Web Informant #103, 28 February 1998:
The Making of a Successful Interactive Web Site


There has been a lot of crap written about making web sites interactive and how to develop an increased sense of community among their visitors. Many of these articles focus on the wrong things: using high-tech animations and advanced technologies to increase interest, or using discussion forums a la Notes to bring back repeat visitors.

While each of these things has its place, I want to take a very different tack here and tell you about a recent effort by Attachmate that didn't use anything fancy but some careful planning and some solid thinking to develop what I think is a truly creative site called Treasure Web. You can check the site out at www.attachmate.com/treasure. You'll also need a PIN number 0123456789 that I'll get to in a moment.

Before we get any further, I should state up front that Attachmate is perhaps one of my longest-running consulting clients. I don't usually write case studies about my clients, but this was too good an example to pass up. (I had nothing to do with the creation of Treasure Web, by the way: my work was in another area of the company.)

Treasure Web is a site created as part of a direct marketing campaign to introduce Attachmate to a new set of potential customers, outside of the company's traditional mainframe access clientele. Attachmate is currently the largest privately-held software company, but they aren't very well known mainly because their focus is on communications products and specialized network management tools, things unknown to your average home user. The company wanted to leverage the web site as a way to develop leads from several traditional direct mail lists. They sent out several thousand-piece postal mailings, with the URL for the site. The mailers said if you stopped by and filled out a form you could win a prize.

But unlike many of these sites that I've seen, the folks at Attachmate did several things right.

To make the whole process succeed required lots of behind the scenes work, and that is the point of my essay here.

If you have ever worked with mailing list providers, you know that they generally don't allow you to examine the actual labels that they prepare: typically, you prepare your mailing piece and they will send it out for you, billing you for the postage. They don't want you to capture their entire lists and use them on your own: you just rent a one-time use of the names. What Attachmate did was make use of a third party to keep the list data in escrow. Each list vendor gave them just four pieces of data for each list member: a special unique PIN number, the first name of the member, the company name, and a special list source code to indicate the list used.

These four elements were then used to populate a database for the Treasure Web site. When a visitor arrived at the site and typed in their PIN, the web server would match the PIN with the first name and greet the visitor personally, as you can try yourself with our sample PIN number above. (For demonstration purposes, everyone will be called David and the company name will be Web Informant Enterprises.)

Once Attachmate got a visitor to enter their data for the contest, they could go back to their escrow vendor and request the rest of the data for that name.

You may think all this was a lot of work to get a simple thing accomplished, but it wasn't. All that was required was some simple programming using Microsoft's Active Server Pages, matching the PIN with the first name associated with it in the database. (You could accomplish the same thing with server-side includes using non-Microsoft web servers too.)

Attachmate did something else that was very smart. They programmed to show in real-time the cumulative results of their surveys whenever they asked a visitor to fill out a questionnaire. Why is this smart? How many of us resent being asked survey questions and don't really want to take the time to answer them? Most of us. But if we could get the results right after we submitted a form: now that is a very good use of interactive web technology, something not possible with using traditional telephone surveying methods. Whenever they asked for information, they offered the visitor the option to view the results in the next screen.

So far, the Treasure Web site is working very well. The average visitor spends 45 minutes at the site: that is nothing short of extraordinary, as any of you that examine your access logs know. For example, I consider myself lucky that the average length of stay at strom.com is around five minutes. Attachmate has collected all sorts of specific information about their visitors, more than they would have if they did a traditional print-only direct mailing. The moral of this story? You don't need lots of flash and fancy technology to accomplish your goals. A web site can be compelling, attractive, and interactive with the right behind-the-scenes work.

Self-promotions dep't

My latest ComputerWorld review is of Netopia Virtual Office, a series of collaborative office productivity tools. Dave Piscitello and I collaborated on the review using the software itself.

David Strom
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