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12 killer websites worth watching

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Nowadays, websites are like opinions. Everyone has one, and we all like to critique each other's.


But defining what separates a stellar website from a stale one isn't as simple as it used to be. With the proliferation of social media, video, and other dynamic content, the fundamentals of a great site go well beyond navigation and graphics. Creativity isn't relegated to mere taglines and illustrations. Rather, creativity abounds in the fundamental experiences that digitally savvy companies create to engage their core audiences.


That said, tried-and-true website best practices still apply. Simplicity. Elegance. Ease of use. These principles still matter, and it's the sites that apply these concepts to truly innovative ideas that capture our attention online. 


So who's doing it right? We asked our panel of digital specialists to take a critical look at the sites they love in order to illuminate some lessons you can apply to your own web design efforts.

Brand Name: AXE
Agency/Site Creator: Razorfish
URL: http://www.theaxeeffect.com/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
AXE is a brand that knows itself and its audience. And AXE is a brand that remains unafraid to push the limits of good taste. Just like its audience. Or at least that's how it appeared to me, somebody who knows the brand well and likes to believe he knows the audience. My gut says AXE "gets it." Juvenile. Immature. Overtly sexual. Risk takers. The brand has a smart planner with a lot of whack hiding somewhere. The brand understands the social media power plays and so makes excellent use of Facebook, Funny or Die, and original online content, as well as hilarious promotions and gimmicks like the amusing "Undie Run" philanthropic clothing drive program focused on the college market.


To verify my belief that the site would be found worthy by girl-crazed young men everywhere (and presumably some of the young ladies they desire), I asked a few post-college grads here to visit the site and report back. Their collective wisdom went something like this: "Looks cool but not too complicated. Damn easy to navigate. Hey, you can connect with Facebook. Smart. They didn't just throw up some music downloads over there."


The site's content is funny, refreshing, and directly connected to the brand. Reporting one of your friends as having WADD [Women's Attention Deficit Disorder: guilty of uninteresting behavior with girls] on Facebook? Pretty funny. Hair Action: when a girl moves in close, inhales deeply, and can't resist playing with her guy's hair? Awesome. And the site even has funny videos acting out examples of Hair Action and WADD. Check out the "Undie Run" campaign. Brilliant. Funny. Sexy. Philanthropic. Makes me wish I was in college again, just so I could participate. Great site, so much fun.


I cracked up when the AXE Hair Action application on Facebook asked me put on my headphones (great insight into their cube-dwelling and room-sharing target) to truly "get some Hair Action" in "3D Holographic Sound." Then the site "blindfolds" me and away we go. Hilarious and kudos for the brilliant sound design.


AXE delivers and doesn't pull any punches. It takes outrageous and clever chances to get attention, which is right for its target and still unusual enough in the online brand space (though certainly not online in general) that it made me stop and pay attention.


How would you improve this website?
I don't think you can "improve" a site experience like AXE. What you should do (and the brand is doing it well) is invest and invest in keeping it fresh, if you will. I would be looking for more user-generated content and even bolder work from partners like CollegeHumor.com to help keep the brand honest and bold.


The navigation looks great, but you really have to dig to find all the cool stuff. My site crew kept noting things they had found on the site (or off the site on Facebook and elsewhere), and without a link, I had a hard time finding clips, experiences, or specific areas I wanted to explore. However, I really enjoyed the process of discovery, as did the crew I enlisted for some perspective. In fact, I'm still telling them to stop goofing around on the site.



Brand Name: Levi's
Agency/Site Creator: Unknown
URL: http://store.levi.com/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
The Levi's store went "all-in" with Facebook to such an extreme that it calls its ecommerce site a "Friends Store" with the very social sub-head, "Like-minded shopping starts here." You can click to see what "everyone" likes or filter through the clutter and see only what your "friends" like by linking to your Facebook account.


I would pay (call me, I will pay) to see the results and learning from this retail site experience. Every Levi's jean style has "likes," comments, and reviews posted. The ubiquitous Facebook "like" icon is everywhere, so much so that I did a search to see if I missed a news alert announcing that Facebook had recently acquired Levi's.


The legendary jeans maker has more than 300,000 fans and such seamless (excuse the pun) integration with Facebook that I immediately felt a brand shift. Levi's is taking a unique and bold step forward in social retailing and crowd-sourced shopping. It joins Converse and others in arguing that one way to keep your brand mark relevant and brand followers happy is to let them dictate the terms of engagement. Using Facebook this way is a step in the right direction.


