Get Closer to Reality

Amazon.com recently launched “Look Inside,” a tool enabling previews of new books. “Look Inside” is the virtual version of picking a book off a shelf and leafing through it. It offers a feel for contents, graphics, and layout through text excerpts and reproductions of actual pages and the front and back covers — all to aid you in considering your purchases.

Amazon’s not alone in this initiative. Several e-tailers have launched all sorts of features that bring the Web one step closer to their brick-and-mortar counterparts. All data indicate that the strategy works. Consumers want reality checks. They need points of contact on the Net that serve as anchors. The days of purchasing CDs and books purely to test the novelty of using e-commerce functionalities are long gone. So are the days of purchasing items online at rock-bottom prices. Now offline retailing competes with online e-tailing, and the e-tailer’s artificially low prices and inflated hype have dissipated.

This brings me to my point. Each advantage an offline store enjoys represents a disadvantage for its online counterpart. Unless, like the Amazon example, new methods are developed to convert offline characteristics into online advantages. This doesn’t apply exclusively to e-tailing. Your company brochure, business-to-business (B2B) Web site, client extranet, or online support center might also benefit from a reality injection.

Seven years after the emergence of the World Wide Web, I still see each day Web sites promoting companies — even big global companies — exactly the same way they do in print brochures: click, and you move to another page. No interactivity. No justification for being online. Clever sites take every piece of offline content and adapt it to exploit the advantages of the online medium. Cleverer sites forget offline documentation altogether and develop online content created for interactivity.

This is exactly what Amazon does, time after time. Amazon either invents new site characteristics that would be impossible offline (e.g., one-click ordering and customer reviews) or manipulates the offline possibilities by making them work better for the customer (e.g., the no-questions-asked return policy, the system that enables it to predict which books are likely to interest you, and the advisory panel that helps customers select books). Amazon has managed to use every advantage offered by a real-world bookstore. It’s leveled the offline versus online playing field.

How well are you using the benefits of both offline and online environments? Have you, like Amazon, optimized the advantages of both worlds to make your site unique? Have you ensured your online and offline characteristics are working together? Have you created a click-and-mortar enterprise? If you have, you’re among a special few.

It’s seven years now since the Net was born. In the technology and marketing sense, that’s a long time. Yet most of us are stunned by the lack of progress made in site design and conceptualization. Most Web sites continue to use the Net passively, providing customers with little justification for spending (or wasting) time online. Instead, they encourage users to maintain their reliance on the offline world.

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