Welcome to “Honey Roasted Peanuts“, a monthly newsletter of tips & tricks to help you get the most of your Web site. These newsletters will be short and to the point, but if you would rather not receive them there’s an unsubscribe button at the bottom.
Search Engine Update: Yahoo! to Acquire Inktomi
Why is this important to you? Inktomi provides search results to other search engines. By getting your site listed at Inktomi you’ll also appear at MSN SearchandHotbot, among others.
How do you get your site listed at Inktomi? Inktomi charges $39 per year for your first Web page and has discounts after that.
So what does this acquisition mean? Currently Yahoo! pays Google for search results, so one way to get into Yahoo! is to be in Google. Now that Yahoo! owns Inktomi, why would they continue to pay their competition? I believe Yahoo! will start using Inktomi’s results and raise the fee for submitting to Inktomi.
So what should you do? Boy you ask a lot of questions. I am recommending that you review your own site, choose the most important pages, and submit them to Inktomi as soon as possible!
If you would prefer flyte to do this for you just send us an email with the URL’s you’d like us to submit.
OFFERING MORE THAN STATIC: DYNAMIC WAYS TO PUMP UP YOUR ASSOCIATION’S WEB SITE
These days there are few organizations that don’t have a Web site–The International League of Luddites and The Association to Promote the Abacus come to mind–but generally every group with a TLA (three letter acronym) has staked out its territory on the Internet. Chances are you belong to a professional organization that has a Web site. So the question arises, is your organization taking advantage of the power of the Web and dynamically created pages, or is it simply offering a static online brochure?
Your organization probably maintains a database of members and may already personalize letters through a mail merge in a word processing program. So why not put the power of this database to work at your Web site? With an online version of your database and a programming language like Cold Fusion, ASP or PHP, you can create an experience that will increase the value of membership in your organization and your ability to attract new members.
The Benefits of Membership
Any group that collects membership dues is most likely offering special premiums to attract and retain members, be it online or off. A Members Only area at your Web site is an easy way to increase the benefits of joining your group. Members can log on to read or download special articles and resources, receive discounts at the online store, or whatever would best suit your membership. Calls to join the group can be made on the home page and promoted in a section called “Join Now” or “Become a Member” or “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch So Step Away From the Buffet”.
Make it Easy for Them to Join
Let’s say your association already has a Web site. You have a Members Only area protected by a password. You communicate through email and sell products through an online store. So why are you making prospective members print up a form and mail you a check? This is the era of instant gratification and people don’t want to wait for anything. They want to give you their credit card–securely–and get instant access to your Members Only section. The National Center for Gender Issues and AD/HD (http://www.ncgiadd.org) utilizes a custom-developed online payment system. People wanting to join enter their credit card information into an online form at the site. Their information is checked in real time through a third-party provider, and once validated they are given a temporary password. With this password they can now enter the Center’s Members Only section. No form printing, no check writing, no waiting. Simplifying the process increases the likelihood surfers will become members.
Greet Them at the Door
Your Web database can personalize the experience for your members. After physicians at Good Samaritan Hospital – Los Angeles log on to the Members Only section they can access information specific to them. Since many of the physicians might log on at public computers at the hospital, they need to know that the personalized information is for them, and not for the previous physician who had logged on. To accomplish this goal Cold Fusion–a powerful programming language–is used to interact with the database. The Members Only home page greets the physician by name and displays their photograph, assuming they’ve provided one.
Allow Members to Update Their Information
Why should you have to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to updates? If a member has a new email address, new job or has joined the Witness Relocation Program you can put the impetus on them to update their information. Once they’ve logged on they can click on an “Update My Information” link and change any information you allow them to. (You may want to allow them to change their password or home address, but not the renewal date on their membership.) The Human Resource Management Group (http://www.hrmg.org) offers just this arrangement for their members. HRMG is also alerted via email whenever a member changes their information. When HRMG wants to update their local database they can download the Web database to synchronize their information through a custom-designed admin system.
Personalize the Experience for Non-Members, Too
The Division for Learning Disabilities (http://www.teachingld.org) offers something special to both members and non-members alike. Educators of children with learning disabilities can go online at the site to the Find A Colleague section. After creating their own profile, including such information as where they’re located, what grades and subjects they teach, and optional questions such as why they got into teaching, they can then search through the other profiles to share ideas with colleagues.
The Pennsylvania Psychological Association (http://www.papsy.org) wanted to offer Continuing Education credits to both members and non-members. People can sign up at the PPA’s Web site and their credit card information is instantly validated through PayPal. (PayPal is an online service that will take credit cards for you even if you don’t have a Merchant Account.) Once the credit card has been checked a unique username and password is generated. Then the visitor can read through the materials and take a multiple-choice test at the end. If they pass they are taken to a page that allows them to print a Certificate of Completion. Those who don’t pass are allowed one more attempt. The PPA can review reports that say how many people have taken the test, how many are members, how many passed, and what their scores were. This is much more time and cost efficient than sending out printed tests, scoring them by hand, then mailing out Certificates of Completion. It’s also better for site visitors who can take the test at their convenience.
Save On Administrative Time and Costs
One of the many administrative expenses the medical staff office ran into at Good Samaritan Hospital was the time and effort spent on Affiliation Letters. Affiliation Letters–for those of you who aren’t medical staff officers–are documents of physician employment and status that one hospital requests from another. Before the development of this online tool, requests were processed, information pulled from the database, a letter was generated and printed, then mailed or faxed by hand to the requesting hospital. Now, other hospitals can simply log on, submit the physician’s name, and the Web site generates an Affiliation Letter including letterhead and signature. The requesting hospital gets their information instantaneously and the medical staff officers from Good Samaritan can put their time to better use.