How would you improve this website?
I could make a compelling case that the Facebook integration here favors Facebook more than Levi's and that the target audience values individual expression so much that "like-minded shopping starts here" is completely wrong-headed. But it's a discussion I would relish, and I will keep the site bookmarked so I can keep checking in to see if it's working. Points to Levi's and its agency for moving forward fast and having the nerve to stake out a strong point of view in such a competitive retail space.


Lincoln Bjorkman is chief creative officer, North America, for Digitas.

Brand Name: Tupperware Brands
Agency/Site Creator: BGT Partners
URL: http://www.tupperwarebrands.com/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
It is always a challenge to take a 60-year-old iconic brand and reposition it for the modern consumer and workforce. Tupperware Brands recently overhauled its website to accurately represent corporate leadership and engage relevant audiences, including sales teams, investors, employment candidates, the media, and consumers.


People tend to have tunnel vision about Tupperware Brands and little awareness of its diversified products, global footprint, and commitment to the environment. The new site exposes its audience to a leading global company that is way beyond your mother's containers. The site now incorporates dynamic components to highlight Tupperware Brands' portfolio of products and streamlined content for enhanced navigation. Additionally, an ideation platform was developed for customers and the vast sales force to provide a direct channel for improving the company's products. Further, by creating the "Tupperware Sustainability" section, the site enables Tupperware Brands to showcase its commitment to the environment and to its customer base. In sum, Tupperware Brands did a comprehensive job of taking an iconic brand and modernizing it to represent the present-day company in the best possible way.


How would you improve this website?
The next step for Tupperware Brands' website would be to increase the social engagement of the audience by infusing the site with social content. This would include providing an aggregated view into all social channels and evolving the ideation platform to gather more audience interaction and connection. The final area to improve is the Careers section. For a company that relies on recruiting an exceptional sales force, it should enhance this portion of the website and showcase Tupperware Brands' unique lifestyle proposition. A more personal, shared experience online will engage this audience of job seekers and differentiate a position at Tupperware Brands from a typical job.



Brand Name: TED Conferences LLC
Agency/Site Creator: Unknown
URL: http://www.ted.com/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
Few sites have mastered rich-media content as well as TED.com. Starting from the homepage, information is simplistically displayed with an exacting mix of contextual and rich media. Information is paramount, and the organization is uniquely effective and intuitive. In fact, TED.com is one of the few sites to successfully use "adjectives" to filter through information. Further, content is displayed based on relevancy, and there is a strong hierarchy in terms of what is most viewed. People love to socialize and discuss TED, and the site does a solid job of incorporating social information in a clear and user-friendly manner. Overall, the creativity, idealism, and experience of being at a TED conference are all mirrored extraordinarily well in the TED.com site.


How would you improve this website?
It is hard to cut apart a site that does many things so well, but here's to nitpicking! The data feeds come in slowly on the homepage, and if you do not wait a moment, you will think that they cannot be opened. Social is extremely important to the conference; however, TED's social sites do not have prominence on the homepage and are below the "fold." TED's Facebook page has more than 385,000 fans -- making it one of the most popular conference pages in the world -- yet there is little information acknowledging these fans or "likes" on the site. Additionally, the TED Community page does not provide robust, live content from multiple social sources. However, these are all small details in a site that is designed extremely well.


David Clarke is founder and managing partner of BGT Partners.

Brand Name: Wrangler (Europe)
Agency/Site Creator: Kokokaka
URL: http://eu.wrangler.com/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
Too many websites become victims of the latest web technology, sacrificing the user experience for distracting and often complicated interfaces. The Wrangler Europe site is simple and refreshing, resisting the urge to use overcomplicated techniques and technology. Created with what seems to be simple video, green screen, and a vintage visual treatment, the Wrangler site expresses the lifestyle experience while showing off some of the apparel in a format not new to the web -- just done simply, modestly, and with restraint.


The Blue Bell site that Kokokaka also created, linked on the bottom left, is also impressive. Using similar techniques along with interactive video, you can drag and toss around the models in one of the most fun shopping experiences I've seen on the web.


How would you improve this website?
My only two complaints: You can't buy the clothing online, and more importantly, if you're going to offer an experience that involves undressing models, there should absolutely be a female section.



Brand Name: WIRED iPad App
Agency/Site Creator: In collaboration with Adobe
URL: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wired-magazine/id373903654?mt=8



What is unusual and effective about this website?
The iPad was recently launched to thousands of skeptics calling it a larger iPhone. Most of the initial applications launched on the device proved the skeptics right -- they were simple reformats to a new interface and larger screen. WIRED is one of the first to completely embrace the technology of this device, prove its capabilities, and more importantly, redefine how people will consume print and media in the future. And specifically, from an advertising perspective, the hybrid between print and digital is a completely new and exciting platform to explore. The WIRED app really gave me a glimpse of things to come, and I'm excited.


