Network: Web Design - Which way Web sales?

IN CASE you it escaped your attention, last week was Christmas. And the high street is not the only place that has benefited from gift- giving. The Web has posted record sales as more and more busy people went online to play Santa.

For sites selling products and services, the audience is no longer visitors surfing the web, (http://www.independent.co.uk/net/980810ne/story5.html). Instead, they have become consumers. There are two sides to the consumer coin: marketing and selling.

Selling seems to be doing quite well, as evidenced by the online star, Amazon.com, whose stock has soared to over $300. It is Web marketing - convincing a person to buy - that's struggling.

Traditionally, marketing to the masses has been based on a passive model through print, television and radio ads. These require no immediate action by consumers, but instead they receive ads intended to influence or change their buying habits. There is some differentiation of ads for different audiences, but generally, ads are intended to appeal to as broad a segment of the population as possible.

The Web is supposed to be different. It is about the two-way transfer of information, and is an active medium where a website visitor is expected to interact with the content. The Web has indeed strengthened the voice of special interest groups, each with its own needs, concerns and desires.

Unfortunately, marketing on the Web became stuck early on with the generic banner ad. These are really nothing more than a concept borrowed from the world of print. They are general long graphics that span the top of the screen, often animated, and used just like print ads to capture the viewer's interest. Banner ads are also hypertextualy linked to further information which viewers will "click-through", but often what the visitor finds at the other end is another idea borrowed from the print world - the brochure website: these simply present static information, just like a printed brochure.

How effective are banner ads and brochure sites? One school of thought is that if they didn't work they would not have endured. Yet they are little better than their counterparts in older media at engaging web users in active participation.

In other media, the value of an advertisement is based on the number of people seeing that advertisement. For most mediums this is scientifically calculated using careful measurements of circulation or the number of televisions or radios tuned in. But, you can throw these notions out of the window when it comes to measuring how many people see a banner ad on the Web, especially since the click-through rate is far more important than the number of eyeballs laid upon it.

Services, such as NetRatings and MediaMetrix, attempt to measure the number of visitors and how often they click on ads. Yet these services often provide completely different results for the same site. When websites go seeking ad revenues they can pick the numbers that paint their site in the best light.

While banner ads definitely generate revenue for a lot of different sites, it is questionable whether they capture customers for the firm paying for the ad. So, is the banner-ad/click-through/brochure-site model how online marketing should be pursued in future?

The Web is still a very young and underdeveloped medium, but one that has come of age in the era of big media with big expectations and highly refined methods, especially in marketing. It still requires testing and experimentation or it is possible that its full potential may never be realised.

So what should our strategy be? What are our other options in online marketing? Simple: Use the Web's strengths.

Unlike other mediums with limited bandwidth (there is only so much room on newsagents' shelves or television channels), the web is infinite. You can set up as many sites as you wish and each can be narrowly focused for a specific audience. For about the price of a single TV ad, a firm can set up a website for its targeted audience. But why stop there? Why not target the people who influence the people who buy your product? Websites can be set up with content and functions that appeal to these trend-setters and be sponsored (rather than advertised on) by a company wishing to endear itself to this select audience. The Web may well change the nature of selling as we move from macro-marketing into niche-marketing.

Niche sites may have a small audience, but have the potential directly to reach the people interested in purchasing a particular product or service. They build brand loyalty, and in the future that'll be even more vital than brand recognition.

Send your comments or queries to Jason at indy_webdesign@ mindspring.com

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