Another activity for the medical staff officers was to coordinate dozens of meetings each month for the 600 or so physicians on staff. It was a time-consuming process to set up the meetings and invite a specific group of physicians to each meeting. There was no way to get quick feedback on who would be attending which meeting. Now, through an online admin system, the medical staff officers can create meetings and invite individual physicians or entire departments in less than two minutes. When members log on they can view their upcoming meetings and accept or decline the invitation. The medical staff officers can then view a specific meeting to see which physicians are able to attend.
Although your organization may not need to send out Affiliation Letters or plan dozens of meetings a month, there are probably activities that can be automated or simplified through your Web site. Membership renewals, email reminders for meetings, and regular updates to important documents are just a few places to save time.
As a membership benefit or for an additional fee, you could offer members their own Web pages at your site. A password protected admin system would allow members to update their information, add links to their own Web site or email, and upload their photo.
As you can see, there’s a lot of opportunity for your Web site to save you time and money, increase membership benefits, and generate funds for your organization. What you do with these tools is only tethered by the information in your database and your creativity.
10 NEW QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE SETTING UP A WEB SITE
Watch the video BEFORE you read the article!
And now back to your article…
You’re probably too young to remember 1997, but it was a wild period of growth for the Web. Dancing babies appeared on every other Web site. Amazon.com sold only books. People used their new email accounts to frantically warn loved ones about the ring of kidney snatchers that left their victims in bathtubs full of ice. Some of the first non-Star Trek-related personal Web sites appeared. People were inundated with unsolicited email called “spam”. Well, some things don’t change.
It was in ’97 that I wrote an article called “Ten Questions to Ask Before Setting Up a Website” that appeared in our newsletter and on our site. At the bottom of each article on our site is a form that a visitor can use to email that article to a friend. By far, the “10 Questions” article has been sent most often.
However, it’s been an Internet lifetime since I wrote that article. The boom and the bust are behind us and it’s time to reexamine these questions. There’s still no one correct answer, but the questions apply to everyone.
1. Do I need a Web site? Maybe you don’t. It could be that your marketing dollars are better spent somewhere else. However, many people won’t discover your services through any other means. The Internet has become an expected tool of modern business like the phone or fax, and companies or professionals without one may appear out-of-step.
2. What are my goals for the site? If you do decide to move ahead, it’s important to know why you’re building the site. Is it for sales or marketing? Is it a tool for communication or an online brochure? Do you want to sell products through the site, or just educate consumers about them? Do you want to increase membership in your organization, or offer Web-based benefits to current members? Do you want visitors to email you? Call you? Subscribe to a newsletter? Knowing your goals will help focus your ideas for the site.
3. What am I trying to sell or promote? Even if you don’t like the idea of selling yourself, it’s what we all do, every day, if we want to be successful. Don’t be afraid of sales and marketing. Finding the answer to this question will determine what are the most important themes of the site, what to name the buttons, and the tone to use when writing the content.
4. What are the components to getting a website up and running?
Design & Development: The architecture of the site needs to be built. An appropriate look and feel must be designed. The copy needs to be written and any additional tools such as online forms, shopping carts and audio clips need to be added.
Hosting: Just as you might rent office space, your Web site needs to be hosted somewhere so people can reach it.
Upkeep: Once live, a good site continues to post fresh material, giving people a reason to return.
5. What content do I need to build the site? First, create an outline around the themes you want to promote. Second, remember that each line of the outline is a page that needs content–text and images that will help educate your visitors. The images may include a logo or photos of people or products. Poor quality photos or bad clip art can make the most attractive site look amateurish; sometimes no photos can be better than poor ones.
6. Do I hire a professional or do it myself? If you have the skills, the time, the talent and most importantly the desire to design and develop the site, then by all means, do so. However, keep in mind that when you hire a professional–whether it’s to create a Web site, change your oil, or give you financial advice–you immediately acquire thousands of hours of experience, access to the latest tools of the trade and insider knowledge of the industry. Since an unprofessional Web site can be worse than no site at all, I strongly suggest to do what you do best and outsource the rest.
7. What are my responsibilities to create an effective site? Even if you hire a professional Web developer your input is essential since no one knows your business as well as you do. Before you hire a developer you should review their portfolio and ask for referrals. You should expect to help develop a site outline with your developer, pull the copy together and give input on the layouts presented to you. Once your site is live you should also budget time to add content on a regular basis. You should reply to emails and inquiries in a timely fashion to show you haven’t abandoned your site.
8. What will this cost for start-up? For ongoing maintenance? This is a young industry so there’s still a wide range in billing rates. The Pricing Guide for Web Services, Second Edition, found pricing from $25 – $250 per hour for Web work, and Web pages from $30 – $1,500. (Whoever’s paying $1,500 per page, please call me so I can save you a few bucks.) As a rule, you get what you pay for. An experienced designer and developer are worth their weight in gold.
Here are some rough (January 2002) costs: you’ll need a Web address for about $35/year and a one-time setup fee on a Web server of $25-50. A simple site between 5 – 15 pages might cost between $1,200 and $3,500; add $1,000 or more for e-commerce. Add-ons such as Bulletin Boards, multi-media, online newsletters and forms will all cost extra.
