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Formulas for Focusing Online Communications
by Jon Leland

Last month, we analyzed the components of building a website from a relatively technical point of view. This month, I would like to help you define your website in terms of your communication objectives.

Here's something else that I think is worth restating: Take the time to think through an analysis of who your audience is and then carefully define your communication objectives. It's amazing how frequently writers, designers and especially website developers just dive into a project without taking the time for the critically valuable process of planning. As far as I'm concerned, setting goals is worth its weight in gold.

Another essential ingredient in successful web design is the understanding that the web is more than one thing. In my most optimistic moments, I'd like to think that it's the web that will eventually get us beyond our "sound-bite" culture; but whether that happens or not, you're not likely to succeed online if you let the mass media's influence over-simplify the way you think about the Internet. While the media may talk about the Web as if it were one thing, nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is that just like printed communications, this new medium spans a broad spectrum of communication styles. Just as printed material can be as simple as a desktop published flyer or as sophisticated as a slick, four-color corporate annual report, websites also come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors.

While this column does not provide space for me to detail every website nuance and variation, please allow me to discuss three main types of web site objectives, including some of the techniques and pitfalls that are inevitably involved. Each recipe below is oriented to a real world web objective that can be achieved in today's market; however, keep in mind that some sites will combine more than one of these objectives into a more robust menu. For the sake of discussion, I've selected these three goals which are common to many small and medium sized companies:

  1. Visibility Facilitator
  2. Relationship Magnet
  3. Direct Sales Channel

Which one(s) fit your business best?

I already discussed the fallacy of "If You Build It They Will Come" in my first Web Edge column. Bottom line, putting your sales brochure or marketing material online is only worthwhile if interested people come and see it. If you are creating a stand alone site rather than incorporating your material within someone else's high traffic site, that is not likely to happen. Thus, to build your brand online, you better budget for advertising. It's not reasonable to expect a website to help you build visibility for your products just because its posted on the Internet.

Using the web to build visibility requires an investment in in-your-face exposure that is normally not included in the simpler process of posting a website. What can facilitate visibility is the development of compelling content, free offers and other types of promotional come-ons that will attract the audience you desire. Alternately, you can become a sponsor of a site that has successfully attracted members of your target audience (the more highly targeted your audience and the more focused the website on which you advertise the better.)

One of the strange things about the web is that it sometimes seems like a marketplace which is constantly being redesigned or which is continually reinventing itself. As a result, I recommend a longer range web strategy rather than a fast and flashy approach. However, if your objective is to use the web to increase visibility, you will be encouraged by a recent study commissioned by the Internet Advertising Bureau called The Online Advertising Effectiveness Study. This research asserts that:

Online advertising has tremendous communications power; a single exposure can generate increases in:

Advertisement awareness
Brand awareness
Product attribute communication
Purchase intent

For more details on this report, please use the link above; but be cautious. Unless you're willing to complement the investment in your web site with an investment in advertising that will generate traffic, the web may be the wrong medium to increase your visibility -- especially if that is your sole objective.

Where the web gets really interesting is in its ability to create new kinds of connections with customers. The Internet enables interactions that you just can't make happen anywhere else -- at least not in such large numbers.

Like the old song, "Getting to know you, getting to know all about you," the web offers an environment where you can share all kinds of services and conveniences as well as even intimacies with your customers and prospects. Of course, sometimes these opportunities are abused. For example, when e-mail spammers dump junk mail into millions of e-mail in-boxes, there can be more of a customer backlash or "turn-off," rather than the desired "turn-on" or "tune in."

On the other hand, when you mind your "netiquette," you can build relationships and repeat customers; and there's no two ingredients that I know of that are more positive for a business's future. In past Web Edge columns, I've already linked to the book, net.gain and the Peppers and Rogers site, Marketing 1 to 1. This month, I've uncovered another consultant's site that reinforces the importance of relationship marketing in an original interactive format. In fact, the company calls itself, Relationship Marketing, Inc.

One of the worthwhile statements that this company makes on their site is, "If you don't establish a dialogue with your customers, you risk losing the 19 percent who are dissatisfied but don't complain." And while the web is not a panacea that illuminates the need for other channels for customer communications, it is an important new option.

Online relationship marketing may include extended services like package tracking, offering clients access to appropriate databases and project files, and so forth. Remember, the Internet is a network. More than likely, you're now running your business on a network, and if you make the right connections, you're more than likely to increase your customer satisfaction.

And given that more and more of your customers prefer to get their information via e-mail and over the web, this is an opportunity that you can't afford to miss.

What's needed to be effective is real inter activity. Remember that the ineffective online brochure that we discussed earlier is only a one-way communication.

To help build relationships online:

  1. Your website has to offer something of real value to browsers. This can be as simple as a free report or give away, or as sophisticated as an interactive self-evaluation process, or an "extranet" linking your customers to your internal systems. With these kinds of opportunities being realized everyday, you can't expect people to visit your site just to hear your sales pitch.
  2. You not only need to include highly visible feedback buttons, but you need to be responsive to any input that is generated from your website. Do you give as much attention to your incoming e-mail as you do to your incoming phone calls? I hope so.

The business fundamental of listening to the marketplace is perhaps the single most essential ingredient in building business online. The web is so fluid and flexible as well as ever-changing that without this kind of dynamic responsiveness, it's easy to waste your time. I know this sounds like common sense, but it's surprising how often businesses get frustrated with the web because they don't pay attention to this kind ingredient.

Let's kick off this section with a link. If you're new to electronic commerce (also known as e-commerce), there's an interesting collection of e-commerce overview articles on the WilsonWeb site. If you've got products that you can sell online, creating a virtual storefront is another way to make the web experience profitable.

There's no question that consumer confidence in online commerce has increased dramatically. Secure credit card transactions are now commonplace, and as a result, more and more people are buying goods and services over the Internet. Commerce software and server services are now readily accessible in a variety of forms and levels of sophistication. (For technical strategies, please see last month's column).

In particular, if you are selling products, whether retail or business-to-business, the web not only offers an opportunity to extend your distribution, but perhaps even more importantly, if you don't do it, your competition will undoubtedly do it first.

I think the biggest mistake that many businesses make when they begin building their online shops is that they don't test. While no serious software or game developer would consider releasing a product without user testing, the ease with which you can now build an online store has helped some businesses to jump into e-commence just a bit too quickly.

Once you've got the software, hardware and personnel lined up, be sure to keep a sharp eye on the quality of the user interactions on your site. Involve your customers in order to get more user feedback on your virtual store's design, and they are not only likely to show you ways that you can increase your sales online; but if you handle it sensitively, it's almost certain to increase customer satisfaction through relationship building as well.

Of course, there's much more involved in achieving any of these objectives; but I hope that I've offered you valuable food for thought. If not, (and if so) I'd love to hear from you.

Until next month, stay tuned.

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