Content Winners (No Recount Required)

Since we now have a Republican president (much to my chagrin, but that’s another issue), I’ll dust off a classic GOP phrase…

“Let me make myself perfectly clear…” (Now everyone wag your jowls and flash those double “V for victory” signs.)

When I rally for more substantial Web site content, I’m not just referring to text pages. Online content encompasses an abundance of goodies — everything from great stories to newsletters to streaming video feeds to message boards and online chats. As a matter of fact, the one common factor for truly great content is simple: It engages and delivers valuable information to targeted markets.

Where are the sites with great content? Take a look at REI.com, the Web site for the 62-year-old outdoor-gear cooperative. REI.com has attracted a lot of buzz in the past year not only for its abundant and varied content, but also for the results it generates. The site has an online sales-conversion rate of 10 percent and has more sales than any one of its brick-and-mortar stores. In 2000, online sales also increased 130 percent.

How does REI do it? For starters, the organization is known for enhancing the shopping experience. A visit to the brick-and-mortar venues provides an opportunity for trying out hiking boots on an indoor trail, testing Gore-Tex parkas in the simulated “rain room,” and attending “Bring Your Board Night” for snowboard aficionados. With all of this customer-friendly activity going on, it’s no wonder the site is also engaging.

According to a public relations representative from REI, the site has 45,000 pages and 75,000 items to purchase. But REI never takes the attitude of “I’ll have your credit card now, thank you.” This site goes way beyond a simple catalog. There are articles on preparing for winter emergencies and teaching children to ski, and there are travel clinics. Each sport also has a “Learn & Share” section that is loaded with information. (It’ll even teach you how to perform a bunny hop on your bicycle!) And you can send a friend a scenic “e-Postcard,” read the company newsletter, or engage in an interactive guide to finding the right ski rack for your car.

Another factor for REI’s success is that the organization was never concerned that its online presence would cannibalize its brick-and-mortar operations. At REI, online selling is well integrated with both the catalog and stores. In fact, the company places Web kiosks and terminals in its stores. Customers and employees can now browse the information-packed site and even order online while in the store.

Of course, with such a massive Web site to maintain, REI recognizes the need for ample resources. There are more than 100 employees in the Internet division, which is quite impressive for any organization but obviously demonstrates a very big commitment to remaining a content-driven online heavyweight.

Another content all-star is Autobytel.com, an online auto dealer. This site literally takes you inside the automotive world — even offering 360-degree views of popular car interiors. Although its ultimate goal is to get you to purchase a car, the site also offers safety-comparison articles, a library of information on almost every make and model, helpful resources on auto financing, and interactive guides to insurance, warranties, and car maintenance. An “Autobytel.com for Her” section recognizes that women are a powerful segment of the auto market. And then there’s my favorite section — “My Garage” — that personalizes information to your car’s make and model, providing drivers with recall notices, real-time service reminders, repair-cost estimates, mapping directions, and do-it-yourself repair tips.

Autobytel Public Relations Director Melanie Weber reports that the site has twice the market share of its major competitor. And it has more than five million visitors per quarter.

Convinced you need a content-rich site for your company? Share the examples of REI and Autobytel with the folks in your organization. Show your senior management what a truly great site can accomplish in terms of recognition and sales. Give them the hard numbers that result from good content. But if all else fails, please — I beg of you — don’t rename your site Checkers and tell folks that, by golly, you want to love and care for them no matter what anyone says.

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