We dreamt of a warm busy plaza and got a lonely billboard in Cyberspace - What went wrong with our company web site ?
A paper presented by Bruce Bickerstaff, Managing Director, Meet the People Pty Ltd, at a conference entitled "Marketing on the Internet and World Wide Web", held at the Gazebo Hotel, Sydney, 26-27 August 1996.
INTRODUCTIONThere are no doubt a few companies around today thinking dark thoughts about this wretched Internet thing. They paid this sharp-looking young guy a bundle of money to build a ‘you-beaut’ web site for them, and then the day it was finally launched the earth steadfastly refused to move for them. And ditto in the weeks which followed.
There are various reasons why companies might be disappointed with the outcome of their company web site. Some of these factors are under the control of the company which created and maintained the web site in question, while others are not. Today, in the short time available, I am going to identify and briefly discuss the nature of such factors.
It would be easy to explain away apparently disappointing results by dismissing the Internet as all hype, but the real situation is considerably more complex.
In commencing the post-mortem the first questions we might ask would be:
- Did establishing an Internet presence make good business sense for this company?
- Were the expectations held by the company realistic?, and
- Was success being measured using appropriate indicators?
Depending on the answers to these questions, we then move down to the next level of resolution. Here we need to look at the nature of the company in question and the industry in which it operates, and the nature of the Internet presence created for that company. In my coverage of this last topic I have sought to cover the main points without providing an exhaustive and overly technical treatment of the subject. Figure One below is an attempt to illustrate this process:
ON REALISTIC EXPECTATIONSIn some circles there seems to be an unstated view of "forget reality, here comes the Internet". This is characterised by the belief that the Internet is so big, new, unique, and generally sexy, that business decisions relating to it can justifiably be undertaken in a vacuum in which belief in the traditional decision-making process can and should be suspended. Forget old-fashioned concepts like common-sense, corporate strategy, cost-benefit analysis, market research, consideration of alternative options, etc ... I mean now we have a reach of 50 million potential customers, who needs to nitpick?
Clearly there can be no pleasing a company which has completely unrealistic expectations of what the benefits of an active Internet presence might be.
The bottom line on this aspect is to do adequate homework before committing your company to making its move into cyberspace. This should involve reading about the topic, talking to others who have taken this step, and attending fora such as this. Know what you are trying to achieve, and learn what is being achieved by other compenies with web sites. If you do not already have a site, you should them aim to prepare a detailed brief with which to approach web site developers. This will put you in a better position to select the best consultant for your needs, and subsequently help ensure that the subsequent web presence most closely meets your requirements
ON MEASURING SUCCESSThere are various potential measures of success, including the number of hits, the number of visitors, and the number of online transactions. Clearly the appropriate measure of success depends in part on the objective of the site, and this may not be entirely clear. In evaluating success, consideration should naturally also be given to the likely costs and effectiveness of traditional alternatives, eg. print advertising.
Hit rates (the number of files accesses within a site) is perhaps the most common measure of site performance, as indicated by the title of this paper. While many hits need not translate into any tangible business advantage, a very low hit rate may well be indicative of a problem requiring attention.
Sometimes a perceived lack of success can be the result of adopting an overly narrow focus and/or of using inappropriate criteria in measuring success. Avoid focussing solely on short-term revenue benefits, and consider cost-savings and other tangible and intangible benefits.
In terms of immediate gains for most businesses, the most obvious is the potential for savings in communications costs. The magnitude of this will depend on the nature and extent of communication associated with your business, and the location of the people you are communicating with.
Other potential benefits of having a quality Internet presence can include an expansion in communications ability including greater interactivity with clients, and increased corporate profile/image.
I would suggest that unless you are in one of a small number of business niches, your web site will not be justified purely on the basis of sales made via the Internet. While I believe this will change over time as the public becomes more familiar with the Internet as a medium for doing business, I don’t think the Internet will quickly displace established forms of sales and marketing.
