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Survey: Consumer Packaged Goods Firms Erring in Web Marketing

In designing Web sites that provide branded "experiences" for consumers, packaged goods manufacturers might be missing the boat entirely -- according to a new study by an industry research group.

In a new survey conducted by Harris Interactive and PERT Survey Research, findings indicate that Web sites created by consumer packaged goods companies -- and by the interactive agencies that service them -- often over-deliver with features that consumers care little about.

As a result, the researchers say that CPG companies are over-spending to provide unnecessary services.

To the battered interactive advertising industry, the news is less than welcome. As the industry is struggling to convince offline clients to increase their Web marketing spending, assertions that Web design shops are misguided in their offerings is not only a blow to the industry's reputation; it's also a strike at the very heart of shops like Razorfish, Organic and iXL -- the latter of which uses its own Web site to tout expertise in "creating and executing plans that help our clients deliver compelling customer experiences."

Indeed, interactive shops' work for CPG manufacturers has largely been predicated on the belief that a client or product Web site needs to create an online consumers "experience" -- to convey brand messaging and drive offline sales.

OgilvyInteractive, for instance, has launched efforts such as the "Pond's Squad" Web site for Unilever's Chesebrough-Pond's USA, which features Flash movies about a squad of crime- and acne-fighting heroines.

Similarly, Procter & Gamble has signed deals to create Web sites in conjunction with Women.com, Yahoo! Fusion Marketing and Excite U.K. And the Women.com-hosted "Generations and Innovations" site, Clorox promotes its brands by encouraging women to swap cleaning ideas in message boards and to enjoy content chronicling the history of women in the U.S.

At least, that's the idea. But according to the survey, which talked to some 7,900 consumers and 75 CPG manufacturers and retail executives, about 40 percent of manufacturers' Web sites offer games, activities and lifestyle information -- while only 12 percent percent of online consumers say they want games and activities, and only 27 percent are interested in lifestyle content.

At the same time, the study suggests that CPG companies are not meeting consumers' desire for promotional offers from their Web sites. About 50 percent of the consumers Harris surveyed said they want free samples, coupons or special offers from the brand sites they visit. However, only around 20 percent of manufacturers offer them.

"There has been a lot of hype about the need for companies to build a 'community' on their Web sites," said Brian Murphy, a partner at e.Ventures, a partner in the study and the online market research unit of Chicago-based retail technology company Information Resources.

"Our research shows that consumers don't rely on brand Web sites for community," Murphy said. "There are more trusted and complete sources for this on the Web. Manufacturers should focus on the basics: provide product information, facilitate consumer contact, and collect feedback on product satisfaction and consumer needs."

Customer acquisition isn't the only area that CPG manufacturers are flubbing online. According to the study, the companies are missing opportunities to obtain market research and customer feedback through their sites. Seventy-four percent of consumers surveyed said they would be willing to provide product satisfaction feedback at a Web site, and 50 percent said they would agreeable to answering questions about their product needs and preferences. Yet only 38 percent and 31 percent of manufacturers, respectively, are asking for such information, according to the survey.

If CPG manufacturers are misunderstanding what consumers want online, wherein lies the fault? One place could be with the manufacturers themselves: the survey showed that while almost three quarters of manufacturers have brand Web sites, less than a third of these companies are attempting to calculate the return on their investments.

"To date, manufacturers have been doing a lot of experimentation with brand Web sites. As brand sites increasingly become part of their marketing mix, manufacturers need to better ensure that they maximize the return on their online investment," Murphy said. "They could ... be much more efficient with their spending."