Understanding how websites communicate

How to create websites that earn more than they cost

What does your website do for you?

In most companies, it is standard practice to only spend on capital if the payback will be within one to three years. However, I don't know whether it's the fear of the unknown or the white mist of technology clouding people's vision, but websites often seem to avoid this foundation stone of good old business common sense.

We have spent many years trying to find a good way of explaining to companies how they can benefit from the fantastic opportunities the Internet has to offer, and also demonstrate why the approach taken for many websites will never amount to much more that an increase in overheads. This is not an easy subject to explain but we have found that the following analogy seems to work very well. Its basis comes from solid industry research into how to communicate effectively via a computer screen and simply looking at the winners and losers from the CD and dotcom booms.

What we are trying to achieve

Firstly we must understand that websites, CDs and eLearning etc are only forms of communication. eBusiness would often be better described as eCommunication.

We must also appreciate just how important 'communication' is to every business so we should start by looking at how each company communicates at present and work out how much time or money this is costing them. In many businesses it may not be unusual for around 80% of every employees' time to be spent communicating with others e.g. promoting products, advising solutions, taking and processing orders, supporting product sales etc. With so much time spent talking or writing to others, a company that can communicate the same information to the same people electronically will have the potential to make massive savings in people's time and therefore money. Alternately, if they can use electronic techniques to communicate more effective then there is the potential for them to make large increases in their profitability.

So why doesn’t everyone see instant gains

Let's now run a little experiment to explain why many company websites are not performing well and why most businesses are not seeing the massive benefits from their current eCommunication techniques.

First of all, you must find your most successful salesperson or imagine the most dynamic person you can to run your business. Think about the way they work and exactly what they do because that represents the standard of communication we have to achieve beat to really make a difference.

We are now going to take that same person and see how well they would perform as a website. Try to imagine this person if they were restricted to the same powers of communication as any website. For example.

1. Not speaking but only showing pictures and text when poked. Also, unless you've visited an identical webperson before you would not know where to poke them to find the information you need.

2. To make matters worse they would not be allowed in the same room as the potential customer. Websites are a 'push' technology so you must have someone or something outside the room constantly trying to direct people to go in and look at your webperson.

3. Aha, your think. We will make them look really fantastic, perhaps an expensive dress and peep hole bra. This may well attract more people but would they read the information to understand your message? More likely they would just get distracted by the design and leave before you get a chance to explain what you're selling.

As you can see, no matter how good your webperson is, there is no way they will ever communicate as well as even the worst salesperson. In this format they are very unlikely to make any difference to the company profits at all. In fact all we have learnt is that a website works better when it operates in exactly the same way as every other website and does not look too flashy.

So what benefits have been gained

Well, let's look on the bright side. Our web person does not eat anything, take a break or distribute expensive bits of paper. Also, he can carry every piece of information the company has ever produced and made it instantly available to everyone in the world via a simple text search. The webperson might not be any good at selling but they are certainly cheap; and the problem of the little guy in the corner of your office who knew everything but was never very keen to tell anyone has completely gone.

To summarise, websites are crap but cheap. They should be used valuable knowledge base that distributes information more cheaply than you are doing at present or allows you to supply additional information that was not previously cost effective.

So how do we communicate more effectively via a computer screen

Our goal is still to make our web person more effective than it human equivalent and there are lots of ways we might achieve this.

Adding sound

If our web person could speak he would attract people when they walked into the room by telling them about the benefits his products provide and suggesting the visitors click a certain button to find out more. Research has shown that sound can greatly improve the power of software to communicate and by adding it to a website we can almost achieve the level of a lecture or presentation from your top sales person, running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Unfortunately, online presentations are not always very good. It is too easy for visitors to leave the web room and speed of the presentation will only ever hit exactly the right level for about 10% of the viewers.

Adding Interactivity

Let's think about this another way. Would your chosen sales person lecture potential customers about what he thinks would be best for them. A good salesperson will listen and ask questions, they might use their experience to suggest a solution but would never simply run through a predefined script.

Of course, computers are very good at listening and responding to the user's preferences. There is no reason why our web person can't be able to intelligently respond to the selections from a visitor in just the same way that a good salesperson would.

So know we have designed a moderately effective website although there is still a lot of room for improvement. After all, even the very best salesperson will only do exactly that 'sell', they will probably not enrich our lives with valuable knowledge in the same way that a teacher would. For this reason, your potential customers would not be that keen to visit our web person in the first place.

How to get your message across more effectively

The great thing about our web person now is that they can deliver vast amounts of information exactly when it is required and for very little cost. However, this is still not good enough to achieve the level of society's most valuable communicators e.g. our teachers. Simply presenting information as pictures, text videos, or sound is unlikely to make people enjoy or understand the message and is not what teachers are trained to do. The educationalist's mantra is 'I see I forget, I hear I remember, I do and I understand. If you think about what you remember from your best lessons it will probably come from making experiments, working through examples or playing games that demonstrate a particular point.

