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For Web sites that work, design them to be a part of your total communications strategy
It's almost magical, like an out-of-body experience. You command your avatar to the four corners of the globe to bring back fantastic, never-before-dreamed-of images; the answers to your most persistent questions; greetings from far-flung correspondents.
You shop online, invest online, fall in love online. And, with growing intensity every day, you do business online. You've no doubt heard the current numbers: some 30 million Americans online, with 1000 new domain names registered each week. It's gotten to the point where people expect you to have an e-mail address, if not a full-on Web site.
In truth, almost all businesses, down to your local pizzeria, will benefit in some degree from a well-structured Web site. For many, if not most, a company Web site functions like a yellow pages ad, but a yellow pages ad on steroids, with the potential for complex animation, music, voice, even video -- not to mention an ideal source of information.
Recently, a friend of mine wanted to make reservations for his anniversary at a swanky hotel downtown. Although his first impulse was to pick up the phone, he decided instead to type the hotel name into an online search engine. Sure enough, it quickly pulled up a site, and in a few moments he was browsing through what amounted to an elaborate electronic brochure. It was bursting at the seams with information, and all of it completely up-to-date, including a list of today's dinner specials in the restaurant, the groups scheduled to use meeting rooms, and current room rates and availability. There was even an e-mail form to make a reservation online, which he did.
From a marketing point of view, it was a beautiful transaction -- in a few minutes, his interest was aroused and satisfied and a sale was made without any human intervention whatsoever. Sheer poetry. If it always worked like that, there wouldn't be so many companies disappointed in their Web experience.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always work like that.
The success the hotel had in this example hinged on a number of different factors. First was my friend's ability to quickly find the hotel's Web site. As you may know, there are today quite a variety of search engines on the Internet, from Alta Vista to Dogpile to Yahoo. To be found by someone looking for your company (or a company like yours), you first need to register your site with these services. This is something you can do yourself, if you have the time, patience and knowledge, or have done by a number of available services.
The second aspect of the hotel's success revolved around the Web site itself. In this case, the site was attractive and well-organized, with clear paths to the information my friend wanted. Pages loaded quickly because the images were not so large or dense as to slow down the process, and the quality of writing and design left the viewer with a positive impression.
If you've spent very much time browsing the Internet, you will have noticed this is not always the case. Many sites are boring or amateurish, if not downright homely. Some, thinking to be clever, actually hinder the visitor's search for information, and far too many show a lack of quality control when it comes to details like typographical errors. With the huge numbers of competitors online today, you can bet visitors will quickly pass you by unless your site is designed to capture and hold their interest.
The final aspect which made this site work well in this transaction was its strategic positioning. The Web site is just one of a number of different promotional vehicles this hotel uses, including traditional print, broadcast and direct mail, as well as (I am certain) public relations. All of these vehicles position the hotel based on its luxurious appointments, historical importance and central location. All of them, including the Web site, work together to present a consistent, high-quality image to the public -- one which will justify their outrageous rates. Clearly this model of a Web site -- as an electronic brochure -- is not the only model companies use for doing business on the Internet use.
Companies selling merchandise directly on the 'Net as well as those with a large number of SKUs, changing information and a big need to keep it all current, tend to use their site as more of an electronic catalog. But this catalog has the advantage of being totally current, available 24 hours a day, and with special abilities like showing a video demonstration of the product on-screen. It also allows a customer to immediately satisfy a desire and order something interactively.
Other sites are designed to actively attract viewers by offering some kind of specialized information and, once they are there, to expose them to paid advertisements placed there by sponsors.
If you have a Web site ask yourself if it is satisfying the strategic communications goals you have set for your company. For most of us, a Web site is just one more possible communications vehicle we can use to disseminate and shape the message to our target audience. To make your Internet site work hard and appropriately for you, let experts analyze the best way to integrate it into your existing marketing communications mix, provide professional design and copy, and create the strategic links which will increase exposure to your target audience.
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