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Supporting the Buy Decision
Separating Wheat from Chaff on the Web

Commentary / Opinion (DRAFT submitted for publication - 3/27/96)

by Richard R. Reisman, President, Teleshuttle Corporation

Sponsors and designers of some of the most expensive and prominent Web sites are missing the point. The objective of a commercial Web site is to attract potential customers in order to help them decide to buy. Graphic richness, leading-edge effects, and radical design concepts may help get potential customers to notice your site, but without great care, such artifice will drive most of them away long before they can decide to buy. If your product is one sold with slick images and little substance, the Web is a poor substitute for TV and print. True, it can do some things they can't, but only a very small niche audience will be receptive.

The real power of the Web, particularly in this era of "narrowband" low-speed access, is to provide information in a powerful new way. Information that draws potential customers to you, makes them happy you are there, and helps them decide to buy from you. That information may be text or data, or it may be multimedia, but the key is that it be useful in both content and organization. Users must be able to quickly and easily find their way through it, to find things they want to know, and then move on with their life. Most of the customers you seek to attract do have a life. In marketing, interactivity is a means, not an end. When I want to play games, I will find a game site. When I want to buy a car, help me or get out of my way.

Web Design - The good, the bad, and the stupid

Web design is repeating the early mistakes of desktop publishing. People were so enamored with the power of their new tools that they got carried away with technique, and lost sight of the objective. The world was flooded with "kidnap notes," documents with eight type styles in six sizes, in bold, outline, and double underscore, to the point of distraction and unreadability. Power Web designers may get 15 minutes of fame for being the first with some new Java or server-push effect. But after the novelty value wears off, most of the effects are rather hokey and pathetic, especially for users at dial-up speed. For those users, such effects take forever to appear, if they work at all. Even with high-speed T1 access, the network often bogs down, and surfing complex, graphically rich sites becomes an exercise in frustration.

Some sites are better than others, but it take great discipline to keep glitz from getting in the way. The worst sites make you start out waiting for an elaborate mystery graphic to appear, only to present you with the stimulating and informative message "Click here to continue." If you take them up on that you find a content map with stylish icons which bear no discernible clue to what lies beneath. Fine if you want to play a computer game, but not useful to the average customer over 20. Sell-ertainment works on TV and in print, but on the Web it is a curiosity--sometimes interesting and amusing, but more often annoyingly crude and frustrating. There may be situations where it makes sense to spend large amounts of money to amuse viewers whose time has no value, but they are not the rule.

In today's narrowband world, Web sites work most powerfully as infomercials. They are the ideal infomercial, because customers seek them out and use them when they have a problem to solve. You can help them solve that problem and gain their goodwill. At the same time, you can gently make them aware of the merits of your company and its products, and its point of view. If they are ready to make a buy decision, you get to be the guide. If not, you gain mindshare and recognition, and the position to help them buy when they are ready.

The key is to be useful to the consumer who is exploring your marketspace. Some Web surfers are looking for entertainment, but the mass-market user, and the likely buyer, is surfing with a mission (and often with a meter running). They are researching a topic or a product area. They are struggling to find the grains of wheat in a sea of chaff. The hyperlinks of the Web (combined with the search engines) offer a tool for navigating information that is a quantum leap beyond any prior medium. That tool is still primitive and poorly understood. As a Web sponsor or designer, you can help structure your site to be a powerful information--and selling--tool, or you can bury it in chaff.

To use the Web effectively as a tool for your potential customers, you must think about how to help them accomplish their mission. Make it easy to understand what they can find, and where to look for it. Make it easy for them to move around, retain a sense of orientation, and find their way back to something they saw and found useful earlier. Give them pages with enough meat that they don't have to click and click and click to find a morsel, and then have no idea where to go next. The scroll bar is there for a reason: it works. Hypertext enables text to be nonlinear, which is powerful because thinking is nonlinear. But only idiots make nonlinear jumps every two sentences. And only drivel can be written that way.

