With the right interactive programming, a waste industry website can be transformed into a sophisticated marketing and sales tool that offers every visitor a highly personal, responsive experience.
New twists on slick interactivity are emerging constantly on the web. Here are some of the key interactive elements that every developing waste industry website should consider.
Rev Up Your Search Engines Too many sites are little more than elephantine filing cabinets floating in cyberspace. There's plenty of information in there, but digging for it can be irksome. On-site search engines help solve this problem by fetching specific, targeted data.
Practice with search engines, such as Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) or Excite (www.excite.com) will help you decide how you can use a search engine to boost your site's user-friendliness.
One excellent example is Houston-based Waste Management Inc.'s (WMI) site (www.wastemanagement. com), which provides visitors with an interactive U.S. map that they can click on to get information about WMI's ventures in 11 states.
Doing Your Data Drills A variation on search engines, data drills enable visitors to narrow their quest for information quickly to an ever-finer point. With every point-and-click of the mouse, users get closer to the precise data they want.
One of the industry's most efficient data drills can be found at Baltimore-based Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority's site (www.nmwda. org), which allows visitors to use a drill to make quick jumps to information on categories such as "Members," "How We Work," "Newsletter," "Feedback" and "Search."
Increase Your Industry Knowledge Distance learning via the Net is well-established in some industries but remains largely esoteric to the general population.
The waste industry does offer a few of these sites, including Interactive Engineering Technology, Durham, N.C. (www.ieti.com). On this site, visitors can sign up for an online course in RCRA Hazardous Waste Management. Cyber-students learn at their own pace and stay in touch with the instructor and other classmates via e-mail.
Sales Boosters The best salespeople ferret out ways to encourage potential customers to sell themselves on a product. Interactive forms, which enable website visitors to participate in questionnaires, brain teasers, etc., are being used with great success Net-wise to put a new twist on this established concept.
Members Only While Mark Twain wouldn't belong to any club that would have him as a member, lots of other people like to be a part of exclusive groups. "Members only" tools and domains can help you create such groups on your site.
Smart Freebie Downloads Nothing enamors a Net cruiser like the availability of free data, software and information to download.
Quick Quotes After all the sizzle has settled, it's nice to be able to get down to brass tacks fast. Simply dash off a deal you'd like a quote on, click "send" and the process is underway. Springfield, Va.-based CEO Environmental (www.ceo-environmental.com) has implemented a quick quotes service on its website, inviting requests for a competitive quote with an interactive form. This also is the same approach used by American Waste Transport and Recycling, Mt. Laurel, N.J., (www.amwaste.com).
More Info, Please Although the "request for more information" function seems to be a fundamental facet of any interactive website, formalized request for more information forms are still an exception on the web.
Seemingly little more than cyber-questionnaires, these forms can be mined to build mailing lists, analyze customer preferences and the like. Guzzler Manufacturing Inc., Birmingham, Ala., (www.guzzler.com) builds a database on visitors to its site in this way with its online request for more info form.
What Are Your Thoughts? Online surveys offer companies a great way to gather research and development information - as well as assemble a detailed demographic of Net cruisers interested enough in company products and services to visit their site.
Hold the Pictures Sometimes less is definitely more. While too many websites seem to feature every technological bell and whistle known to man, savvier website builders realize that many people are cruising the Net with low-power 28.8k modems and low-power PCs.
Smart website builders accommodate these cruisers by providing "text-only" option buttons that enable viewers to download "text only" versions of their sites. This version allows people to get to the data they want without having to endure interminable download times for the fancy graphics or frames that they don't want anyway.
The Air and Waste Management Association, Pittsburgh, site (www. awma.org) is a good example of how a text-only option can grant painless browsing.
Jobs Wanted Over-the-Net job applications should be on the website of any company that is seeking to recruit new talent. Some sites allow prospective employees to apply for positions via free-form e-mail. Others offer highly detailed, interactive job application forms, which enable the business to begin screening potential employees right off the web.
Posting Messages Online bulletin board messaging is the application that helped catapult America Online and similar services to the forefront of Net use. Essentially, this is cyberspace's answer to the town square: It's a place where visitors can post ideas and read reactions.
Typing "Talk" A chat room is essentially a place where people can "congregate" and exchange live text messages over the Net. The operative word here is "live." In a chat room, everyone gets to read and respond instantly to anything anyone else feels inspired to write on the spot.
