Hooked On Speed
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Faster than a speeding cable modem, more powerful than a 300 MHz computer, it's . . . it's . . . well, it had better be you if you're planning to lure the next wave of online consumers to your Web site. That demographic, dubbed Generation Y, includes recent college graduates and young twentysomethings distinguished from previous generations of netizens by their unprecedented demand for speed.
Fresh out of college dorms and other abodes that have been wired to the hilt with high-speed Internet connections, they'll accept nothing less than lightning-fast access to online information and media. "They're very much into speed. They were raised on it, so they expect it much more than [older] adults," says Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Once students graduate and leave their heavily wired accommodations, don't expect their demands for high-speed access and the big downloads to subside. For netpreneurs hoping to attract this potentially lucrative market, be ready to provide information, services and media quickly and efficiently and to build or borrow the technology needed to do so.
Julie Vallone is a San Francisco Bay area writer striving to keep pace with the Web's young speed demons
Ron Stein, 33, and Michael Herzig, 27, know all about the challenges of starting a site geared toward this group. "Because the technology in the college space is evolving so quickly, you have to move fast to get onto their radar screen," explains Herzig, co-founder of UConnections.com, a New York City-based university network site. "If you don't offer them the products they want and make them available very quickly, someone else will."
In order to provide the functionality needed during their start-up period, the UConnections founders have partnered with other online businesses that already offer student-oriented services, such as eCampus.com, Gamegate.com and major food suppliers. In many cases, UConnections diverts traffic to its partners' servers, which can better handle the volume and transactional requirements. The key, says Stein, is to choose partners that give students the speed and site quality they expect.
"For now, we've managed to do this much by finding partners who already have the technology up and running," Herzig adds. Eventually,when more resources are available and more of the basic network has been completed, UConnections will move the technology and traffic back to its site.
At the same time, speed isn't your only consideration. A recent Forrester survey found that 73 percent of young adults said their technology usage decisions were primarily entertainment-motivated, compared with 36 percent of older adults. That means ample opportunity for entrepreneurs like Michael Moroney, 32-year-old CEO and co-founder of ArtistOne, a San Francisco-based musical artist community that features sound downloads, video interviews and more. ArtistOne, which started off with much more funding than UConnections, takes a different approach to ensuring speed and performance. All its e-commerce operations occur on its own dedicated servers. "We've created a unified e-commerce system," says Moroney. "Whether users are purchasing MP3 downloads, CDs or merchandise, it's all happening on our servers, so we're able to control the bandwidth output."
Moroney and his colleagues have also paid heed to speed in the design of the ArtistOne site, using fast new-media technology such as Flash and ensuring that users are no more than one or two clicks away from the songs they want to hear.
Remember, when it comes to keeping up with young consumers, flexibility is the name of the game. Moroney and his team designed a scalable backend system that would enable them to expand with additional servers without having to change the basic architecture. ArtistOne also uses a variety of sound formats, including QuickTime, MP3, Windows Media Player and RealNetworks technology, and is prepared to accept any improved formats that come along. Says Moroney, "We're not betting the farm on just one sound or video format, and as new systems are developed, we can easily plug it in to our existing architecture."
Synchronize the Site With Slow Connection Speeds
Gigabeat, an online music gateway and search engine, has also been created with speed, efficiency and flexibility in mind. Using data-mining technology, the Palo Alto, California-based site is designed to arrange and serve up comprehensive music information faster and better than ever before.
Gigabeat's co-founders, Narayanan Shivakumar, 26, Erin Turner, 25, and Wilburt Labio, 28, know firsthand about living in the college-connection fast lane. All three received degrees from Stanford University just last year, and they're keenly attuned to the expectations of the fickle college crowd. Still, they want to make sure their site is accessible to those consumers who may not have such speedy connections.
"Because our generation comes out of this environment, fast access is something you tend to assume," says Turner. "But we also have stepped back and asked, as we branch out to newer audiences with modems, what kind of accommodations do we want to make to also reach them?"
It's a dilemma that has plagued many new sites that want to reel in the young, bleeding-edge audience without leaving other potential Web visitors in the dust. Keep in mind that the latter group may include some loyal users who usually (but don't always) have access to fast Web connections.
Stein advises start-ups to identify a primary audience, build for that speed and assume that other people will eventually catch up. At the same time, UConnections accepts slower-speed users by making various media-rich parts of the site elective.
"We give them choices on our site," says Stein. "If you have a 56Kbps modem, you can access most of our core services, but if you have a faster modem, services like the video streaming and games work much better. We need to make sure the core piece offers the easy access and level of flash that they want, but with the ability to go further and faster."
The Next Generation Of Your Consumers
In addition to remaining fast and flexible, today's online start-ups also need to look ahead and try to anticipate the needs of not only Generation Y, but also successive waves of young consumers. "We don't want to be reactionary," says Stein. "We know they're ahead of the game, but we still think we can take our audience to the next level. We're now looking at technology for handhelds and trying to get that out to them. We're part of their community, and this is a way for them to carry that community around with them."
Pay Heed To Seed
- Create a scalable site architecture, one that is capable of accommodating dramatic increases in traffic. Assume success!
- If funds are tight, consider partnering with services that offer your audience superior speed and functionality and diverting traffic to their servers.
- When designing sites, avoid graphic elements that slow download times.
- Set up separate servers for media and for basic site hosting (HTML or text assets) to avoid bandwidth conflict.
- Be prepared to alter site architecture and switch media formats if better ones come along.
Forrester Research, 400 Technology Sq., Cambridge, MA 02139, www.forrester.com