Get Beyond “92%” Hype: What Happens Inside the Internet Black Box?


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Investing in an Internet strategy for your organization? Here’s an encouraging statistic:

“In the business decision-making process, 92% of people go online for information.”

The presenter who recently shared that fact didn’t need a clarion for emphasis—but it would have fit right in. Content providers have spun the hype, proclaiming “engaging content can turn clicks into sales!”

But a real mystery remains: how many times does the process fail? And when it fails, why does it fail? What questions do prospective buyers want answered? What happens inside the Internet black box? From initial query to purchase, what is the path that prospects expect? What path do they actually take? How do prospects use blogs, wikis, tweets, alerts, social networking websites, product reviews, emails, e-newsletters, websites, landing pages, capture pages, and white papers—and where do these fit in the buying process, and in what order? What must occur to ensure the buying process continues? Across disparate products, how are the processes similar—and how are they different?

Nobody has a precise answer. Nor does anyone know with certainty what derails a buying process. What are the risks? Is a single bad product review or a “page not found” message a deal killer? What about visual and textual clutter, misinformation, information overload, misdirected “click paths,” and unwanted and unproductive detours? Are there inviolate buying norms that apply to any market vertical? Outside of the Internet, how do other resources complement the buying process?

One organization, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), needed to know. CMS needed to understand not only what people buy, but how they buy a complex suite of healthcare services. How do consumers choose among multiple, detail-rich programs? Do their purchase processes differ if choosing for themselves versus a loved one? Are there distinguishable buying process differences between CMS’s three customer segments?

The key insight resulted from identifying the critical buying steps, the positive and negative elements of the buying process, and their impact on those steps. Len Rickman, a Maryland-based market researcher specializing in evaluation of consumer communications, provided CMS the answers. By combining focus group research with usability guidelines, Rickman gathered information about the current situation and goals for Medicare clients. Respondents evaluated Medicare information and communication tools based on experiences, perceptions, and preferences. Through this research, key unknowns could be uncovered, and inaccurate assumptions could be changed. For example, if information about a prescription medicine plan wasn’t available on a specific web page, what was the outcome? If an embedded link failed to work, what happened to the subsequent enrollment steps? If a customer perceived a process as too cumbersome or complicated, how did that impact selection of other Medicare services?

This study provided CMS a perspective of great strategic value: an outside-in view that revealed how their prospects engage their buying process, including how they use the Medicare website, its printed handbook, and other tools that Medicare doesn’t control. The information is helping CMS gain a view into pending decision processes among its three segments, and is guiding the organization’s strategy to develop appropriate content and processes, including messages, architecture, and navigation. Future research will help CMS and other organizations respond to changes in the intertwined forces of technology, social media, consumer preferences, the economy, and industry regulation.

Where would CMS be without paying attention to the outside-in buying process? Possibly just another organization with a content-rich site containing ineffective pathways that fail a prospect’s buying process. And when that happens, what are the financial consequences? What are the risks companies face by not knowing or understanding how prospects use the now highly-fragmented sources of information?

Other organizations can take the same steps as CMS for finding out. But getting the answers means not stopping at the boundary of the “92%” hype. There are more questions to be asked and answered about what happens inside the Internet black box.


  1. Thanks to John Todor for Tweeting this article “Study: Regular Mobile Phone Users Fail in Almost 2/3 of Web Tasks” According to Jakob Nielsen “unless websites are redesigned for the special circumstances of mobile use, the mobile Web will remain a mirage.”


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