Interactivity Reexamined: A Baseline Analysis of Early Business Web Sites.

Author:Ha, Louisa
 
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The World Wide Web is a networked hypertext system containing digitized texts, audio, and visual data (Snyder, 1996). Fueled by increasing promotion in mass media and the popularity of online services (Internet World, 1997; Maddox & Mehta, 1997), the Web, as part of the Internet, is growing at a pace faster than any previous new communication media (Berthon, Pitt & Watson, 1996). Although it has been available to the general public only since the early 1990s, the Web is now regularly accessed by millions of users. While different sources report different numbers of Web users, all reports agree that Web usage is growing tremendously. One study conducted in August, 1997 estimated that there were 55.4 million Web users over the age of 12 in the United States (Relevant Knowledge, 1998). This is up from 22 million users the previous year. Many traditional mass media (such as television, radio, newspapers, and magazines) have established their presence on the Web through online mirror versions.

In the latest edition of Diffusion of Innovations (1995), Rogers discussed the multiplier effect of Internet technology upon its adoption of its interactive nature. The rapid adoption of the Web can be explained by the attributes of successful innovations suggested by Rogers (1983). In terms of relative advantage, Web users can enjoy business profits and a reputation as being informed and knowledgeable. Its graphic and audio-vidual capabilities make it it an attractive medium to use. In terms of compatibility with previous ideas and social values, the Web is a combination of traditional print and electronic media. The name of the technology, the World Wide Web, easy to remember and vividly illustrating the worldwide interconnection function of the system, also facilitates its success. In terms of low complexity, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get format of web browsers makes them user friendly and reduces the perceived complexity of the medium. Finally, the Web has high trialibility. Trialibility is the degree to which an innovation can be sampled in small quantity or with low cost. Open access to the Web through computers at schools or public libraries minimize the risk for computers in trying the technology.

A major force behind the growth of the Web is its potential for generating revenue. A recent report by ActivMedia (1998) on 3,500 net markets estimated that the revenues generated from the Web would be around $24.4 billion US in 1997. Most of the revenues (85%) came from product and service sales or fees and online advertising. The rest came from equipment and web site development. Some 65% already claimed to be enjoying profits. Moreover, web sites with more experience on the Web were more likely to report making profits than those who were new to the Web. Although one may doubt the validity of the statistics because of the study sponsor's vested interests in the Internet, the proliferation of Internet-related publications and research indicates that the Web has become a viable business opportunity that many want to cash in on. The growing interest of business in establishing their presence on the Web is shown in a 1996 study of 367 marketing executives in the U.S. Seventeen percent of them reported that their companies already had web sites, and 31% of the companies were planning to set up a web site in the next six months (Paustian, 1996).

The present study first attempts to deconstruct the meaning of interactivity and then reports the results of a content analysis which examined the interactivity levels of business web sites. Business web sites are chosen for study over other web sites to assess interactivity because these sites are the most common. They are most likely to benefit from interactivity and possess financial resources that drive the technological development of the Web. Indeed, as of April 1997, 88% of all registered domain names on the Web were commercial domains ending with ".com" (Kosters, 1997).

The World Wide Web as a Medium

Although the Web is still a medium accessible only to computer users, it has reached the "critical mass" threshold suggested by Rogers (1995) to assure that its adoption rate will become self-sustaining. In addition, the Web can be accessed using a traditional TV with a special accessory through TV-based online services such as WebTV or NetChannel. The device, which resembles a remote-control, is available from major electric appliance manufacturers such as Sony and Magnavox. Although WebTV has only 150,000 subscribers after its first year in the market (Magill, 1997), the alternative of accessing the Web through traditional TV sets will facilitate Web penetration rate among the general public.

Unlike traditional mass media which represent a one-to-many communication model, the Web represents both many-to-one and many-to-many models (Hoffman, Novak, & Chatterjee, 1995; Morris & Ogan, 1996). Many individual consumers can initiate communication to the same web site at the same time. This many-to-many scenario is unique to the Web, because many points of origination and destination coexist in cyberspace. With such features as cyberchat and listserv mailing list that simultaneously connects people with common interests, the Web becomes a means for many-to-many communications. There is no single source of message origination or single destination on the Web. Negroponte (1996) describes such use of computer networks as a "digital age" in which all information is digitized. Information is customized to the demand of the consumer. Gilder (1990) predicts the new computer technology will increase the power of the people by "blow[ing] apart all the monopolies, hierarchies, pyramids, and power grids of established society (p.31)." The medium will change from a mass-produced and mass-consumed commodity to an endless feast of niches and specialties.

As a marketing communication medium, the Web has been described as "a cross between an electronic trade show and a community flea market (Berthon, Pitt & Watson, 1996, p.44)." It allows visitors to browse a company's products or services at the user's own pace and facilitates informal communication between the company and the consumer. Consumers who do not like face-to-face communication in real trade shows and flea markets can avoid it by browsing the Web while enjoying the same experience. A web site can perform many different functions for a business, its consumers, and other stakeholders such as investors and employees.

Among the most widely used marketing functions of the Web are: 1) to provide consumers with continuously updated product information without limitation of space; 2) to generate qualified leads for salespeople by identifying customer queries; 3) to support customer service so that customers can contact the company anytime they wish with complaints nd suggestions; 4) to serve as a customer research tool, collecting consumer information by conducting surveys and monitoring visitor behavior on the Web; 5) to conduct sales promotion activities such as as giving away samples of computer software through free download services, distributing electronic coupons and inviting customer participation in sweepstakes; 6) to distribute and accept orders from visitors during the web site visit; 7) to hold the attention of consumers through an interactive input-output process and customize communications precisely to individual consumers (Balthazard & Koh, 1997; Berthon, Pitt, & Watson, 1996; Hoffman & Novak, 1996; Stern, 1995); and 8) to project a favorable corporate image as a high-tech and consumer-oriented company (Maddox & Mehta, 1997).

The Concept of Interactivity

Interactivity is a critical concept in computer-mediated communications, because it is seen as the key advantage of the medium (Morris & Ogan, 1996; Pavlik, 1996; Rafeli & Sudweeks, 1997). Technologists such as Ted Nelson (1990) suggest that human-computer activities exemplify the human impulse to create interactive representation. The outcomes of interactivity are engagement in communication and relationship building between a company and its target consumers. Researchers have noted that the quest for improving interactivity guides future technological development for the Web (Robb et al., 1997).

From an interpersonal communication perspective, interactivity has been defined as "the extent to which messages in a sequence relate to each other, and especially the extent to which later messages recount the relatedness of earlier messages (Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997 p.3)." By the same token, many communication researchers use face-to-face communication as the standard of interactivity and evaluate the interactivity of mediated communication (such as the Internet) by how closely it simulates face-to-face communication (Walther & Burgoon, 1992). This conception ignores the characteristics of computer-mediated communication which allow asynchronous communication. Participants may choose the time and the duration of interaction. From a mechanical perspective, interactivity has been defined as "the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time (Steuer, 1992 p. 84)."

Using an artistic approach, Laurel (1996) contends that interactivity is an experience like acting in a theater. Many agents participate within representation contexts in computer-human interactions.

In a business setting, interactivity tends to be seen as the "combination of rich content, active intelligence, collaborative communications to create a compelling consumer experience (Robb et al., 1997 p.5)" or "a person-to-person or person-to-technology exchange designed to effect change in the knowledge or behavior of at least one person (Haeckel, 1998 p.64)." These approaches to interactivity can easily lead to subjective interpretations of the nature of interactivity, because individuals have different perceptions of richness, engagement, fantasy...

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