The flashing cookies

Corporate messages are an important way of developing a brand. A consistent story makes the company believable and gives potential customers a positive feeling for the survival strengths of the company they are about to hand money over to. I once worked for a company that had a 24-hour phone support system. Many a time we got calls about problems on other people’s equipment simply because we were providing one of the only telephone numbers where a near-desperate operator could talk to a broadcast engineer. None of our customers doubted our survivability.

Maybe you don’t think you have a 24-hour service support operation, but I would bet you do. It’s called your Web site. It does more to tell a customer about your company than most of the collateral material you provide, and it does so quietly – and with no opportunity for an employee to correct any mistaken impressions that a customer might make.

I recently spent a few quiet hours visiting the Web sites of many of the equipment manufacturers in the broadcast business and, quite frankly, it is not that pretty of a picture. The Internet is a marvelous medium for getting information out, and many companies provide that information in impressive ways. But the Web should be no different from any other medium used by a company: It should be there to sell product. Selling is a very emotional process and it is people who buy things, not companies. You, therefore, provoke a customer at your peril, and if you provide enough emotional negatives, your salespeople don’t stand a chance at converting an inquiry into a purchase order.

People understand that on a personal sales level, but those people are not the ones who put the company’s Web site together. Too often the people who do are after glitz and technology just for the sake of technology. The Web is a wonderfully flat playing field, unless you make mistakes.

The simplest and most important starting point is loading time. If a site takes more than a couple of seconds to load on a DSL connection, I am generally out of there. If it takes more than 45 seconds to load – and we have them in the industry – the site is out of control.

Well over a third of the companies in our space are using Flash on the front page of their sites. Apart from being garish, it says that the company has an ego that it wants to bare to the world to show how wonderful technology is; it also means that the customer has to “Enter” the site beyond the annoying opener. What the customer wants is to get product information as quickly as possible. If you want me to register to get to the meat then you better have software clever enough to determine that I didn’t sign in as “” again.

You also need your Web people to understand the nature of the customer that the company deals with. Most engineers are pretty careful about their personal information and we are mostly lurkers, unless we are talking to other engineers. If a survey were taken, I would expect to find that the majority of us have cookies disabled on our browsers – but about half of the sites I went to wanted to set at least one cookie, with some wanting to set more. The winner was a major company that asked me twenty-three times to accept cookies before allowing me to browse its product portfolio. Why?

I found a company with a non-operational navigation bar, another that had an invalid URL in a product advertisement, one that capitalized a URL leading to a “page not found” message, and one that had a front page of 253K! If you like being greeted with credit card logos, there is one of those, too – or maybe you would prefer the rather obvious message, “You have found us.”

Finally, many denizens of cyberspace do use Internet Explorer as their browser, but I have found that engineers as a class prefer Netscape, often simply because it’s not produced by Bill. So what do you think of a major Japanese supplier whose front page loads empty in Netscape? The real gem is a test and measurement company that doesn’t bring up the usual blank page when a site is incompatible with Netscape, but instead (on DSL, yet) takes over two painful minutes to load a page occupied by broken graphics.

I know what kind of corporate brand/message that leaves me with. How about you? E-mail and point me toward the broadcast industry sites you love…or love to hate. Either I’ll give the good ones equal time, or there may be a Part II “under construction.”

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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