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Becoming Relevant to the Visitor

While you're brainstorming on how to make a Web site more relevant and responsive to your customers, let me make some suggestions. If you choose to work with an ASP to deliver a site with an e-marketing goal, consider these ideas:

  • Define clearly what the value of the site is to the visitor and eventual customer—before ever building it. What's the goal of this site? This clearly needs to be enabling communication. Examples include offering opt-in emails that are full of industry-specific information and not just a sales pitch. Before starting out, define the metrics of how you'll measure the success or failure of the site, and build them into the contract with the ASP. The better ASPs will work with you at a strategic level and have the ability to scale up to the needs you have for metrics. Your ASP should also be able to provide access to metrics regarding your site on a 24x7 basis through a Web browser.

  • Aggressively add value through partnerships. Notice that in the case of Southwest Airlines the Travel Center is very clear on its approach to adding value to the customer, and it isn't cluttered with a lot of banner ads and obtrusive pop-up windows. It's clear, distinct in its delivery of value. Nothing fancy—just functionality that delivers, and it works for the segments to whom Southwest sells. Another company that's using partnerships to its advantage in the B2C marketplace is Gateway. Admittedly, the PC business is a tough one right now, yet Gateway continues to add value to their site and their store locations by continually looking to the strong AOL partnership they have to drive greater value into their offerings. Gateway's consumer marketing is considered among the best in the industry, and shows a willingness to experiment with weekly specials on the front of their Web site.

  • Configurators that work and are up to date. Clearly one of the most challenging aspects of an e-marketing site is the launch and maintenance of configuration engines. Companies including Calico, FirePond, and Selecta offer configuration engines that require continual maintenance. These configuration vendors have the ability to scale to the most complex of configurations—and yet, notice the functionality delivered by Southwest. It's simple, easy to understand, and takes only minutes to reach a conclusion of which flight to take at which price point. The message is one of simplicity and ease of navigation. Clearly, there are robust tools out on the market for creating a configurator on your site—but be sure to ask yourself when the process of creating a product from the user's standpoint ceases to become relevant and is more of a chore than a step in the purchase process.

  • Aggressively manage content on your site. Again, the Southwest site is a great example of how to make content relevant by making it change over time. Notice that the Specials don't seem out of date or difficult to qualify for. The content on the entire site is current. If you're going to work with an ASP for the development of a site, be sure to check into the types of tools being used to manage content. Increasingly, ASPs are relying on tools from Click Commerce, Open Market, Vignette, and many others to assist with the task of keeping content current. Be sure to find out whether the ASP has expertise with content management. This would include a series of tools you can use to update your content anytime you choose. If the ASP makes you write your content in HTML, that's a bad sign. Keep looking for an ASP partner until you find one with editing tools that provide for quick and even replication capabilities from your databases.

  • Always ask for feedback from your channel partners. When creating your e-marketing site, you also want to make sure that the site holds true to the business model you already have. An emerging set of companies specifically focus on partner relationship management (PRM). These companies look to automate the transfer of information from manufacturers to their distribution partners. One of the best companies in this area is OnDemand which focuses on the need for cascading training and certification to channel partners. OnDemand is adept at partner relationship management (PRM) in addition to being a training-focused ASP that uses Exodus as its hosting provider. What's refreshing about this ASP is that they provide service and even strategy consulting advice when asked.

  • Personalization makes customers possible. The much-heralded approaches to personalization from Amazon.com and Yahoo! have served as the catalysts for many other companies to be creative and embark on their own attempt to creating a personalized experience. There are examples of exceptional personalization on Web sites serving both the B2B and B2C arenas, with Sybase transcending both marketplaces. On the B2C side, Charles Schwab is worthy of a visit just to study how their personalization is focused on long-term investments and serving a customer for life. So what makes one personalization approach more successful than others? It's the ability to be relevant. Make sure that your ASP has experience and proven scalability in this area. In my experience, nowhere in an e-marketing strategy is scalability more visible than in personalization. As a given site loads for personalized content, the response time can come to a screeching halt. Clearly, you need to get your ASP to commit to minimum response times for visitor counts from 10,000 to 100,000 or more.

  • Speed equals relevance. No doubt you've seen sites that load nearly instantly, even over dial-up lines, and then there are sites that take minutes to load. Clearly speed makes a site more relevant, as a first-time visitor will leave before your site is visible if it takes more than a minute to show appreciable progress. Be sure to spot-check reference sites of an ASP before signing up to make sure that sites hosted today are both accessible and quick-loading. Many times, the speed (or lack thereof) can be attributed to the hosting company chosen by the ASP.

  • Security of the customer data. With the demise of many dotcoms during the last year, a few companies have taken up the unfortunate practice of selling customer lists for just pennies on the dollar, given the costs of generating them. This is unethical and should not be tolerated. How can you make sure that your ASP is not selling your customer data? Many companies are restricting requests for information and configuration parameters entirely to their own sites—a setup that presents architectural challenges at the system level when working with an ASP. Still others are using auditing approaches of having random names placed in the customer database, often using the same techniques that direct mail vendors use to make sure their lists are not being used multiple times. You can also consider co-hosting with an ASP, by having your own servers in their network operations center. The area of customer data security is one that needs attention when creating prospect lists, and often it's best to check out several references of an ASP before signing up with them.

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