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Watching the World Wide Web

Staying Out of the Cyberspace Graveyard

Two absolute necessities for a successful Web site are organizational commitment and adequate resources.

By Jordan Gold

Anyone who has gone Web surfing has seen them--World Wide Web sites that haven't been updated in too long. They tell you of their "new products" with words like "Coming in January" when it's July. These are the tombstones of what I call cyberspace graveyards--Web sites that aren't being updated because companies don't see the value of online activity. We're going to see a lot more of these dead (or comatose) sites, because online is still mysterious, difficult to quantify and expensive.

Put yourself in the shoes of a hypothetical corporate executive. You approved building a Web site and approved one person spending part of their time building the site and then maintaining it. Everything goes well until launch. At that point, traffic is higher than you expected, so the employee assigned to the Web site asks for help to answer the online questions and keep the site up to date. You approve a second person, this one to spend full time online (unless something "truly" related to the business needs to be done).

Three months after the site goes up, you're asked for another full-time person. Then you're asked for additional funds to redesign the site, upgrade the server and add additional software to the server. You're getting traffic, but no revenue. You think this presence is good for your business, but the benefits are difficult to quantify. Within a year, as you are constantly asked for more people and money, you start to fear that the Web is nothing more than a money pit. So you draw the line: You refuse to spend any more money or hire more people. The result? Before you know it, your site becomes hopelessly out of date and perhaps given up for dead by visitors.

The above scenario is not widespread--largely because the Web is so new--but as corporate Web sites age, this will happen more and more. Because it's new, the Web is also bewildering and scary to many companies. Why shouldn't it be? Technology changes every day, making no clear-cut answers available. The benefits of online are compelling on the one hand but dubious on the other.

While online gives you the opportunity to create exciting, changing experiences for users and to get closer to the customers who use your products, it is still a slow, frustrating experience for most people. Surfing the Web on a modem can be torture, especially if customers are connecting via a commercial online service. Also, customers have short attention spans online. They won't come back to your site if it is slow and you don't constantly update it. To make things worse, there is no revenue stream in sight.

Staying Alive

How can you keep your site from becoming a graveyard? Here are a few hints.

Set clear expectations for management. This is more difficult than it sounds, because you probably won't know what you'll need in the form of hardware and people when you first start out. One way to avoid problems later on, though, is to state that online is new and unpredictable, and that while you feel comfortable with your cost estimates now, you may need more people, equipment and/or development dollars. Try to justify as many dollars and people as possible.

Do as much as you can with as few people as possible. This also is difficult, but create a positive environment for your staff. Get everyone working together and developing projects that they can get excited about. Don't continuously ask management for more people. However, don't settle for doing this by yourself or assigning someone to it half-time. If online isn't someone's full-time job, your site won't be successful, because your staff will be spending its time doing jobs in your company's core business. I recommend at least two full-time people, one with a marketing bent, the other technical. Of course, the more people you have, the more often you can improve and update your site.

One great way to save on staff is to hire part-time, free-lance and student help. There are a lot of people who want to learn about the Web. College interns, who have essentially grown up with online, are often more qualified to work than full-time candidates. And interns can progress into full-time jobs when they graduate.

Establish revenue streams. This might be only a trickle, but get some revenue coming in to help pay for your site and staff. Sell your company's products online, either yourself or through a supplier. Sell advertising on your site. Create some online products and offer them for sale. Capture the names of your site visitors for list rental purposes or other database-related marketing activities.

Continuously inform management about the benefits of online in general and your site in particular. An informed management is a happy management. If you keep management in the dark as to the successes and failures of your site, don't be surprised if they pull the plug on you. Every failure that's a surprise is a much bigger problem than a failure that you warned them about. And the more they hear of your successes, the better they'll feel about online in general and your site in particular. Circulate site statistics, tidbits and other eye-catching information.

Create a compelling site. This is the most important element of success. If your site is compelling, traffic is high and you see a way to pay for the site in the future, your chances of becoming a casualty are much lower than if your site is boring, there's no traffic and no revenues but you're continuously adding new staff.

Remember, it's much easier to build the value of your Web presence in increments than by having to disinter a dead body.

Jordan Gold is vice president and publisher of Macmillan Online USA, a division of Simon and Schuster/Viacom in Indianapolis, IN. He can be reached at jgold@mcp.com. The Web address is http://www.superlibrary.com.