What Will Make My Site Stand Out?

Your Questions Answered: Web Development

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To make an impact, think 3-D. Three-dimensional experiences are gaining traction in the marketplace and can stand apart from some of the most beautiful designs. "Look at Second Life," said Conor Brady, executive creative director at Organic. "People have gotten used to being in and around those [types of web experiences]. We can bring that into luxury goods or commerce." And now that broadband penetration among active internet users in the U.S. is expected to break 90% by mid-2008, designers need not worry about alienating customers.

HOLD ON, STEP BACK A MINUTE. WHO IS GOING TO DO ALL THIS STUFF FOR ME?

There are plenty of options, from building an interactive team in-house to outsourcing it to a digital agency to tapping the resources of traditional agencies you already work with. It's a complicated decision-making process, but there are a few general guidelines, said Kerry Bodine, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Generally, if a company -- an e-commerce site, for example -- is looking to develop a larger online presence, it would make sense to build some sort of team in-house while also working with an outside group to develop the initial concepts and work on technical specifications. For smaller projects it makes more sense to look to an outside team as opposed to committing resources to internal development.

In terms of working with digital agencies vs. traditional agencies, Ms. Bodine warned that traditional agencies often will hand off the work to a subcontractor. "While traditional agencies might be adept at advising clients at other types of marketing, the understanding of what makes for a good interactive experience is a different skill set," she said. But, Ms. Bodine added, "the landscape is shifting. That might not be the case in 12 to 18 months. These holding companies are adding a lot of firms with digital capabilities."

VIDEO IS REALLY HOT RIGHT NOW. DOES THAT MEAN I SHOULD HAVE IT ON MY SITE?

Don't post video just for the sake of it. "Lots of people are putting it up because it looks good," Mr. Brady said. "But with video there's a huge opportunity to create a narrative and content that is done only online." In other words, be creative.

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SILVERLIGHT?

Silverlight is a cross-browser, cross-platform, cross-device plug-in launched by Microsoft that is looking to give Adobe's Flash a run for its money. It was launched last September, and as of March 5, a beta of the 2.0 version was available at silverlight.net. This technology excels at handling media and is geared toward the .net community, while Flash is targeted toward the scripting community.

Silverlight is not nearly as ubiquitous as Flash yet. But this summer should serve as a coming-out party of sorts. Microsoft has inked an exclusive deal with NBC to deliver live and on-demand Olympics coverage on MSN using Silverlight. "[Microsoft is] making some pretty big deals to get the player out there," said Steve Gray, technology director at Avenue A/ Razorfish. "And the install is just as friendly as Flash. People forget that way back in the day you had to download Flash, too."

SHOULD I BE CONCERNED ABOUT WHETHER SEARCH ENGINES WILL FIND MY SITE IF I USE RICH MEDIA?

In a word, yes. HTML and Ajax are inherently more searchable than Flash and Silverlight, experts say. But if you determine the goals for your site early on, there are plenty of ways to work around this problem. "It does require you to have that kind of architecture and thought in place," said Dean McRobie, executive director-product management and technology at Organic. "Bolting searchability on is a lot more difficult than building it on."

IN WHAT SCENARIO SHOULD I CONSIDER A MICROSITE?

One reason to create a microsite is if your existing site has technology constraints. A concern that has been raised in regard to microsites is whether they siphon traffic from the parent site. But experts said consumers are much more comfortable moving between sites than they were four or five years ago.

HOW DOES THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT RELATE TO THE WEB?

The act requires that all commercial locations be accessible to citizens with disabilities, and that extends to e-commerce sites. That means sites must be properly embedded with "alt" tags, which allow computerized screen readers to describe aloud web-page content for the visually impaired. "ADA compliance is a big factor in the types of work we do for our customers," Mr. Gray said. "We don't put text inside our graphics, and we have to be really careful about how we interact with pictures and text."
Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project, August-September 2007 phone survey

Source: Ad Age DataCenter analysis of 2008 user data from eMarketer, February 2008, and U.S. Census Bureau population figures

Case Study

Borders Group soon will have an online store to call its own. The retailer is set to retake control of e-commerce from Amazon, which has been handling inventory, fulfillment and customer service related to that business since 2001. Execs said the site, which is online in a beta version, will go live during the first quarter, although they declined to provide an exact date.

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MARKETER: BORDERS
AGENCY: IN-HOUSE
"We realized that we really needed a much more branded site to really become a cross-channel hub," said Kevin Ertell, VP of e-business. "To do that, we had to bring it back in-house."

A plan to bring the site in-house was put into action with the arrival of CEO George Jones in July 2006. Borders also began staffing up internally, adding experts in technology, online operations and online merchandising. By the fall of 2007, a beta site was ready for customer feedback. Mr. Ertell said reactions from customers have been helpful as the site is tweaked in preparation for the launch. Posting the beta site prior to the all-important holiday season also enabled customers to place items on reserve for store pickup, as well as share their wish lists with friends and family.

Borders' in-house creative group handled the design of the site, layering Adobe's Flash with Ajax, HTML and JavaScript. Allurent, a software company that specializes in online retail, was brought onboard to help enhance the "Magic Shelf," a feature for which Borders has a patent pending. The shelf is featured on the home page and is supplied by the same merchandisers who stock the tables in Borders' stores. It can be organized by categories including "New Books," "Staff Picks" and "New for Kids."

"We said right off the bat we wanted it to be innovative yet intuitive," Mr. Ertell said. "We wanted to make sure that we had that warmth and inspiration and sense of discovery that you get when you go into one of our stores."

Execs said there are firm metrics in place internally to measure the success of the site based on dollars spent, time spent and overall traffic. So far, the site isn't logging orders, but it is attracting consumers. There has been an average of 4 million unique visitors per month, with more than 5 million unique visitors in February. Mr. Ertell called those numbers "significant" given that the site hasn't been actively promoted. Promotion plans for the launch are still under wraps, although execs said "focused communications" are planned.

When it comes to time spent on the site, Rich Fahle, VP-content, said the numbers are "well above" industry averages of two to three minutes per visit. He credits the immersive quality of the site, which features Borders Book Club, Borders Kitchen and Borders Live at 01, a program that features everything from an interview with Bill Clinton to a performance by Joss Stone. Then there are the Guest Shortlists, where personalities such as Barack Obama weigh in on their favorites, and Borders at the Movies, where consumers can find trailers and interviews with the stars.
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