While there are plenty traditional ads with emotional appeal-think Coke or McDonald's-many Web sites are more cold and sterile than warm and creative.
"The Web is intrinsically interactive," said Dana Atchley, a digital filmmaker and Web consultant who runs D3TV, a production company in San Francisco.
But plain-vanilla interactivity is only the beginning. More and more, engagement and invitation will be the key attributes of successful Web sites.
"People want to have a personal experience," said Alicia Rockmore, brand manager overseeing the Ragu Web site from Van den Bergh Foods (http://www.eat.com), one of
the earliest-and still successful-examples of using the Web to engage consumers.
To Mr. Atchley, digital storytelling is a powerful way to engage consumers. Marketers can use the Internet to share their company's history as well as the ensuing feelings that people have toward the company's products or services.
Mr. Atchley has worked with Coca-Cola Co. and Apple Computer to incorporate storytelling into interactive environments. This month, he will co-host the Second Annual Digital Storytelling Festival in Crested Butte, Colo. (http://www.dstory.com).
In addition to a full schedule on creative Web techniques, the conference will feature two seminars on brand building on the Internet, sponsored by Apple.
Empowering consumers with interactivity is another tool for engaging consumers. AT&T and agency Modem Media, Westport, Conn., exploited this tool in the Olympic Games Connection segment of AT&T's site (http://
www.olympic.att.com) this summer.
In the Olympic Games Switchboard, for instance, some 36,000 people provided profiles of themselves, including their favorite sports. Those who returned to the site found details of the latest medal winnings in those categories, as well as e-mail addresses of people sharing similar interests.
In addition, Shockwave games allowed people to participate in online diving, pole vaulting and basketball events, and a promotion called Centennial Send-off Contest turned Web participants into judges of real-time events at the AT&T pavilion at the Olympics.
"We were trying to enable people to experience the Games," explained David Lynch, group account director at Modem. "You involve them in a product or in an experience that speaks to the brands you represent. They expect to be engaged."
Not all emotional content depends on complete interactivity. At Ragu's Mama's Cucina, a friendly Mama dotes on everyone who comes through the site. She offers everything from personal advice to Italian lessons to tours of New York's Little Italy.
Ragu's Ms. Rockmore, who has overseen the site for the last year and a half, said the intent was to create a face and personality on the Internet.
People are now e-mailing Mama for advice, such as what they should serve on a first date. A group of people even got together and created a Web page starring a suitable suitor named Pappy and coaxed her to go out on a virtual date with him.
All these sites point toward the importance of an entertaining or involving Web environment that goes beyond just tapping technology for technology's sake.
Heidi Dangelmaier, a co-founder of New York Web developer Hi-D, specializes in sites that elicit people's responses, with clients such as Debate It Now, a bulletin board area on the CBS News site (http://www.cbsnews.com),
and two interactive stories for People magazine.
While allowing people input is important, she stressed that in designing sites for clients it's a constant balancing act: "How do you provide enough control so that chaos doesn't happen, and not too much so that it stagnates the site?"
Emotion isn't a must-have for every Web site. Pure service sites such as stock quotation providers, news outlets and databases can survive just fine providing fast, reliable information.
But as the Web gets more fragmented and more sites compete for share of mind, the sites that use interactivity to engage will be the ones that can attract users and keep them coming back.