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Marketers take aim at rejuvenating their Net wares

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The Web is so flexible and accessible that people start sites without preconceived thoughts and add things willy-nilly. Then they wake up one morning and realize the site needs to change. Email from Net Marketing reader Daily maintenance is standard operating procedure for Web marketers. But every marketer must periodically consider a top-to-bottom redesign to stay at the forefront of trends and technology.

When Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. redesigned its Web site this summer, it had one important target: "centers of influence," business professionals who routinely recommend life insurance to clients.

Northwestern brought in Web developer Cybertoons, Milwaukee , to create a site that provided information in a fast but graphically appealing way. Banished in the redesign: huge graphics that took too long to download. In their place were specific and technical details on Northwestern products.

GETTING RID OF THAT BAD DESIGN

For companies such as Northwestern, which opened on the Web in May 1995, a redesign is a necessity borne out of technology upgrades, the need for new editorial features and sometimes just plain bad design.

"We wanted to go with a specialist because we wanted an A+ site," said Lynn Galbenski, interactive marketing manager for General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac division, which worked with Poppe Tyson's poppe.com unit, Mountain View, Calif., to recast its Web site. The original site was designed by Cadillac ad agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, with help from EDS.

Web shops are benefitting from this trend. Bob Clyatt, CEO of i/o360, a New York Internet agency, said about half his assignments are for makeovers.

"I think we've tapped into a market need," Mr. Clyatt said. "The Web is so flexible and accessible that people start sites without preconceived thoughts and add things willy-nilly. Then they wake up one morning and realize the site needs to change."

First on the list of improvements is bolstering content and improving visuals. Beyond just adding any old content, however, Web marketers are adding useful information.

GOOD AND BAD INFO

For example, Cadillac's Ms. Galbenski said her company wants to make its new site the place where car shoppers can find all informationboth good and badabout Cadillac. The site now contains such information as the complete texts of car review articles, feature comparisons with other models and accurate pricing.

Redesigns can also correct faulty visuals. Time Warner hired i/o 360 specifically to improve the appearance and identity of its Virtual Kitchen site, which offers recipes and advice.

"We looked at the original design and just felt it was really underwhelming," said Sumin Chou, art director at Time Warner Electronic Publishing.

IMPROVING NAVIGATION

Corporate marketers and their partners have also focused on improving navigation, striving to make it simpler and more intuitive.

Matt Thornhill, president of Martin Interactive, Richmond, Va., said navigation was one of the keys to his company's redesign work for Marriott International. The new design "flattened" the highly vertical navigation architecture of the original site, Mr. Thornhill said. The makeover has 14 entry points on the front page, and users are only three clicks away from being able to book a room.

Marriott is concentrating much of its redesign on attracting business travelers. It created the "Marriott Traveler's Companion," a concierge service of sorts that uses personal agents to fetch customized information about business news, weather, travel alerts and, of course, hotel accommodations.

Mr. Thornhill said new features like these help attract people to the Marriott site who would not have been interested in visiting it just to read the ubiquitous press releases of earlier Web days.

BEYOND BROCHUREWARE

Most makeovers strive to use technology to take sites beyond brochureware and inject more functionality and interactivity. Northwestern Mutual, for example, added calculators to its new site, which help consumers estimate the investment dynamics of various insurance policies.

Companies are also linking their sites to databases and creating more dynamic architectures to simplify updating information.

Frames are another technical issue high on the redesign checklist. Corporate marketers are looking closely at the Netscape 2.0 browser feature that enables Web sites to divide the screen into several parts, each with their own scroll bar. However, not all are implementing it for fear of alienating consumers who do not have the software or modem speeds to sufficiently handle the technology.

Martin Interactive, for example, eliminated frames from the redesign of the Marriott site. Mr. Clyatt said his agency tries to provide a frames and non-frames version in its redesigns for clients.

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