Here's a way to maybe keep your audience engaged with your Web site even when they're not on it: offer them a branded browser toolbar. Conduit's newish Community Toolbar feature makes it easy to build a toolbar (for free) that you can offer to your site visitors (also for free).
When I heard about this I thought, Great, just what we need: more toolbar clutter. Also, we have experience at CNET with toolbar downloads. For us, they weren't worth the development time. Conduit is a little different, though. Regarding clutter, you're only supposed to get one Conduit toolbar at a time. If you download the Webware toolbar, for example, and then another Conduit bar from another site, you won't end up with two toolbars (in theory); you'll get instead the option to switch between the two toolbars in your browser.
And as far as development, since it takes very little time and costs nothing to create a toolbar, site owners really have nothing to lose by offering one.
I'm impressed with the options Conduit offers toolbar builders. In addition to the standard Web and site search, it offers links to current stories (via RSS feeds) and static pages, a mini audio player (for podcasts or music), a chat window so your site's fans can talk with each other even when they're not on your site, and other widgets that are not out of place in a persistent toolbar. In the future, Conduit will include widgets that can float over a Web page.
I ran into some implementation snags, though. I couldn't get the audio player to work on two different systems, and the chat function annoyingly resized my browser window, twice. And despite being told that Conduit wouldn't install multiple toolbars in my browser, I did in fact end up with two toolbars onscreen at the same time.
As a Web publisher, I like the idea of giving readers persistent exposure to Webware--via a toolbar, a widget, an e-mail, or anything else that keeps them aware of the site. But as a user, I can't see myself using yet another toolbar. Nothing that Conduit offers can't be done better with dedicated tools. (For example, I use Google's toolbar for searching, because it offers more options; I read my high-priority feeds in Yahoo Widgets; and I listen to audio and chat with users on sites themselves.) Some of Conduit's numbers indicate that I have a minority opinion, but not all do: according to Conduit, there are 12 million Conduit toolbar users who performed 22 million searches last month. That's an impressive volume, although it's also fewer than two searches per user per month, very low for a search interface.
I can't get very excited about custom toolbars, but for some sites I think the idea works. Sites with users who can't tear themselves away from the content or community come to mind: social networks and sports sites, for example. For other sites, Conduit's toolbars seem innocuous.