You should also budget money for search engine submissions, which were once free, but now can run into hundreds of dollars. We’re currently recommending our clients budget $500 for this.
Ongoing costs include hosting fees that can range from $30 – $100 per month. Regular updates to your site (which is a good idea) can run another $25-100 and up per incident, depending on the amount of content involved.
9. How do I attract more traffic to my site? Search engines, links, advertising and more. A good developer will make your site search engine friendly and submit your site to search engines and directories on your behalf. You should create reciprocal links with complementary sites. Consider advertising on specific search engines, email newsletters, and traditional media. Put your url (Web site address) on your business cards, stationery, voice mail, and so on. Send out free email newsletters. Add a Recommend This Site to a Friend form on your Web site. Continually update and improve on your site. Reviewing your site’s traffic reports can alert you to what visitors are finding interesting and what they’re ignoring.
10. How will I know that my site is successful? Look at your goals every 3 to 6 months. Have you met them? If so, is it time to create new, more challenging goals?
In my very first newsletter I wrote an article about content that began: Why do people say “Content is King”? Because alliteration is fun. It wasn’t all that clever then and it hasn’t aged well. Still, I haven’t come up with anything better in three and a half years, so that’ll have to do. The definition of content, like “e-commerce”, “profitability” and most other Internet-related terms, varies from person to person. For the purposes of this article we’ll define content as the stuff people come to see. (Or hear. And one day soon, smell.) If you’re not giving people a compelling reason to visit, they won’t.
How Much Content Do You Need?
Not every site needs hundreds of pages of unique content. Maybe your site is primarily “brochureware”; an electronic pamphlet used solely to entice a visitor into contacting you. If so, a description of your services and hours of operation may be enough.
However, there’s great competition for eyeballs on the Internet that increases with every site that’s launched. As Einstein said, “Content = Weight”. He said some other stuff, too, but nothing as memorable. Many visitors to your site may not otherwise know you, so the content you post may be their only way to gauge your legitimacy. The more content you add to your site, the more weight you give to your implied argument that visitors should use your services, buy your products, or subscribe to your newsletter.
As always, you have to look at your audience to determine why they might visit your site.
How Do I Get Content?
Many of our clients are writers by nature; they already have plenty of articles to repurpose for the Web, or they can choose to create fresh material. If you find yourself in this group, consider yourself lucky. You may be able to turn this desire to write into a monthly column that can be sent out as an email newsletter, as well as posted to your site.
Even if you’re not the world’s greatest writer, people may still be interested in what you have to say if you’ve got knowledge in a particular area. They may overlook poor grammar, bad puns, and self-serving rhetoric to uncover information that could be of use to them. After all, you’re still reading this, right?
Putting Your Visitors to Work For You
There’s another way of creating content if you don’t feel you have the time or the skills to bake something from scratch. Ask your visitors. Below are three levels of visitor-created (or at least inspired) content that you can use to fill your site.
F.A.Q. or Ask the Wizard/Sage/Know-It-All
If you’re just launching a Web site you may choose to include an F.A.Q. (which stands for Frequently Asked Questions). To start, you can come up with a few questions that you think the average visitor might ask, and create your own answers, no matter how self-serving they may be. This content then gets posted to your site.
By adding an online form, or even a simple email link, you can empower your visitors to ask their own questions. Add a disclaimer asking permission to use their questions (with or without their names) and you have a steady stream of fresh content to add to your site or newsletter.
The nice feature of the F.A.Q. or Ask the Wizard is that you don’t need a lot of traffic to start one. It’s the perfect solution for new sites.
Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) a.k.a. Message Boards
If you have enough traffic the BBS may be for you. It is also an important tool for community building. Visitors can post questions and comments at your site that can be viewed publicly. Both you and other visitors can post replies to these comment, thus creating a “thread”. This is a compelling reason for return visits as people will want to see the replies to their post. There is a plethora of different ways to configure the BBS software depending on your needs. You can allow anyone to read or post messages, require them to log in first, or add private forums where only invitees can enter.
Pinnacle Systems Software Solutions uses their BBS to allow users of their special effects software products to ask questions of top Hollywood FX masters and to trade tips and tricks. (http://www.commotionpro.com). Parents and Teachers of Explosive Kids has set up a BBS for these groups to trade experiences and bring this community closer together. (http://www.explosivekids.org). The Center for Development and Learning (CDL) has placed their BBS in their Members Only section, adding value to their paid membership. Not only can educators trade stories of teaching strategies and successes, the CDL also sponsors monthly forums hosted by education specialists like Robert Brooks and Reid Lyon. (http://www.cdl.org).
The chat room is not something to be entered into lightly. It requires a large amount of regular traffic to your site. Many clients come to us with requests for chat rooms, but we advise them to crawl before they sprint. Although many people point to AOL’s huge number of chat rooms as an example that chat rooms work, AOL’s dirty little secret is that the popular chat rooms are all adult-oriented. (So I’ve read; I don’t have any first hand experience and you can’t prove that I do.) For an example of what an under-utilized chat room might feel like, walk into an empty room, close the door behind you and start a conversation. A chat room with only one visitor is even worse than an empty one.
The CDL will be opening its own chat room soon and are going about it the right way. Instead of keeping the chat open 24/7, they instead are hosting planned chats at schedule times so parents can pose questions to specialists and get immediate answers. One of the nicest features of chats is the real-time interaction.
