The Internet changes everything, they used to say. And whatever doubts may have been raised by the dotcom disaster, there is still one area where this is true. The relationship between a company and its customers will never be the same now that the Internet is available as a go-between.
Before, customers were largely passive recipients of marketing mailouts, but now purchasers - actual or potential - can respond. Far from being seen as a tiresome downside of e-commerce, such opinions should be treasured. Indeed, before feedback was available as a by-product of the online sales process, companies would typically spend thousands of pounds trying to prise a few such comments from its customers. Now, they get it on a plate.
Yet too many companies squander this bounty, failing to gather it in a systematic way, or even ignoring it completely. Instead, it should form a key component of their online strategy. Used properly, it can not only provide feedback on how well a site is doing, but even suggest solutions to the problems it raises.
For those who want to go further than simply providing some ad hoc means for customer feedback, there are interesting specialised services, such as that from OpinionLab (www.opinionlab.com). This not only provides a formalised, and extremely clever, way of gathering online rating information, but has built a whole series of advanced analyses on top of it.
Needless to say, OpinionLab's Website employs its own technology. It is discreet, but unmissable, and takes the form of a strange hieroglyphic in the bottom right-hand corner of every page. Even though the symbol itself is very small, and thus unintrusive, it makes its presence felt by re-appearing in the same position even if the Web page is scrolled up or down.
A visitor's curiosity is piqued by this, and the natural inclination is to click on it. But before this can be done, a tiny rating scale, from one to five, pops up, along with a simple explanation. All a visitor has to do is to select one of the options, and the page has been rated. This approach is so simple that the main barrier to such rating systems - user reluctance to spend much time thinking or acting - is easily overcome.
It is generally accepted that brands play a role that is perhaps even more important online than in the conventional business world. After all, it is partly brand-awareness that encourages visitors to choose one site rather than another from among the millions on offer, and it is good branding that helps to keep them there.
Against this background it is therefore instructive to consider how some of the acknowledged leaders in branding approach the creation of generic e-commerce sites.
Kellogg's is certainly one of the strongest and most successful domestic brands. Its main brand site (www.kelloggs.co.uk) is striking for its simplicity, which allows the familiar 'K' logo to stand out and encourages exploration of the constituent parts that are accessed from links in the home page. These are notable for their Internet addresses, all of which contain 'kelloggs' to emphasise the brand yet further. Each of these related sites also adopts an identical format to the main one, providing visitors with a sense of familiarity and re-inforcing the overall brand.
Kellogg's site is well-thought out, but an even better example of how to hammer home a brand can be found at www.virgin.com. To say that this is the generic site of Virgin would be an understatement: everything is subordinated to that message, from the use of the word 'virgin' nearly 30 times, to the in-your-face red livery that proclaims the same.
A nice touch is that as the mouse pointer passes over the 20 different Virgin services, the main Virgin logo at the centre of the page switches to match. This provides some useful movement on the page, which otherwise would be too static. Interestingly, Kellogg's site does something similar, but restricts it to the use of Macromedia Flash technology in the navigation bar along the top.
Like Kellogg's, Virgin also uses its brand in the subsidiary Internet addresses - www.virgincars.com, www.virginwines.com, etc. This may seem obvious, but too many companies use long and obscure internal Internet addresses instead of creating new sites with strongly-branded addresses of their own.