The first steps for saving money, staying safe, and getting what you need as you develop an effective Web site (covered in the April PMA Newsletter) involve–among other things–uptime, hosting providers, outside developers, and portability. What else do you need to do? Read on.
Step #5: Understand Security
Security matters. Most people who are involved with the Internet on a technical level will tell you that intrusion attempts are escalating every quarter and that most software, hardware, and personnel are vastly underprepared for skilled hacks.
What’s the likelihood that your server will be scanned for weaknesses by a hacker? One hundred percent in any given week. Most sites are scanned multiple times daily. Gone are the days when you could rely on obscurity, or the mere fact that there are bigger targets out there. Internet addresses and ports are numerical, and simple math assures us that if there’s a weakness, it will be found and potentially exploited.
The Internet and server security have launched an entire genre of books, magazines, and Web sites. You don’t need to know everything in them, but you do need to know enough to have an intelligent conversation with your technical partners.
Issues will arise that pit security against convenience, and these decisions can’t be taken lightly. The only 100% secure way to protect your site is to disconnect it from the Internet. Since this will be extremely inconvenient for your customers, you’ve got to take at least some risk. But take only intelligent risks while considering the following. It takes only one successful intrusion to bring down your entire business. A call from a hacker threatening to post your customers’ credit card numbers publicly if you don’t pay off can be a sobering event. Don’t let it happen to you.
Test #5: Site Security
So, how secure is your site? Here are some ways to test it:
• Pay for a third-party audit. IBM and other companies offer audits, intrusion detection, and ethical hacking services. Inform your technical partners and staff that security audits take place regularly, but don’t tell them when. See what the reports have to say. There will always be issues (again, a balance between security and convenience is always necessary), but go over the report with your host to make sure that there’s nothing surprising in it and that all access points are conscious choices.
• Get details on your server management team’s “patch/upgrade policy.” How and when are security patches applied, and what resources do they have for monitoring security vulnerabilities? As recent virus attacks have shown, it’s an ISP’s failure to install a security patch immediately upon receiving it that leaves most of us vulnerable.
• Many hack attempts come from former employees. Find out what procedures are in place at your company and your technical partner’s company with regard to this threat. Standard operating procedures you can ask about are:
– Routine password changes
– Purging of dormant or inactive accounts
– Account documentation and usage logging
Step #6: Drive Sales With Flexible Site Components
If your site offers e-commerce, it must have the same three core features as any other e-commerce site: (1) database-driven product page(s), (2) a shopping cart, and (3) a secure checkout system. You can’t sell stuff without these three components.
The trick is to make sure they work together to drive sales. Each of your product pages should help by cross-selling users on your other products and services. The credit card and checkout processes can help by being easy-to-operate while supporting a variety of purchase options, such as gift cards, multiple shipping addresses, and autographed/personalized copies of your books.
Tried and true marketing features include:
• e-mail address collection (make each buyer a customer for life)
• product searches (even if you have only a few products)
• product listings by price range or feature set
• cross-selling and up-selling via similar product presentation or dynamic bundling (the thing Amazon does to distraction)
• rotating promotional space and featured listings
• e-mail and pop-up reminders
• favorite products storage via “wish list”
Beyond any specific marketing features, your site should be flexible enough to endure change.
As you develop marketing initiatives, your site must grow and adapt to handle whatever you throw at it. This is where things get tough. Off-the-shelf software solutions typically can’t bend and stretch to accommodate custom marketing efforts. Built-from-scratch solutions often make it too difficult to quickly add a feature and experiment with it in a timely manner without disrupting business.
What’s the solution?
The basic site framework must be solid and modular so that it will allow for a variety of customizations and features to be “plugged in” quickly and easily.
Test #6: Site Flexibility
• Have you invested in software that provides basic functionality but can be customized according to your needs? Sometimes these software products are called “frameworks” and are coupled with development services that allow you to build out custom features as you need them.
• Do your site’s products come with a core set of features that can be supplemented with additional components? For instance, e-mail marketing lists may be an optional piece of a package. Don’t forget to check the cost and implementation timeframe for these components.
Step #7: Drive Traffic, Track, and Drive More Traffic
Driving traffic to your site is both an art and a science. From banner ads to search-engine positioning, to link swapping to affiliate marketing, there are tons of ways to boost traffic. While you should certainly investigate them all and experiment with as many as possible, here’s where to start–and this is mandatory:
Build an opt-in e-mail marketing list
Send e-mails to that list at least once every six weeks, if not more often. E-mail is cheap, quick, and easy. And it works. Collect e-mail addresses at every juncture possible–on the home page, order forms, fax forms, request forms–everywhere you can.
