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Are Websites Not Innovative Enough?

I asked a group of people recently what they thought were the most exciting things happening in the new media space right now. I got a range of answers: mobile messaging and advertising, games, social networking, video, even podcasting made the list. Nobody mentioned a website they were blown away by or something innovative that an organization, or even a media company, had done with their site. Sure, all the elements they mentioned live on or launch from a website, but they could just as easily be free-standing (and they have become destination elements for most of the people I talked with).

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The consensus: Websites are pretty boring right now.

Apparently my little focus group is right on the money. A new study by the Web Marketing Association found that most website development is not keeping pace with consumer expectations. The results were released along with the results of the WMA’s 2006 Web Awards.

To determine the best sites the WMA examined entries from 97 different industries in seven different categories (design, content, technology, interactivity, copywriting, ease of use, and innovation). The top award for sites went to TBS’s Department of Humor Analysis site, which helps to promote the network’s various comedy programs through Web video and viral features. The airline industry was the category that was seen as the most advanced in Web development. The site in the airline space that has received most of the accolades was American Airlines’ Why You Fly campaign site.

It seems to me that the TBS site is successful because it is focused, easy to navigate, and still manages to deliver some very compelling (read: funny) content. The American Airlines site, meanwhile, provides all the services you would expect in terms of booking flights. But the site can also help you with trip planning details – and American is not the only airline to offer that type of add-on. There are a lot of sites that are easy to click around but have boring content. There are even more sites that offer compelling content but are hard to navigate. The true innovation with both these sites is that they offer users a complete experience when they go online, not a one-trick pony or something that has all the bells and whistles but no substance behind it. The judges obviously recognized what us web users have known for a long time.

There were some dogs among the bunch as well – the financial services industry, for example, was considered to be very short on innovation. Financial services companies spend millions of dollars a year to recruit new customers through online advertising and have invested heavily in technology for data security and to support accessibility for aging and disabled users. But in terms of customer experience and ease of use once someone is signed up and using the site regularly — most fall well short.

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Designing focused and engaging sites for the web is not that difficult. Too often we let technology drive our decision making and we forget what its like to be a web user – what information is compelling, how to help someone through the process of completing an activity on our sites, and similar. Study up on the results from WMA, there is much we can all learn.

Direct of New Media – Cone Inc. • Boston, MA • breich@coneinc.com www.coneinc.com

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