This summer I traveled to London, where I was reminded of some of the more interesting advances in Web technologies. As I checked in on my standard U.S.-based news and blogging sites (the New York Times, Slate, Engadget, among others), everything felt strangely British. 

From the ads to the content itself, my experience was clearly being painted from a U.K. perspective. Articles about the new iPhones were talking about their availability on Vodaphone and O2 instead of Verizon and AT&T, even though the sites are clearly based in the United States. Attempting to check the weather in Atlanta prior to my return required me to scroll through London, Cornwall and Ireland before I could find whether the oppressive summer heat had broken in Georgia (it hadn’t).

None of this is any surprise to a technologist. Regardless of your location, the Internet knows where you are and when you are attempting to connect. When any computer is connected to the Internet, it is assigned an Internet Protocol (IP) address. When you reach out across the Internet to access a site like Google, your traffic passes through routing stations that report their location and the time you passed through. Once your signal arrives at the intended website, this breadcrumb trail of router locations can be used by the site to make some educated guesses about where you are.

You might have noticed that some of the ads on websites you frequent mention areas near you. These ads are checking your IP address and the path you took to get to them to guess your location. Sites can achieve an even greater degree of precision if you access them via a smartphone, given the phone’s GPS capability, but let’s focus on the old-fashioned, computer-and-mouse Internet.

To further understand who you are and what you might need, websites also use cookies. In plain English, a cookie is a piece of information about you that a website writes on your computer. The data could be your name, what you did when you last visited or items you were considering buying but didn’t. The next time you visit the site, it checks for any cookies from previous sessions and uses this data to personalize your experience. Amazon is a great example of a site with effective data use. Anytime you visit Amazon, it will custom-build the page filled with items Amazon believes you want based on items you’ve searched for in the past.

The New Intelligent Website

The next iteration of intelligent websites is starting to emerge now. Companies are beginning to aggregate and share their information about you in partnership arrangements. Have you noticed that the ads on Facebook seem eerily reminiscent of items and websites you’ve recently browsed? Conversely, have you noticed that websites seem to be attempting to sell you items that are related to a conversation you recently had with friends on social media sites? If you haven’t, you will soon. The combination of these large sets of data will eventually become an effective predictor about why you do the things you do. This will give companies a pretty good guess as to what you might want to buy even if you haven’t thought about it yet.

So how does this relate to your agency? Think of it this way: Do you know how many people visited your website yesterday? Or how many were first-time visitors? Where are they from, what is their business and what are they looking for? How many of yesterday’s visitors were current customers viewing lines of business they don’t typically buy from you? Wouldn’t you like to know these things?

For many agencies, the company website is a one-directional electronic brochure. The marketing team develops content that celebrates the agency’s unique approach and customer focus. It posts pictures of the leadership team (usually without a direct phone number or email address), a buried list of locations that might (or might not) include mailing addresses, and an impersonal email form page that usually sends messages into a black hole. The site is then forgotten about for years while it brings in a value to the agency that amounts to exactly nothing.

Some agencies go a step further and regularly post content and articles relevant to their customers. But most of them don’t know who is reading this content or whether it’s relevant. How many times has the latest article been reposted or linked to from other sites? Of everyone who read it yesterday, how many are customers and how many are prospects? This step is usually skipped, which diminishes the value of the effort.

Making Your Website Work

When I speak to most agencies, one of the top three items on their wish list is data analytics, but most agencies aren’t even aware of the massive amount of data that’s already there waiting to be used in innovative ways. With proper coding, a visit to your agency’s website can look like this:

“Hello, I see you are visiting from a heavy flood zone. Did you realize that nearly all business owners in your area carry the wrong limits? Here’s an article from our flood experts that you might find enlightening.”
Whether you use internal resources or an outside firm, amending your site to behave this way is a reality that’s within your grasp. It’s time to look at your website with a fresh set of eyes and recognize the true value it can bring to your agency.