When it comes to the Web, keep it real

Businesses seeking to develop Web applications that grab the attention of online users and customers need to follow one simple rule – keep it real.

Online success comes from a company’s ability to recreate life-like experiences on the Web, to provide the means to create real-time and interactive online content, and to give users the means to craft the experience of their choosing.

Of course, it’s all much easier said than done, especially if yours is a company that doesn’t have the development and design talent or requisite technologies.

But for a multitude of companies that presented at MIX07 – Microsoft Corp.’s everything-Web event in Las Vegas last week – the one common thread was to keep things real. A series of Web development stories showed it certainly is possible to build highly compelling online applications that can tantalize Web surfers and ultimately drive dollars to the bottom line. Several featured companies discussed and demonstrated their multimedia-rich Web applications.

American television network CBS was thinking real-time and interactive in building an online environment that allows viewers to be active participants in local news broadcasts. Through its Web site, CBS is combining traditional media content with user-generated video to create truly integrated daily news broadcasts.

At the MIX07 event, CBS showed how online users invited to submit video reports of an event — in this case a local automotive show — blended into regular newscasts. They were able to directly post their videos to the CBS Web site.

All online and broadcast viewers were then invited to judge the best submissions and the winning videos posted online actually make it into the regular broadcast news.

Another CBS example showed a news broadcast where content streaming through a broadband Internet connection played alongside a televised news broadcast of the same breaking news event. In this case, an actual tornado was being videotaped by both the local network affiliate and an onsite amateur observer, who broadcast from the same location through an online hookup. Both played side-by-side during the network broadcast report of the event and showed uniquely different perspectives of the same event.

In another example, The New York Times demonstrated a tool called an online reader that provides a newspaper reading experience that’s probably as close as you can get to actually turning newsprint pages. The online reader tool allows subscribers to read a daily news edition as a digital experience that looks and “feels” like a real newspaper. Editorial text is laid out in familiar newspaper columns and has the ads included.

The tool provides a user experience of looking through stories as if they were on a page and the high-resolution look makes the text comfortable to read and photographs vibrant in appearance — unlike anything that could be created on newsprint.

Alternatively, a user might scroll through a series of photographs, like a slide show, and by clicking on a particular photo that piques their interest, a reader is taken into the story itself.

The New York Times reports that those who subscribe to the online reader edition spend approximately 23 minutes a day reading the content, and there’s been a seven-fold increase in page views by readers since the service began a little more than a year ago. Conversely, readers of The New York Times regular Web site spend about an hour a month reading content.

Another innovative example at MIX07 was offered by the Sick Kids Foundation, a fundraising arm of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Sick Kids wanted to encourage greater giving by bringing to potential donors some real-life experiences of the people served by the hospital.

“One of the things we’re really focused on is, if you’re a donor, how can we connect with you in a way that meets your needs? How do we actually present to you the right stories, the right motivation and the right experience so that you’re motivated to donate and to maintain that loyalty to our foundation?” says Chris Waddell, director of IT for the Sick Kids Foundation.

With the help of systems and applications developer Momentum Advanced Solutions Inc. in Toronto, Sick Kids built a proof-of-concept application for electronic kiosks located in the hospital’s expansive Donor Hall that recognizes those who’ve given to the hospital.

The kiosk had previously been a static terminal that offered a directory for visitors to look up their names and then find their plaques on display in the hall. The kiosk had become a popular viewer for passing time, perused by many who visit the hospital while waiting for family members undergoing treatment.

Waddell saw an opportunity to perhaps encourage more donations by relating the good research work going on at the hospital itself and, more importantly, sharing the real stories and experiences of those who used the hospital. He put out the challenge to Momentum to create a way to serve up these stories through the kiosk and provide the means for people to give donations through the device itself.

“It’s a great opportunity to be able to have a conversation using a kiosk, or other kinds of technology, to say, here’s how you can help,” says Mr. Waddell.

While the Web application is still in an early stage, there’s tremendous hope that the hospital can reach well beyond the 179,500 people who already give and perhaps encourage people to give even more by sharing these real-life experiences.

Key message

These Web development tales of innovation and interactivity illustrate just how critical it is to keep things real. For any business, the takeaway message is that customers grab hold of messages they can relate to. The key is to build applications that keep them engaged and participating.

According to Charles Fitzgerald, general manager of platform, products and services for Microsoft, there are two simple tenets in developing today’s online business applications. He suggests companies should consider how to reach their customers online through software and how to differentiate themselves as a business. Online software has become the primary way in which businesses reach out to interact with customers, adds Fitzgerald, estimating that about 90 per cent of customer interactions now happen online.

This means the bar is higher than ever for what people expect in terms of an online user experience. It happens through vibrant and dynamic online presentation, and sizzle: things like rich images, lots of video and letting online users personalize and customize their experiences. That’s today’s online reality.

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