In deciding what type of content you need, ask these questions: How much traffic am I getting or expecting? Does my service or offering lend itself to a community building experience like BBS or chats? Do I have the time to create the content needed? What is my audience looking to me to provide?
Once you consider these questions you can move ahead with the right content creation plan for you.
Anybody who ever went to public high school knows how important it is to be popular, and those of us who were popular remember how great it was. The good-natured ribbing the jocks gave us, the librarians who overlooked our late returns because we worked the slide projector, how the girls mentally undressed us when we wore our band uniforms. Good times, good times.
Well, for many of us it’s equally important for our Web sites to be popular. If you never look at your traffic reports it’s hard to know whether your site is the belle of the ball or a wallflower. (Note: Different sites have different popularity requirements. Some sites are just more needy than others.) The most basic piece of information that people are interested in—and where many people stop looking—is visitors. This is the supposed number of unique sessions over a given amount of time.
Why supposed? Well, without getting too technical, when many people come at once from one Internet Service Provider or ISP—for example AOL—they may appear as just one visitor. Other times a large corporation using a proxy server might request a page just once but show a copy of that page to several people. As far as you know, only one person visited.
These traffic reports will often tell you which pages at your site were requested most frequently. Why is this important? Give the people what they want! Maybe everyone wants to check out your recipe for homemade salsa, but your homemade chutney soda is a dud. You now know that you should post more south-of-the-border treats and that chutney and carbonation don’t mix.
If you want to dig a little deeper, many reports will tell you where people are coming from. This doesn’t mean that you know their names and email addresses (thank God) but which Web site they were at when they decided to click to your site.
If they were at a search engine, you may also be able to find out which search words they used to find your site. This can give you a better idea of what people are searching for when they find a site like yours. (Personally, I get the most traffic for the Winchester Mystery House. Attack of the 50″ Woman is mighty popular, too.) Often you’ll find search terms that you hadn’t thought of when promoting your site and now you can add them. If you’re feeling really industrious you can visit that search engine, enter those search terms, and see which sites are appearing higher than yours. A little more investigative work and you might discover why these sites are coming up higher, and perhaps you can tweak your own site.
Many search engines these days (as opposed to the search engines of yore) are making link popularity a more important variable in their algorithms. What does this mean? I’m not sure, I cribbed it from InfoWeek. Actually, it means that they believe that the more people who link to your site the more relevant the material must be, so your site will come up higher in searches.
Whether or not their belief is true, you should get people to link to your site. The first step is to link to theirs. If you don’t have a links or resources page, consider creating one. Chances are you can’t answer all the questions and problems of the visitors coming to your site. Having offsite resources can support your own message. If you’re afraid of losing visitors, consider having the link open in a new window; or if you’re completely paranoid, keep the new site in a frame set so part of your site is always showing. (This doesn’t always go over well with other site owners whom you may soon be asking for a reciprocal link.)
Once you’ve created this page and posted it to the Web, contact the Webmaster for each site. Let them know that you’ve created a link to their site but if they want it taken down you’ll be happy to comply. Don’t worry, they never want it taken down; who wants to lose potential traffic? Tell them that you feel that your visitors will benefit from the material on their site. Hopefully this is true so you won’t have to lie. Tell them that you think their visitors will also benefit from the content on your site, and could they create a reciprocal link? My experience is that you’ll have great results this way.
Another way to create links to your site is through email. Sure, many of my clients have already realized the benefit of sending out a monthly newsletter embedded with links to their home page and new features at their site. But testimonials carry more weight when you don’t write them yourself. I learned that during the college admissions process. But how can you get people to email their friends about your site? Well, you could forge their name to an email, but let’s take the high road.
The easier you make it for your visitors to tell their friends about your site the more likely they are to do so. Our site, the Center for Development & Learning’s site, and Dr. Larry Kutner’s site all employ an “Email This Article to a Friend” form. It allows people to quickly email the contents of an article and a personal message to a friend or colleague. When it arrives, it also comes with a message about your site and a link back to it.
A stripped-down version of this is a simple “Recommend This Site” form. It can be placed on your contact page or anywhere else on your site. Some people are just born helpers. My grandfather cuts out every article from the Ft. Lauderdale Ledger that even remotely mentions the Internet and mails it to me. Make it easy for these people by adding this simple form.
With these few Pygmalion-like steps, your site can be a Homecoming King or Queen, too. Or at least it won’t get stuffed into its own gym locker.
Over the years a number of my clients have requested audio, video and
other multi-media to spice up their Web sites. My feeling had always been
that the average visitor to their site didn’t have the patience for these
huge files to download. That their visitors were looking for a clean,
attractive site where they could quickly find the information they were
looking for. That developing huge multi-media files was best left to the
major entertainment companies and adult Web sites that charged per-minute
However, recent changes have made me reconsider this position.
Mainly, I’ve sunk a freaking lot of time and money into a wide
variety of multi-media authoring platforms. So I can say without
bias that you all need these options on your Web sites…immediately.
Well, maybe a little bias.
The truth is, things are changing. More and more people have
faster access to the Internet, whether it’s cable modems, DSL
(Digital Subscriber Lines,) or LANs (Local Access Networks) at
the workplace. Computers are also getting more powerful; new
models ship with 400MHz processors and up to better handle these
large files once they reach our homes. The Phantom Menace trailer
was downloaded over 23 million times and counting with most people
choosing to download the highest-quality version at around 25MB.
