EVERYONE HAS READ THE STATISTICS ABOUT THE meteoric growth of the Internet, particularly in relation to other technological advancements of our time. It's still impressive to see how the Internet has permeated our lives as consumers and business people. Estimates of the U.S. online population range from 125 million to 169 million people who use the Internet regularly. It is integrated into their daily lives, thus changing how they communicate, educate, socialize, purchase, and access entertainment.

The speed of the Internet is changing everything as well. The “always on” nature of a high-speed Internet connection not only changes users' behavior, but creates new opportunities for those interacting with and trying to attract users. In late 2004 and early 2005, the number of broadband Internet users overtook dial-up users for the first time. Estimates suggest that by the end of 2005, there will be more than 105 million broadband users—and that number will grow to 157 million by 2008. The increased data transmission capacity allows you to push more information seamlessly, share more compelling messages, and simulate a more lifelike experience for online users.

The home building industry is not exempt from the growth and impact of the Internet. Quite the contrary. According to a recent study of new home buyers, more than 75 percent used the Internet as an integral part of their home buying process; 79 percent said they would use the Internet as their main resource if they were going to move again. Internet buyers see fewer properties, purchase faster, and are more satisfied than traditional buyers who rely on the newspaper as their primary source of information. The depth and breadth of information available to new home buyers on the Internet enables them to thoroughly research a home and community.

At Morrison Homes, the Internet continues to be a significant part of our business—for internal and external communications. When we ask customers how they found us, the Internet consistently ranks as one of the top three answers. Year over year, our Internet traffic has increased more than 30 percent. We have almost 250,000 unique visitors each month who spend an average of nine minutes on our site. And we're converting a significant number of these leads to visitors and buyers. The key to the growth of our traffic has been to deliver useful content, logically and intuitively, in as timely a manner as possible.

The content needs to be relevant and personal for the buyer. We asked customers what they value during the selection, buying, and building processes, and we used the results to drive the content of our site. For example, customers told us that floor plans are critical in their home selection. So we've upgraded our site to allow customers to interactively place their furniture in our floor plans to get a better sense of how their Morrison home would look.

We strictly adhere to the “three click rule”—that is, our goal is to get visitors to the information they're looking for within three clicks of the mouse. Our site navigation is built around the consumer buying process, not our organizational structure or information we want to push. We use technology to present a substantial amount of information only at the right time, thus minimizing clutter on the site. And we created sub-sites for our other key target audiences (land developers, trade partners, and Realtors, for example) in order to deliver content relevant to these segments.

Satisfactory consumer experiences for the Internet depend primarily on speed of response. Morrison Homes centralized the management of all Internet leads in order to guarantee a quick and personalized response. By doing so, we are able to respond to 95 percent of our leads in less than a day.

The benefits of the Internet extend beyond the opportunities for a feature-rich and valuable Web site. At Morrison Homes, we use the Internet for internal communications and sales tools. Every day, all dimensions of our customer satisfaction metrics are updated and available via the Internet. We also use eNewsletters to update employees on new developments in the company. Our Customer Communication Management System provides a series of prompts and “to-do” lists for all our customer contact personnel. A Web-based “toolbox” allows our sales team to create community specific collateral, develop mailing or e-mailing lists, reinforce sales training, place non-structural options on floor plans, help customers estimate monthly mortgage payments, and highlight the features of each Morrison home.

And finally, the Internet creates an opportunity for us to learn and increase business intelligence throughout our organization. On a daily basis, the Internet generates a tremendous amount of data and information. The value is in what you do with it.

Editor's Note: This column is a forum provided to the CEOs of America's largest home builders in cooperation with the NAHB. Address responses to Big Builder's editor at jmcmanus@hanleywood.com.

Stewart Cline is president of Morrison Homes.