Without question, Web sites are a crucial tool in the successful marketing of a new community. Regardless of the target demographic, builders have learned that home buyers do much of their early research on the Internet. The more a builder's Web site can connect with a consumer, the more likely it is to capture information for a prospect list and spark interest for a visit to the sales office.

With that in mind, the 10 judges of The Nationals gave close scrutiny to the 36 Web site entries from communities and another 21 corporate sites from builders. We viewed the sites from the perspective of a prospective customer gaining a first impression and from the viewpoint of a builder wanting to connect with its buyer demographic.

Here are 10 elements that drew the judges' attention to consider for your own site:

  • The ears have it. Several winning entries made excellent use of sound, such as waves crashing or children's laughter. Most effective, though, were sites that used music to evoke a mood from the moment the site loaded. Several sites such as those for Seahaus, www.seahaus.com, and 800 North Eighth, www.800n8th.com, gave viewers choices of musical styles. Equally important was the ability to turn the music off if a viewer doesn't want to listen to it.
  • Load fast or lose them. The Nationals judges had absolutely no patience for slow-loading pages. Neither do home buyers. The critical difference between the judges and buyers was that we had to view all the entries, so we waited. Buyers don't have that mandate, and there are plenty of other communities for them to consider. Don't make them wait—because they won't.
  • Draw them a map. Several sites such as www.thebraeburn.comandwww.clarendon 1021.com had great interactive maps that helped connect the projects with the surrounding communities. These tools helped prospective buyers see how close they were to schools, public transportation, coffee shops, and museums—and gave them pictures of those places. One word of advice: Maps aren't a place to skimp on the budget. The judges hated sites that used Yahoo! and Mapquest maps instead of custom maps that were consistent with the look of the rest of the site.
  • Ask the right questions at the right time. Yes, we know that one of the main purposes of a Web site is to build a prospect list for ongoing communication. However, a visitor shouldn't have to pony up personal information to look at floor plans or get directions to the community. The quality of the information gathered that way is likely to be quite poor. People will either provide false data, or they'll wind up not being qualified leads.
  • Give them something to play with. Some of our favorite sites offered mortgage calculators, tools to show all the elevation and floor plan options and exterior views from various lots and interior views from different spots in rooms, and had the ability to place and move around your furniture—and then print out a rendering of the house as they designed it.
  • Show them your world. If your community has great views, show them off. One site that does this to great advantage is Three Creek Ranch, www.3creekranch-jh.com. The intro has a “skip” button, but if you hit it, you'll miss the stunning scenic photography. Davidson Communities' site, www.davidsoncommunities.com, does the same thing with gorgeous architectural photography.
  • Keep it simple. Clutter is as bad on a Web site as it is in a sales office. There's no need to put every detail about your community on the front page. The Web has unlimited storage space; use drop-down menus and hyperlinks to take visitors to additional pages for more in-depth information. While you're at it, make the floor plans big enough to read.
  • Keep it accurate. The judges were impressed with sites that had that day's date on the welcome page with current information about the community and available inventory. Conversely, we were annoyed by sites that prominently displayed information on exciting special events, only to find they had happened months before. And it should go without saying that everything should be spelled correctly, but we saw several entries with misspellings.
  • Teach them something new. Home buying and homeownership can be overwhelming. The judges loved the Web site for John Laing Homes, www.johnlainghomes.com, for a number of reasons, but notably for its extensive library of helpful articles on everything from landscaping to choosing paint colors.
  • Keep it consistent. Everything on the site needs to match, from the type face to the icons to the music to the tone of the text. If it's upscale and elegant, the clubhouse should be a place to “share a special evening with friends and family over a gourmet meal and a fine glass of wine,” not a spot to “cheer on the home team on the big-screen television over pizza and a pitcher of beer with the guys.”
  • The overriding impression the judges took away from the Web site category was that they offer a tremendous opportunity to tell your unique story and set yourself apart from the competition. They're also a critical introduction to your community for prospective buyers. First impressions count. Spend the time and money to make a good one.