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Study: Sites' design, message don't mesh

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The answer to Web prosperity doesn't lie with your Webmaster or your marketing department, according to a new study from Lippincott & Margulies, the New York-based corporate identity company.

"Your business model and design must become one to succeed," says Peter Geismar, partner and manager of the company's Interactive Media Group.

Lippincott's study showed that, as recently as early 1998, 75% of corporate Web sites hadn't clearly married their purpose to their site's design.

The key to getting those answers is to look at the information exchange envisioned between users and the company, Mr. Geismar says.

"Who's your audience, what are they trying to get and step back from there," he advises.

Some sites, like Amazon.com, are aimed at direct sales, so they should quickly point users to inventory and the cash register. Other sites, like Deloitte & Touche, are delivering a corporate brand message, so they can use high-bandwidth splash screens to deliver the corporate pitch.

Patrick Keane, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, a New York market researcher, agrees that the purpose of a site will dictate its design. "On the Schwab site, you want to trade," Mr. Keane says. "But does [Procter & Gamble] want to sell Tide on its site?"

Design should help message

That consideration must affect the design, he says.

Ann Garan, editor of Contentious, a monthly Web zine that deals with design issues, says unclear ideas of a site's message can lead to big mistakes.

"One of the worst I can think of is Monsanto," she says, which delivers a host of corporate images, but has an "almost hidden pull-down menu that takes you to content."

In contrast, she says, the Federal Express Corp. site can deliver the data users need in less than a minute, without sacrificing the brand message.

"Someone should see in a half second whose site it is, what kind of site it is and what sort of content or services you're offering," she suggests. "And design all parts of your site so people can navigate easily and get back to the home page."

Webmasters are not to blame for the problems of Web site usability, Mr. Geismar says. Most of the time it's a corporate problem. "To do what we say you should do, there should be an acceptance at the top of the value of the Web to your company and business model."

He says the Webmasters understand this and are looking for strategic direction, but the strategic people don't get it and, so, can't give it.

"There was a study I saw recently saying only 23% of Fortune 1,000 executives know what a modem is," he says, adding that that's the problem in a nutshell.

Because of a lack of strategic direction, Mr. Geismar says, corporate sites are run either by business managers or Webmasters, without the corporate power to implement their decisions. "The result is a very deeply disjointed, a less well-branded site."

Why should corporate managers listen? "We forecast the Web audience growing 100% between today and 2002," says Mr. Keane.

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