Note: This article contains actual links to real web sites. Even though we've made every effort to select bad sites as well as good, bad sites have a nasty habit of suddenly turning good themselves. Neither the staff nor management of AskTog accepts responsibility for such an unfortunate eventuality.
Websites are a godsend to manufacturers and distributors, but only if they figure out what to do with them. This month, we'll visit two sites that miss the mark. While I'm zeroing in on manufacturer/distributor sites, the principles I will espouse are generally applicable to any site that doesn't intend to actively drive business away.
100 years ago, manufacturers were differentiating themselves based on product quality or special, easily-understandable features. For example, Procter & Gamble built its early fortunes by changing the gray soap of the day into an ivory-white product so pristine the company declared it "99 and 44/100ths percent pure" (all the while neatly avoiding the question, "pure what?"). An accident in the mixing process left one large batch of soap with so much included air that it floated. These two easily-recognized, easily-understood differentiators were enough to propel the company into the forefront of industry.
Today, consumers cannot so easily see the differentiators. Manufacturers are turning out products for the home that, in many cases, exceed the complexity of early spacecraft. People need a huge amount of clear, in-depth technical information delivered in a form easily digested. At the same time, the traditional source of such information, the retail channel, has gone through its own revolution. High-end retailers have gone the way of the Dodo bird, replaced by warehouses and superstores. Because employees are neither valued nor, in many cases, receive the benefits that traditionally held workers, employee turn-over has accelerated to the point where many of the stores claiming to have all the answers are staffed with employees so new they don't even know the questions.
Enter the web page. Here, at last, is the medium that enables a manufacturer, no matter where in the world, to establish an intimate conversation with their potential customers, to guide them gently along, from the first tentative "feeler" to a confirmed buying decision. Let's take a look at what they're doing with this new-found power.
Brochureware is a scourge on the net. Rather than going to the trouble of actually designing a website that might increase sales, many manufacturers and distributors come up with the brilliant idea of scanning their brochures and slapping them onto the web. I wonder if they would do that were they to buy a minute of Superbowl ad time for $1,000,000? Sure, running a website doesn't cost that much, but people can lose that much in unrealized sales very quickly.
Matsushita is one of the great powerhouses of the Japanese electronics industry, fielding such brands as Panasonic, JVC, and Technics. I had occasion this month to research Technics keyboards. I was less than amused with what I found when I eventually discovered *Technics USA's site. "Eventually" because the site is hidden deep inside the Panasonic site. Just click on the picture of the camcorder and you will be whisked to keyboards. Anyone not knowing the Panasonic-Technics connection might well have abandoned the effort before even finding the Technics Brochureware collection.
Advertising traditionally attempts to achieve at least the first and last of the following three goals to succeed:
(Actually, number three seems to be fading from the scene, based on many recent Gen X ads I've seen for unidentifiable products.)
Selling requires one more important step:
4. You have to ask for the order and, eventually, get the money.
Even if some retail dealer will ultimately be the one collecting the money, it is the website's job to get the buyer into that store.
The Technics USA site accomplishes few of these steps.
This site has one feature in common with most brochureware sitesa lack of any facility to enable the user to compare and contrast among products. Technics's perhaps 20 keyboards are each individually described and reachable only through a two-level menu hierarchy. One menu, for digital ensembles, reads as follows:
That's it. Five utterly cryptic model numbers. No explanation. No nothin'. No way to remember which keyboard is which, even after you've tried to memorize all five feature lists so you can build your own mental comparison chart. (This is particularly hard to do, since none of the features are defined or described.)
Increasing the failure, the coolest features of the ensembles aren't even listed in the brochures, so you might wander away to a different keyboard line or a different manufacturer without even knowing what this thing can really do.
Finally, they flunk step 4, asking for the order or, in this case, sending people off to buy. Even though these products are apparently sold through dealers, I could find no mention that dealers even exist. One could as safely assume that you obtain the product by flapping a bedsheet at the moon. Nowhere could I find the magic box where you enter your zip code and get the dealer nearest you. Nowhere could I find the "drop us a line and we'll have someone get back to you." And this on products that sell for many thousands of dollars. It was as though this were a museum-on-line, a storehouse of knowledge on exquisite items that, of course, are not for sale.
How to really screw things up.
Sometimes a manufacturer wants to take that one extra step: Instead of being satisfied in keeping the customer from finding a dealer, they actually want to drive people away.
Take mb microtec as an example. These folks have seemingly gone out of their way to keep their products a secret. They have an ugly site that only looks reasonable in total darkness, and they keep their customers in the same darkness by showing only scanned brochures. However, they don't stop there. They offer a complex form you can fill out to get more information, make suggestions, or discover your nearest dealer. Sounds good? It would be, except for two minor little things:
First, it has one of those type-in boxes where you are supposed to enter your message, except the box is so small, you can only see around four words at a time. Incredibly frustrating.
Second, when you do fill out the whole form and click submit, they demand your user name and password! Which, obviously, you don't have! 'Cause you're just visiting! Thereby proving to the entire world that these folks have never, ever, ever, ever, ever, even once bothered to test this thing. Nor, apparently, have they noticed that the email is not pouring in. It's just got to make you wonder.
How to do it right
Their site is not perfect, but the folks at Great West Music, the Technics distributor in Canada, are on the right track in emulating the best features of a retail experience. They not only keep you entertained, they sell the product. They still lack comparison charts, but they offer full information, properly integrated, with summaries on the menu pages, with little Info icons you can click on if you don't understand a term. Most importantly, they close the sale by directing you right to the dealer.
When I owned a computer store in San Francisco, during the early days of micros, I took great pains to make my store as inviting to those who had already bought as those just buying, hosting user-group meetings and offering advanced help to those already along the path. The result was that the store was always full of existing customers, anxious to sell new people coming in on the wonders of this product they, themselves, had only recently acquired.
The folks at Great West Music understand that power and are putting it to good use. They are building community by offering advanced help to existing customers and by running a chat room. They are generating all the knowledge and enthusiasm that was found in a traditional retail store. Coupled with their on-line library of (favorable) product reviews, they have built a powerful sales force seen by visitors as straight and unbiased.
Guidlines for developing a manufacturer's/distributor's site:
The folks who designed the Great West Music site know people and they know how to sell. Their website shows it. Follow these steps and yours will, too.
I hate to say it, but one of the worst offenses of the mb microtec site is 1) the use of Java on the home page (users should never unknowingly encounter Java) and 2) the use of a technology such as Java to do something useless like highlight a button.
You might find this an amusing coda to your notes on the numerous and grievous deficiencies of the Technics USA website.
I followed your link to the "Digital Ensembles" page of the Technics USA site. When I clicked on the "SX-PR900B" link, I was forwarded to a page that informed me, "Sorry, product 'SX-PR900B' does not exist." This link, incidentally, is the very first option in the list. Doesn't exactly encourage confidence in the rest of the site.
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