And as one commentator noted recently, asking people how many sales their Internet presence got for them is quickly becoming as problematic as asking someone how many sales were obtained by their fax machine. The Internet is first and foremost a business facilitator which can support many aspects of your business. It is already much more than just a collection of floating billboards and sales booths.
FACTORS RELATED TO THE NATURE OF YOUR BUSINESSThe first area to consider in determining whether to establish an Internet presence, or in reviewing the success of an existing site, is the nature of the particular business you are in. There are two aspects to this, one relating to relatively unchangeable features of your industry and one being more related to the individual style of business operation. Note however that there is some overlap between these two areas.
The nature of the business you are in
Some of the key industry variables within the context of this paper include:
- the nature of the good or service offered or sold
- the nature of your existing and potential clients, and
- the geographical range of your market
This mainly concerns those things which you cannot readily change, for example a butcher selling to local families cannot readily transform himself to a merchant bank with offshore interests. Currently it would seem that certain sectors of business enjoy greater success through their Internet experiences than others, for example, adult services, financial services, and travel. It must be noted however that this is firstly a generalisation, and secondly a trend which may well change over time.
The way you manage your business
This mainly concerns the style of business operation, which may well be open to modification.
Some of the main variables here include:
- the extent to which you use information in your business, including whether information flows are one way or two-way.
- the manner in which you approached your Internet involvement (eg. how systematically/strategically), and
- how well you integrate your Internet activities with existing business activities
The problem I mentioned earlier, of measuring the success of an Internet presence in overly narrow terms and obtaining a disappointing outcome, can be self-perpetuating. If the objective for having an Internet presence is very specific (eg. to boost direct sales) then the company is unlikely to be taking full advantage of their initiative and extracting full value from it.
One doesn't have to be Einstein to see that business' which undertake their Internet activities outside the context of their business or corporate plan, and in isolation from their other functions, are less likely to enjoy success.
Furthermore, the Internet is not the panacea for ineffective marketing, directionless leadership, or similar business weaknesses. While the Internet is not a miracle-worker, it is also more than just a different flavour of what has gone before. Its particular characteristics need to be recognised and allowed for, rather than treating it as just another form of traditional media marketing.
FACTORS RELATED TO THE NATURE OF THE INTERNETThere are a further range of factors which may have a bearing on the viability of a particular company’s web site. This aspect is not shown on Figure One as these factors are all largely beyond your control, but you still need to be aware of them. Like many other features of the Internet, these factors are also evolving, and doing so in a positive manner:
These factors include:
- The numbers of people using the Internet and their characteristics (eg. demographics, preferences, etc)
- The mindset of the Internet using public towards the use of the Internet for commercial activity
- The lack of quality control and censorship of content of the Internet (in terms of content provided by others in some way reflecting on you or affecting consumer confidence in the medium)
- Legal aspects like international laws relating to copyright, consumer protection, and trade; Credit card security issues
- The limitations of the telephone system on which the Internet currently relies
- The variation in hardware and software in use by people accessing your site
These factors will affect some businesses more than others, and while most companies will roll with the punches, they may pose considerable obstacles in some situations.
FACTORS RELATED TO YOUR WEB SITE
Some general pointers
Successful web sites have certain common features which are both technical and non-technical in nature.
In terms of the nature of the site, it is important for businesses to consider what features their existing and potential clients would look for in a web site. To some extent it is likewise worthwhile to consider what the general Internet population is also seeking from their surfing activities. A poor web page/site will, if it is ever found, be quickly surfed over and never re-visited.
Most good web sites:
- Are aesthetically pleasing but without excessive use of graphics
Too many graphics can overwhelm information content and cause slow loading. Don’t make pages too big (or too small). A reliable fast server should be used where possible (eg. ask about bandwidth). For slightly more sophisticated sites, a good option is to provide a text-only or low-graphics version could be provided as an option.
