Cameron Talks to a Design Firm



The following is my view about the role of advertising agencies in the online world. [Circa Feb-March, 1997]



The Internet has always been a very complex place. Full of numerous acronyms and stuffy scientific-types, people in a creative field such as graphic design have had an uphill battle to become accepted in the industry. Now labeled as "content providers," designers and advertising firms are starting to make a dent in the Internet community.

Companies like Adjacency, out of San Francisco, have recently had a whole string of large corporate accounts, including clients such as Land Rover, Patagonia, and Rollerblade.

Other "web agencies" have started to pop up, being noticed for their good work and the unique methods they use to transfer the theories and skills of traditional print (and multimedia) design to the Internet. These companies, often called "web boutiques" are usually run by one or two people with print or multimedia/music backgrounds and can only handle one or two major contracts/clients at a time. Need 2 Know is an example of a small company focusing its talents and efforts on providing the music and entertainment industry (a particular niche market) with great interactive web design.

Interactivity is the latest trend within the web design industry. A good well-designed interface has to be more than just a pretty picture or graphic (called eye-candy). Technologies like Javascript and the programming language Java have evolved to offer unique and innovative solutions to allow the designer to add more functionality and movement to a web page. [Although too much can kill a design.]

The future of site design lies with how well a designer can communicate the client's message through this new and complex world of the Internet. Just posting pretty graphics and huge pages of text detailing the client's products/services is a thing of the past. Web pages must be interactive, functional, easy-to-use and free of navigational and site structure problems. If you compare computers and televisions, you will start seeing more and more similarities. When you pick up a TV remote, there are many constants: volume controls, channel controls, power on/off, numeric keypad, etc. A web page must also be as easy to use and have global contents throughout the entire site. Human interface guidelines must not be ignored. Too many buttons and your user will not know which one to click/push. Too few, and the user will lose interest and go elsewhere. End-user confusion spells death for any web site, no matter how pretty the graphics are.

Channel (TV) surfing and web surfing are a similar function of the human thought process. They share some of the same human attributes: A user can jump from channel to channel on television just as they can jump from site to site when surfing the web. Keep this in mind. Television and computers also have differences. With television, the viewer is more passive, accepting anything the TV flashes at them. Hence, repetitive advertising to get the [client's] message across. The web started as a somewhat passive medium, but has quickly turned into a user-defined active methodology. The more control you give your user, the better chance you have of keeping that user at your site for a longer period of time. [But, be careful not to overwhelm your user with too many choices.] This is why there is such an explosive growth in Javascript and Java. The inherent nature of HTML does not allow for user-defined parameters, which means that there is very little user interactivity beyond the simple hypertext link, when dealing with plain vanilla HTML-based sites.

So, what's coming? We will begin to see more and more web sites that borrow ideas and concepts from the CD-ROM authoring world. There will be animated buttons when the user clicks them, sounds, background music, clickable videos, design constants that are no longer passive but active and interact with the user. Animated logos that do more than silently rotate, but quite possibly speak, interact and communicate with the user.

The Internet started out as a tool for researchers and scientists. It began as a text-based by nature and was primarily a very valuable resource for research and communication. It has since evolved into an acceptable medium for mas communication and yes, advertising. Most corporate sites that do not cater to the public are not going to care about advertising, since their target audience is made up of their peers, their scientists, researchers and employees. Examples of these types of sites would be playground equipment manufacturers, engineering firms and auto-paint manufacturers. These are industries that have no interest in web advertising, and the Internet is simply another tool for communication. Their audience is specifically defined and the mailing lists already exist. For them, it is as simple as adding their web address to all of their print literature including letterheads, envelopes, business cards, rolodex cards, company trucks, billboards, etc. Basically, anyplace that already lists company information should also have the company's new web site address. This is common sense, considering that the Internet is already becoming the most important communication tool since the telephone. Even the venerable FAX machine of the 80's was a dud compared to the Internet, especially when you consider that FAX technology evolved from a tool developed for the deaf and hearing impaired people communicate.

Companies whose target markets are massive and not easily definable will want to embrace web advertising. Much like the outdoor billboard advertising industry, banner (web) advertising is targeted towards the masses. It does not really matter who the ad is seen by, just as long as it is seen. The best use for banner advertising is for branding and to prod the user to go visit the advertised site. One way to narrow the target audience is by selecting the sites you advertise on. The best web sites that offer effective banner advertising are the big ones, like ESPN Sportszone, CNN and MSNBC. Often, banner advertisers will offer discounts, specials, free stuff, and contests to entice the user to click the banner and visit their site. This echoes the methods of print and broadcast advertising, targeted towards the masses. The biggest difference is in the delivery (vehicle) of the advertising message.

