Further spins on the Web

Second-generation Web sites are learning from their predecessors' mistakes. Meg Carter reports
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The Independent Online
Durex and the RAC are the latest in a growing list of companies to relaunch their Web sites after first going online 12 to 18 months ago. Since the initial stampede on to the Internet, many have made mistakes but lessons have been learnt, too. Now they are waking up to the need to establish the second generation of Web sites.

"We are now seeing a rush of new and improved sites as well as brand new sites which are hitting the ground running, having learned from others' errors," says Mark Curtis, director of new media specialist CHBi.

The company's work for the RAC is a case in point. The old RAC site was low key - little more than an advertisement listing its services. In contrast, the new site, which coincides with the RAC's new corporate identity and brand strategy, is "dynamic". Curtis explains: "Mark II has more considered ambitions - delivering a service to the public via the Net."

The RAC has now established a forum for consumers to discuss transport and motoring issues. The new site provides travel information and sells membership online. It's a similar story at Durex. The old site, created by AKQA, was originally intended to be the definitive source of information on safer sex by publishing up-to-date advice and information online.

It worked well ... up to a point. "The site was very much driven from traditional marketing so took a lot of content from advertising and brochures," Ajaz Ahmed, AKQA managing director, explains. "The new site reverses that trend with content that can be used from the Web into traditional advertising."

For example, online characters Dr Dilemma and the Online Lovers are now merchandised and advertised through traditional media. The aim is to increase the number of visits to the site, to create a format that is regularly updated, Ahmed adds. Durex also plans to use the Internet as a testing bed for new ideas before pushing them on into mainstream media.

It's a far cry from the earlier sites, according to a new study by advertising agency Grey International. All too often, first-generation Web-site content is out of step with the needs and wishes of consumers.

Mistakes are made in accessing the needs of the consumer. And too many companies view it only as a new medium to deliver an old message, Grey's findings show. Many don't bother to use data showing the search behaviour of the user. Nor do they properly promote their sites. And too few adequately exploit mailing lists and e-mail, which are perceived by most users as a major benefit of the Internet.

Earlier sites have been limited by imagination and money, agrees John Hunt, chief executive of digital media company Syzygy. "One of the barriers has been cost - until advertisers are convinced there really is a market, they won't invest much in it."

Change is inevitable, believes Norman Lehoullier, managing director of Grey Interactive in New York. "In the beginning, online life can only really be about product information. Over time, it's more about enhanced functionality - selling online, customer services, links to retailers, personalisation and customisation.

"We are starting to see a real evolution, now: a second generation of sites built on understanding of what the consumer is doing and where they are going online," he adds. This footprint is forcing Web sites to reposition their offerings, playing up more popular content and dropping some altogether.

"There is a clear distinction between first-and second-generation sites that can be defined by the newer sites' development of commercial or transactional solutions, online communities, dynamism and site marketing," Hunt says.

Transactions conducted via the Net are now generating millions of dollars in revenue from systems sales for computer company Dell, for example. BMW recently launched a site offering users access to a constantly updated national network of used cars. The next step? Selling cars online.

"For many advertisers who need to rely on borrowed interest for their product, establishing an online community can prove a real traffic-generator," Hunt says. Syzygy has done just that with its Babyonline site, an interactive forum for accessing and gathering information about babies, in which Syzygy sells advertising space.

Dynamic means "constantly evolving" and regularly updated, he adds. But it's also beginning to mean customisation and personalisation - where content is driven by what users want, or by the behaviour they have exhibited online.

Considered marketing is another second-generation feature. Not only are other media now more effectively used to promote online products but co- marketing is being developed by the far-sighted. Advertisers are working together to feed groups of like-minded traffic between different sites, rather than relying on search engines.

Also, there is a move beyond reliance on banner advertising online. Traditionally, this has been a cheap way for an advertiser without a site to promote themselves online, or a simple way to transfer browsers to the advertiser's own, product-specific site.

Innovations here include the growth of mini-sites created within an online media owner's site and accessed from it, such as the site developed by Ogilvy & Mather for Huggies on Babyonline. O&M is also developing "brandbytes" and "meta-ads". The former is an animated branded message that appears after the banner and before a browser is taken to the site. "Meta-ads" are advertising messages that flash up between other pages - interrupting viewing like a TV commercial break.

However, the relevance of marketing goes beyond promotion, Curtis believes. The application of conventional brand-development techniques can establish a new generation of online digital brands - the next big challenge, he says. "With digital TV imminent, future digital services are unlikely to resemble those of today. Create a digital brand and it will work across any number of present and future platforms"n