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Online Apps: The Web's Virtual Flypaper, a Marketer's Weapon

A successful Web site operates a lot like your favorite restaurant — you may enjoy the atmosphere, location and friendly service, but in the end it's the meal itself that makes you come back for more. Similarly, a site may have a flashy design, a catchy URL and an intuitive interface, but if its content can't drive traffic then it's as appealing as that greasy spoon down the street.

According to Forrester Research, content causes 75 percent of consumers to return to their favorite site, creating the most valuable metric of stickiness – the Golden Fleece of interactive advertising. A sticky site provides content that has visitors coming back for more, but most importantly, because sticky content creates repeat visitors, those visitors are more likely to become buyers. How do you create a sticky site? The key is not simply to provide visitors with something to read but to provide them with something to do — like work.

Across the Web there is a growing trend of companies offering free software applications — called e-Tools — that are accessed through a Web browser. From graphic design applications to contact databases to e-mail, savvy Web marketers are learning that they can reach their target audience and keep its attention by moving the PC desktop onto the Internet.

Traditionally, sticky sites have been defined as possessing the four Cs: community, content, communication and commerce. Each one of these components is essential in creating a successful Web site and providing content that attracts repeat visitors and strengthen the site's other components. Because online application users spend more time on the sites, they feel a stronger sense of loyalty, they are more comfortable with the news and product reviews they learn at the site and, ultimately, they are more inclined to make a purchase – either directly online or through information gleaned from advertising.

As such, e-Tools provide advertisers with a focused target audience and a structure that allows them to advertise more effectively. A recent study by NetRatings, Inc. noted that only one in every 100 banner ads actually elicits a mouse click from an interested visitor. With the industry looking for effective banner alternatives, online applications allow advertisers to run larger, information-based display and sponsorship ads that are more apt to have a visitor actually read the ad. This type of ad is much more like a traditional print ad than a direct mail piece.

Free online applications have been successful because they are simple and diverse. That is to say, they provide specific and useful functions such as e-mail, calendar organization and graphic design. By developing a wide-array of free tools, Web marketers can attract a highly targeted audience.

You want to reach Web designers creating both personal homepages and professional sites? Design a free application that lets them do that. Users flock to these sites because there's nothing to buy, download or upgrade and the application is there when they need it. The same can be said for e-mail applications and the slew of popular calendar and organizational applications offered by some portals.

Advertisers further benefit from online applications by taking advantage of the creative ways in which they can package their messages such as sponsorships — a particularly successful method for advertising with this model. Just as sports marketers in the brick-and-mortar world have attached their brands to athletic venues coast-to-coast, savvy online ad gurus can affix their brand with a successful tool. Essentially, marketers can display their messages as clearly as posting a poster in someone's office.

In addition, advertisements can be created in a wide variety of shapes and sizes that blend seamlessly into the interface. Because users stay on the sites longer, they don't have to rely on noisy, ever-blinking banners that frustrate more than educate. An information-packed ad will have a far greater impact on a receptive, repeat audience. In fact, studies have shown that larger, information-based ads generate higher click-through rates than their glitzier counterparts.

As the Internet continues to expand replicating the real world into the virtual world with everything from bookstores to drug stores coming online, one fact is painfully obvious: Online consumers are both well-informed and well-funded. Online audiences tend to be highly educated with above-average incomes and best of all, recent studies show that they are spending more time online. May figures from Media Metrix indicate that the total number of hours spent on the Internet that month increased by two-thirds to 1.2 billion hours from 709 million hours in May of 1998. The same analysis showed that Web surfers spent over 40 percent more hours online in May 1999 than a year ago with the average user logging 7.3 hours that month.

The growth of e-Tools that perform useful tasks with relative ease and convenience has contributed to the growing stickiness of the Internet and will continue to provide online advertisers with a highly focused and lucrative media to transmit their messages.

Bruce Twickler is president/CEO of Andover.Net, Acton, MA, an online IT network. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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