The Experience Economy

Recently, my seven-year-old daughter decided to add a doll to her Christmas wish list. Not just any doll. An “American Girl” doll. For those of you without daughters or those of you who, like me, do not keep up with trends in toys, “American Girl” is the rage among young girls aged 4 – 12 years old, and they are an outrageous success.

What is stunning about American Girl is that they manage to convince middle-class American parents to fork over hundreds of dollars for these dolls based upon different periods in American history. A starter kit for Samantha, “a bright, compassionate girl living with her wealthy grandmother in 1904,” sells for US$98. American Girl now has two stores, one in Chicago and one in New York City; the stores offer the full “American Girl experience.” And that “experience” does not come cheaply. As a friend of mine stated, “they are printing money.” Mothers and daughters all over are willing to pay big bucks for this “experience.”

Paying for More

American Girl Places are just one extreme example in my mind of our societal zest for experiences. From IMAX movies to edgy amusement park rides, we’re willing to pay for extreme experiences that thrill our senses. From birthday parties to gifts, we no longer are willing to settle for a simple cake and backyard party; we now have to provide an experience for children’s birthday parties. Last week, I attended a birthday party with my son where Reptile Man entertained a dozen five-year-old boys for an hour.

Web sites have moved in the same direction towards more interactive experiences in order to enhance the customer experience and ultimately their brands. Each successive wave of client and Web server technology has raised the bar on the previous generation, increasing capability and experience.

A co-worker and I were researching a competitor’s site, which was only HTML with courier text. He commented, “That’s so 90s.” As I surf the Web these days, Flash, streaming video and Ajax are the norm, from automobile sites like Acura’s to MSN virtual earth to Royal Caribbean’s microsite to the online photo management site Flickr.

A recent Nielsen/Netratings survey revealed that in August 2005, more than 61 percent of American visits to the Internet were connected by broadband, which includes cable modems, digital subscriber lines and some satellite and fiber connections.

Gaining the ‘Competitive Edge’

Companies are working hard to gain a competitive edge online by providing site visitors with a rich and highly interactive experience. These interactive applications have become increasingly complex with the introduction of media rich, dynamic and highly responsive content. With the success of applications such as Google Gmail and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth site, companies are beginning to recognize how rich Internet applications (RIAs) can not only reduce the click-and-wait times, but actually improve overall satisfaction for their online visitors. Technologies like Macromedia Flash or Ajax are a critical part of enabling the design of these more responsive and intuitive Internet applications. Terms like the programmable Web, Web 2.0 and others are being used to describe this next generation of interactivity.

At first blush, the sites provide much more interactive experiences. Java applets, Flash, AJAX, etc. are technologies that enable Web applications to look almost as if they reside on the user’s machine, rather than across the Internet on a server. The capabilities of RIAs are that they seem more like desktop software apps to a traditional client. According to Wikipedia’s explanation of Ajax, pages get updated rather than refreshed. For example, Ajax applications can send requests to the Web server to retrieve only the needed data, usually using SOAP or some other XML-based Web services dialect. On the client, JavaScript processes the Web server response. The customer sees a much more responsive interface, since the amount of data interchanged between the browser and server is much reduced.

But as much advantage and experience as these sites offer when this interactivity is available, the opportunity must be understood and dealt with in the context of the risk. Like most multimedia advances, there is a terrific opportunity to drive customer loyalty and engage customers more deeply with an enhanced experience. At the same time, there is the risk that customers may skip your Flash intro or videos altogether if they smell poor performance. These folks won’t bother to send you an e-mail to let you know about their problems; they will simply go to another site. Raise your hand if you’ve gone to a site and seen a Flash introduction and immediately started looking for the “skip intro” button. I admit to it. Sometimes, I just want to get to the content I’m seeking, and the interactive elements get in the way.

Keeping It Positive

As you consider enhancing your online sites with rich Internet media, you need to ensure that the overall customer experience is positive. Content must still be delivered with reliable speeds — something savvy site users are accustomed to — so that the whole experience for the customer is optimal. How do you do that? Here are a few tips.

  1. Rich Internet applications can help drive customer loyalty. Your online customers stand to benefit from the tremendous investment you have made in developing interactive applications based on platforms like Flash. However, the promise of a richer experience needs to be balanced with the level of performance your customers have come to expect.
  2. Only one point of view matters — the customer’s. Like it or not, no matter how advanced your technologies are, if they are slow to respond or too complex for a customer to understand, they are likely to result in customer abandonment, possible loss of brand equity and loyalty. Testing your rich applications from the customer’s perspective is essential. What works beautifully in your development environment may not work as well in your production environment.
  3. Ensure that your rich Internet applications are truly enhancing your brand, customer satisfaction. Make sure you get feedback from real customers. Customer experience research from Keynote and others will capture both the behavior and attitude of your customers as they interact with your site, so that you can be assured that your site is in fact enhancing your brand and overall customer satisfaction. Does that wizzy Flash navigation truly help your customer? Does a higher degree of interactivity with your site strengthen your brand? The only way to know definitively is to ask your customers.
  4. Validation from multiple geographies matters. Once you have introduced your new rich Internet applications to customers, measuring your application performance from major metropolitan cities and top backbones is absolutely critical in establishing the proper benchmarks for how your customers are experiencing your site. Yes, your new site is “cool,” but how responsive is the site from 3,000 miles away.

As you add interactive technologies to your online site, you need to partner with a company who can help you balance the additional interactivity with the overall customer experience. Balancing the complexity of technology with the efficiency your customers seek is not easy. Personally, I look forward to more great experiences on the Web as technology and connectivity continue to evolve; we’ve certainly come a long way from hard-coded Web pages and CGI scripts. Now, if only Reptile Man would launch an interactive Web site…

Carol Carpenter, is senior director, product management at Keynote Systems, Inc.

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