From the November 2006 issue of Entrepreneur

Now that most of your customers have broadband, your site should offer rich media features such as zoom, virtual e-catalogs and dynamic color-swatching. "It's basically a must-have for many retailers, especially those where touch and feel are critical to product conversion," says Sucharita Mulpuru, a senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Anyone in this space who doesn't have features such as zoom and alternative views is seen as being really behind."

A host of companies offer low-cost tools that make it easy to add rich media to your site. Virtual Iris, for one, sells software for enhancing pictures, e-mails and websites with next-generation rich media elements. Prices range from free (for basic use of the company's website) to monthly licensing fees of several thousand dollars for downloadable enterprise desktop products.

Another company, ActivePoint, offers contextual e-catalogs and reporting tools for e-commerce. The company's Easy-Flip E-Catalogue starts at $65 per page with links; hosting is charged based on traffic. Meanwhile, ActivePoint's TX5 system creates interactive online presentations that incorporate rich media elements and guide customers through a website, helping them find the product they want even if they don't know its exact name. The base price for TX5 is $5,000 per system or about $900 per month, depending on usage.

The TX5 system helped entrepreneur Sebastian Harrison solve a problem: Customers had trouble navigating the hundreds of pages of his website. His Playa del Ray, California, business, Cellular Abroad, sells myriad international phone plans so customers can avoid expensive roaming rates. "Before TX5, consumers would call and ask where to begin on our 800-page site, or they would get frustrated and leave the site," says Harrison, 41, who expects more than $2.5 million in sales this year.

Sheila Dahlgren, senior vice president of marketing and communication at Scene7, a Novato, California, provider of rich media software and solutions, offers the following advice on using rich media.

1. High-resolution imagery produces high-quality results. Delivering the best online shopping experience possible means making sure all your content is consistent and of the best quality.

2. Invest in rich media technology that can grow with your business. Make sure your rich media vendor can scale to allow you to leverage your rich media across all products and pages, including the home page, thumbnail pages, product pages, shopping cart and so on.

3. Hook buyers with visuals. Visual merchandising is a proven method for increasing conversion rates. Maximize your rich media investment by using dynamically served imagery to not only upsell and cross-sell additional products, but also showcase items in your customers' shopping carts, on compare pages, in search results and more.

MelissaCampanelli is a marketing and technology writer in New York City.