• July 1, 2007
  • By Colin Beasty, (former) Associate Editor, CRM Magazine

Endless Possibilities

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What HDTV brought to television, broadband has brought to the Internet for Web designers. Long constraining users with modem and telephone lines to communicate, the days of dial-up are doomed to end as broadband continues to penetrate. Companies are beginning to exploit the irresistibly rich audio, video, animation, and user-interface capabilities of contemporary personal computing to provide today's e-savvy consumers with the same look and feel of brands they know and love. "With broadband, it totally changes the dynamic of what's possible on the Web," says Graeme Grant, vice president of sales and operations at retail software solution provider Allurent. "When the Internet was born in the mid-'90s, people realized we had a good thing going, but boy, there was room for improvement," he says, referring to Web sites' elemental functionality. Mass broadband adoption has changed the game: Penetration rates, which are estimated at between 80 and 90 percent for households and close to 100 percent at companies, according to Gartner and Forrester Research, have reached the tipping point. But business, beware--while companies don't have to compromise the quality of their Web sites just to save a few moments of load time, when and how to optimize sites shouldn't be taken for granted. Well-defined, business-oriented goals will out. Video, Adobe, and AJAX, Oh My! Until recently companies had developed sites to work on the (s)lowest common dominator: dial-up. As a result, sites have been primarily HTML-based and their content inert, comprising mostly text and static images. "Web sites were designed to be textually based," says Con O'Connell, CTO of enterprise content management vendor Vignette. Broadband access is converting sites without audio and video content into laggards; at the same time, higher screen resolutions have already made HTML pages formatted for 800 x 600 appear to float in a world of wasted real estate. "Graphics were an afterthought," O'Connell says, "and were set up so that even a textual browser could go through it, ignore the graphics, and still display information. The goal was to provide the viewer with the nuts and bolts information, even at the sacrifice of graphical elements." However, if broadband has been the vehicle by which companies are redesigning their Web sites, then video is clearly in the driver's seat, put there largely by the e-savvy masses. When social networking site Facebook made its photo-sharing feature available, users quickly began uploading at a rate of 1.5 million images a day, making it the largest photo-sharing site on the Web practically overnight. When YouTube made video sharing easy, its usage shot to 70,000 uploads and 100 million views daily. As a result, one of the most powerful mediums invented is now in consumers' hands, and they create and distribute content--much of it commentary, essentially, on the world's leading brands. Just ask Diet Coke: Its marketing team learned up close how a group of teenagers could influence the message around a beverage using YouTube and Mentos. This Internet phenomenon became so popular that it now has its own entry on Wikipedia. Backyard science experiments aside, e-commerce sites have followed suit, and have realized the value that video can bring to a brand. Video and streaming media has become the de facto standard by which broadband-savvy Web sites are now measured. "Video is perhaps the hottest feature to come out of broadband adoption," says Amy Shenkan, a senior expert of online/multichannel marketing and sales at McKinsey & Company. "Motion and sound is an enormously compelling proposition--versus seeing a static picture--because companies are extending their brands, they're bringing the look, feel, and experience of shopping in the store online." One example is Nike.com, a site long known for its rich, media-intensive offerings. "Nike.com is a perfect example of a company that's not selling their products, they're selling their brand," says Harley Manning, a vice president and research director at Forrester Research. "How does Nike make money? It sells sports and exercise apparel, but its Web site uses streaming media and Adobe Flash to sell it, to get people to want to get off their butts and become physically active." Nike takes broadband a step farther with its Nike Plus products and services, allowing those who exercise to track their workouts online and to download iTunes workout music, which Manning cites as a perfect example of the new AJAX and Adobe Flash features that enable viewers to interact with a Web site as never before. "Now you have the opportunity to put an interactive feature on somebody's desktop that allows them to do calculations and visual exploration." The automotive industry is yet another example. Today, car buyers can picture cars using interactive tools that allow them to pan, change camera angles, zoom, sit inside the car, customize an automobile, and receive a quote without leaving the confines of their own home. Video is being used for product demos and commercials, and now how-to videos. Home Depot offers a range of how-to videos on its Web site to compliment its wide range of home improvement and hardware products. "With broadband, smart companies are finding ways to offer complimentary services to solve real-world problems that wouldn't otherwise be practical in the store or over the phone. What better way to delight your customers than to provide them with a video on how to install the new faucet you just bought for your sink," Manning says. "It's providing just another reason for customers to come back to your site, and that's a good thing." Peace in the Valley
These newfound capabilities are also leading companies to take a community-oriented approach to their Web sites, allowing customers to post reviews, blogs, and, in HGTV.com's case, pictures. The online counterpart of the Home and Garden Channel recently launched a user-generated tool called Rate My Space, where viewers can upload images and other supporting content to show off their newly remodeled or designed rooms, allowing other viewers to provide commentary and suggestions. It's a feature that wouldn't have been possible with dial-up, says Jerilyn Bliss, speaking for HGTV.com. "The time it would have taken our viewers to upload pictures using dial-up would discourage the most diehard fans from using it." Since it's inception more than a year ago HGTV.com has seen on average 800 new users per day, each seeking comments, opinions, and ratings from peers, and has seen online traffic rocket to more than1.5 million page views. "We're using cutting-edge technology to enable good old-fashioned conversations and connections, thus benefiting both the users and the brand," Bliss says. Despite the potential dangers associated with providing customers the leeway to post comments or product reviews on company Web sites, the reward outweighs the risk, Shenkan says. "Could you end up with some negative feedback? Yes, but it's an opportunity to extend your store's brand and feel online. By allowing consumers to post compelling reviews and pictures online, you're nurturing a community environment and making it easier for