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Who Do You Want at Your Site?

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Billions of dollars in web development costs could be redirected to more profitable pursuits if only more people thought seriously about which visitors to try to attract. For years, the knee-jerk reaction to the Internet was first “We need a website,” followed quickly by “We need more traffic,” and then by expensive–and fruitless–search engine optimization efforts.

What you really need is a clear understanding of whose visits will do what.


The Trouble with “the Public”

Many people think they want “everyone” to come to their sites. Really? If your goal is traffic, then you should post pictures of naked people. Most webmasters do not want to become purveyors of porn; in truth, they want a certain kind of traffic. Creating intelligent strategies means narrowing the target audience. For sites supported by banner advertising, raw traffic seems important because more traffic supposedly translates directly into more dollars. But does it? Banner advertising rates vary with audience characteristics. While you might sell generic banner ads for $5 or less per thousand impressions (CPM), I know of medical specialty sites that get between $200 and $300 CPM. And, in any event, the banner advertising market has crashed; sites that earn revenues based on traffic alone are disappearing.

Still, there are some sites that should appeal to the largest possible general public. These are primarily search engines and directories, more intermediaries than destinations. If you can develop and maintain a quality directory in a niche area, you can not only genera4.33ubstantial traffic, but also generate traffic that is concentrated around the topic of your directory–enabling you to command a higher CPM for advertising. Many companies are trying this strategy, so the competition is intense, and the costs of maintaining quality are high. One of the great experiments in this area is About.com, a website composed of niche subject guides/directories. If you survey the field and don’t believe that you could do a better job than About or a similar competitor, stay out of this market.


Caveats Regarding Consumers

Narrowing your focus from the general public to consumers seems like a good idea. However, do you really want consumers of your products to be frequent visitors to your site? Think about your answer carefully. A lot has been written about companies developing one-to-one relationships with consumers, but I’m willing to bet most big companies want no part of that trend.

How much staff would you need to have one-to-one relationships with all the people who consume your products and/or services? If you promise that level of personalized service but can’t deliver it, you’ll generate more disappointment than goodwill. Perhaps that’s why Southwest Airlines doesn’t provide any e-mail addresses at its site. Southwest doesn’t want one-to-one relationships with customers; it wants to sell tickets, as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible.

In many cases, consumers want to visit websites to ask for help using the company’s products or to complain. Most companies don’t have enough staff to cope, but you should be aware that Federal Trade Commission regulations require responses to complaints within a reasonable period of time. It didn’t take more than a few FTC inquiries for automakers to disable the feedback links on their websites. Today, it’s rare to find feedback links at manufacturer websites, and most inquiries result in a form e-mail acknowledgment that satisfies regulatory requirements without specifically addressing the consumer’s needs. These e-mails usually direct the consumer to toll-free phone numbers, dealer outlets, and other established channels for handling customer service inquiries.

If you need feedback from consumers about how a product is used, any bugs it might have, and ways to improve it, you might follow the lead of software manufacturers by encouraging the formation of user groups instead of customer service inquiries. Microsoft even rewards the best helpers that emerge in online user groups.


What About Customers & Prospects?

Now we’re getting somewhere. Many companies want to use their websites to reach customers and prospects directly, and they are willing to absorb the costs of handling service inquiries over the Internet in exchange for the privilege of communicating with customers. Therefore, part of the planning process for a website involves figuring out who your customers are. It’s harder than you think.

Often customers are not consumers of the product. They are wholesalers, distributors, and retailers. When the web first appeared, lots of manufacturers thought they had finally found a way to sell directly to consumers, cut out the intermediaries, and keep a higher portion of the retail price for themselves. Book publishers, for instance, designed websites to get readers to buy books direct. Of course, this upset book wholesalers and retail stores. The public, however, wanted no part of it. They wanted to shop at Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com, where they get good prices, service, and selection.

A lot of retail customers don’t want one-to-one relationships with manufacturers. I don’t want a relationship with Colgate, and I don’t plan to ever buy direct from them. If I had to shop separately for every product in my household, I would go nuts. I want to go to big stores where I can buy many different products all at once.

Yes, it’s a good idea to build websites to serve customers. But you need to realize who your customers are. In many cases, the purchasing chains from the pre-Internet world still exist; the Internet just means they can be more efficient.


Attracting the Trade

Along with retailers and wholesalers, many other trading partners should be attracted to your site. A big category is suppliers–the people you buy products and services from. As the initial entertainment phase of the Internet has cooled, the infrastructure phase is heating up; companies are realizing they have more to gain by using the Internet to reduce costs rather than increase sales.

“Supply chain management” is a trendy term now because the Internet is streamlining procurement processes, helping companies reduce inventories and overhead costs., Some of your online marketing efforts should be devoted to communicating the advantages of using your website to suppliers and other trade contacts. At the least, include online trade directories in both your registration and linkage campaigns [pls explain briefly what these terms mean] . A web site registration campaign is used to register the site in online catalogs, directories, and search engines and solicit links from the top sites your target audience uses. Specialized online trade directories, such as those offered by PMA, BookZone, and the American Library Association’s Conference Exhibitors Links, are important for attracting trade contacts.


Media Generally Matter

The media constitute an important target audience for most websites. A site that does a good job serving customers and suppliers will probably satisfy media contacts as well–as long as it presents adequate contact information for press inquiries. Some sites have gone overboard building newsrooms and press centers when all they really need to do is post an up-to-date list of press contacts and process media inquiries quickly.

To attract the media, reach out to them with website registration and linkage campaigns targeting sites they use. Also, consider using web-based services that provide story ideas and guests to media contacts, such as using online directories such as GuestFinder, Radio-TV Interview Report, and PR Newswire


If You Have Investors

We’re really getting down to the nitty-gritty now. When investors have an interest in a company, they naturally want their needs met at its website. That doesn’t mean you want to attract them there, however, in light of problems dealing with feedback.

Disgruntled shareholders can make processing web inquiries a nightmare, but the good news is that you can satisfy most investors and potential investors without the kind of hand-holding consumers often require.

Just as there are two kinds of customers (the retail customer who buys one of an item and the trade account that buys thousands), there are two kinds of investors–individuals with a few shares of stock and institutional buyers who hold substantial stakes. The website should focus on the needs of analysts and large stakeholders, while satisfying regulatory requirements for the fair disclosure of material news. By moving some investor relations operations to the Internet, and communicating those capabilities to the target audience, you can reduce costs and improve results.

Any company with a stock ticker symbol should consider including it in online directory listings and in the META tags on its website. Also, it may make sense to register the Investor Relations portion of your site separately from the main home page, and include IR sites in a linkage campaign.


The How Follows the Who

Once you understand which audiences are important for the website, you may find yourself coming up with lots of clever ideas on how to get them there and what to give them when they arrive. The number one item missing from most book publishers’ websites is the purchase order form, allowing existing trade customers who have a credit line with you to buy online. You might also make it possible for customers to check stock and track orders. Use your catalogs and mailings to introduce these features to your trade contacts, and slowly shift order processing and inventory online. Once you have the basics covered, consider entertaining the trade–not the public–with online sales conferences, rights auctions, or other activities that can have a significant impact on your bottom line.


Steve O’Keefe is the Executive Director of Patron Saint Productions, Inc. (patronsaintpr.com), a publishing consultancy specializing in online marketing strategies, campaigns, and training. This article is excerpted from his “Complete Guide to Internet Publicity,” copyright 2002 by Steve O’Keefe, by permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. To order the book, call 1-800-CALL-WILEY (225-5945) or visit www.wiley.com.


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