Trading Places:

A case-study of research into the service development and branding of Sharepeople.com

George Davidson

The Research Business International

Project background

The Share.com (later to be re-branded Sharepeople) approached The Research Business International early in 1999, with a brief to get closer to the share-dealing market. Their intention was to launch an online and execution only share-dealing service and required research to tailor their proposition. The share-dealing market at that time, and now, is early in development and so required insight to understand motivations, barriers and frustrations of consumers.

The Share.com appeared to be an exciting and mysterious organisation. From the perspective of The Research Business International, it was driven by two individuals. The charismatic and visionary Peter Cowie and his colleague Per Elvebaek, Early meetings with Peter and Per were conducted as they moved between meetings with unnamed backers, design agencies and other organisations contributing to reaching the tight deadline of the launch date. It was clear to us that this client required a research agency that could respond quickly to a fast-moving and dynamic project.

There would later be a second stage of the project that would consider suitable brand positioning and marketing strategy, to enable it to stand out and survive in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Internet sharedealing activity has tripled in the summer of 1999 alone (APCIMS/ComPeer survey) and is expected to have tripled again in the following six months and much of this has been driven by both the arrival of new Internet Share-dealing services and traditional sharedealers offering their services on the Internet. It would be essential, therefore, that this brand differentiated itself from a wealth of competitors some of which are highly aggressive in their pricing strategies.

Research objectives

A phased programme was developed to tackle the initial objectives. The first part was to explore attitudes and assist in the development of the beta-site and the second part to explore reactions to the finished service.

Specifically, the research objectives were identified as:

  • To understand usage of and attitudes towards online share dealing services, among private investors, and its fit within their current investment behaviour
  • To explore how private investors currently use the services offered on the internet as part of their investment decision making behaviour, including issues concerning ease of use, barriers to use, confidence and trust, price sensitivity, and so on
  • To evaluate the beta version of the service, within its competitive framework
  • To explore key leverage points, brand positioning, and reactions to proposed marketing materials

What were our issues/challenges?

How to recruit this elusive audience

The target audience for this new product is on-line share-traders and prospective Internet traders who are familiar with the Net and feel they could or should be involved in share-trading. At the time of going to press, on-line dealers currently make up only 1% of all those trading equities. Previous experience at The Research Business International has revealed that these people are incredibly difficult to recruit using traditional methods due to the paucity of their numbers. So, once recruited, they should be used to full benefit.

The interactive nature of group discussions was thought to be particularly relevant for the product development and for brand positioning aspects of the project. However, depths were considered very good for looking at the behaviour of individuals, and collecting uncontaminated responses to new ideas.

A traditional recruitment method has relied on snowballing (potential respondents recommending other suitable people) and has not always been totally successful. It was agreed that it would be appropriate to use web-site banners inviting potential respondents to click on them which would generate a hyper-link to a filtering questionnaire.

E-cruitment

At this time TheShare.com were in separate negotiations with FT.com and as part of these larger negotiations with FT.com it was agreed that a banner could stay on the FT.com website until it had received 100,000 impressions. Notwithstanding these negotiations, the FT.com website would be a natural choice for this form of recruitment as it is a key location for personal and commercial financial information and a banner would receive high levels of exposure to exactly the kinds of respondents we were seeking.

A banner was designed to a brief to create an eye-catching and intriguing banner that would tempt traders or potential traders to volunteer information.

We needed to capture information about potential respondents:

  • Had they bought shares using an execution-only provider?
  • Had they ever traded on-line?
  • Basic contact details

It was also essential that potential respondents were not overwhelmed with questions that would discourage them from completing the questionnaire and dropping out. in other words, many of the traditional problems of market research exist but in a heightened manner. Moreover, as greater control is passed to the potential respondent, a greater responsibility lies with the Research Company in making the respondent feel informed and motivated about the research.

It should be noted that this banner was a moving animation and not static, so some of the appeal is lost on the printed page.

The objectives are clearly extensive, involving product evaluation and development, brand positioning, and communications evaluation and as a consequence the scope required longer than average interviews and group discussions.

How can we explore the competitive context?

Respondents will probably not be able to spontaneously comment on competitor websites and time could not be spent showing these sites during the group. For these reasons respondents were invited to visit a number of competitor sites (drawn from Charles Schwab, Stocktrade, Barclays Stockbrokers and Xest) and note their impressions. This was designed to heighten their awareness and sensitivity towards the issues surrounding the service as well as provide some useful insight into consumer response to competitor offers.

These would also provide a useful point of reference throughout the group and depth discussions.

How could we communicate service in workshops?

The plan was to access the beta web-site on-line, to allow respondents to browse, and carry out demo-trades. Although it would be possible to use the Internet browser software to read the beta-site from either the hard-drive or a CD-ROM, it was decided that on-line browsing would generate as near to the full experience as possible.

Whilst the beta-version of the site represented the key stimulus material. Other pieces of material were developed and used. These included a mock-up press cutting of a piece in the Financial Times announcing the launch of the service and some early adverts. These assisted in generating a sense of the process customers will go through when the service is fully launched and advertised.

