[ Marketing Tools magazine| American Demographics / Marketing Tools home page ]
Marketing Tools, May 1997

Design a Killer Web Site

by Rebecca Piirto Heath

Before you think technology, think functionality; design what your audience
wants to see, not whatever you can do

Imagine walking down a dark, endless hallway lined with doors. Some of the
doors have blinking lights, animated buttons, and scrolling text and
graphics. Others feature moving pictures, voices, and music. One door has a
simple sign, a picture of a treasure, and clear instructions for getting to
it. Which door will you open?

The World Wide Web is a lot like that hallway. Web site owners wait behind
their doors for visitors, never knowing who will come or why. All they can
do is hope that their doorways are compelling enough to get the message

"Having a Web site is like winking in the dark," says Bill Gallagher, Jr.,
publisher of Guerrilla Marketing Online, the online companion to the highly
successful Guerilla Marketing book series. "Online marketing is like the
commercial district in Hong Kong with hundreds of competing flashing signs.
It's much harder to rise above the noise."

That hasn't dampened new Web site creation any. As of January 1997 there
were more than 900,000 registered domains, increasing at a rate of 85,000 a
month, according to InterNIC, the official tracking agency. Because some
domains represent hundreds of individual sites, while others don't have any
sites at all, the exact number of actual Web sites is open to debate.

Of the thousands of commercial Web sites that are out there, how many are
truly successful from a marketing standpoint? We posed that question to a
number of practitioners with expertise in both Web design and marketing.
Their overwhelming answer: Not very many. "There are an awful lot of
horrible sites put up by really big hitters like film studios and ad
agencies, companies that should know better," says Rob Frankel, a Web site
reviewer and president of Frankel & Anderson, a digital marketing and design

Web sites can be loosely grouped into five categories: directive (search
engines, online directories), general informational (online publications),
specific informational (topic or industry), promotional sites designed to
publicize products or services, and transactional or commerce sites.

"Only about 15 percent of the sites currently up are true commerce sites
that permit and encourage the transfer of money online, and only a handful
of them are doing it well," says Phillip Broadbent, CEO of Evergreen
Internet, Inc, which designs and distributes online commerce systems and
software. The vast majority of sites are simply promotional, "just giant
billboards in cyberspace," says David Simon, president of the design firm
Cybernation. As such, this type of site fails on all counts in the eyes of
our experts. "It just sits there. It is really worthless and a huge waste of
money for the companies that do it," says Simon.

What are essential elements of the ideal site? Our experts agreed that the
answer depends entirely on the marketing goals of the site and the audience.
Killer graphics and dynamite content is wasted if the people you target find
your site too confusing. Attracting travelers in the dark hallway of
cyberspace and getting them to come back requires a delicate balance between
content, visual appeal, and technology. Finding this balance requires
knowledge of the pitfalls. Here are the major mistakes that can most quickly
torpedo a Web site.

1. What Are You Trying to Do?

Far too many sites are created for the wrong reasons, without a clear sense
of purpose. "The first question we ask clients is, 'What are your
objectives?'" says Al Blanco, president of Meta4 Design. "Most often the
answer is, 'My competition's up there, I've gotta do it too.'"

That kind of thinking (or, rather, non-thinking) will almost certainly doom
a site to failure. Web sites can effectively generate revenues and leads,
lower customer service costs, and build relationships, says Blanco. But
success in these areas depends on having clear goals from the outset,
because everything else-design, content, and technology-has to emanate from
the goals. "In the same way that you wouldn't go out and spend millions on a
national advertising campaign without knowing the results you want, you
shouldn't go blindly into the World Wide Web," Blanco says.

2. Know Thy Audience

Like their peers in other areas of advertising, many Web designers fail to
look at their sites through the eyes of their target audiences. Instead,
they design to impress other designers, technologically savvy surfers, and
Web site reviewers. This can have serious marketing consequences if the site
becomes too confusing or too complex to navigate.

"Simplicity is absolutely essential," says Evergreen's Broadbent. "You could
have the most beautiful site with absolutely gorgeous visuals, but if it's
not immediately clear to users how it works, you'll lose them."

As Guerilla Marketing's Bill Gallagher sees it, visitors to a site want to
know two things immediately: "the site's purpose, and whether it has the
information they want as soon as they sign on." Usually they'll spend less
than half a minute finding out if they're in the right place; then they're
gone, says Gallagher.

