Building "Webcentricity", by Christopher Kresser
It should be apparent by now that the key to establishing a strong presence on the Web, which is essential to a successful business model, is providing content. The old truth that "content is king" is perhaps more true in this on the Web than in any other mass media communications environment. However, as early entries into Web marketing discovered, it is not enough to simply translate traditional marketing materials into digital form and post them on a Web site. This may seem self-evident to many and is a topic which has been repeatedly discussed in both popular media and professional marketing and business publications. Yet, still today most companies with Web offerings either do not understand the importance of offering value-added, entertaining, and customized content or they lack the knowledge or resources to do it. If the content is not unique, interactive, and more compelling than content the consumer could attain through traditional media channels, there is no incentive to be on the Web at all. Fortunately for those who are committed to the Web as a commercial medium, it is only a matter of time until firms figure out how to best utilize its communications characteristics to provide original, multimedia rich content.
There are many important guidelines to follow when offering content. It must be unique, credible, interesting and entertaining, useful, and continuously updated in order to retain its appeal. In addition to these basic considerations, the two most important factors in designing attractive content are adding value and customization.
There is an abundance of information on the World Wide Web: hundreds of thousands of Web sites containing countless thousands of words and images all competing for the attention of a relatively small audience at this time. So how does a firm distinguish the content they offer from the rest? By adding value. The premise is to collect existing content and create original material to which valuable editorial, organizational, and aesthetic improvements are made. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Basic text files can be enhanced with images, video, and sound to become a multimedia presentation. Interactivity should be added whenever possible, so that a consumer is able to locate exactly what he or she is looking for at any time, read or investigate at his or her own pace, and add comments or feedback when desired. This makes the experience consumer-driven and thus more useful and compelling. It is highly valuable to assemble a directory of resources, information, and other material relevant to a particular category which can be easily accessed and navigated through by interested parties. In addition to providing links to what is available, a firm may offer its own reviews or third party evaluations of the content.
Directory services are perhaps the most obvious attempts to add value to the vast storehouse of content available on the Web. The rapid growth in the number of Web sites and volume of Web content presents significant challenges for users seeking information and for content providers attempting to reach their target audience. Because information and content are made available on the Web through decentralized and independent network servers, the Web inherently lacks any means for users to place Web site information in a broader context by source, subject matter, geography, quality, or other factors. (Goldman, Sachs & Co., 1996). There are a number of directories and search engines that have emerged to provide this context. Web directories (such as Yahoo) are manually compiled hypertext listings of Web sites organized into predetermined subject areas. Search engines offer the ability to search the Web based upon keywords and phrases and typically use automated software which "crawls" the Web to continuously update its database of information. Popular search engines include AltaVista, Lycos, Excite, and Infoseek. The recent IPO of Yahoo, Lycos, and Infoseek demonstrate the growing popularity of these services. However, I believe that all of these companies will ultimately be unsuccessful unless they are able to provide significant original value added content in addition to the directory service. There are a growing number of sites who include editorial features, customized services, and other useful content related to a specific category in addition to a directory which links to other relevant online resources available for that topic.
The best example of value added content on the Web is C/Net, the Computer News Network. C/Net provides a wide variety of information and services relevant to the burgeoning computer and Internet industries. The difference between C/Net and other traditional and online resources and publications that offer similar material is that C/Net adds significant value to the content it has collected from other sources and created on its own. Visitors to C/Net can quickly survey top news stories in text format or listen to them in real-time audio, use an interactive product finder which asks for preferences and specifications and then locates the most appropriate product, and look in the "reviews" section to find out what others are saying about that product. C/Net's "shareware.com" is a one-stop shopping clearinghouse of all the most popular shareware software titles that are available for download from the Web, eliminating the painful process of visiting many different Web sites to locate the desired application. "Search.com" enables users to enter one search query and process it simultaneously with all of the top search engines and directories without even leaving C/Net's site. In addition to these features which are available daily, C/Net provides reports and articles on selected topics which vary weekly. On April 6, 1996 for instance, C/Net's front page offered an article called "Plan your next vacation on the Web" which outlined resources and information necessary to planning a vacation on the Internet, a feature about using the Internet to invest in stocks and bonds, and a technical support advice column which describes the meaning of all of the error messages one may encounter on the Net. C/Net even has a television shows which airs on the USA Network and the Sci-Fi channel that features news stories, reviews, and tutorials.
|Hoffman claims that the crux of what the Web offers to companies is closeness to their customers.|
Equally important to adding value to content is customization of that content. The dynamics of the Web, as a point-to-point communications medium make it possible to broadcast specific messages to specific people, rather than indiscriminately distribute material to a mass audience of consumers. However, the problem with the Web that has not been addressed at all until recently is that when an individual goes into a home page, it's the same home page for everybody. This doesn't live up to the promise of interactivity made by the Web and ignores the power of one-to-one relationship marketing that the Web is all about. There are technologies which allow companies to tailor their Web sites to the interests and needs of each individual consumer, providing them with only the information they desire at the time they desire it.
In a speech at the 1995 Fall Internet Expo in Boston , Jay Sandom of Einstein & Sandom spoke about a software product his company uses for this purpose called "Customized HTML and Real Prime Link Integration Engine" which they refer simply to as "Charlie." Charlie "sits" behind home pages and allows companies to capture data about each user to detail profiles. After a voluntary registration process they can be tracked through every keystroke. Companies know how many modules they go into, which modules they look at, and how long they spend in those modules and can apply that knowledge to improving the site over time. It gives a very clear impression of every individual because every time he visits Charlie enhances the personality profile that is unique to that individual.
Charlie is robust enough to create Web pages on the fly in real-time, based upon these user profiles that are collected during the registration process. Sandom describes how this technology has benefited the site his firm created for Pontiac. He offers the example of a married couple interested in purchasing an automobile. Perhaps the husband likes red sports cars with convertible tops and wind in his hair and so forth. His wife may like a huge kind of car with elegant features and doesn't really care about the engine that much. In order to target these individuals most effectively, a Web site should have the ability to address their needs by offering the appropriate content. With Charlie, the husband and wife do not go into Pontiac's home page, they go into their "personal" home pages which are "sponsored" by Pontiac. "So the guy who likes a sporty red car, he sees the file with the sporty red car. He sees the power options on that first menu that comes up, whereas his spouse will see an elegant town car and all the information that she needs to know and wants to know about the interior, the sound system, and the accouterments of the car."(Fall Internet Expo 1995, "Online and Internet Commerce--Where the Lines Converge") This type of experience exploits the interactive potential of the Web and dramatically increases the probability of a sale.
Another extremely compelling example of mass media customization on the Web is Jupiter Communication's PointCast Network (PCN). The PointCast Network delivers customized news and information free to anyone with an Internet connection. Users decide what kind of information they receive on six "channels" that can be selected simply by clicking a mouse. "The Web has been a hunter-gatherer environment", says Steve Harmon, an analyst for Jupiter Communications. "We see PCN along the lines of farming, bringing content to your table" (San Francisco Chronicle, March 3, 1996). PCN channels include news, sports, weather, companies, industries, and lifestyle. One can configure PCN to deliver timely information about their stocks and recent articles about their favorite team. Besides being able to display news on a specific topic, PCN displays news and scores in a crawl across the bottom of the screen. If you are connected to the Internet permanently--through a corporate network, for example, you can set PCN to continuously update the information it delivers, replacing old stuff with new (San Francisco Chronicle, March 3, 1996). A screen saver, which has been developed by PCN and is included with the free software required to use this service, displays information and advertisements on your computer screen when you aren't using your computer.