consumers to understand your products and services, and that's going to drive higher conversion rates." These same trends have also led to personalization, as companies have realized a Web site's ability to drive sales and improve brand awareness is only as good as its capacity to deliver targeted content. Examples are Yahoo! and Google, which sort and display search functions and content in order of most commonly accessed information, such as finance, sports, or world news. Now e-commerce sites allow consumers to personalize and control the content of the company's Web site via video and Flash-based features in an effort to drive sales and develop qualified leads. Marc Singer, a director at McKinsey & Company's global marketing and sales practice, says: "It's leveraging what you already know about the customer from previous visits. It's a richer way of delivering content, and allows a company to leverage product and brand strength while delivering that to the consumer's fingertips." Bookmark Worthy Developers should remember to keep the site simple to navigate, using flashy elements and streaming media only when the product or page calls for it. "You want to woo the customer, but keep it simple at the same time," says Stan Dolberg, CMO of on-demand e-commerce software provider n2N Commerce. "Simply bombarding your customers with tons of AJAX and [Adobe] Flash-enabled features will only drown them. Like any new technology, Web developers are going through a learning curve, which is why it's so important there is a business case supporting the redesign of a Web site." The best way to accomplish this and give your audience a simple standards-compliant and option-rich surfing experience is to separate your content from its presentation, by storing your text information in a database. A lot of mainstream sites have seen the value in this way of thinking, as it enables developers to give individuals the choice of viewing a text-only version along with their showy media-rich Flash version. User control is equally important when it comes to fast upload times, because although broadband is the new standard in Internet plumbing, bandwidth represents the width and capacity of the pipe. "The reality is, bandwidth is going to vary," Manning says. "If everybody is downloading from the same site at once, things are going to get clogged up. By putting the streaming media under the users' control, they can choose to view it or back out if they simply need the nuts-and-bolts information. There's nothing more annoying than clicking on a Web site and then waiting for a video that ends up playing jerky." Manning points to Web-analytics solutions and new sensing technology to track consumer behavior and to detect what sort of online environment the viewer is operating in. "By leveraging your Web-analytics solution, or simply looking at your server log, you can get a great sense of what bandwidth customers are using to optimize the Web site accordingly." It also lets companies determine what time periods will constitute the heaviest periods of site traffic and where customers are going. "If you're selling products that use lots of visual elements and you're not converting high page counts into hard sales, you're probably not giving the consumer a good enough sense of your product and/or services." "We're just at the beginning," Allurent's Grant says. "With time, the content is going to get richer, the interactions smoother, and Web sites cooler. For decades, companies have spent millions of dollars trying to optimize the design and layout of their brick-and-mortar establishments. Now they're doing the same for Web sites, and broadband is to thank." Contact Assistant Editor Colin Beasty at cbeasty@destinationCRM.com. Metrics for Site Redesign A company's Web site follows a natural life span, which sometimes requires it to make site updates, refinements, and advances as broader technology trends develop. The passage of time alone, however, doesn't always warrant a renovation. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," says Alan Webber, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. Webber cites as an example Google.com, which has remained relatively unaltered since 2000, yet has managed to grow revenues from $439 million in 2002 to more than $10 billion in 2006. To help make the decision about whether or not to pull the trigger, a company should establish a baseline for how well the site supports its business goals and conduct regular reviews of site business performance trends. Following are six indicators that site owners should watch for. 1. Falling Business Metrics Metrics to watch include number of visitors, homepage abandonment rates, and for e-commerce sites that sell or generate leads, conversion rates and average order size. If KPIs like these drop while comparable KPIs in other channels like brick and mortar and contact centers increase, it likely means there are fundamental problems with the site, Webber says. Web analytics can go a long way here. 2. A New Brand As a rule of thumb, new branding means a new Web site, as new broadband-enabled features has meant companies are bringing the persona and shopping experience of their brick-and-mortar establishments online. Therefore, when a company rebrands itself--or a particular product or service--site content, functionality, language, layout, and imagery must change to reflect support for the new bran d attributes. 3. Product Growth The launch of a new product, service, or line of business can alter a customer's perception about the company. Depending on the extremeness of such a change, a company will have to decide if such an addition to the organization warrants a site update or overhaul. 4. M&A A merger or acquisition brings change and usually leads to an overhaul of one, if not, both Web sites. When Oracle acquired Siebel in January 2005, both enterprises had huge sites that sold and serviced multiple, and often competing, product lines. Offering a coherent view of the combined companies took months, and meant revising Oracle's information architecture to include thousands of new pages. The key to remember is when an acquired company has the superior site design, overhauling the parent company's site becomes a win-win opportunity. 5. An IT Upgrade When underlying technology changes, site owners will need to modify Web-site designs accordingly to accommodate new software or page coding. "This unwelcome extra work can be a blessing because it creates an opportunity to improve the customer experience," Webber says. For example, when pages must get recoded to support a switch from static HTML to CSS, there's no reason to slavishly reconstruct page layouts designed five years ago. 6. It's Old Web sites can break down like any piece of technology. In particular, sites subject to accretion and erosion can have their navigation systems worn out. As contributors add content and links, menus can become overly long and confusing. New categories of content unanticipated during the original design may not fit the architecture. New content gets jammed and cross-links from other pages lead to nowhere. "The result is a confusing blend of competing menu structures and shortcuts that begs to be overhauled into a coherent structure," Webber says. --C.B.
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