When you send out your e-newsletters, ask users to pass them on or to recommend them to friends. Be sure to offer easy ways for users to remove their names as well as change their addresses.
Track, track, track
Before you spend a dime on any marketing for your e-commerce site, make sure you can hold all efforts accountable. You need really good site tracking, customer tracking, and order tracking.
Site tracking provides numbers like bandwidth usage, visit counts, and visit profiles. Visit profiles show how “sticky” your site is by detailing trends in visit times and page usage per visit.
Customer tracking provides historical data on buying customers’ use of your site and products. These reports show how often specific customers visit the site and whether they respond to marketing initiatives such as e-mail reminders and price discounts. Aggregate customer data are also handy when analyzing site features because they show trends in the way customers navigate the site (click-paths) and whether certain pages are more effective than others in driving sales.
Order tracking not only helps customers keep abreast of their orders; it also provides great insight into specific product offerings. What sells well? Why? Do certain products fare better when discounted? When placed on the home page? When offered to repeat customers via e-mail?
Test #7: Market Savvy
Too many high-tech partnerships have no follow-through. How do you spot the long-distance runners?
• Can they help you set up, execute, and track any of the following initiatives?
– Search-engine Optimization (SEO)
– E-mail Marketing
– Affiliate Programs
– Link Swaps
– Banner & Link Purchasing
• How do they respond to the following scenarios? Can they help?
– You want the names of the top 10 Web sites that sent traffic your way as well as the top 10 Web sites that sent traffic that purchased or contacted you personally. Sure, Yahoo, AOL, and Google send the most people, but who sends the most paying customers? Don’t confuse eyeballs with dollar signs.
– You’re sending out an e-mail promotion to 15,000 customers. You want to know how many respond in the first hour, the first day, and the first week. You want to know how long the average visit was, how many of them purchased items, and what the average purchase amount was.
– You’re placing a high-priced ad for a new book in Publishers Weekly. How can you track response to the ad as well as discover the total purchase volume that was generated by the ad? Can you do it without asking the customers anything?
The Highly Effective Sites Final Exam
So what’s a highly effective publisher site? How do you know if you have one? Here are the hallmarks:
• Its Internet traffic is high, ever increasing, and consistent.
• There are no holes in traffic reports caused by server or ISP downtime.
• There are no dips and valleys caused by spinning browsers and slow-loading pages.
• The site is located in a huge data center, but you can speak daily with developers and systems administrators, maybe via their home phone numbers.
• The design is elegant, the load times are short, and there’s no whiz-bang.
• There’s no confusion about what’s on the site, who you are, what you’re offering.
• Nothing extraneous gets in the way of shipping your product or contacting you.
• While the site uses current technologies and the code is smart, it doesn’t use the latest $50,000+ e-commerce package from the big guys.
• The site has a good solid base and you have permission to build on without reinventing the wheel.
• The site does not succumb to cracks or “Script Kiddies,” typically young males exploiting weaknesses in security systems discovered by someone else. Script Kiddies have become the Internet’s mosquitoes: annoying, numerous, and disease-carrying. To thwart hackers, your host should routinely monitor security and patch holes as quickly as they appear.
• Your server never stores a single credit card that even they can decrypt.
• The site changes often, sometimes in a matter of hours, to try out the latest cross-selling ideas. Sometimes the changes are permanent; sometimes they disappear after a few days of testing.
• Your site has a great monthly e-newsletter, a frequent buyer program, a quick checkout for returning customers, and every once in a while, your customers get a personalized e-mail thanking them for their patronage and offering a special discount.
Today, many small operations are making a profit on the Internet. The dot.com bust sank a lot of high profile, ill-conceived startups, but tens of thousands of the rest of us never noticed. In fact, here’s a little secret: the Internet is thriving! It’s the best place to buy books and gifts, to read magazines, to get news, to research purchases, to follow trends, and more. In fact, it’s the only place these days to do a lot of those things and this seven-step system should help you make the most of it.
A former Magazine Editor at Rodale Press, self-publisher David Taylor is a Partner in the Savannah, Georgia-based Web development firm Color Maria, Inc. (
www.colormaria.com). You can purchase his latest books at www.freelancesuccessbook.com or www.peakwriting.com, both located behind double firewalls hosted in an Atlanta data center once used as a NORAD command post.