Marketing as good citizenship in the marketspace

To exploit the power of the Web as an infomercial you must draw potential customers to your site. Some may already be thinking of buying from you and will find you with little help (any half competent Web user can use Yahoo to do that). You are, no doubt, already using the other channels at your disposal to publicize your site. What you may not be doing to the fullest is making your site a destination for those who are in your marketspace, but not yet ready to seek you out as a seller. (By "marketspace" I mean the entire matrix of ideas, information, networks, and systems that link potential buyers and sellers.)

You can exploit the power of the Web to become a marketspace resource--a destination for anyone in your marketspace, whether they are thinking of buying from you or not. The natural currency of the Web is information as a resource--freely available and readily accessible. To attract Web surfers on a mission, you must offer them a valuable resource, preferably one that has clear utility apart from purely self-serving sales promotion. If you offer useful information, usefully structured, those who have any interest in your marketspace will seek you out, spend time at your site, and give you a place in their mindspace. Other Web sites will gladly point to you as a valuable resource.

Many sponsors now pay large sums for advertising links, when they could be getting free links to the resources they offer--from other sites in equally strategic locations--links that users will actually be tempted to follow. Advertisement links are a nuisance -- they slow down page display and waste scarce screen real estate (and might reflect negatively on the advertiser if they weren't so easily tuned out). What inn would you be inclined to stop at on the highway: the one that plastered a billboard in your face, or the one that put up a good, low-key tourist information center that just happened to include a well-stocked selection of their brochures and gave you a positive feeling about relating to them? On the Web, relationship marketing is everything.

Providing such valuable resources has some cost, but it is cheap compared to the cost of flashy animations and effects, and of purchased links. You can provide useful information yourself, or simply offer guides to useful information available from others.

An outstanding high-end example is Macromedia's "Perk Up Your Brain," which offers a variety of useful content, including the archives of a number of popular magazines about multimedia, and even a tool guide from New Media Magazine that actually covers competitive products ( As they put it, " is designed to make graphic artists and multimedia developers more productive. Unlike most 'product message' oriented sites on the Web, over 60% of is devoted to content from industry leaders including top publications and developers. As the Source and Center for multimedia, graphic design and online publishing on the web, has a lot to explore. Our web site changes daily so you want to check in often." This is a powerful attractor of traffic and a valuable public service in the spirit of the Web.

Macromedia evidently puts significant effort into hosting this content, but similar effects can be achieved with "virtual" content. One beauty of the Web publishing model is the ability to offer such virtual content (pointers to materials hosted by others, with or without commentary of your own) at nearly zero cost. Resource guides are a whole new class of hypermedia that exploit the fact that organizing and pointing to information ("context") is just as valuable as creating and publishing it ("content"). By developing such a guide you can make a valuable contribution that attracts visitors, and exposes them to your point of view. A very simple, low-cost example is Teleshuttle's resource guide to CD/online/Web combinations ( This is a concise but meaty survey of the company's specialty area, with brief editorial commentary that organizes a few dozen links to useful items from the press, partners, customers, and yes, even competitors. Several prominent CD-oriented sites were happy to provide free links to this resource guide.

The Web rewards those who play its game--if you offer something of real value, that is not grossly self-serving, those who share your marketspace will support you, and refer traffic to you. By building on and supporting that community, you can become a welcome and respected pillar of it.

The tools to make a Web site serve as a powerful information-based marketing tool are here now, and not hard to master. With a little finesse, and an understanding of the mission, you can build an effective site at reasonable cost. But if you lose sight of the mission and get lost in the latest technological gimmickry, you can waste a lot of money and end up so disappointed that you--or your management--may be inclined to throw out the baby with the bath water. The rumblings of that drum are no longer very distant.

Richard R. Reisman is President and founder of Teleshuttle Corporation (New York), a provider of CD-ROM/online/Web solutions and consulting. He has been a believer in hypermedia since the late 1960's, and can be reached at

Contact Information

Richard R. Reisman, President, Teleshuttle Corporation
799 Broadway, New York, NY 10003
(212)-673-0225 fax: (212)-673-0226

1996, Teleshuttle Corp. All rights reserved

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Copyright 2003 (or prior), Teleshuttle Corp. All rights reserved.