Web Wonders

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

CAN IT REALLY be true that the first primitive offers on the World Wide Web originated only four years ago? We’ve come a long way, baby, and by millennium time the Web will be a full-fledged direct marketing associate.

As the Web matures, some practitioners already are forgetting that Web visitors also are maturing. After a year or so, surfers just don’t schlock around looking for nothing in particular. So success awaits those who cater to Web attitude: Show me. Show me fast. Show me preferentially.

To survive, today’s Web site has to be an amalgam of three elements: speed, slickness and sincerity. Not easy, is it? But if it were, anybody could do it.

And let’s add one more crucial ingredient: a recognizable address. As you’ll quickly see, unless you know the exact online address, you can get sidetracked into arcane areas that murder the urge to find what you were looking for.

Let’s take a look at some sites, visited at random. Typical is the one for the St. Louis Public Library, which has a difficult address (www.slpl.lib.mo.us/ catalog). It’s well-organized…but what makes this site typical is the difficulty of getting to what one wants to see.

The home page offers options, one of which is “Search Catalog.” For what? An astounding number of Web sites don’t recognize (or don’t care about) the First Rule of Internet Attraction:

Stop the surfer in his/her tracks.

Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) has been one of the most lionized online catalogs. It also was a pioneer among the online-only catalogs and may have been the reason Egghead Software took the adventuresome (not adventurous) step of abandoning its print catalog in favor of online only.

The home page of this catalog cleverly offers quick and eclectic book options-not just books of a single category but a big selection of books with different appeals. One can order immediately without wading through menu after menu.

Barnes & Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) goes Amazon one better, by including pictures of the lead-in books. Click on one and you get a look at not only the book you clicked on but others in the same category. That’s salesmanship!

Lands’ End, an extraordinarily sophisticated site, poses a peculiar problem. If you don’t know the online address and ask a search engine for “landsend” the screen opens to “Direct Experience”-the opportunity to have an internship with the company. Hey, Lands’ End, I want a shirt, not an internship. Where’s the quick link to merchandise for those who don’t want to be interns?

Try that same search-“llbean”-and your browser says, “Welcome to L.L. Bean.” Great. Then it says, “We’re sorry, this site requires a browser that can accommodate frames.” Huh? But click anyway and you get a magnificent home page. One option is “Shop online.” Click on that and you get another link to a full catalog. You can choose from men’s clothing, women’s clothing, sporting goods, home and camp, boys’ clothing, girls’ clothing, infants and toddlers, lots of other categories, and many options under each.

Health & Vitamin Express (www.hve.com) does a lot of things right. The home page seems to change daily; in fact, it’s dated for the specific day. Specials, timed to match whatever seems “hot” in the vitamin/supplement market, are given quick prominence, together with a free gift for timely orders. Right on target.

The site isn’t pretty. That’s all to the good, because it’s obvious that this site is there to do business. On the home page, in addition to specials, are links: Vitamin Shop, General Store, Gift Center, Customer Service. And a “Search” link is at top right, so the casual visitor has several ways to find a product. Neat!

Click on Vitamin Shop: peculiar. Here’s a legend which appeared under that link: “Close Department.” What does that mean? Below, three sub-links popped up-“Vitamins A-Z,” “Categories” and “Pet Shop.”

Well, let’s click on “Product Search”-vitamin E. The list comes up almost at once. Prices aren’t as favorable as GNC, but wow, what a selection!

On to Hammacher Schlemmer. The day I visited this site, the key item was “The Best Bicycle Carrier, $139.95.” Copy begins, “Awarded a Best rating for its stability on a car, clear instructions, quality of construction, easy assembly and reliable bike securement, this carrier accommodates up to three bicycles and requires no tools for assembly.” I’m bothered, as usual, by this cataloger’s apparently unilateral designation of “Best” and by the inclusion of “clear instructions” as a selling point for a carrier that doesn’t require tools. I clicked on the “More info” link and, yes, after a repeat of the home page copy, here is as much information as anyone could require for a bicycle carrier.

One link on the home page (www.hammacher. com) is “The Unexpected.” Entertaining! Here are such items as “Only Heat-Sensing Hair Dryer,” “Original Home Driving Range” and “Flying Leap Stick-on Wall.” See the value of provocative copy? We’ve got to check out that last one: It’s half-trampoline, half inflatable wall, complete with body suits so you can stick to the wall…and it’s $6,000. I want one.

The only problem with this and other descriptions is that we expect a little romance when exploring “The Unexpected,” especially online; copy in this online catalog is dispassionate, a clerk’s description rather than a salesperson’s.

NetGrocer (www.netgrocer.com) is one of the “second generation” Web sites, designed expressly for the Web and not beholden to a print ancestor. Although it classifies itself as a grocery, it’s actually a supermarket. The day I last visited the site, lead items were film and videotape, with a somewhat puzzling price structure. For example, Kodak 400 Gold film was $4.99. Or was it? Just below “$4.99” was “$1,” unexplained. Is it shipping? What? Subsequent pages specify FedEx for orders over $50 at $4.99. This Web site is at once alluring (free Coke six-pack for orders over $30, 24 separate items under “Popcorn”) and frustrating, because the visitor goes click-happy in order to shop…a very common online experience and the possible salvation for direct mail, space ads and printed catalogs as we lurch into a purely electronic era.