Again computers are very good at creating simulations or games of any real life situations and probably the best known of these are flight simulators. £30s worth of CD has already saved lives by facilitating the situation where people who have never flown before have been able to land a plane in an emergency. There are also many other examples where computer simulations have been shown to be the most effective way of training people for situations that are too costly, time-consuming or dangerous to recreate in practice. Modern computer games are all simulation based and we can tell from the numbers sold that they are a very popular form of communication (unlike the situation with websites where people generally only stay for less than 60 seconds and leave within 5 to 10 seconds if there is nothing they like. This is not just because the content isn't fun either, young children will often spend hours playing maths and spelling games simply because of the clever way these programs have been designed.

So now we know that we can build powerful eSelling programs that will teach our customers all about your products and provide 24/7 support if they have any problems. This will be a tremendous benefit for your customers and should help build customer loyalty, as long that is, as you have enough customers in the first place. Because in most business, the most expensive and complicated communication bottleneck is finding the customers in the first place.

New business referrals

'It's not what you know but who you know' is the commonly recognised phrase that describes referral networking. Business people with lots of contacts or more importantly, those who recommend your products because they have used them successfully themselves.

You might initially think that this is the one area where computers cannot compete with their human equivalent, however, you would be completely wrong. This is a fast developing sector that is commonly known as 'viral marketing'. It is an area where software can really bring significant long-term benefits for very little cost.

Let's take the powerful training simulations we developed above and give them away for free on the Internet. We can do this because electronic information costs virtually nothing to give away but provides a valuable resource to those who need it. People who benefit from this free training will recommend, or give your program to their colleagues. In fact, the most effective way to increase your website's search engine ranking is to be considered a worthwhile site e.g. one which other sites link to because you provide something of value. Giving away training is probably the best way to get other sites to provide links, which will therefore automatically lead to more visitors and an ever-growing cycle of referrals.

Remember that our basic web person was a 'push' technology that needed others to advertise before people would visit. Now we have a 'pull' technology that automatically feeds people back to check that they have the latest, most up to date FREE training.

We can also think of this another way. The traditional salesperson's mantra is 'attention - interest - desire - action' the point being that the first and most important part of any sale is getting the customer's attention. This is something website's do not do (apart from via search engine referrals) and it must be assumed that you already have the visitor attention by the time they get to your website. This means that to generate new sales leads you really need software that moves away from the website completely and preferably get installed onto your customer's computers.

One of the best examples of how effective free training software can be is demonstrated by a hydraulic training program developed for Sun Hydraulics (UK) Ltd. The original software only cost about the same as a single training rig but is now being used by colleges and universities around the world, as well as being freely available from the front page of the British Fluid Power Association's website. This means that their products are virtually being recommended by the most authoritative body in the UK along with probably hundreds or thousands of engineering teachers throughout the world; for free.

The number of leads per pound can now be roughly measured and should compare exceptional well with traditional magazine advertising or exhibitions. Thinking back to our original salesperson we can see that they would never be able to able to communicate with so many people at the same time and at such little cost. You may now be thinking that eCommunication can't get much better than that, or can it.

Even bigger carrots

If the thought of free learning is not attracting new customers or you do not have suitable content to make this worthwhile then you can always go for a list of other 'freebies' to attract your target market. Conversion calculators, screensavers and games are all popular but you might benefit from offering an even bigger reward to make people respond. Traditionally competitions with interesting prizes can work quite well but the cost of administration can be restrictive. With software however the distribution costs are tiny and if there is something worthwhile to be gained then people will pass the information on to their friends without you having to do anything.

Also, the results of the competition, along with any market research you include, can be collected and reviewed by automatically transferring the details from the returned emails into an Excel format for analysis. Making it simple, fast and secure.

Which distribution format is best

It would be nice to be able to tell you that only one method of eCommunication was the best way to communicate with every customer. Unfortunately real life is not like that. A good comparison can be made with the way in which we would expect a real person to travel between Devon and London. It is not possible to say whether travelling by rail, car, plane, taxi, motorway or coast road would suit each person best. All we know is that they can travel by any method they prefer and the final result will be pretty much the same. This theory should be applied to software as well. We can deliver our program by Internet, Extranet, CD or email for example. No one method is perfect for everyone, but as long as you can provide each options then everyone will be able to see the information in the form they like the best. Fortunately, it is usually possible to design a program using one technique and then export the same software so that it can be made available in whatever format each customer requires, for little extra cost.

The best answers are always the ones we knew already

To summaries we can see that eCommunication is not really clever but is simply another version of exactly how companies communicate at present. It's rarely a better form of communication than the human equivalent but because it is so much cheaper it can be used to reach far more people per pound.

Companies should never say 'we need a website' but should analyse their most important lines of communication with their customers and then ask themselves, if we repeated this electronically, how quick would the pay back period be. Perhaps then, well over half of today's websites would never have been commissioned but instead we see a much more vibrant range of portals that play a major part in the way companies supply services to or support their customers on a daily basis.