With the wealth of different Web sites to choose from, getting people to visit your offering these days is difficult enough, but getting them to come back is harder still. Web software suppliers now talk about "sticky" sites, which are able to keep people interested and encourage them to come back on a regular basis. When trying to create Web site loyalty, content is key.
The biggest problem for some Web sites is that the content creation process behind them is haphazard. Many businesses may set up Web sites offering static (non-interactive) content with the best of intentions, but the managers responsible forget that Web publishing is akin to normal publishing, and needs to be supported by an adequate content management team and workflow process. Without this, companies may end up with inaccurate, badly-spelled and poorly crafted content that quickly becomes obsolete.
You can create a workable content management process using discipline and conventional office productivity software, where business managers create and feed content through to a content editor who then edits it, marks it up and gives it to the Webmaster, for example.
There is no reason for you to produce all of your content yourself. Sometimes, you will want content that is updated on a very frequent basis, and you will not have the staff power to provide it in-house. An example is news. Providing relevant news headlines on your site will give customers another reason to come back for more. Sites such as NewsNow (www.newsnow.co.uk) will license you news headlines linking to stories covering different areas such as sports, current affairs, IT and finance.
But there is one problem with all of this content - it's static. Static content is there to be read, but doesn't offer the reader an interactive experience, and therefore doesn't take advantage of the Web's greatest features. It is possible to license programs that will provide you with more interesting content for your site, giving you the edge over the competition.
Personalisation is the most popular means of differentiating Web sites among companies. But, this presents a problem, because as more companies do it, there is less differentiation - it becomes a prerequisite for an e-commerce Web site, rather than a value-added service. The next big trend in Web pages is likely to be more personalised customer contact, in the form of real-time online customer service, and this will be a useful way to maintain a sticky Web site with a loyal customer base.
One of the most useful approaches here is online chat. Text messaging can be used to hook you up to customers on a real-time basis, enabling them to ask you questions about your products and services instantly.
The importance of such services cannot be overestimated - customers often want answers as quickly as possible, and they may not bother making further enquiries if they are forced to send an email to your customer services department. If they can access a sales or service representative instantly by clicking a button, they may choose not to visit your competitors' site after all.
Ultimately, the key to keeping your Web site fresh is to think beyond static presentation and think about ways to offer your customers dynamic content that will change according to their needs. At this point, the line between content and services blurs, presenting you with the opportunity to turn your basic site into what so many software and service suppliers are glibly calling the Web experience.
Check your links!
There is nothing quite so irritating as following a hyperlink from a site to an external source, only to find that the page returns a "404 Not Found" error in your browser. While checking your content, don't forget to scan your hypertext links to ensure that they are still active. There are plenty of automatic link checking tools to choose from - go to www.softwareqatest.com to find some of them.
This was first published in September 2000