Effectiveness comes to the fore

2001 was the year when web sites became seen for what they really are: potentially powerful tools for boosting sales, slashing costs, increasing loyalty, all sorts of things.

Featured sites

It’s been a funny year to be staring at websites, trying to work out what works and what doesn’t. On the negative side, it is now a deeply unfashionable activity — I did not receive one invitation to a PR party this Christmas. I am not yet shunned in the streets, but it’s not quite like the old days. On the positive side… it is now a deeply unfashionable activity — which means that websites are being seen for what they really are: potentially powerful tools for increasing sales, slashing costs, increasing loyalty, all sorts of other things. My own business has seen an upsurge in organisations coming to us and saying “Well, we have thrown all this money at our sites, but they don’t seem to work. Help!” What have we been saying to them? Well, a lot of time we tell them to look at other sites, to see what ideas they can steal (the respectable word for this is “benchmarking”). The trick is spotting what elements can work for them — there is no such thing as a ‘best’, only a ‘most appropriate’. Similarly, concepts such as ‘usability’ only take you so far — they rarely solve the real question, which is ‘how do I make this site as effective as it can be?’
With all those caveats out of the way, I have been putting together my own set of favourites (and one least favourite) — a sort of private website effectiveness award. The categories may seem odd, but I hope they strike some chords:

Sites that transfer as much work as possible to the customer:

General Electric. You can start your sales journey from the home page for every GE product and service, from phone cards to aircraft engines. Mostly, you get transferred to an offline channel at some stage; but the more work you do yourself on the site, the better for GE. Wells Fargo interweaves so much information into its selling journeys that potential customers will be wonderfully informed before they fill out any forms or pick up a phone.

Sites that make boring organisations look quite fun:

ICI. Attractive, semi-abstract background images change each time you go into the home page — were I a potential recruit or investor, I’d think this was a little more interesting than the average chemical company. Market Harborough Building Society. Take a standard building society, replace picture of normal couple with batty-looking lady, play with the fonts and graphics, and you have (apparently) a non-standard building society.

Sites that give people a reason to visit:

Persil. Why should anyone go on the web to find out about washing powder. No reason. Why should anyone go to a site with a natty stain-removing guide? Lots of reasons. The guide uses the simplest possible form of interactivity — but it couldn’t be done in any other medium. Also GM’s UK arm Vauxhall — its TrafficNet page is the only place I know where I can see live traffic jam information for the UK. Which is why I have bookmarked it (and feel all fluffy towards Vauxhall as a result).

Least confusing e-commerce site

Most sites just can’t stop cross-selling in the wrong places. The hotel association Logis de France has nice simple sales journeys, both for people who know just what they want, and those that need help.

Non e-commerce sites that increase sales

Dulux. It is generally best to avoid fancy technology, but Dulux’s Mousepainter is worth the trouble. Select a virtual room from a gallery, decorate it with Dulux colours (having adjusted your screen for colour accuracy), calculate the quantities you need, find the nearest stockist. A spectacular selling journey that is also fun. At the other end of the technology spectrum, MFI has a fitted kitchen planning service that lets you print out a piece of graph paper (that’s the technology), make a plan of your kitchen, then book an appointment in your local store. There, assuredly, you will be subjected to a sales pitch no website can match.

Best integration of the website with offline channels

Singapore’s Overseas Union Bank lets you collect reward points on your bank card, then spend them online in an auction. It is thus encouraging you both to spend more money on the card offline, and to visit the website regularly. Bid before January 1st and you can buy a teapot set (starting price 250 Purple Points). Particularly clever because auctions are one of the big internet-only success stories.

Most pointless site:

I have been rather generous to UK companies with my awards, so a British one gets the booby prize as well. Moben is, like MFI, a supplier of fitted kitchens. Unlike MFI, it has not got the hang of the web. This is pure ‘brochureware’ a printed brochure transferred to the web, with no attempt at creating sales journeys, no labels on any on the very vague pictures, and massive use of Flash animation software just to slow the whole thing down.

First published 28 December, 2001
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