ANALYSIS: Nectar debut shows testing is key
Reward scheme Nectar was billed as one of the most exciting consumer propositions of recent times when it launched on 10 September. But technical problems with its web registration process have highlighted the importance of thoroughly testing sites prior to launch.
Unlike previous schemes, usually limited to one retail chain, Nectar involves four major UK brands - Sainsbury's, BP, Debenhams and Barclaycard - and aims to capture more than 12.5 million households in its first year.
The £50 million scheme wants to get most of its members signing up online via the Nectar.com web site. The site address was pushed heavily in all TV, press ads and direct mail for the scheme's launch and consumers were given the incentive of 100 extra points if they signed up online.
Unfortunately, online registrations have had to be suspended after the site couldn't cope with the weight of traffic.
Richard Campbell, marketing director of Loyalty Management UK (LMUK), which is operating the scheme on behalf of the partners, puts the site's difficulties down to problems handling thousands of users' details within a secure environment.
"It's the high level of security on the site that caused our problems, even though we had done all the testing and due diligence," claims Campbell.
"The demand on the site exceeded even our bullish forecasts."
The site was developed by LMUK in conjunction with technology and IT consultancy Infosys, but Campbell dismisses the notion that the launch fiasco will damage the Nectar brand.
"We would rather it hadn't happened," he says. "But we tackled it promptly and are still giving our customers the online offer of 100 points when they call the telephone number."
But Steve Adams, senior consultant at brand consultancy Dragon, suggests that Nectar's online problems will not help its overall perception.
"Many consumers are happy to give brands the benefit of the doubt," he says. "Egg had problems on its launch, but this has had no adverse long-term effects. It is more of an issue with Nectar, however, because it is replacing existing loyalty schemes. Poor press about customer dissatisfaction has compounded the problem."
Mark Hill, managing director of corporate web specialist ir group, says: "I have a measure of sympathy for Nectar and, on reflection, I don't think they just forgot to test it for the scale of interest that emerged. This is a big, complex project and, when combined with commercial pressures such as budgets and deadlines, it is easy to see how things could go awry.
"And big brands getting things wrong is not new. The Dome stands out among myriad examples of large-scale consumer products and services failing to test sufficiently before launch."
LMUK's Campbell says the four primary sponsors are pleased with the overall programme so far. "They were as concerned as we were," he says. "But my understanding is that this kind of glitch does happen with projects like this."
Another high-profile launch beset by problems was the Government's 1901 census site (www.census.pro.gov.uk), which collapsed under the sheer volume of traffic when it debuted at the start of this year and is still not yet fully up and running.
The Inland Revenue also struggled with form submission and security problems on its online tax self-assessment service (www.inlandrevenue.gov.uk).
Warren Kerrigan, former chief technical officer at web agency Foresight, says ambitious web projects are to be commended, but feels many could benefit from more comprehensive technical planning.
While at Foresight, Kerrigan was involved with building the Comic Relief web site, which he says took about £3.5 million in online donations overnight.
"With Comic Relief, we knew we'd work with technical firms such as Oracle," he explains. "We were talking to people about dual systems. When servers got to 70 per cent of capacity, they stopped authorising credit cards live and kept them in a database for processing later. If anything failed, it flipped to another system. If that failed, it went to yet another site, which just asked for basic details."
The site remained stable throughout busy traffic periods on the night, but the level of planning for mass-targeted sites such as Comic Relief is the exception, rather than the rule.
"No one tests their sites properly," claims Kerrigan. "Everyone is in such a rush to go live. I know one retailer that will take a risk during busy periods because the cost of making that site more resilient during that period is too much. It can double the price of things like software licence fees."
Back-end issues such as traffic planning, monitoring and measurement, user experience and usability testing must be addressed to ensure the stability of a major site launch.
But Andy Chambers, managing director of web agency Digit, says that ignorance means such processes are often swept under the carpet.
"Clients still have a poor understanding of the robust infrastructure and planning required," he says. "The first things shaved from budgets are the so-called boring or undervalued bits."
He thinks such attitudes can work in favour of the creative process, but that giving less attention to technical issues can work against key objectives such as speed of access.
"There's nothing worse than getting 75 per cent of the way through a transaction only for it to crash," says Chambers.
Despite his concerns about the effect of the troubles on Nectar, Dragon's Adams is more forgiving of the event itself.
"There is no right or wrong answer with the internet," he says. "It's an interactive organic entity that gets better the more it is interrogated. It's important to view web site development as a process, not an exam."
This article was first published on revolutionmagazine.com
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