Keep cool over interactivity

Web site forums, baskets and SMS messages must be grounded in economic viability

Web site forums, baskets and SMS messages must be grounded in economic viability

First it was cool to have a Web site. Then it became uncool not to. Now you're lagging behind if you're not at least on your site's second edition. Why? Because now you need "interactivity". Whatever that is.

Web fashions can make you cynical, especially when your developers are promising to charge you five times what they charged you last time for your new state-of-the-art Web site. Because this time they're giving you interactivity.

So what is it? Interactivity can mean Web sites with discussion areas, password-protected zones, online price calculators, searchable databases, product directories with user reviews and comparison prices, shopping baskets and secure checkouts, even sites that send Short Message Service messages for you.

With an interactive site, every page can be tailored to a particular customer. You can detect whether they've been to your site before, recall what they did, and suggest related things.

Online retailer Amazon does this brilliantly with its customer reviews of the things you're browsing and "Customers who bought this also bought". A simple shopping basket can become an addictive hobby, and sites like this are making an art out of the business of selling things online.

Interactivity can mean brochure sites using Flash, Java applets and the like. With such a site, you can turn a mundane product into an interactive "experience", with movies, sounds and 3-D animation. The whole experience can be so enthralling that customers will forget that they only came to the site to buy travel insurance.

Hey, steady now. On my slow, old PC I don't have Flash, and my browser crashes when it runs Java. Hasn't interactivity gone too far?

Just as the dotcoms hit their inevitable dot-bump, so the sanity of real world economics prevails commerce on the Web. The use of interactivity doesn't depend on technology, it depends on the economically sensible use of technology. And this means that a site has to pay for itself, either directly or through its positive effect on the business that runs it.

Take this for a sanity check: how many owners of interactive sites actually check that interactivity increases the number of "successful" visits to the site. Do people buy things? Does it boost repeat visits? Do they become customers if they're not already, and does it improve loyalty?

There's a story going round that interactivity is getting cheaper, that it's getting easier to make your site whizz. And it's true that there are products such as Dreamweaver Ultradev that turn the long-hand server-side coding business into a point/drag/click affair.

But this is really just what products like Visual Basic did for programming languages many years ago: they make programming seem easier, but they still leave real interactive Web site development the domain of the techie, not the technophobe.

Decent interactivity that's tailored to your site's needs still comes at a price, and it's not necessarily better than a plain old brochure. But if it's worthwhile and it suits your site's subject matter, then it can be highly worthwhile.

Interactivity has made things possible that never used to be. Apart from buying online, you can find old acquaintances, check your current account balance, submit your tax return. And more to the point, the businesses (or governments) running these sites see a business case for having such a site. At the simpler end, it's possible, at a low cost, to buy yourself an online Web shop or discussion forum and drop a software package onto your site.

Where is it leading us? As relatively simple interactive sites become the expected norm (the shop, the discussion forum) so networks of servers will be the future. Expect to see lots of developments in the B2B arena and in the behind-the-scenes workings of consumer sites.

XML, Simple Object Access Protocol, .net and Java 2 Enterprise Edition are some of the technologies which will stitch together these networks, with servers conferring among themselves before rushing back to you with an amalgam of just-in-time data. Then there will be the stitching-in of mobile services into interactive sites, possibly creating new ventures, which weren't there before.

So go out there, get the interactive site that suits you. Don't be uncool, but keep your business head on too.

Tony Butcher is managing director of Tribal Internet

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