Sample and methodology rationale

Although the clients original brief required a large sample it was agreed that the difficulty of sample recruitment, the logistics of the study and the cost of conducting a series of long depth interviews would place a large sample out of reach. The research objectives lent themselves to the deep exploration of qualitative research, and the law of diminishing returns would have set in above a certain point each additional interview would tell us only a little extra at significant additional cost.

So the following sample was agreed in principle:

  • 5 depth interviews with active internet dealers (defined as having traded at least 5 times in the previous year)
  • 4 workshop-style extended groups (2.5 hour groups) with execution-only traders realistic figures in this niche market.

However, both client and agency recognised the need to remain flexible in the mix of groups and depths and, depending on success in recruitment, be prepared to change the balance to ensure meeting the timescales of the project.

Initial plans to include share-traders who seek advice from their broker were dropped from the first phase as it was felt necessary to concentrate on those segments most likely to sign up to the service in its early stages. Likewise, it had been considered interviewing Investment Club members, dealing on their own accounts, in the hope that these might easily snowball new respondents. Unfortunately, data protection issues with ProShare and other Investment Club supporters made this too difficult. It is anticipated that Investment Clubs might still provide a useful avenue for recruitment and research but the pace of this project meant that other recruitment techniques had to be used.

Locations

We needed a location allowing multiple Internet access, while having enough room to show respondents marketing stimulus material. Internet cafes seemed like an obvious and convenient option. We could have used a viewing facility, furnished with extra equipment, but felt that a purpose built (at least for surfing if not researching) venue might be more effective.

As only one client would attend the groups this obviated the need for viewing facilities for a large number. So it was agreed that the client would sit in the group as an interested observer and, occasionally, a co-moderator. The client was there to present the detail of the website and answer any unanticipated questions but was not to sell any aspect of the service. This prevented the researcher from becoming an authority figure to the respondents and enabled the researchers to hold a neutral stance between client and respondent.

How was it for us?

E-cruitment

Recruitment was co-ordinated by our in-house telephone unit. They monitored click-through rates initially replied to responses with a short thank you e-mail. We received 79 responses of which 17 traded on-line and 44 were execution-only traders. This gave us a good base of potential respondents which to build our groups and depths.

Whilst telephone research usually requires around a 10:1 list to sample ratio, these 79 were quite clearly warmer than traditional lists as they had actively taken the time to fill in the screening questionnaire.

However, there had been difficulties with some of the sample:

  • many responses arrived only partially completed in some cases lacking contact details
  • responses came from all over the world at this time we did not realise it is possible to limit banner viewing to UK servers only

After discussions with TheShare.com, we redefined the sample, so that anyone who had traded online before would qualify as an active Internet dealer, rather than the stipulated five or more times per year.

The experience of using Internet cafés

The use of Internet cafés proved an extremely rewarding experience. Respondents appeared to relax and warm much more to their stimulating environment. The atmosphere of an Internet café with its banks of PCs and the choice of cappucinos and lattes does generate an atmosphere that is lacking in a traditional viewing facility. Perhaps because of their neutrality and familiarity, respondents arrived with a greater sense of comfort to the groups than is normally the case.

However, Internet cafes are not designed with discussion groups in mind, and they do lack some sense of privacy and space, even when private rooms are offered. The normal business of a café after its usual opening hours did cause a little disturbance around us. But it lacked the clinical environment found in many viewing facilities and research venues.

Stimulus material

Wary of potential technical difficulties of accessing the beta site on-line, we had prepared a back-up in the form of paper-based screenshots showing details of the site. We successfully accessed the beta site during one workshop but used the screenshots for all others. Respondents were taken through these screenshots by the moderator, who explained the mechanics of the site. Frequently these screenshots were highly intuitive and required little or no explanation as respondents understood the medium and were comfortable with screen-shots.

This low-tech approach may seem inappropriate for such cutting-edge technology, but it certainly proved to be a reliable and effective way of evaluating the design and layout of a site and might justifiably be used as research stimulus rather than as a back-up.

Second stage of research

Development of TheShare.com, the company and the site, was rather more lengthy than anticipated. As the company grew and matured the demands for research also evolved and ultimately changed. The proposed second stage of the research evaluation of the fully developed site by consumers was no longer relevant. User acceptance research was instead being conducted internally at TheShare.com, amongst professional traders, working alongside technicians. The site needed to be finalised and tested to ensure that every possible avenue/link/scenario was covered in the site, down to the smallest detail. Consumers do not have sufficient expertise to evaluate the technicalities of the system sufficiently.

The Research Business lnternational ads brief changed, Theshare.com now required advertising research.

This was to ensure that the marketing material effectively communicated TheShare.coms brand positioning: opening up the world of stocks and shares to everyone, making it fun, fascinating and profitable. This research took was to feed into a significant name change discussed below.