How would you improve this website?
It's difficult to say what needs improving, but some of the things I am looking forward to seeing are: more integration between text and the web, such as being able to link to more information on topics or names; the evolution of photos and infographics to animation, video, and 3-D experiences; and the integration within social networking to share, comment, and create a more social experience than print currently offers.


Colin Jeffery is executive creative director at David&Goliath.

Brand Name: LaundryView
Client: Mac-Gray
Agency/Site Creator: AMP Agency
URL: http://www.laundryview.com/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
This MITX award-winning website is the perfect example of how to leverage advanced technology to create a solution that addresses the unique pain points of a business (equipment down time costs money) and its consumers (wasted time waiting for machines) at the same time. The application is the only one of its kind, uses the internet as a backbone, and relies on custom-engineered components to operate incorporating Flash and LAMP development.


LaundryView allows consumers to monitor the status of washers and dryers in connected laundry rooms from any computer with internet access. Students may also receive notification via email, PDA, or cellphone when their laundry is done or a machine becomes available. For Mac-Gray, LaundryView helps the company save and make money through improved machine uptime and increased laundry room usage. Each LaundryView machine tracks its own status and automatically sends out notification when it has failed. A text message is dispatched electronically to a service technician, and within minutes, the service request is added to the technician's to-do list. LaundryView also graphically displays the past two weeks' usage of a laundry room so students can avoid peak usage times, making them (and the laundry rooms) more efficient.


How would you improve this website?
Discussions are underway about two ways to improve the website. First, the team would like to extend this to other platforms such as the iPhone and/or Android, allowing for full functionality on a mobile platform. Second, we would like to incorporate an online user account, allowing parents of college students to "load" funds into a student's account, which is then available on their laundry card, eliminating the need for buckets of quarters. This will also help Mac-Gray reduce the staff required to collect from the machines and associated risk.



Brand Name: Mint.com
Agency/Site Creator: Mint Software Inc.
URL: http://www.mint.com/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
The site is effectively a one-stop dashboard for personal financial management. Centralized and secure access to timely, relevant, and personalized financial management information that can save you money is the unique value proposition of this site. The elegant and simple -- yet well conceived and functional -- user interface makes the site feel more like a desktop application than a browser-based web application. There is excellent use of AJAX/DHTML and Web 2.0 technologies. Intelligently designed icons and graphics make navigating and using the site very easy. The Flash/Flex based reporting tools are also easy to use yet very powerful for tracking personal income, spending, net worth, and transactions. Alerts and notification can be sent via email or to a mobile device. The iPhone/mobile application provides much of the same functionality "on the go," and the application interface is as intuitive as the website.


How would you improve this website?
This site could be improved in two ways. First, from a functionality and technology perspective, because the site is essentially read-only, it would be helpful to have direct links to the financial institutions' websites with single sign-on capabilities, where applicable, and some form of reconciliation. Second, from a marketing communication perspective, since the site is so powerful and offers so many features and benefits -- each of which is listed as its own tab on the homepage -- the unique value proposition (one tool to manage all your financial management needs) is lost. Fewer links on the homepage would likely help clear up this issue, with this content still accessible on the sub-directory pages.


Karen Macumber is SVP, media services, at AMP Agency, an Alloy Media + Marketing company.

Brand Name: Microsoft Kin
Agency: Razorfish
URL: http://www.kin.com/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
KIN.com introduces itself with a question, "Your phone is your life, right?" The branding is so immediately clear, you can almost hear its target audience answering with, "Duh." KIN finds that careful balance between innovation and just plain confusing site visitors. The standard navigation supports easily finding product info and drives visitors to the ecommerce site. Video is the central, focal point of the site -- a smart decision as video proves throughout the digital space to deepen user engagement.


Specific highlights include easy access to and from KIN.com and KIN social media properties. Its Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages adhere to a consistent look and voice, allowing the user to experience the brand wherever the two meet. A great touch is found in the site's The Buzz section. Typically, this would be the press section of a site, but KIN pays attention to detail and features reviews from relevant publications, such as GeekSugar, Mashable, and Gizmodo.
 
How would you improve this website?
After such a positive assessment of KIN.com, what improvements could be addressed? One part that struck me is the prominence of the Verizon Wireless logo. The "Buy Now at Verizon Wireless" button at the top is an effective method of driving commerce, but two additional Verizon logos stand out like sore thumbs in the overall KIN user experience.