Hello Direct, always a superlative catalog in print, has a Web site (www.hello-direct.com) that maintains the rare (for a business catalog) image of brightness, salesworthy descriptions and clarity. The first image on the home page is a free T-shirt with any hands-free item. So this marketer knows how to set a buying mood. As one clicks through the catalog, incentive after incentive surfaces. Example: “Order any product, get a Caller ID device for $9.99!”

The answer to the standard question, “Why bother with online?” is presented at Hello Direct’s site. Here is a company that knows the difference between mechanical descriptions and salesmanship.

Cyberian Outpost (www.outpost.com) is a computer products vendor. Even in its infancy, computer hardware and software sellers were doing business online. I decided to test this site for an iMac. Slo-o-o-o-o-w-w-w. So slow, in fact, that I was about to give up when the link finally cleared. The page had a fuzzy picture, an ample (and, pleasantly, a good-natured) description and a $1,269.95 price. Many typos here, suggesting the page had been assembled in haste.

I clicked back to the home page, to check the price of Windows 98. Slo-o-o-o-o-w-w-w. In the tradition of the typical surfer, the hell with it. Mitigation: I was using America Online, which is one step below using a computer virus.

On to Crutchfield, a source for audio equipment and always one of my favorites in print. The online version (www.crutchfield.com) didn’t let me down. On the home page is a useful “This week’s tip,” a technique sure to bring revisits from stereo nuts. The tip of the week I stopped by was statesmanlike, suggestions for damping speaker vibrations in a car and not tying the information to something on sale from Crutchfield.

One link is “Specials.” An example: “Snatch up this Blaupunkt in-dash CD for only $149.95! We only have a few of them left, but…” Another: “Save $220 on a Sony ES CD receiver! Yep, $220. And we’re talking about some of the finest car audio equipment around…” Now that’s the way to sell online.

Fragrance Counter has banners all over the place, so I felt I’d better visit the site (www.fragrancecounter.com). “Fragrance of the Week” was cK one by Calvin Klein, with a cK one backpack free for buying a 3.4-ounce eau de toilette. Another freebie: “Free Gift With Estee Lauder Pleasures.” Click on that and one gets a batch of “Bonus Buys,” one of which is Pleasures eau de parfum and “Free bag (bag?…ugh), $85 value, yours for $55.” Click on that and up comes one of the best product descriptions I’ve seen online. No, I’m not a perfume user, but I know good copy when I see it. So I forgive this site for the unadorned use of “bag” in a beauty-aid ambiance. But curiously, the copy says “FREE bag (pictured).” Sorry, Fragrance Counter, but the bag, pictured in the first reference, has disappeared. Oh, what the heck, I did see it earlier.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to check out a food and drink site. Virtual Vineyards (www.virtualvin.com) seemed to be a logical candidate, because the very name suggests Web savvy. The home page pitched a 1996 Solstice Merlot as “Peter’s Instant Pick.” No price mentioned here, so I clicked on it. It’s Napa Valley-no surprise-on sale, $17. What’s intriguing is “Peter’s Tasting Chart,” which lists seven yardsticks, ranging from “Intensity,” from delicate to powerful, to “Acidity,” from soft and gentle to very crisp, and rates this wine by each criterion. The effect is exactly what whoever designed this brilliant ploy intended: integrity instead of pitching. Add to that the affable first-person copy plus comfortable, not-overproduced layouts, and in my opinion we have a gem.

As a byproduct of hopping around, I discovered www.omix.com, which combined descriptions of the Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table and Chef’s Catalog sites. This was strange because it led nowhere…and, oddly, it gave no indication what the online addresses of these three catalogs might be.

So I went directly to one of my favorites. I’ve long been a customer of the print version of Chef’s Catalog. The home page had a special-a Hamilton Beach Chrome Drink Master, “reg. $89, special $69.99.” A click brought a satisfactory description, probably identical to that in the print catalog…plus a simple ordering technique and a stack of easy-to-choose links. One link is “Exciting Electrics,” a salesworthy title. A click brings up a menu of products, with a key feature-Cuisinart Pro Custom 11 Food Processor, “reg. $340, special $199.99.” Another quick click and the ample description is there.

Sorry, Chef’s Catalog, but I can’t find anything to complain about. Nice, smooth, even, workmanlike job.

And in conclusion, ladies and gentlemen…

If you believe (as I do) that the Internet will settle down (as television did)…and that the amount of daily time a typical surfer may spend hopping around the Web will decline as the novelty wears off…then you also agree that eventually the Web will become utilitarian rather than self-congratulatory.

My opinion may not be romantic, but it’s based on the competitive nature of the business all of us are in: Sites such as Health & Vitamin Express, Crutchfield, Virtual Vineyards and Chef’s Catalog-which prefer information to molasses-slow hunting, and clarity to jazziness-will be doing business because the first visit to their sites won’t be the last.

You may not agree. Sure. With millions of Web sites out there, clamoring for attention like hungry nestlings, total agreement is an impossible dream.

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