get back to the user quickly with the information they need.

Also, keep the "Contact Us" link easily visible on every page of your site. Web users make quick decisions on where to click. You risk losing interaction with your visitors if they have to hunt for the link to contact you.

Also, ensure that you have a person designated to reply quickly to inquiries coming from your Web site. A travel agency re-focused its Web marketing after an on-line promotion campaign on SanDiegoInsider.com sent more than 600 inquiries to the agency's Web site in a month's time.

Unfortunately, the site didn't have an effective follow-up procedure in place for Web inquiries. The result: The agency failed to effectively capture and follow up on the inquiries.

- Give Visitors A

Positive Experience

Providing visitors to your site with a positive experience helps win you repeat visits as well as valuable word-of-mouth promotion from satisfied users.

5. Promote your site where the users already are. E-mail and search are the Web's two most popular functions. The popularity of Web search reflects a basic fact of Internet marketing , most people find Web sites when they are online and using other Web sites.

In the Internet world online marketing is viewed as the best method for driving actual usage to Web sites, while off-line marketing, such as TV, radio, and print, plays the role of building brand awareness.

Forster is general manager of Cox Interactive Media.