What else do you lose if your Web site performance goes down?

* When perception becomes reality

Those of us working in the technology industry tend to be a fairly pragmatic crew, and our world is painted in black and white - technology is either on or off, it works or it doesn't. It's easy to lose track of the fact that most of the rest of the business world lives in shades of gray. That fact was driven home for me recently when I was doing background research for a Keynote Systems Webinar on managing Web 2.0.

Keynote Systems, as you may or may not know, is one of the premiere solution providers of Web application monitoring. It monitors top Web and e-commerce sites for performance and availability, then reveals the results in industry publications. Keynote was one of the first monitoring services to detect and report Wal-Mart's Black Friday Web site fiasco.

Keynote quantifies the performance that end users experience when they visit retail sites, and the market for such solutions is big and is getting bigger. Although IT organizations can buy solutions to manage their own sites in-house, products that run tests inside the organizational firewall don't trace the same path that external transactions would take.

Apropos of the holiday season, one of the major concerns of retailers is Web site responsiveness. EMA research has shown that, for business critical applications such as online stock transactions, a fourfold decrease in performance can result in a $10 million dollar loss in a single hour. End users aren't patient, and when performance is poor, they give up on the site and take their business to a site where they can complete their transaction.

However, the loss of a few revenue-producing transactions over a limited time period can be the least of a retailer's problems. An even bigger problem can be the blow dealt to brand equity, which is one of those gray areas.

Brand equity comes from three primary sources: brand awareness, the consumer perception that a brand is of high quality, and consumer preference based on the "cachet" - mystique, if you will - of owning a particular product. Further, brand equity translates to dollars. A Stanford University Graduate School of Business study estimated that Samsung earns more than $125 million dollars per year, simply because of its accrued brand equity.

A big factor in building up brand equity is continuous reinforcement of a positive brand image over time. And this is where IT comes in.

What kind of image does poor performance on a retail site convey? Unfortunately, it translates to a perception of poor quality, cheapness, and disregard for the customer's time. Although there are many factors that can contribute to poor site performance - some of which aren't within the control of the retailer - perception can become reality.

Especially for high end-retailers - think Lexus, Saks, Cadillac - customer perception is what drives a purchase. In part, it is this intangible factor that constitutes a big part of the brand's value. And this is a major raison d'etre for companies like Keynote. They don't just monitor performance. They also help boost and protect brand equity.

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