Join a group of web designers and developers, and you’ll hear the word “interactive” thrown around a few times. The term is used liberally in these circles, but from a business standpoint, it’s a fairly foreign concept. When is a site interactive, and what do you call a site that isn’t? More importantly, what does interactivity really mean for business?
Let’s start by defining the term. Interactive basically means that something is reciprocally active; that is, both parties can put their two cents into the mix. A phone line is interactive because people can talk on both ends. Likewise, a site is interactive when viewers can speak up and influence the way your site behaves. Games, forms, and shopping carts are all forms of web interactivity.
Interactivity and customer needs
If we go by the definition above, then 90% of active websites are interactive. But success lies not just on meeting that one standard. You can pay a fortune for a swanky Flash site, but if you don’t address customer needs, you can end up off the Web and/or out of business.
To do its job, an interactive site should address at least two important elements: information retrieval and social interaction. Customers go online first to get informed, and second to interact with others. Of course, there are countless other customer needs and we can spend all day discussing them, but when you’ve got these two covered, the rest can be addressed along the way.
Providing information is a given for most web businesses. But presenting the info is where it gets tricky. Hyperlinks alone won’t get your readers where you want them; you have to direct them to the right pages with context clues and navigational design. Today’s websites use a menu-driven system where people are intuitively steered along a path, which eventually ends on the sales page.
Communication is another thorny patch in this area. Maybe you don’t have the staff to answer individual questions, or maybe you’re just strapped for time. But that’s no reason to give out canned responses. Make your information personal; when you receive a question, take five minutes to type out a reply instead of lifting it from your company manual. By personally addressing customers, you show them that you’re committed to helping out.
The human factor
Some years ago, come big fashion houses decided to strip down their site to a splash page—no links, no words, just one static image. In other words, they stopped being interactive. A bold move, to be sure, but not necessarily a smart one. Instead of the mysterious, alluring effect they were going for, what it did was alienate customers. It also drove home the fact that they were a money-making enterprise, rather than a human-run business.
Give your site a human side by keeping things light, casual and open. Encourage conversation by adding forums, chat rooms, and other interactive features. Keep your style friendly instead of formal. It’s these elements that anchored such big businesses as Yahoo! and AOL: by presenting themselves as fun and approachable, they drew in a large customer base and really took off.