Does this mean that you all need to add Flash movies or MP3
songs to your Web sites? Of course not. Just because you can
do something doesn’t mean you should. What it does mean is that
you can add some audio or video to your sites–when appropriate–and
not turn off visitors.
For example, a Web site for a professional speaker might include
testimonial letters and the topics she speaks on. Adding some
flashy graphic to her site that does cool things with the letters
in her name probably won’t increase her business. It might even
turn off prospective organizations for tres gauche. However,
adding a video clip of a speech she gave may give a decision-maker
the information he needs to choose her over someone else. That
video clip would be configured so that it would only download
if requested; not everyone will have the need or the desire to
view the file.
There are just too many multi-media options to mention every
one here, nor is there time to get into any one in great depth.
The purpose of this column is to touch on a few of the platforms
that are most prevalent on the Web today.
All of these multi-media and new media options need some sort
of plug-in or player to work in someone’s browser. In other words:
No Player, No Play. However, all the players are free and you
can create links to the free downloads on your site.
QuickTime Movies and QTVR
I’m grouping these two items together
because they require the same player, the QuickTime Player.
(Seems like an obvious name, doesn’t it? However, until the most
recent release, the movie player for QuickTime movies was called…Movie
QuickTime (QT) Movies are standard movies that play within the
QT Player. Many movie trailers are delivered via QT. The reason
why The Phantom Menace is only available via QT instead of RealPlayer
or Windows Media Player is because of Lucas Arts’ focus on quality;
none of the other platforms provide the quality that QT delivers.
QTVR, or QuickTime Virtual Reality takes two forms. The first
is a QTVR Panorama. When you come upon these panoramas on the
Web they appear to be simple photographs. But by clicking and
dragging your mouse within the photograph you can change the
direction of your view 360 degrees! You can also look up, down,
and zoom in or out. A panorama is also known as a “node”.
Different “nodes” can be linked together so you could
give a visitor a full tour of a new house, a museum, a ballpark
or any three-dimensional space. Ambient sounds can also be added
so that different sound effects or tracks can be heard depending
on the direction a visitor is “facing.”
The other form of QTVR is called an Object Movie. Instead of
spinning around on a node, an object movie gives many perspectives
on one object. A visitor to your site can “pick up” an
object and turn it around in their hands. Different versions
of this Object Movie can be stitched together so that when a
visitor is rotating an Object Movie of a model car in their browser
the trunk and hood might open or the headlights turn on and off.
RealPlayer plays both streaming audio and video over
the Web. “Streaming” media
refers to media files that begin to play before they fully download
by using a buffer. Personally, I feel the video component is
currently below acceptable standards; it’s the size of a stamp
and often the image is so murky as to make it impossible to see
what’s going on. While the audio is nowhere near the quality
of MP3 files–the current choice of college students trading
pirated music–it’s ubiquitous nature gives it a leg up on the
competition. If you want to share audio files with your visitors
RealPlayer may be for you.
Flash is a product by Macromedia, a company that
creates a number of products for graphic designers and Web
developers. It manipulates vector graphics which are often much
smaller (in byte size) than traditional bitmapped graphics for
quicker download over the Web. It also allows for a much more
interactive experience for your visitors. Entire sites can be
built using Flash technology or it can be used in smaller doses
to add, well, flash to a site. By visiting http://www.flytemedia.com
you can see a small Flash Movie [Defunct] for flyte new media
and/or download the Flash Movie Player if you don’t have it.
Graphic designers who are looking to add some spark to their
sites should really take a closer look at this technology.
Although the Web is fairly “cross-platform” inconsistencies
do exist. Also, different browsers and computer settings can
change the way a Web page or other document is seen by prospective
clients. If you have forms you want people to be able to view,
download and print, but you’re concerned about how they are going
to look once they get to that person’s computer, Adobe Acrobat
could be your answer.
Acrobat can convert any document to a PDF file (Adobe’s Portable
Document Format) which is cross-platform. Anybody with the free
Acrobat reader will be able to view or print your document as
it was intended. Simple brochures and entire software manuals
are moved across the Internet using this format. Chances are
you already have the reader on your computer.
Multi-media can enhance a Web site when used correctly and strengthen
the message you’re trying to get across. The trick is in choosing
the right format to best present your material and using it judiciously.
When I was a traveling salesman, knocking on nursing home doors throughout New England, I was forced to eat out a lot. (Tuna sandwiches tend to go bad sitting on your dashboard all morning. This was back in the early nineties and coolers had yet to be invented.) Although I spent many a noontime meal under the golden arches or at a Papa Gino’s, there are times when you need more variety. When choosing a random restaurant the first thing I always noticed was the sign. If the sign was unattractive I wouldn’t go in there unless a good friend recommended the place. Even if the sign coerced me inside, the rest of the restaurant would have to be clean, well-lit, rat-free, etc., before I would eat there. Why is this important? Well, if you’re in Northboro, MA, check out a deli called Pickles. Good sign, good food.
On a completely unrelated topic, there’s been a lot of interest in e-commerce these days. It seems like anyone with (or without) a connection to the Internet, 10 minutes of free time and a product to sell can instantly make a mint on the Internet, go public and sell their company to Amazon.com for a few hundred million dollars.
Don’t believe the hype. Although there are a few of those lucky souls out there, they’re usually just there to make our travails seem trivial. Building a good e-commerce site is a slow, ongoing process of trial and error. However, we can use someone else’s errors many of the times to cut down on our own trial time.