A site can also fail in that critical first half-minute if it doesn't have
the right features, the appropriate tone, useful content and a compelling
design. But in order to build in these things, site developers have to
understand all the different types of potential visitors to the site and
their needs.

"Creative elements aren't the key to dynamite Web sites," says fine.com
Interactive president Dan Stull, whose clients include Safeway, 20th Century
Fox, Burger King, and Microsoft. "But it is absolutely critical that you
build into your site features that will move clients through the lifecycle,
from suspects, to prospects, to customers, to repeat customers, to
advocates." Suspects-non-customers who visit a site out of curiosity-have to
be handled differently than do advocates, the people who already know, love,
and are even willing to evangelize to others on behalf of your products or
services, says Stull.

For example, bulletin boards or chat rooms can help suspects and prospects
become customers and even repeat customers. Microsoft used a chat room to
build awareness for Exchange, a new e-mail and groupware program. "People
who were using the product in-house talked about it to prospects, who came
to the site to find out more," says Stull. The testimonials helped many of
the prospects decide to buy the program, he says.

3. It's What's Inside That Counts

Content is the most important value sites have to offer, and the one thing
that can really generate repeat traffic. Our experts unanimously agreed that
successful sites are the ones that offer content that is useful and relevant
to visitors.

"The Web is like direct response in reverse. The buyer seeks the seller
looking for specific decision-making information," Blanco observes. The
power of the Web is its ability to offer relevant, comprehensive
information. "On the Web you can give them as much depth as they want,
something you can't do as well in other media," Blanco says.

Again, understanding the audience is crucial for creating appropriate
content. What's useful and relevant for one visitor may be a waste of time
for another. The good news is that the Web allows companies to offer
something to appeal to each type of visitor.

Meta4 tried to take advantage of that capacity in the sites it has designed
for Hasbro and General Electric. The Hasbro Star Wars site complements the
re-release of the Star Wars trilogy and is designed to appeal to both movie
buffs and avid collectors of Star Wars memorabilia. It uses high-tech video
and graphics to publicize the film, and includes hundreds of pages of the
kinds of product details that collectors crave. "We have minutia on 300
products in there," says Blanco, "but our research showed collectors want
that most."

The General Electric site, on the other hand, is designed to accommodate the
general public, the media, and engineers seeking information about product
specifications. "The database contains 15,000 pages of information,
including 3,000 statistics on plastics stress tolerances," says Blanco. "For
engineers who are up at 3. a.m., our site is a gold mine."

"If you want a successful site, you have to offer useful content, and you
have to do it for free," says designer Rob Frankel. For example, a site
called Art Today offers a database of clip art, searchable by key word, that
visitors can download free. "The design is classy, functional, and the
content is absolutely fabulous for companies like ours," Frankel says.

Another rule of thumb: Never make visitors scroll down more than once.
Chances are they won't do it and they'll miss that content entirely. "A lot
of sites make the mistake of trying to get everything on the front page,"
says Gallagher. Think of the front page as a cover and table of contents: it
should provide clues about what's inside, not the entire book.

4. Links: Handle with Care

External links to other sites can help make your content more valuable to
users. If you have great content, consider sharing some of it in exchange
for exposure and connections to and from other sites-mutual links can bring
in traffic and add value for users. But links can also be dangerous, pushing
people away from your site before they finish exploring. The designer has to
strike a delicate balance between the need for external connection and the
need to keep people at a site long enough to get the message.

"You don't want so many links that you create a revolving door," observes

Most sites act as windows to products and services. Lynk Marketing advises
clients to think about their Web sites as gateways, offering access to
other, related areas of the Web. Sites that become gateways build up a loyal
following of people who return again and again to take advantage of that
access. Web Marketing Insider, a site designed by Lynk Marketing, provides
links to Web pages for marketing organizations and companies, industry news,
and a host of similar resources. "We wanted to offer visitors one-stop
access to everything they might want to know about marketing," explains
David Geller, publisher of Web Marketing Insider and a Lynk Marketing

One way to create a gateway site without suffering fall-off is through
frames, which allow a new site to appear within a frame on the host page,
says Lynk designer Lynda Kern. Frames are problematic because not all
browsers can accommodate them-the designer either has to create two
different sites, one with frames and one without, or accept audience
limitations. Kern feels frames are worth the risk, likening the situation to
a library forcing people to run from building to building to get related
information versus finding it all in one convenient room. "After awhile, you
get tired of the hunt and stop," says Kern. "Why not give your visitors
access to all the information they want, but allow them to stay within one
central resource?"