This problem (and that noted in the point below) is remedied in the new generation of dynamic sites which basically reinvent themselves based on the characteristics of the site visitor. An example of this is the Australian Tourist Commission site. For the time being however this approach remains beyond the budget of most smaller businesses.
- Function well on a variety of platforms, browser types, screen sizes, etc
This is a balancing act for web developers. The tendency is to go for state of the art but this can have drawbacks other than initial expense. The problem with using more sophisticated formats is that not everyone can utilise them given the software and hardware in use, etc. Alternatively the site may have a very different appearance when accessed by different users - yet another factor differentiating the web from print media. As with the graphics issue, concessions should be made where possible to accommodate people with older browsers, etc.
- Are easy to navigate
The site should have a structure which is logical/intuitive and which makes it easy (and perhaps even fun) to use. Get as many people as possible to "road-test" your site before it is launched.
- Are readily accessible
The site must be easily found. It is entirely possible that you could pay some several thousand dollars to put your company "on" the Internet, and be all but invisible to potential clients. Given that there is no single Internet "white-pages", it is incumbent upon the person setting up the site (or page) to ensure that it is listed in relevant "search engines", has reciprocal links in places to other relevant sites & directories, and is duly announced in appropriate newsgroups and "what's new" fora. This also requires that some ongoing work take place, eg. to ensure links remain valid, that there are periodic items re-posted in relevant newsgroups, eg. announcing new features.
- Have interesting and useful content
People don’t pay for internet access, and volunteer their surfing time, to access empty-headed sales spiel. If they are annoyed by junk mail in their letterbox, why would they want to pay for the same type of stuff via Internet?? Additionally bear in mind the current levels of education of most internet users. They want useful, accurate information and entertainment. Boring and poorly written material does not suddenly become rivetting just because it is being read on a computer screen 10, 000 kms away.
Content should include a range of links to other relevant sites. This makes the site an integral part of the web and helps with "value-adding" from the perspective of the Internet population. The links must however be kept current - dead links are a big no-no.
Don’t launch the site before the content is largely complete. One of the biggest turn-offs is arriving at a site full of “under construction” icons.
- Are frequently enhanced and updated
Content should be fresh. The information must be regularly updated and enhanced (not just left to gather dust). Old pages tend to stand out and are a real turn-off. This is an area where many companies seem to fall down because:
- they do not have the skills to maintain the site in-house and do not see the value in paying for maintenance by an external consultant, and/or
- they are accustomed to the set-and-forget nature of a traditional print advertisement or publication
- Feature a human touch
Most web surfers appreciate a human touch to web sites. They want to see individuality and style. Just because it’s a technical medium, doesn’t mean people want or expect a sterile experience.
- Contain elements of interactivity
Most site visitors seek inter-activity, a two-way relationship where they are encouraged to contribute and where such contributions are facilitated.
- Observe conventions of Netiquette
If you don’t know about 'netiquette' yet you owe it to the Internet population to find out before taking your first steps into cyberspace.
Non-technical features of your web site
Factor Symptom Possible Remedial Action Content of site is boring Short site visits
Few return visits
Redesign site to make it more interesting:-
- Give it a human touch
- Make it interactive
- Change/improve writing style
- Provide general-interest and value-adding content
Text from existing printed material is often not suitable and requires modification
Keep material fresh and up-to-date
Site is unattractive As above Obviously aesthetics is an important consideration. This includes page layout, font sizes, background colour, use of graphics, etc Site is difficult to find Reported difficulties
Not listed in directories, etc
Undertake systematic online promotion, both upfront and on an ongoing basis.
Install a links page, and seek out appropriate sites with which to exchange reciprocal links.
Consider paid advertising in high traffic sites.
Nominate key words for each page.
Users can't read English very well/at all Short site visits
Few return visits
Provide partial or full translations in relevant languages
Technical features of your web site
Factor Symptom Possible Remedial Action Poor web site/page design
(A good logical design is essential to present your material properly and for ease of use by visitors)
User irritation leading to:
Short site visits
Few return visits
Redesign site to make it more intuitive: -
- Better use of buttons, menu bars
- Have a logical categorisation of information including the establishment of an orderly hierarchy
- Provide forms where appropriate
Watch people use it and note sources of difficulty or annoyance!
