Web site updates pay off with increased customer activity

Visitor numbers trebled when the Royal Automobile Club of Queens-land shifted its Web site this year from a first generation to a second-generation model.

That's typical for companies moving from brochure-style sites to the interactive, transaction-oriented second wave, said Ian Webster, media analyst with Internet market researcher www.consult.

However, Australian business is not making the change as fast as US business because it seems uneasy about giving customers too much power, he said.

Instead of passively displaying information, interactive second-generation sites permit transactions such as ordering goods or services.

A few companies are already moving to a third-generation model that harnesses online feedback to custom tailor services to the requirements of individual clients.

But the generation change-over is "going fairly slowly in Australia compared to the US", said Webster. "We have a sense it is because companies here are a little afraid of their customers.

"In the US experience, customer service is a prime metric whereas in Australia customers have been kept more at arm's length and there is a feeling that if you give them too much, they will be all over you.

"So companies are uneasy that opening up all these opportunities on the Web will give customers the opportunity to get up front and in your face."

Visitors to the RACQ's three-month-old interactive site are spending up to 150 per cent more time browsing its pages and looking at three times more material, said group marketing manager Stuart Sanders.

On the debit side, the cost of building a next-generation Web site is correspondingly higher.

RACQ spent about $25,000 to construct its first-generation site 18 months ago, while the latest absorbed $60,000.

Adding to the bill was the RACQ's decision to design the site so its own staff could perform page updates using MacroMedia's Dreamweaver Web tools.

"There was a cost associated with that, but there are commensurate ongoing savings and overall it builds our in-house expertise," Sanders said.

The architect of the site, Brisbane Web design company f5, enabled transaction links between the Web server and an SQL database platform using Allaire's ColdFusion tool. Secure connections supporting credit card purchases are supported by Camtech software.

Visitors can purchase memberships or change details of existing memberships, buy maps and travel equipment and book travel accommodation.

They can also search interactively for the location of their nearest RACQ-recommended repairer and request insurance quotes. However, purchasing insurance is still an offline activity.

The Web site is not yet online to the RACQ's corporate databases. That step will be taken when the company's IT department is free of current Y2K and GST overheads, Sanders said.

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