Brand Name: Stetson Hat Co.
Agency: Big Fuel Communications
URL: http://stetson.com/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
Stetson is an iconic American brand, and its website effectively highlights the company's traditions, history, and social identity. Its tagline, "Made of America," carries all the way through the execution and leveraged the fact that Stetson is a big part of American culture. The site dynamically pulls content from popular social networks to showcase how the brand is woven into the fabric of American lives. This content builds a quilt-like collage that tells the brand story told through its consumers' eyes. The site further brings to life the Stetson "Made of America" positioning by asking visitors to contribute their own stories, photos, and videos to the collage, allowing the brand to engage with consumers and provide them with a forum to share their stories and love of the brand. Additionally, site visitors have the opportunity to join the Stetson community and participate in contests and members-only promotions. Of course, the brand's entire line of products, a retail locator, "share" functionality, and links to all its social profiles are front and center too.


How would you improve this website?
The brand chose to wall-off much of the community-based features to drive registrations. Although I understand and appreciate the approach, I'm not a fan of walls (even digital ones) and believe that audiences need to see and experience the full breadth of content to drive participation. Other than tearing down the wall, I would just want to see more -- more photos, more videos, more people experiencing the brand and sharing their stories. 


Avi Savar is CEO of Big Fuel Communications.

Brand Name: Cold War Kids
Production: Tool of North America
Flash Development: Jason Nickel
URL: http://www.coldwarkids.com/iveseenenough/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
It is a website disguised as an interactive video. It plays in a linear format but allows you to interact with it in a non-linear way. The user is given an opportunity to change the instruments and, by doing so, remix the song. I like the user interface, as it is simple in design and easy to control.


Sometimes new music releases are blown out with big label-funded websites. This is truly a fan-forward engagement coming from the CWK.com site. The Cold War Kids' single is delivered via microsite format and seeded using social networks, Twitter, and the band's email fan base. It can be interacted with and shared very easily. It makes great use of synched Flash video and a simple color palette with a subtle nod to the simplicity of rock-n-roll the way it used to be.


How would you improve this website?
I would like to see a "save remix" added to share feature. The load time is a bit long and might be improved if alpha channel .flv movies were used to keep the file sizes a bit lower by knocking out backgrounds in video files. Lastly, I would love to have more songs available to save and share. Overall, it's a simply cool idea with nice execution.



Brand Name: Digg Labs
Developed by: Barbarian Group
URL: http://labs.digg.com/365/



What is unusual and effective about this website?
The unusual factor is always in full effect when the Barbarian Group is developing. So props to firm for another fun and envelope-pushing interaction model. The site allows the user to celebrate Digg's past five years using six different visualization techniques. These formats range from 365-day format to real-time stacks with correlated Diggs, and it rounds out with simple pictures for those who are into the visual cues of Digg.


The strategy is to celebrate a great leader in the web's social news network development over the past five years. The use of innovative yet simple user interface models that get a user engaged stays true to the crowd-sourcing engine that put Digg on the map and has kept it there for the past five years. The ability to download the different interaction segments as screen savers for PC and Mac is brilliant and shows that the experience can continue to be real-time after you leave the site experience.


How would you improve this website?
I wouldn't try to improve it. I would just try to conjure up new and cool interaction models to add to the site over time. In a word -- I "Digg" this site.


Brian Unflat is creative director at White Horse.



Lori Luechtefeld is editor of iMedia Connection.


On Twitter? Follow Luechtefeld at @loriluechtefeld. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Lori Luechtefeld is publisher of iMedia Connection. She came to iMedia in July 2008 from Canon Communications, where she served as managing editor of an executive-level business magazine in the medical technology field. Prior to joining Canon, Lori...

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Comments

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Commenter: steve danson

2010, June 15

Great article... good choice on Ted... one of my favorites

Commenter: Jane Tyndin

2010, June 12

Awesome article... I appreciated the expert insight into what they think is successful though I disagree with Lincoln's selection.

Commenter: Michael Odza

2010, June 09

I'm bookmarking this article to share with clients, for sure. But one major deduction, this one not for the author but for imediaconnection.com. One of your own articles reminds us that web pages are dead! Why are you making us page through this?

Commenter: Roger Darnell

2010, June 09

Excellent article Lori -- thank you! Cheers! -- Roger D.

Commenter: Morris Sneor

2010, June 09

Great article. All the Websites you selected are entertaining, engaging, and interactive. However wouldn't they all rank poorly on SEO since they are Flash driven?

Commenter: Brett Sherman

2010, June 09

Great Article- well done...

Commenter: Andrew Dixon

2010, June 09

Great job hitting the key points of why these are effective sites. Very insightful.

Commenter: Tim Bottiglieri

2010, June 09

wonderfully said...wow...3rd paragraph says it all...the only word left out...Honesty...but,tried and true works just as well!
great article.