Far sited

The hype around the Web is starting to abate and its power as a sales and marketing tool is becoming apparent to clued-in clients, reports Paul Murphy

To mark the arrival of a new year the Internet has finally made the inevitable move from the “in” to the “out” column in the UK press. So does this mean we can just forget it, or is this shift in newsworthiness simply to be taken as a sign of a maturing market? While 1996 was the year that many companies tested out the waters of the World Wide Web, putting up print brochures and other dross just to see what happened, this year will be the big test of “having got it up, how do you keep it up?”.

“A year ago we had to educate, but these days marketing directors come to us with fully formed intelligent briefs,” says Steve Bowbrick, managing director of Webmedia. “It’s much more of a partnership. Before, they were asking for something to promote real world products, but now, in many cases, they’re looking to actually deliver those services through a Website.”

Which? On-line, designed by Webmedia for the Consumers Association, delivers the same test reports for washing machines and video cameras as the print publications. Alan Stevens, the site’s editor, explains that the initial motivation for the on-line move was due to requests from Which? readers looking for a reliable way of getting on to the Internet alongside a desire for electronic distribution of the publications. The strength of the Which? brand as a consumer’s champion has been maintained throughout the site and its role as an access provider. Beneath the surface the content is fully searchable, with more than 2500 html pages. While it’s the comparison shopper’s dream, full access is limited to subscribers paying a monthly fee. Yet another example of the move towards charging for on-line content.

Significantly for the future, Bowbrick says “there was no fee for the design and build of the Which? site as such, it’s all for the site’s maintenance”. Not surprisingly, Webmedia has eight full-time staff members looking after the project on a day-to-day basis. The account director at Webmedia, Elizabeth Van Couvering, describes it as a “fully co-operative effort. You can measure its success by the huge amount of feedback generated in the bulletin board sections of the site”.

The Channel 4 Website, built and maintained by On-line Magic, is very much the result of an evolving collaborative partnership that continues to pull in the punters. Designed around a programme listing, it incorporates various entertainment and information areas. While reflecting the diversity of the channel’s output, its success is in presenting the channel as a strong unified brand.

Originally conceived two years ago, it was only finally commissioned after extensive meetings with just about every Web production company around at the time. From these a shortlist was drawn up and multimedia company Matrix won the pitch at the end of 1995. Sadly, Matrix went bust and the pitch was re-opened, being won this time by On-line Magic. The original site was completed in a couple of months, going live in July last year.

“One of the things that made choosing really difficult was that each company responded to the brief very differently,” says Sophie Walpole, editor of the C4 Website. “It didn’t come down to cost and in the end we felt On-line Magic had the best designers. It’s also pretty big and well established and after our experience with Matrix we felt stability was important.”

The set-up cost for the site was just over 80 000, with a maintenance contract of 12 500 a month. There is a real understanding that an unchanging site is a dead site, and this is reflected in the seven full-time staff members dedicated to the site, three at C4 and the rest at On-line Magic.

Walpole explains the significance of continuing to evolve the content: “We try to add one major element a week so if you come back once a week there will be something new to look at, which is the whole point of the site.” Although Walpole and her deputy Jon Kingsbury are largely responsible for the editorial while On-line Magic deals with the design, it’s not a hierarchy fixed in stone. One of the most visited parts of the C4 site is the Father Ted section, which was the idea of the design team.

As part of an overall marketing strategy, the site is used to entice viewers to the TV channel. At the same time, the Website benefits from the on-screen promotion it receives on TV.

“The important thing is that it’s a forward-looking site. You can visit the site, watch the programme and come back to the site for feedback and more information,” says Walpole. With the TV listings in the newspapers dedicating less and less space to BBC2, and C4’s overall output set to continue with the arrival of Channel 5, this is seen as one place to promote the channel’s programmes in all their glory.

The site’s recent redesign incorporates C4’s new “circles” logo, and despite the disparate elements that make up the channel’s programming, the site forms a cohesive part of its identity and branding. At the same time it’s been restructured, making it easier and faster to use. “The site had grown too big over the six months it was up. Now there’s a newer, simple navigation system which means that you can get to any particular area of the site, such as ‘entertainment’, in two clicks of the mouse,” explains Finbar Hawkins, the site producer at On-line Magic.

By necessity and its very nature, the C4 site is highly reactive. Last year’s gameshow Wanted, in which members of the public were asked to help hunt down the contestants as they hid around the UK, received more sightings via the Internet than it did over the phone. Looking to build on this success in the future, the site’s producers want to involve the programme makers to a higher degree in what appears on the Web. As Hawkins says: “The big one this year is a changing developing content. People are realising that it’s what makes people come to a site.” The relative paucity of compelling content on the World Wide Web means that a well-advertised site delivering quality entertainment and information is something worth revisiting.

Speaking along the same lines, AMX Digital’s Malcolm Garrett is quick to point out to clients what their priorities in contemplating a Website should be: “What many companies don’t realise is that they’re starting a publishing venture when they launch their Website. The problems and responsibility really start once it’s up. Site management and strategic planning are absolutely crucial at the start. The ideal client is the one involved in the job from the very beginning, not the ones who say ‘just get on with it’.”

There is a collective belief, quite obvious really but neglected in the past, that the most successful Web production companies are the ones that can best address the overall needs of their clients. “We’re looking to the long term,” says Imagination’s head of multimedia Christian Purser. “It’s important for clients to ask what your ultimate objectives are and how they will fit in with their plans.”

After all, as Fiona Fahy, account manager at Agency.com, which is responsible for the British Airways site, says: “We’re still about servicing clients, whatever it is that they’re providing – we’re in the business of business if you like. We won the British Airways account because we understand what the BA brand is and what it means to support a brand identity on a global scale.” At the heart of the BA site is a searchable on-line ticket service which advises on availability and cost on any of BA’s routes. Alongside a developing content, it’s this kind of functionality that’s going to drive the next phase of the growth of the Internet. “It’s a collapsing together of content and commerce,” explains Webmedia’s Bowbrick.

According to a study by Reuters, 83 per cent of the UK’s biggest advertisers already have a Web presence, of which half are used to sell products and services. While this may represent a commercialisation of the Net that not everyone welcomes, it does suggest that this is a business medium to be taken seriously. The key to the future seems to lie in forming the right alliances between clients and Web producers alongside an understanding of what it is that makes anyone log on rather than drop off.

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