5. Creative Solutions: Back to Basics

Everyone agrees that from a marketing perspective, ideal Web creative must
be visually compelling. But if visuals are too big and complex, they'll take
too long to load, and the only people who will see them are the ones who are
very interested or who have lots of time to waste.

Again, designers have to strike a balance, this time between the need for
graphical impact and the need for loading speed and clarity of message. "To
find out what works graphically from a marketing perspective, don't look at
other Web sites. Look at other media," advises Gallagher.

The best sites adhere to the basic principles of marketing. They also follow
the print and broadcast media's long-established rules for organization of
content, layout, and typography, adapting them for the new medium. "A year
ago the trend was toward huge graphics," observes Geller. "Now we're seeing
smarter graphics that play a specific role in a site."

The essential purpose of graphics, especially animated graphics, is to set
the tone and communicate the company's personality in a unique and fun way,
says Frankel. "It's absolutely critical to project your personality with a
site, especially if you're in a service business," he says. The Frankel &
Anderson site uses only one animated graphic: a moving picture of Frankel,
looking slightly ironic. "We use it strictly to communicate an attitude," he

Many organizations make the mistake of turning their Web site design project
over to their technical people instead of hiring marketing and design
professionals. Beware of expertise in a box, say our experts. "Just because
you have some expensive software, that doesn't make you a designer or a
marketer," Gallagher warns.

"Its easy to tell a site designed by an MIS person," adds Geller. The long,
boring text, lack of organization, and missing or gratuitous graphical
elements are a dead giveaway. "The most successful sites are those created
by designers and people who are used to working in print media," he says.

6. Beware of the Bleeding Edge

Should you prove you're on the cutting edge by throwing in Shockwave, MIDI
files, Java script, Quicktime, and Real Audio? Our experienced observers say
that dazzle really is in the eye of the beholder. And if the new bells and
whistles aren't used judiciously, they can kill your site's potential as
quickly as can cumbersome graphics. Until the state of Web browser
technology catches up to state-of-the-art digital design, don't get lured to
the bleeding edge of technology unless you know exactly why you're doing it.
"It's a good way to limit your audience," Gallagher cautions.

It comes down to making judgments about the people you want to reach. If
your precise aim is to target a more exclusive audience of technologically
adept Netizens, bleed away. For example, focus group research showed that
the intended audience for Meta4's Hasbro Star Wars site was largely made up
of propellerheads. "They were the people with high bandwidth who really want
to see something cool," Blanco says. Shockwave, MIDI files, Java, and other
state-of-the-art frills added value for them.

Macromedia, which markets Shockwave, has agreed to embed Shockwave in the
next version of Navigator, due out later this year. That will increase the
likelihood that the Shockwave technology is here to stay. "Bandwidth and
compression problems will be solved. Multimedia will eventually be
ubiquitous on the Web, and we're leading the way there," says Greg Thomas,
Macromedia product manager.

The majority of our experts, however, recommend that Webmasters continue to
design for the lowest common denominator until technological standards are
established. "I advise clients to stay at least two steps behind the
technology," says Frankel.

7. Platform Problems

Creating a site that works equally well on the array of available platforms
and browsers is a constant challenge for designers. The democratic site has
to work equally well whether it is viewed on the latest version of Netscape
or WebTV. Graphics designed to be viewed on low resolution monitors look
awful on high resolution monitors. A page that hasn't been tested on both
the Macintosh and Windows platforms could cause some users to miss some of
the content.

Many designers create multiple versions of a site, so they can offer
state-of the art visuals without losing the low-tech Netizens. The drawback
to this is the expense. Meta4, for example, created four different versions
of the Star Wars site. "People have the misconception that Web sites are
cheap and easy to do," says Blanco, "but it can get quite complicated and
expensive to add real production value."

The designers interviewed for this report solve the platform issues by
designing and testing sites on both Mac and Windows platforms and designing
for high resolution monitors. Even so, it's not always possible to reproduce
the design perfectly on all platforms. "We have to consider the client's
target audience and reach a compromise that's acceptable in terms of the
company's marketing goals," says Lynk's Kern.