How Does It Work? Online product demonstrations are a fairly sophisticated application of web interactivity. For example, computer software makers sometimes offer a free demo of their products on the web.
Similar Groups While web designers cannot anticipate every visitor's frame of reference, certain groups of people tend to stop by every site. This is where a special-interest data domain shines. For example, investors interested in WMI can access a domain packed with common stock listings, Securities and Exchange Commission filings, press releases and other investment-related data and analysis.
Hear Ye, Hear Ye! Going with the theory that the longer a potential customer lingers at a website, the greater the chance of a sale, some firms have found success by posting newsletters on their sites.
Some companies enable visitors to read their online newsletter only after they enter their contact data on an online interactive form. This is a quick and easy way to develop leads and monitor visitor demographics.
Cool Tools Besides the obvious online helpers, some firms have devised innovative solutions to catapult their sites beyond the commonplace. Alberta, Canada-based Anadime Corp., (www.anadime.com) for example, continuously updates its stock quotes online.
What's on the Horizon? During 1999, look for more interactive technologies to raise the bar on website responses. For example, text-based mailing lists are on the verge of proliferating on the web.
Essentially an online newsletter that everyone can read and contribute to, mailing lists currently are being used by thousands of commercial firms to foster a sense of community around their websites.
Via mailing lists, businesses can stay in immediate touch with their customers' needs and concerns while simultaneously maintaining the promotional drumbeat for their services.
For the latest skinny on mailing lists, check out Liszt (www.liszt.com). The free service tracks more than 80,000 mailing lists circulating the Net.
A bit higher up on the interactivity scale are new software solutions from telecommunications companies, such as AT&T (www.att.com/easycommerce/easyanswers), Lucent (www.lucent.com), and Sprint (www. sprint.com/web-to-phone).
A kind of high-tech spin on the traditional slide show, these products enable a property manager, for example, to push product images of select properties to potential customers over the web while simultaneously talking to those same customers by phone.
Indeed, by using software by any of the companies mentioned, waste industry firms conceivably could present any set of images or other work from their promotional arsenal over the web to help close deals.
According to David Cooperstein, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, this advent in person-to-person collaboration is poised to turbocharge web commerce.
Perhaps most bleeding-edge in the world of web interactivity is panoramic virtual-reality (VR) websites. These sites offer visitors photo-realistic, 3D-like representations of products and environments that irresistibly suck them into the action.
Granted, given that sophisticated panoramic VR works best on higher-end PCs with high-speed Net connections, the medium probably will not catch on in a big way until after 2000.
Currently, interesting web-based panoramic VR work is being done by firms such as View360 (www. view360. com), Evox Productions (www.evox. com), Communique (www. cvcmedia. com) and Infinite Pictures (www. smoothmove.com).
Yellow Flags Despite all the interactive technologies available for websites today, the fact remains that some waste industry firms' websites may not draw members in droves, no matter how spectacular they are.
One of the best ways to counteract this malaise is to ensure that a firm's web appears on every piece of advertising and promotional material that emanates from the firm.
Another caution: While a number of waste industry firms are without question among the pioneers of web interactivity, it appears the web's evolution from a display device to an interactive tool will not transpire without growing pains.
For example, it's no secret that while some firms are conducting financial transactions via the web, others still are loathe to engage in that activity. Indeed, even as Net software companies such as Netscape (www.netscape. com) and Microsoft (www.microsoft. com) scramble to release their latest versions of electronic commerce software, waste industry firms' marketers still read reports about Net hackers befuddling supposedly "impenetrable" Net security systems.
Also documented are stories of thieves attempting to sell lists of credit card numbers that they have lifted from commercial websites.
Moreover, although interactive web technology is developing at lightning speed, all website developers - including those servicing waste industry firms - are having a tough time just keeping up.
Without a doubt, the new toys are fun. But since most waste industry firms' websites have been developed in the past year or two, it's no wonder management may want a breather before wrapping its mind around an upgrade.
Nevertheless, it appears that the next generation of websites, whose roots are in interactivity, will be considered de rigueur across the web.
Security concerns will be allayed simply because there is too much money to be lost if those concerns remain, Net analysts predict.
Ultimately, it appears that the steady onslaught of new interactivity applications for the web will transform the medium into something eminently more useful and personable.
Joe Dysart is a Net business consultant based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He can be reached at (805) 379-3841 or by e-mail: [email protected]