Site is slow to use User irritation and boredom leading to:
Short site visits
Few return visits
Switch or upgrade server
Redesign site to ensure faster page loading though such things as smaller graphics, less graphics, offering text only page option, etc.
Site is difficult to use due to technical errors User complaints Check thoroughly on initial installation on server, and then on a regular basis
Act promptly on reported errors
Site is difficult to access As above Upgrade or switch to a more reliable server
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A WEB PAGE AND A PRINT ADVERTISEMENTMany businesses think of establishing a web page in the same light as placing a print advertisement. This is because the latter is a medium in which all are very familiar. An example of this was when a business manager asked me how many web pages I thought it was worth creating - they already had small pages in various different sites, just as you would place multiple print advertisements to guarantee greater exposure. This is rather misguided thinking as one well-created, well-managed and well-promoted web page, will certainly be more effective than several scattered (and probably static) items of information.
For this reason I will devote a little time to exploring a few of the differences between these two marketing tools.
Print ad Web page one-off expense most expense up-front, but is ongoing one-off effort most effort up-front, but is ongoing once released is beyond your control, eg. can't be updated information remains under your control (unless copied) and so (for eg.) updating and enhancement are possible people come to see magazine, the ad is incidental people come to see the page itself appears the same on all mediums appearance and functionality different for different people limited shelf-life eternal, although updating essential limited circulation potentially huge circulation designed primarily to boost sales, with secondary aim perhaps of boosting corporate image potentially may serve a wider range of functions client response relatively awkward client response quick and easy and can include actual purchase one way flow of information potentially two way flow of information
Despite my earlier comments concerning the current paucity of direct sales via Internet it remains my view that, for most businesses at least, establishing an Internet presence and email facility is a worthwhile exercise. Depending on the nature of the business however this might justify action sooner rather than later, and justify greater commitment from some than others. Internet connectivity will soon become an accepted part of doing business, just as other tools like fax machines quickly became a commonplace part of the business landscape.
It can be seen that while having a good web page is a pre-requisite for success, this alone will not guarantee that success for a business’ venture into cyberspace.
Too many businesses seem to look at the development and management of their web presence in the same light as they would for a one-off print advertisement, a marketing tool most businesses are very familiar with. Hopefully I have already demonstrated that the two are very different beasts.
While the Internet is different enough to demand special consideration, it is not so different as to defy logic or good business sense.
Too many businesses also seem to make their move into cyberspace with very hazy objectives, and with little integration of this activity into other areas of their business.
I have tried to also emphasise that one particular factor differentiating the Internet from print media, is the need to commit yourself to ongoing maintenance of your web presence. You could use the analogy of creating a print ad as being like buying a plastic flower, whereas establishing a web site is more like planting a garden.
One significant aspect of ongoing site maintenance is that of monitoring patterns of site visitation.
Earlier I mentioned that overall hit rates can be a poor indicator of success, but patterns of visitation can be used as a guide with which to adjust the structure and content of your site to alter visitor behaviour in a way which encourages more productive site access. Programs now available can provide an amazing level of detail concerning site access, including such things as platforms and browsers used, key referring sites/pages, how long particular pages were read, and so on.
Web site managers should however be mindful of privacy concerns and avoid intruding through such things as junk email to site visitors. Personally I find this type of marketing objectionable and little spooky, and so have made a decision not to go down this path.
This highlights another of the great things about having an Internet presence, which is the ability to continually enhance your site - at relatively little expense - as you gain experience, obtain feedback, and benefit from the ever-improving tools which are becoming available. So while you still should get your site to the highest possible standard before launch, you have plenty of opportunity to make subsequent adjustments.
Meet the People Pty Ltd Copyright © 1996