Now that the heady rush to get onto the internet has abated, online and "bricks and mortar" companies are both realising that just having a website with e-commerce capabilities does not mean that web users will buy products or services online.
Many sites getting thousands of hits a day find that as few as 5 per cent of visitors will make a purchase. Given the expense of creating and maintaining a website, firms are growing more concerned about increasing the numbers of online buyers. Even the most successful online retailer, Amazon.com, is still a long way from turning a profit.
Mita Sujan, professor of marketing, and Harish Sujan, associate professor of marketing at Penn State University's Smeal College of Business Administration, have been studying strategies that could convince more people to part with their credit card numbers.
Using a simulated CD website, they found that having a "recommending agent", software that offers other similar titles, increases a site's rating with users. Agents that recommended nine CDs rather than three or six were preferred, and sites that offered more personalised tips were viewed more favourably, even if users already owned some of the recommended titles. Additional information such as audio clips also proved valuable.
Professor Sujan said that with the trend towards using the net for information and advice rather than talking to friends, these agents could become "tremendously important".
However, providing too much information about new CDs can backfire by implying that buyers are far removed from current tastes, the researchers found.
Part of the problem for retailers is that web users regard the net as a better place to browse than to purchase. The professors say that companies need to determine the main purpose of their website and ensure the design reflects this.
If selling is the objective, Mita Sujan said, the emphasis has to be on the products that people really buy.
Even for firms that cannot easily sell on the web, such as car manufacturers, a site should look more like a brochure and offer some incentive to get users to go to a dealer for a test drive, for example.
For an upmarket clothing outlet, the goal is to ensure that its site reflects the same image as its stores, with the focus on its appeal rather than prices.
"There are multiple goals that this medium can fulfil, and the closer you get to defining what your goal is the better the result will be," Mita Sujan said.
Their future research will examine how people use website agents and human salespeople to influence purchasing decisions.