What does well on the web – a personal view

By Susannah Ross, Free Pint, 31/10/02

I hear Jennifer Aldridge has set up a website in Ambridge (home of ‘The Archers’, in case you don’t follow this particular soap). She is making her research on local history available to anyone interested. Provided she has organised her information well and has built a decent website, I’d say her chances of succeeding are pretty good. These are big provisos, but the important thing is that she has identified good reasons for setting up a website: she has something to offer and the Web enables her to reach her market in a way that no other medium can. She is not investing capital or employing people, at least to start with, so if the site fails it will probably be only her pride that is hurt.

How different from the dotcom mania of little more than two years ago. Reams of print have been written about it, and websites have been set up to document it so that we can learn from the mistakes made. One of the fatal mistakes seems to have been the assumption that because technically you could reach millions of people, you would. On top of that huge assumption was piled another: that you could then persuade people to do things they had never done before, like order and pay online for food chopped up and ready to cook for their evening meal. At least with a mailshot you know you will reach people, even if there’s no guarantee that your offer will be read, still less taken up.

So, what does well? It helps to start with something that you know can be done. One business that has made good use of the Web, easyJet, started with an idea that had already been tried in the United States: no-frills air travel. It used a website – rather than travel agents or its own offices – to sell tickets as part of a strategy of operating more cheaply than the traditional airlines. The rest of the strategy included aiming to fill every plane and getting people to accept that the main reason for flying was simply to get from A to B. The website was important, but only one of several means to an end.

Established businesses that go online just because they feel they ought to have a presence on the Web usually make a poor show of it. They tend to regard the Web as somewhere to put their PR material. They don’t really want to communicate with individuals and they produce sites headed by meaningless slogans like “making life better for people” and filled with waffle that is of little use to the outsider. These sites not only tend to produce less information than a telephone call would elicit, they may actually damage the image of the company.

If the aim is to sell, the Web tends to favour products and services that are easily described, packaged and priced – like travel tickets, CDs and books. That includes pornography, one of the few successful Web businesses, in the sense that porn sites make money. The Web is an effective medium for pornography, I imagine, because it provides easier access to an established market than the traditional plain envelopes or corners of shops. Customers were already willing to pay for it and presumably were only too glad to receive the material directly into a computer at home or at work.

Not everything that does well sells well. News is a product well suited to the Web in that it consists of short bits of information that can be updated every minute, but customers are not used to paying for it in the same way as they are for other products. Although they buy newspapers and magazines, subscribe to television channels and pay the BBC licence fee, they tend to expect news to be free at the moment of delivery. There is so much news on the Web that customers will lap it up if it’s free, as it is at BBCi, but do without or go elsewhere if it’s not. So news does well, but it has to be perceived to be pretty special to sell well or sell at all. The Wall Street Journal is rare in that it has persuaded users to subscribe to read its stories online and is reckoned to be making money from its website.

Surveys suggest that many Web users still do not feel confident enough to pay for things online. So selling online may not be the main function of a business website. Big businesses like Sainsbury’s use their websites to cultivate their customers with specialised information, deals and competitions, as well as to sell. The selling is an extension of their existing service. The Wine Society uses the Web to allow members to do what they have always done – buy wine, read about wine, check their reserves – but in a new way, which for some will be more convenient than the telephone or the post.

Where customers feel that the main reason for a particular online operation is to cut costs, rather than improve service, a website can backfire. Some banks give customers a discount to do online what they are used to doing by post or in person. If there is no such incentive or if the process isn’t quicker than the traditional means, customers may feel that the organisation is making life easier for itself at their expense and go elsewhere. When my seven-year-old Psion returned from a repair job with a note saying that if I wanted an invoice I could get it online, my heart sank. But the method was so efficient and the printing out so painless that I accepted it. It helped that the rest of their customer service was so good.

A website can be a great asset for small businesses and individuals. They may not want to get into operating online payments, but they can make good use of the Web if they have an easily identifiable product, good credentials and clear aims. Small hotels seem to do well on the Web. A small business I know in Oxfordshire, Shackell Pianos, who sell and restore grand pianos, substantially increased their business when they set up a website. So did my singing teacher Catharine Robinson. Their products are easily found by search engines and the information on their websites cuts out a lot of telephone enquiries.

In fact, it may be easier for small enterprises to do well on the Web as their focus is clearer than that of big businesses, who are tempted to try to do too many different things with their websites. For the same reasons, local websites seem to do well. They have a clear identity, create a feeling of community and are better bets for advertisers than less targeted sites.

To decide what does well on the Web, remember what the Web does well. One of its peculiar strengths is the ability to track users. Amazon does things that only a super-assistant in a book shop could, like tell you what other books were bought by people who bought this one. Another strength is the ability to bring together a range of information that would be almost impossible to assemble in print. A site like CNet selling computer products not only has the manufacturer’s description of each product, it also has its own review and comments from customers who have used it.

The test is whether the website does the job better than the alternative. I’m surprised to read surveys showing car hire near the top of the kinds of business that do well on the Web. When I wanted to hire a car in Italy for my summer holiday, I struggled with the websites of some of the biggest car hire companies in the world. They asked irrelevant questions, took ages to register the required information and dealt scantily with insurance, local charges and taxes, which tend to be high in Italy. Then I remembered the telephone and did a deal in a few minutes.

The greatest strength of the Web is its ability to give an almost infinite number of people access to the same information at the same time. The Web provides a hitherto impossible ease of communication to people with a common interest wherever they happen to be. Hence the success of Friends Reunited at one end of the scale and some fairly nasty people at the other. It is good at bringing together and catering for people with every kind of interest, need or hobby.

Which brings us back to Jennifer Aldridge and the local and family history of Ambridge. Her project is just the kind of thing that does well on the Web. All she has to do is make sure that she’s got a good website. That, of course, is another story.