8. Don't Forget to Write

It seems obvious that a Web site should act in direct synergy with
established media like the telephone. So it's amazing how many sites make
visitors hunt through layers of pages before they can find a contact phone
number, name, or address; assuming one is provided at all.

"Just as in designing a brochure, we include contact information and an
individual call to action on every page," says Kern. "If you don't
constantly reinforce the contact information and make it clear what you want
the visitor to do, why should they do anything?"

Site owners also miss the boat when they fail to respond to e-mail. Most Net
users have sent at least one e-mail inquiry to a site and never received a
response. That's like throwing away a qualified sales lead, say our experts.

Sites with hard-to-find contact information and poor e-mail follow-up are
missing the true lead-generating power of the Web. Until companies are
willing to manage their sites with the same attention they give to their
direct-mail programs, easy Web commerce will never become a reality.

9. Y'all Come Back Now, Hear?

Relationship-building can be one of the true powers of the Web versus other
media, say the experts. "A Web site is an extremely warm selling
environment. You allow people to get inside your head," asserts Frankel.

That quality of warmth is the best-case outcome of the combination of
anonymity and freedom of choice that exists in the online environment. If
sites establish an amiable tone and offer visitors value without demanding
immediate payback, most Netizens will be polite and gracious in return.
"More than any other medium, the Web approximates the relationship that you
would get when you walk into a store," Blanco observes.

Sites can succeed or fail in this regard in the first minute of contact with
visitors. Ironically, some of the most glaringly bad examples are put up by
major advertising agencies that are too hip for their own good, says
Frankel. "Chiat Day has one of the worst sites I've ever seen," he says.
"The graphics are great and it looks slick, but it projects a totally
self-absorbed and holier-than-thou attitude."

Sites like this might succeed in graphic design, but fail as marketing
vehicles. Chiat's conceited and exclusive tone, for example, could turn off
some of the unhip people making buying decisions for major advertisers.

On the other hand, sites that project warmth and personality, rewarding
customers and repeat customers for their interest and loyalty, can help
develop strong relationships. Stull favors installing features such as
exclusive offers and special areas that are only accessible to advocates;
for example, Fine.com Interactive has built an exclusive section into
Safeway's new site, which includes recipes, meal planners, and a
personalized shopping list for visitors. Members of the frequent shopper
club can log on and get special offers. "The key is to use your Web site to
make your best customers feel like members of an exclusive club, and reward
them for their loyalty," Stull says.

10. Attracting Viewers

Perhaps the most crucial element in creating a successful Web site is
something called intermedia synergy. Many Web marketing neophytes forget
that no site is an island. Web sites should complement and be supported by
the rest of the marketing plan.

"If a company wants to earn money with its Web site, it has to make
consumers aware of its location," says Cybernation's David Simon. That can
mean everything from adding the site address to letterheads and business
cards to featuring it in print, broadcast, radio, and outdoor ads, and
buying banner advertising on other locations on the Web. "We advise that the
marketing budget for the Web site be equal to the site development budget,"
Simon says.

Successful Web marketing begins with a well-defined objective, and a design
that is conceived and executed for the user-content, graphics,
interactivity, and technology have to be applied based on the user's wants
and needs. A correctly conceived Web site can enhance a company's image. A
truly synergistic site can complement the company's other marketing efforts
and generate real revenue. No site can or should stand alone out there
winking in the dark hallway of cyberspace.

About the author

Rebecca Piirto Heath is a regular contributor to Marketing Tools and
American Demographics magazines, and author of Beyond Mind Games: The
Marketing Power of Psychographics.

More info


Contact: David Simon
(310) 260-6158

CAPCOM Entertainment

Evergreen Internet
Contact: Phillip Broadbent
(602) 926-4500

fine.com Interactive
Contact: Dan Stull
(206) 292-2888

Frankel & Anderson
Contact: Rob Frankel
(818) 990-8623

Lynk Marketing (Web Marketing Insider)
Contact: David Geller
(818) 789-9805

I-Pub Interactive Publishing (Guerilla Marketing Online)
(510) 658-9686

Macromedia (Shockwave)
Contact: Greg Thomson
(415) 252-4052

META4 Design
Contact: Al Blanco
(201) 309-0005

Hasbro's Star Wars site
Copyright 1997  Cowles Business Media. Reproduction for other than personal
use without the permission of Cowles Business Media is prohibited.

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