Hit parade

The low down on who's surfing what, where and when

Imagine launching a new product, blowing a huge budget on marketing and then not bothering to check which part of the campaign attracted the most customers. Chances are you wouldn't last long in the job.

The strange thing is many investor relations departments have been acting in a similar fashion over the last few years – and getting away with it, too. Measuring the effectiveness of investor relations has never been a strong part of IR programs. Problems over how to quantify IR results coupled with the desire to spend money on actually communicating with audiences have meant that measurement is often given a low priority.

Measuring the effectiveness of online investor relations is even lower down the scale. The last few years have been all about just ensuring that you've got something from the IR department up there and out there on the world wide web. The rush to be seen rather than be left behind has tended to dominate thinking. And the result is a rather enjoyable glut (from a journalistic viewpoint, you understand) of absolutely, disgustingly awful IR sites strutting their stuff for the world to see.

But it's all about to change. Or so we're told by those who hold the keys to techno-wizardry for the IR world. The rush is over; prudence, planning and forethought have arrived. Those of you onto your second or third version IR web sites will know all about this already as the by-now-unbelievable mistakes of your first attempts get phased out. Today a company wants to know which parts of its IR web site are attracting the most traffic, who is coming to their site, how effective it is at automating previously staff-intensive processes, and – the question of questions – is it worth all the money and effort?



Promise you a miracle

Some of it is easier said than done, of course. Mark Hill, MD of the London-based IR Group, says some agencies promise client companies a whole load of personal details on who has been looking at their sites – much of which is impossible to deliver. Sure, the web log will have details of who is hitting your site, what pages they visit and how long they spend there, but it may not be able to tell you their names, where they are from or whether they like butter or margarine on their toast.

Hill points out that much of the web log information is recorded in the form of an IP (internet protocol) address in the form of a number. Yes, in theory, you can trace these addresses back to their origin by running them through a software program (luckily, you are not expected to laboriously type them into your browser) but that origin may still not reveal who your surfers are or where they are based. Hill and others involved in the analysis of web surfers note that many IP addresses take you back to America Online – and those users could be dialing in from anywhere in the world.

That said, a decent report on web usage can help identify a number of trends that point those charged with developing a site's content in the right direction. 'The key is giving people a reasonably in-depth look at who is coming to their site and what they are looking at,' says Hill. 'They can then get justification for their investment in the site in the first place.' The IR Group's clients can go to an online web report that breaks the log down into areas such as hit rates, page impressions throughout the site, number of visitors, returning visitors, geographic location (insofar as it is possible to trace) and a whole lot more.

Most leading edge investor relations web site providers have decided to join in and are now offering their corporate clients some sort of similar service – whether in the form of a real-time, web accessible report or a regular e-mail with the vital statistics. Helen James, sales and marketing director at London-based web provider Investis, says that if you drill down into the web logs it is possible to extract other useful information such as whether your competitors are accessing the site – and at what times. Does traffic, for instance, coincide with a key announcement by your company? And what information are they particularly interested in?

You might also wish to try and measure, say, the number of French investors hitting your site after a series of roadshow presentations in France. Was the roadshow worth it? What areas of the site are they looking at?

But for James the best thing about providing clients with more detailed access to web site usage information is that it gives them the power to develop the site according to the wishes of those users. If there's a whole host of surfers spending a lot of time in a new frequently asked questions section, then you know it's worth your while developing that section further. After all, the chances are it also saves calls to the IR department.

The information also allows companies to answer a host of other questions too. How many people are signing up for e-mail alerts? Has it been worth investing the money in putting up live webcasts of the chairman's recent investor presentation? Should we consider extending the coverage or webcasting the whole annual meeting? 'The more you can migrate usage onto the web, the more freed up staff are to have face-to-face communication with key audiences,' says James from Investis.



Cookie monster

Beware, though, web surfers among you. The idea that you can hide behind an anonymous IP address when visiting a site could be a thing of the past. Cookies – nefarious little programs buried in a site that automatically collect and register information about visitors – are already commonplace on a lot of web sites. Many corporate sites have shied away from their use to date, fearing charges of infringement of privacy, but the mood is slowly changing and corporate acceptance could become more usual in the future. For the time being though, as Hill points out, 'the last thing our clients need at the moment is to be accused of secretly collecting information about people visiting their site.'

Rob Adler, president of Boston-based CCBN.com, agrees with those sentiments but suggests that trends in the technology industry may mean that cookies become more widely used by corporate sites in the near future. He says that privacy issues are being discussed by those driving the internet revolution and believes that policies on the appropriate use of cookies are not far off. 'They are going to become the thing that any web master will want.' He suggests the next big thing will be allowing companies to compare their hit rates and other statistics with their direct competitors. 'If I'm a bank I don't just want to see my web site traffic relative to the rest of the world, I want to see it relative to other banks.'

There's certainly little doubt of the trend toward more personalization of IR web sites although it remains to be seen whether companies opt for direct input by the user or the cookie approach. Whatever – it's going to make measuring the effectiveness of various aspects of your site a whole lot easier. Ron Gruner, president of Shareholder.com, says that the 'personalised' web site will be crucial in allowing companies to develop content that users want. He envisages surfers clicking onto an investor relations home page for the first time in a few months and being faced with a note welcoming them back to the site and telling them what's changed since their last visit. 'That allows the user to get a quick snapshot of change rather than having to click through the whole site,' he says. 'In order to register for such a service, users have to give some information and the company can then build a better log of who everyone is and what they want from the site.'

Although the technology for such personalization is already available, Gruner notes that many clients are not yet ready to take their sites to that new level. It is, of course, only a matter of time before everybody's doing it. If you thought you could keep your web surfing under wraps, you'd better think again.

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