Over the last year I’ve spent time developing different e-commerce solutions for a variety of clients, as well as attending the ICE (Internet Commerce Expo) Show earlier this year in Boston. Each solution I’ve seen has its plusses and minuses, and ultimately you’ll have to decide which one is going to work best for your site. I’ll explore these different options more in my next newsletter; for now I’ll concentrate on some things that hold true for any online store, even if you’re not taking orders over the ‘net.
And you thought that opening paragraph was just a stream-of-consciousness plug for a deli I used to frequent. Let’s face facts: we’re all not Amazon.com, nor have we reserved names like shopping.com or buy.com that people might type in by chance. It’s a good guess that our prospective customer doesn’t know us from a hole in the wall and first impressions count. A home page–for either your store or your site–is like a first date: it should be clean and attractive and not make the other person wait too long. How many commercial Web sites have you clicked away from because of ugly or slow-loading graphics, or just because of a completely unprofessional look? (I mention slow-loading graphics because both Yahoo! Stores and Amazon.com have incredibly quick-loading sites that are clean and attractive.)
Show ’em the Goods
You may think that the gardening hose you want to sell is the same as any other one, so there’s no point of putting up a picture. Studies show that people are 57% more likely to buy a product on the Internet if they can see an image of it. (By the way, I just made up that statistic, but the point is it could be true. Sounds true, doesn’t it?)
If you don’t have a product picture from a brochure, take the picture yourself or hire someone. I know a number of excellent photographers who do product shots. In some cases the manufacturer has images of the product on their Web site and would be happy to share since you’re promoting their product. Even if it’s just a bottle of shampoo that looks like the other 7 bottles of shampoo or conditioner you’re selling, put up another picture. If you’re not showing your customer the product, you’re hiding it.
When your product selection gets to a certain size it may be time to categorize your inventory. A little corner shop may be able to put the plastic combs next to the Pez, but Wal-Mart needs to put the Pez dispensers next to the Pez refills in the Pez aisle which is nowhere near the combs and brushes. You aren’t the proprietor of a used book store featuring rare and out-of-print books where people enjoy browsing all day long while inhaling the musty fumes of decaying bindings. People don’t want to spend too much time looking for what they need; it’s easier to find the exit online than in the real world.
Rotate the Inventory
There was a liquor store near where I used to live that advertised its weekly special: “12 PACK BUSCH – $11.99”. First of all, a 12 pack of Busch for $11.99 is never special. Second of all, it was a weekly special for the five or so years I lived in Boston, and may still be. The bottom line is: feature and promote different products each month, week or day depending on your sales volume.
Take Credit Cards If You Possibly Can
More and more sites accept credit card orders, and so should you. There are added expenses in taking credit card orders but it may be worth it in the long run. If you don’t have a merchant number there are ways to get one. Also, some e-commerce hubs that rent space to small businesses will handle all credit card orders themselves, for a fee. This fee can be high, so it may only be workable for bigger ticket items.
Take Names (or at least emails)
To complete a credit card order over the Internet your customer is going to have to fill out a small form: name, address, credit card number and so on. This is a perfect opportunity to keep in touch with your customer. An email address is almost always a required field in these forms, and for good reason. It is a great, free way of contacting your customer again. With just a little extra work on your Web master’s part, that email address can be added to a growing list of customers who you can contact all at once about new specials and discounts at your store.
Now, as someone who gets copious amounts of spam, or unwanted emails solicitations, I implore you to do this the correct way. You’ll never make any friends or repeat customers by spamming people. My recommendation is to have an opt-in or opt-out option at the bottom of your form. An opt-in would be a button that people can click that signs them up for future mailings; an opt-out would do the opposite. You’ll get better response with an opt-out because people tend to want to get to the submit button as quickly as possible. If someone has already bought products from you I think an opt-out option is best.
Now you have a growing list of people who you know are interested in what you have to sell. Periodic email flyers to these people about new products and sales are a great way to get repeat business and help grow your online business.
Finding out more about one’s customers has been around long before
the Internet. Back in prehistoric times traders would often ask their
customers, “Where did you hear about our pelts? What cave walls have
you read in the last six months?” and “We often sell our smoke
signal list to other traders that you might be interested in bartering
with…if you want to opt-out, grunt twice.”
I swear. It’s documented.
Forms have improved a lot since those days of carrying around
giant stone rolodexes. Forms are a common part of many Web sites,
but often are used for little more than a glorified email that
can be sent to a person behind the Web site.
What Forms Are Made Of:
Forms are visually created on a Web page in basic HTML using
a series of text boxes and fields, radio buttons, check boxes,
pull down menus and submit or reset buttons. Here’s a
breakdown of how they might be used:
Text Boxes – Any short answer: name, address, email,
Text Fields – Longer, open-ended comments, body of
an email message.
Radio Buttons – Where only one answer is appropriate,
like the buttons on a car radio
Check Boxes – Where one or more answers are appropriate; i.e. what
search engines have you used in the past 6 months.
Pull Down Menus – A way of letting someone choose one option from
a menu; often used navigate a Web site or select a profession in a questionnaire.
Submit and Reset Buttons – to complete the form or start anew.
However, a form based solely on the elements above
do much. A person could fill it out, but once they clicked “Submit” at
the bottom, nothing would happen. That’s because a form
itself does nothing; it would be like filling out a magazine
subscription card and not mailing it in. The form you see on
a Web page is just a structure where visitors can put in information.
It’s behind-the-scenes where the real action takes place.