How the research was used

As part of the pre-placement exercise respondents were asked to visit competitor sites and jot down their initial thoughts. Learning from their comments and from the workshops several elements of TheShare.coms offering were changed to ensure that competitors mistakes and inadequacies were not repeated. The site was made as simple and user-friendly as possible. The aim being to remove as many potential barriers to trading as possible and to reflect their non-elitest and people focused positioning.

Many on-line trading companies have lengthy and laborious form filling registration processes, often taking as long as 1.25 hours. Depending on how you wanted to trade Sharepeople.com had planned to have as many as 18 forms to fill out before gaining access to the site. (They have forms for foreign users and ones for trade in unit trusts etc.) However, now they have amalgamated these forms to have one initial entry form. Subsequent forms can be filled in as and when required.

Most of the competitor on-line sites have high opening balance requirements, which must be present before trading is allowed, for example e-trade have a minimum of 1,000. This consequently gives the site an elitest feel as well as restricting the ability of consumers to test-drive different set-vices. Sharepeople.com wanted to appeal to as broad a base as possible decided to have no opening balance requirements, you only pay when you start to trade.

Respondents also commented on confusing and hidden pricing structures for trades. Sharepeople.com decided to have a fixed price for all trades (A37.50), regardless of the amount of shares being sold or bought. Again simplifying and demystifying the world of share dealing.

The research highlighted a definite desire for an element of hand holding to reassure traders as they experiment on-line. As a compliment to the website there will now be a telephone helpline service encouraging inexperienced traders, allowing questions to be voiced and answered and to boost the confidence of new users.

Understanding of the marketplace, allowed TheShare.com to evolve their positioning as a conviction brand. They recognised the market as immature without clearly defined brands. Many of the sites are still suffering from teething problems and are slow and hard to navigate. As a new brand entering this market, TheShare.com had the opportunity to take the high ground, and position themselves as a consumer champion.

Their aim is to be mould-breaking, to be a service-driven brand, rather than commodity-driven, as most in the market-place are. The brand encompasses people-focused values, including equality and involvement, simplicity and fairness. The ethos behind the company is about bringing share dealing within the grasp of the ordinary person and providing them with the tools to do it easily and simply bringing people and shares together. This brings us onto the issue of the name.

Re-naming

Broadly speaking the brand needed to be:

  • distinctive and differentiated
  • people-driven not commodity-driven
  • trustworthy through size and stature

At the moment the suffix .com contextualises a service to a particular channel (the Internet) and communicates certain characteristics about its brand. In time, almost all services will be available on-line and the .com will become redundant. Clearly, when TheShare.com becomes TheShare, it lacks any real meaning. Their new name: Sharepeople.com however, remains meaningful without its suffix.

This change is not enormous and neither can it be within the context of a fast-moving project a re-branding would have meant substantial changes to marketing material but the change of name seeks to communicate the brand more strongly.

Conclusions

Being an expert

The Internet and E-commerce is a fast-growing field and still in its infancy. Research walks hand-in-hand with it, sometimes a little ahead and sometimes being dragged along. It would be disingenuous under these circumstances to claim expertise in Internet research. However, the ability to learn and develop new research skills and techniques will be essential as well as transfer established techniques to this new environment.

Those companies that claim to be experts will be caught out by the sheer pace of change in this difficult market. Those who recognise we are on a steep and challenging learning curve and are flexible enough to work with their agencies and clients in a spirit of intelligent evolution may be successful.

Recruiting on the net

The Internet is potentially a great place for recruitment if handled carefully. By using banners and web-sites on that are relevant and appropriate to potential respondents can produce a sample that is actively interested in the area you wish to research.

However it is necessary to be selective and clever with who see it, how many times it is seen and the location of those who see it. When purchasing 100,000 impressions on a web-site it is clearly necessary that those 100,000 impressions are as tightly targeted to the geographical location as possible and are seen no more times than are necessary.

Judged against traditional models of recruitment 79 people responses from 100,000 impressions may seem disappointing. Perhaps there were even fewer on-line traders than anticipated or perhaps the banner was not enticing and even if it was, maybe a detailed questionnaire left people cold. Certainly when more Internet based services are up-and-running and client companies wish to research customers rather than prospects then recruitment would become easier.

Locations

An opportunity clearly exists to develop a hybrid viewing facility and Internet café where clients can view respondents accessing their web-site in decent numbers. Some sort of system that enables clients to view both the screen and the face of the user would be extremely beneficial. Whilst some webcams and software allow this, the technology is in early development and not yet strong enough to support the expectations of clients used to viewing facilities or researchers wanting to see real-time reactions.

Mutatis, mutandis

Whilst the development of Internet research will carry with it significant changes in the nature of qualitative research, this project and others similar to it remind us that it is important to stay close to the qualities of good market research. It is the ability to stay close to the customer and understand their personal motivations, wants and needs and not be blinded by the excitement, or fear, of the technology which will generate qualitative research of as high a standard as is being delivered in other markets.

Reference

APCIMS/ComPeer survey, June 1999