Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Management, Operations and Marketing


Online shopping has achieved what is for many a surprisingly low share of overall retail spending in developed economies with figures from the USA census bureau and the Australian Productivity Commission reporting between 5-7% of all retail spending occurring online. While growing faster than offline spending, a major constraint seems to be the limitations of online information that result in considerable frustration for customers seeking to buy structurally and/or semantically complex high-involvement services. This is particularly relevant in the structurally and semantically complex purchase of international travel to an unfamiliar destination. Frustrations include: inability to find the information sought, discomfort with unknown information sources and vendors and unclear purchase processes. As a result of these information roadblocks, consumers opt for offline intermediaries (travel agents) to complete their purchase, compromising the effects of organisations’ online presence. This thesis proposes an alternative approach to maximizing online customer value, by serving information that is relevant to consumer needs in the way that a perceptive sales person assesses consumer needs by questioning and offering appropriate responses leading the customer to a purchase. Such an approach is seemingly unachievable and extends the capabilities of the algorithm based approaches used by best practice online vendors.

This thesis extends the ability to analyse consumer purchase process for complex hedonic products online, offering the ability to facilitate consumer online processes. Using socio-semiotic analysis of online consumer behaviour to determine its communicative meaning enables the development of models of activity that provide the basis of a system that responds in real time to evolving needs. Using consumer activity data in the course of their online interactions to predict their likely needs is a form of value co-creation that extends the ability of websites to add value for customers. Specifically, the ability to serve links to information content from the right source, in the right format at the right time will minimise the incidence of information roadblocks and/or information overload that may drive the consumer process offline.

In effect this enables a major advance in consumer process analysis which to this point has focussed on “stages” of a process which include multiple activities. The sociosemiotic analysis approach used in this thesis enables the definition of the consumer activities within each of these stages with the ability to respond based on the effects of, or individual reactions to, the information served at each step. This brings the internet closer to the ideal of responsiveness to individual needs in real time for complex interactions, similar to a good salesperson responding to the individual needs of a prospective customer.

To do this the data from 12 subjects who were invited to a useability lab to research travel to a new (to them) long haul travel destination. The researcher then recorded their on screen activity complemented by “thinking out loud” verbalisation. This delivers insights into the causes and effects of the activity they undertake so that understanding of the “meaning” of activity results. Their activity can then be classified in genres (based on Systemic Functional Analysis), and the identified genre elements form the basis of a directed graph that defines the consumer process and its associated information needs. The directed graph is then used as the basis for a computer programme that enables information appropriate to the individual’s defined need to be served in real time to website visitors.

This thesis offers theoretical, methodological substantive and disciplinary contributions to the literature as follows. Firstly, the introduction of Systemic Functional Analysis to Marketing which enables the analysis of interactions with consumers represents a potential breakthrough in consumer behaviour study. In particular modelling information needs associated with consumer purchase activities at the level of specific interactions delivers higher resolution definition of process. These models provide the basis for systemically serving information that addresses the information needs of an individual on a website in real time. Second, the development of a novel research framework for Systemic Functional Analysis of activity brings a new theory to marketing research. Third, the ability to serve information relating to an individual’s needs in real time will improve the utilisation of websites in consumer process enabling organisations to leverage the efficiencies of automated processes online. Further the ability to systemically define context has the potential to dramatically enhance the application of customer relationship management and improve the targeting of advertising. As a result higher levels of value and better customer experiences will be delivered online by a process of value co-creation.

FoR codes (2008)




Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.