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Flash in the Online Plan

Flash in the Online Plan

The Benefits of Real-Time Analytics

Web analytics can help you pinpoint how to make your Web site more engaging and easier to use. There's a host of products on the market that generate Web metrics, but few provide real-time data. And few go beyond traditional ways of measuring customer behaviour, such as tracking clickstreams and page views, to tell you precisely what individual customers are doing or trying to do on your site. But Safeway.com has successfully used a new Web monitoring product that tracks individual user behaviour on the Web in real time in order to quickly diagnose usability problems and increase revenue.

Business Signatures' Customer Intent Processor is one of a few new products that help companies identify what customers are trying to do on their Web sites in real time. Safeway.com deployed Business Signatures' software in November 2004. The software captures the entire HTTP stream that goes through a company's network in real time. It then matches those streams to sets of activities customers can engage in on a Web site, such as search, add to shopping cart, checkout, check account balance, or any series of activities or clicks a company wishes to track.

Safeway.com used the software to determine why a new version of a feature on its Web site that lets shoppers edit their grocery orders wasn't working properly. Customers had complained that changes they had made to their orders using the order edit function weren't sticking. So the online grocer set the software to monitor what happens when people tried to edit their orders. Joe Devine, Safeway.com's CTO at the time the software was deployed (the current CTO, David Popejoy, came on board in October 2004), says the data that the software collected showed that customers' changes weren't taking because customers didn't realize they had to click an additional button to process them. Within an hour of making that discovery, Devine's developers created more prominent instructions on the Web page telling customers they had to click one more button, and the problem was solved.

Devine likes the intent processor because it makes technical and usability problems easier to diagnose. He says it's also simpler to use than most Web monitoring tools, because he didn't have to run debugging code or add tags to his pages in order to create logs. In addition, he used the software for more traditional Web monitoring functions, such as keeping track of users' activity on Safeway.com (known as session management), playing back users' sessions, as well as collecting metrics.

Devine won't provide numbers, but says that between the money he saved by replacing older Web monitoring tools and the increases in sales that came from quickly fixing problems with the site, his ROI reached seven figures within eight months of deploying the software.

"If you improve the customer experience, ease of use and navigability on your site, you get significant returns," says author Rayport. Timberland, Manheim, Ikea and Safeway.com can testify to that. And since so many Web sites remain shackled by HTML, there's plenty of room for your company to start using these new technologies to differentiate your site from the rest of the pack.

SIDEBAR: Which Web Technology Is Right for You

Let our table of pros and cons help you decide

FLASH

What it is A graphics animation program written and marketed by Macromedia.

What it's good for: You can use Flash to create dynamic, interactive applications that operate smoothly and quickly because they reside on the user's computer and don't require a constant connection with a Web server to update themselves.

What to watch out for: Just because most users have Flash doesn't mean they all do. Furthermore, some users perceive Flash applications as being "heavy"- meaning they think they would take too long to download, even over broadband.

CODEC

What it is: Software that converts analog video signals into a digital format for transmission.

What it's good for: It's an effective, low-cost way to create the illusion of streaming video. It's also more stable than a video stream - it doesn't get hung up when too many people try to access it at the same time.

What to watch out for: It only works well for videos that don't have a lot of activity in them, such as a meeting or a simple product demonstration. It won't work well if, for example, the product you're demonstrating is animated.

BOTS

What they are: Intelligent software agents programmed to understand written (and sometimes spoken) language.

What they're good for: Bots can supplement your company's customer-service initiatives as an alternative to your call centre. Bots can even cut down on the number of e-mail enquiries customers submit, according to Melissa Robinson, Ikea Direct's central services manager.

What to watch out for: Unless they're done well, they may not be helpful at all and could frustrate and alienate more customers than they impress.

AJAX

What it is: A programming language for developing browser-based applications that behave like desktop applications. It stands for Asynchronous JavaScript with XML.

What it's good for: It's great for making Web sites more interactive and easier to use without developers having to write huge amounts of code or forcing users to download and install browser plug-ins.

What to watch out for: To use Ajax, you need programmers with years of JavaScript experience. Also, it won't work with every browser.

SIDEBAR: Check It Out: CIO Screencast

Because more US consumers are accessing the Internet with broadband, e-commerce Web sites can make the most of Flash and Ajax and other technologies to make sites more engaging and easier to use. Those technologies can also help increase sales. To see how three leading-edge companies - Timberland, Ikea and Manheim - are doing it, go to: www.cio.com/archive/030106/web_technology.html and view Improving Online Commerce with Interactive Web Technologies.

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