Before you sit down and try to determine your client's online advertising needs, you must first research their industry and determine their target audience(s). If their audiences are easily definable, you should be able to find the online resources their consumers are using. These are the sites you should approach for advertising. Examples would be Apple Computer advertising on the Macintouch web site, a daily news site about the Macintosh industry.

There are several good reports available that determine the average usage of the Internet and who the average user is. Most reports tend to agree that the average user is male, between the ages of 35 and 50 and has an income of more than $45,000 a year. But these figures are changing. Don't be surprised to discover that 6 months from now that your average user is more like the average viewers of television. In February 1997, all four major broadcast networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX) reported a significant drop in the number of TV viewers for the year of 1996. Could the Internet be making a dent in the television monopoly? Are people turning off their televisions and turning on their computers?

When determining your target audience, keep in mind that your best option is to define the habits of the average user in that particular industry [viewership]. By examining their habits and surfing patterns, you can sometimes predict how they will react to a specific banner or advertisement. You can also collect data from your web site log files and analyze it to determine the most effective advertising, by looking at which pages/sections are accessed the most. What is the most popular time of day for your web site? What is the most popular day? Where are your users coming from? These are all questions that can be answered by analyzing a server hit log.

Advertising agencies are starting to get into the fray. Some are succeeding, some are not. I've been to various ad agency web sites and have not been impressed. It isn't really about how good the design is, it's how well you know how to use those talents and apply them to digital design media. Designing for the web is similar to print design except for two major concepts: low resolution and multiple-level user interactivity. I recommend that you do your photo editing and manipulation in hi-res, but the final output should be no more than 72 dpi. This is because monitors (the intended display mechanism) have an industry standard 72 dpi screen resolutions. An example of an ad agency not understanding the process of digital design would be every web page having on large graphic with clickable areas using client-side image maps which assign hotspots (hypertext links) to a series of coordinates on an invisible grid. It may be pretty but is far from being ideally functional. A good web site design will have a good use of white space, typography and many smaller images (that download quicker) that are broken up and clickable. These smaller broken up images are also ideal for implementing simple animation using the GIF89a format, Javascript, or Java. To help the designer conceive navigation schemes and solve navigation problems, frames were introduced by Netscape. Frames allow for constant navigational icons or graphical themes, while still allowing the content to be refreshed/updated with each click the user makes. The only drawback is the portion of your audience who is still using non-frames-capable browsers, a number that gets smaller and smaller every day.

See: Cam's Guide To Designing With HTML For Designers

It really is amazing how far the web has come in such a short time. All over the world, corporations are screaming at their ad agencies about getting a good web site. The ad agencies try to oblige, but without a firm understanding of what is capable, they fall short and end up outsourcing, sometimes making poor choices based on flashy presentations and a "smoke and mirrors" style of selling. Or even worse, the corporation's high-level management doesn't understand what the web is, so they automatically assign the web site responsibility to their IT or MIS departments, instead of their Communications or Marketing departments, where it belongs. This is why we are seeing so many really bad web sites for major corporations. An example of this would be Winnebago Industries. Great company. Awesome print design materials. Terrible web site. Why? Because the MIS/IT guy(s) did the site in-house, and it shows. MIS and IT people make terrible designers. It's not their job! And the opposite is true.

Some of the smallest companies have the best web sites. Why? Because they understand their customers and also understand how to make their web site work for their customer. Example: a very small storefront in New Mexico who sells Southern Hot Sauce and condiments puts up a web site with an online ordering form. Soon , their site (because of the good design and concept) is featured in numerous industry magazines (both trade and resale). What happens? Millions and millions of hits, many resulting in an order. Successful? You betcha.

The Internet is constantly changing. Technologies replace themselves with better and faster versions approximately every 4-8 months. This results in a very steep learning curve for all involved. Staying on top of the industry is a frantic job. The Internet doubles itself in size every 2-3 months and the number of people utilizing the Internet doubles itself every 3 months. The hype is running out, though. The people already using the Internet are getting tired of the same old same old. After a while, every web site looks the same. The solution is to apply traditional marketing and advertising techniques and theories to the online materials you are creating for the client. The industry will shake out. More and more ad agencies are learning this medium and are hiring the people they need to produce a quality web site for their client. The web boutiques will go away and some day it will be just the ad agencies competing again. Hopefully, we will all be there, providing our clients with the awesome online materials they need.