When the submit button is clicked on a working form the information
is most often “passed” or sent to the server, the computer
that sends the Web pages to your browser. (Occasionally forms
not nearly as common.) Back at the server the information is
sent to a folder with CGI Scripts, (Common Gateway Interface.)
Once the correct script is located the script takes the information
and handles it the way it was programmed.
What You Can Do With Forms:
The CGI scripts can handle the information
in a number of ways. It can create an email addressed from the
submitter to you that will show up in your email box. It can
also send a copy of that email to your Web master if that’s
helpful. When you hit “reply” to that email it will
automatically go back to them, (assuming they gave you a correct
Forms can also be helpful if you use a database to manage a
mailing list. The information that is passed can be entered into
a password protected document on the Internet. Every time someone
submits a form their pertinent information gets added to this
document. Every once in a while you can download that file to
your hard drive and then you can import it into your database
program. It will save you from retyping all those people who
want more information on your wares.
Another form option would allow you to get personal information
from a visitor who wants to read an article. Instead of posting
the article on your site, a form is created that when completed
emails the article to the visitor.
Forms can also be combined with a secure server to handle credit
Things to Keep In Mind When Designing a Form:
Through personal experience in working with clients, I’ve
discovered that the best way to create a form is let the client
create it on paper and then I turn it into a working online form.
Only the client knows whether they need both daytime and nighttime
phone numbers, whether the person’s position within a company
is relevant, or if a person’s sex is germane to the conversation.
Before my clients write out the information they’re looking
for I remind them to balance all the information they would like
to gather with the amount of time someone is going to be willing
to spend on completing a form. If someone wants to drop you a
quick note that they just read your last book and they loved
it, they don’t want to fill out a ten-page questionnaire
on which books stores, kiosks and flea markets they’ve
visited in the last six months. On the other hand, if they are
looking for more information on a specialty medical device your
company has just patented, you can feel free to ask a few more
questions before answering.
You can also set some questions as mandatory. You may require
people to enter a name and email address, but allow them to skip
their fax number. If they don’t fill out the required fields,
they get a warning message that their form was not processed
and a request to go back to the original page.
Forms are a great way to gather information on the people interested
in your products. It’s not invasive as they are volunteering
this information to you. By collecting these names, addresses
and emails you will also be able to let people know the release
date of your next book, a recent update on your software, or
a great vacation give away for people in their sixties.
There has been a lot written about ecommerce in the past couple months. Articles have appeared in BusinessWeek, Inc. magazine and Newsweek, among others. Generally this type of buzz starts in the computer magazines, and if it sticks around long enough, the general trades pick it up.
Since I read a number of computer magazines each month, I get a view of the coming storm when it’s just a butterfly’s wing flapping. Some times these ideas come to fruition, most times not. Does anyone remember the hype surrounding Push Technology? Micro-payments? How banner ads would pay for content on the Web?
All of these things have fallen short of expectations or died entirely. The only type of Push Technology you see now is email. Micro-payments didn’t even get their 15 minutes. Banner ad rates are plummeting as Web surfers are maturing and less likely to click on every ad they see.
So what to make of ecommerce? Well here’s my .02: it’s here to stay. What shape it will finally take or even what it will look like a year from now I don’t pretend to know, but technology costs money, so businesses need to make money off of it. Two years ago every consultant worth their salt was saying that companies needed a Web site to survive. Last year these same consultants told businesses they needed content to increase repeat visitors. This year it’s ecommerce.
Let me tell you something you already know: every business is different. Every business’s Web site is different. Morton’s Salt does not need ecommerce. Apple Computer does. Even if you have something to sell, ecommerce may not be the best option for you. If your best customers and clients use you because of your “hands on” approach, maybe ecommerce isn’t where you should be investing your time and money. If your work is mostly customized perhaps face-to-face or even over the phone might be your best close.
However, if you have something to sell that only needs to be seen or described, ecommerce could be a good option. If you have a product that can be utilized throughout the country or even the world, ecommerce could bring you lots of business. If you have big enough margins, high enough prices or plan on selling enough product, ecommerce could become a major part of your business plan.
Ecommerce allows people from all over the world, (or wherever you’re willing to ship,) to purchase products from you day or night. It can bring extra sales to your business and not cost you any more in salaries. If nothing else, it could help bring down your monthly cost of being online.
Ecommerce is not as inexpensive as setting up a Web site. Your hosting service must have a secure server so people can feel confident in putting their credit card information over the Internet. (Aside: it’s easier to steal someone’s wallet and use their credit cards at a gas pump or a store than it is to steal their card number of the Internet, but people are still leery.) In general this costs extra money for your hosting service, and thus for you.
You (or your Webmaster) must set up forms using scripts that will handle your order taking; these scripts are more difficult to create than simple HTML; even if you can get your hands on generic scripts, reworking them to your needs can be a nightmare if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Your business must also have a merchant number; a number you can get from a bank or credit union that will allow you to accept credit cards both online or in the real world. Some of these institutions are uncomfortable dealing with online transactions and set high premiums and costs as a result.
There are also banks and other companies that put together “store front” or “shopping cart” packages for you, handling much of the headaches. These vary in price, but plan on spending over a thousand dollars to set it up and $500-1000 and up per month in costs. If you plan on doing a lot of business, these options can be a good choice. However, they may not be your first choice.
