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Web glitz: How much is enough?

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"We've got our set of objectives of what we're trying to accomplish, and where the appropriate technology plays with that, that's where we'll use it." A diver in a bubble helmet stands 60 feet below on the ocean floor, where Internet users not only hear him, but see a full-motion video broadcast of the site and take a virtual tour of the underwater lab.

During the two-week period that the expedition is broadcasting, the site has over 3 million hits. Sound like the Discovery Channel online? It's the site of Electronic Data Systems, the Dallas-based information services giant.

BEWARE THE DANGERS

As video, audio, virtual reality, Shockwave, ActiveX and Java permeate the World Wide Web, the use of multimedia and other hot technologies by business-to-business marketers is becoming increasingly common on the Internet.

Potential customers or stockholders watch CEOs give speeches, listen to news releases and take 3-D tours of products. Marketers use the bells and whistles to attract visitors and keep them there.

Experts warn, however, of the dangers of adding snazzy components to business sites. Even with the reduced costs these days of adding multimedia to Web sites, marketers must carefully consider whether they are reaching their audience and fulfilling marketing goals with the addition of cutting-edge technology.

"We don't just use technology for technology's sake," says Gary Hanson, EDS's director-marketing communications. "We've got our set of objectives of what we're trying to accomplish, and where the appropriate technology plays with that, that's where we'll use it."

Mr. Hanson says EDS uses video and audio clips and special projects like the underwater Jason Expedition and the current journey to the center of the Earth to give people a sense of the company. Mr. Hanson says EDS is trying to reach senior executives of Fortune 500 or equivalent companies, but the site is also for employees and prospective employees.

UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE

Web designers, marketers and consultants all agree that before deciding what level of technology to have on a site, it's crucial to understand the audience you want to target. Audience connection speed and hardware capabilities should be main concerns of marketers considering multimedia.

Robert Morris, VP-sales and marketing for Inmar, a San Antonio-based interactive software design company, is wary of multimedia on the Internet for business-to-business applications.

"People are really pounding a lot of the technology into the sites, but what they don't realize is that the bandwidth doesn't effectively support that kind of multimedia, and that's an inherent problem at this point," Mr. Morris said.

DON'T TURN OFF CUSTOMERS

Even if the audience has the tools and connection speed, a site with too much glitz might also turn off potential customers.

Denes Bartkovich, manager of Internet marketing for Canadian software development company Cognos Corp., says that though they are trying to reach an upscale audience of business users and technology professionals within Fortune 1,000 companies -- most of whom have high-speed T1 and ISDN lines -- the company is wary of too much pizzazz.

"We've been selective about multimedia technologies, because typically business people aren't coming just to look for something cool, they're looking for information. So that's been our primary criteria in terms of which tools to use," Mr. Bartkovich said.

"We definitely wouldn't put any kind of Shockwave up there just to show off a spinning logo or a neat sound effect, because I think more and more people are just finding it irritating."

The site does include a different "TalkRadio" program every week, which provides audio clips of news headlines, special announcements or product strategy. Video clips of customer testimonials, executive talks and descriptions of technology give visitors the benefit of visual and audio, but the multimedia stops there.

Mr. Bartkovich says they will wait for bandwidth to improve to add technology like Shockwave, and he hasn't found the right use for 3-D or virtual reality.

Not all companies have the resources of an EDS, which is a $12.4 billion company, and $200 million Cognos. Web designers say including components like audio, video, Shockwave and graphical animation in the design of a site can increase the costs by 20% to 50%.

Mr. Bartkovich of Cognos says including seven or eight video clips on Cognos' site costs the company around $3,000, and a Shockwave demo can add $6,000. In general, applications like Shockwave and graphic animation are expensive because they are designer intensive. Audio and video cost less.

At Denver-based global environmental consulting engineering firm CH2M HILL Web site manager Leigh Phipps says its in-house design team avoided multimedia but strove instead for a clean, graphically appealing site that didn't have a long download time.

"I don't think you're going to sell an environmental impact study by being glitzier," Ms. Phipps said. "Snazzy is nice, but it's not appropriate for the audience we serve."

Debbie Hutman, a graphic Web designer with Free Range Media, which has designed sites for companies such as Westin Hotels and Microsoft's Back office, advises careful consideration before adding the bells and whistles -- especially when it comes to expecting the visitor to be willing to do extra work to see what the site has to offer.

"A lot of people are discouraged by needing a plug-in," Ms. Hutman said. She said she takes a minimalist approach to design, limiting color palette and striving for good design and clear, logical navigation. "Are the bells and whistles going to teach your viewers something or are you going to impress them?" she asked. "It might just be lost."

WAITING FOR MORE BANDWIDTH

Over time, marketers say the parameters will change within the next two years. As companies begin to get even higher-speed connections, browsers integrate streaming audio and video, and as new technology is developed in this rapidly evolving world, design rules will have to be reevaluated. Demand is there. Speed and smoothness will follow.

"I think when the bandwidth starts to expand and the modems speed up and the lines speed up, I think people are going to start to demand more, and they're going to want to see more," said Inmar's Mr. Morris. "When the bandwidth starts supporting it better within the next year or two years, and the technology has caught up, people are going to want to be entertained and have things that are experiential out of the PC like they've had out of the television."

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