Web sites are effective if used imaginatively and intelligently.
Hordes of companies now boast Web sites on the Internet as show cases for their goods or services. But few of these sites are very effective, and many cannot be said to serve any useful purpose at all.
That, at any rate, is a typical expert view. 'The Internet is the most techno-hype driven medium ever,' thinks Nico Macdonald of design and electronic publishers Spy Graphics. 'People jump on the bandwagon because they see it as a competitive panacea ... IT is one of the few areas where companies feel they can gain a competitive edge, either aggressively or defensively.
They create a Web site because they can, not because they need one.' An Internet project should grow out of strategy, insists Macdonald. 'Intelligent Web site projects should do something that can't be done easily any other way.'
Having decided to open a Web site, a company should be wary of handing over implementation to its IT department, warns Derek Jones, managing director of MediaTel, provider of the UK's biggest media database. 'You don't need to understand the technology, just its possibilities,' says Jones. 'IT people may hijack the project and swamp you with technology.' In all probability, the opportunities offered by a site will concern marketing, and it is up to this department to ensure that it meets the company's marketing objectives.
It is vital to ensure that the site can be located on the Internet, adds Jones. 'Setting up a site on your own behalf without heavy marketing usually leads to disappointment. The Internet may have 40 million users, but if they can't find your site easily they won't use it. Piggy-backing off a site which already exists is a better bet.' Web sites can be registered on existing directories (eg Yahoo) which provide quick search facilities for browsers. The Web site address should always appear on company stationery and promotional material.
Andy Burnett, of the Centre for Creativity at Cranfield School of Management, argues that a Web site which is little more than a brochure of goods and services is an ineffective use of the Internet's potential. 'This is relatively boring. Once users have surfed your site for a short while they are unlikely to return. The key to an effective Web site is that it encourages people to come back. Using the Internet in the UK is more expensive (since calls are charged by the minute) than in the US (which has flat-rate billing), so it's essential to give people something more valuable than a brochure which they could receive for free through the post.'
Although the majority of current Web sites tend to be static, Burnett points out that some users are beginning to release the real potential of the Internet. The Consumers' Association's Which? Online site allows subscribers to communicate directly with the site and with each other on a range of consumer issues.
'Web sites have great potential for presenting users with multiple choice options, to search past and present information and for interactive use,' says Jones. 'But the site must be as practical and businesslike as possible enabling users to take information in a serviceable form.' Too many graphics, for example, can be offputting, says Mark Rasdall head of information systems at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.
'It takes a long time for users to download graphics onto their screens, and if the procedure is interrupted they may lose the inclination to visit the site again.'.