As always, there are a few companies out there who will do some of this for free. iCat allows you 10 products to sell over the Internet for no fee, at least for now. More products than 10 and you have to get an account with them. Also, there is still a certain amount of work involved and you should be comfortable with HTML and general Internet knowledge if you don’t have someone doing it for you.
In the final analysis, (as of today, tomorrow might bring another answer,) ecommerce can be very beneficial for the right sites. It allows your doors to stay open 24/7 so you never have to turn away a customer. It takes orders when you’re sick as a dog, or on Christmas or your highest of High Holidays. But don’t include it on your site if it’s not needed. If the goal of your site is to be brochureware: a place for people to learn more about your company without pressure, don’t worry about it. Certain sites will be commerce sites and certain sites will be advertising and marketing sites. I myself have no plans to add ecommerce to my site. Anyone who remembers my “Rich Brooks 1998 Beefcake Calendar” fiasco will know why.
AFFILIATE PROGRAMS: THEY’RE HOT, THEY’RE HAPPENING, BUT ARE THEY HYPE?
Most Americans with a passing knowledge of the Internet are aware of Amazon.com, the first major Web-based bookstore. They have relationships
with (i.e. they’ve bought real estate on) such major portals as Excite!,
AOL, Alta Vista and Netscape. Barnes & Noble has also spent a lot
of money launching a Web site and buying up property on HotBot & Lycos
among others. There are also a handful of upstarts such as Books.com and Bookserve. All of these companies have affiliate programs.
What are affiliate programs? I’m glad you asked. (And if you
didn’t ask, let’s show a little enthusiasm here, people.) Affiliate
programs reward you for sending buyers to these companies’ Web
sites. The details vary, but basically you do some work on your
end, create the links and the money just starts rolling in. (Well,
that’s the way they describe it happening.) Sites that have a
certain focus, such as sci-fi, gardening or erotica could point
visitors towards appropriate reading at these online bookstores
and get a commission on books sold.
I figured a good guinea pig…er, test case would be my father.
He currently has books and tapes available through his Web site,
but only for people paying by check or money order, not online,
secure ordering. Also, he has to send out the books and tapes
by hand. I figured I could save him a little work and make it
easier for visitors to buy his book since they wouldn’t have
to get out their checkbook, mail or fax in an order, etc.
I started my research by reading the archived articles in one
of my favorite online listservs, LinkExchange Digest. Website
designers post questions and answers on marketing a Web site,
selling online and “Geek Tips”. You can receive it
via email or go to http://www.le-digest.com/archive.html.
Maybe these people are just big whiners, or maybe they’re on
to something. Many complain of sending several hundred visitors
to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com, but get very little or no
compensation. Others counter that this first group didn’t do
enough to get the visitors excited, (i.e. reviews, recommendations,
etc.) to make a purchase once they arrived at an affiliate site.
Another possible downside is the loss of traffic; any time you
send someone to another site, you risk losing that person for
ever. In general, the people who had the best experiences did
indepth reviews of books in a certain category, and consistently
updated the list of books to get people coming back to their
Mark Welch, a frequent contributor to that listserv has a Web
site dedicated to ranking different affiliate programs, and it
can be found at http://www.markwelch.com. He had a number of
affiliate programs ranked above Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble,
but for one reason or another they didn’t meet my criteria. Some
were too specialized, others didn’t offer any tracking, etc.
Despite this general negative view, I proceeded to go forward.
First, I felt the affiliate program would benefit a site like
my father’s: one that wasn’t trying to make wads of money, but
rather was interested in making it easier for the visitors to
purchase the book while online. Second, I really needed a topic
for this issue. I chose Amazon because they carried not only
my dad’s newest book, “The Self-Esteem Teacher”, but
also “So That’s How I Was Born!”, dedicated “To
Richard and Douglas, who taught me the questions children really
ask about the facts of life.” I figured if I was his best
source of material, it was time to turn the tables.
And so began my journey…
I went to Amazon.com, scrolled down the page and found the “Associates” link.
Following it, I read the “Terms and Agreements”; first
time in my life I’ve read a “Terms and Agreements”.
(I did it for you, people.) Besides the general “everything
we do is o.k. and subject to change, everything you do better
be o.k. with us,” I did find a couple of things a little
hard to swallow. Commission is paid on a quarterly basis, 30
days after the quarter is finished. Having come from a background
in sales, I know that a quarter is a looooong time. Also, they
won’t pay you until your commission reaches the magic $100 mark.
Otherwise they hold onto it until the next quarter. Figuring
that my dad’s book currently goes for $12.95, and he would get
15% for directly linking to it, he would only have to sell just
over 51 copies to get a check after the first quarter. Good thing
we’re not in it for the money.
After I clicked “agree” I quickly received an email
from Amazon outlining the three options I had for being an associate:
1. Link to their home page. As far as I can see, no real benefit
except to Amazon. 2. Put one of their Amazon search boxes on
our site. Perhaps it would be a benefit for another site, but
our purpose is solely to make it easier for visitors to purchase
Dr. Brooks’ books while online. 3. Link to individual products.
The email spells out how to put the link in, all you need to
do is replace their special page number (which shows a current
best-seller) with the page you are interested in by searching
for the product in question. I also decided to “frame” the
Amazon site so there would always be a visible link back to my
father’s page. To see how this is all laid out please visit http://www.drrobertbrooks.com/books.shtml
and click on either of the Amazon.com logos.
The entire process took me a little over an hour to complete,
not too bad in terms of time. The question still remains if this
will prove to be a benefit for the visitors to his site. I’ll
keep you posted.