Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Websites IV: Getting Interactive:
Mailing Lists and Digital Business Cards

December 1998

By Mike Gould

Last month, we talked about architecture — what goes where on a site; this month we cover some of the interactive aspects of the business website: getting to know your prospective customers via the Web.

Marketing
Readers with long memories will recall me saying that a web site should be considered a part of a marketing plan, one that integrates print media, regular business image considerations (corporate "look and feel" — logo design, etc.), and this new-fangled web stuff. (Television, for instance, is old-fangled; still effective, but only one part of the picture.) By now you’ve hopefully got your web site up and running, customers are dropping by to check you out, inquiries and maybe even orders are starting to roll in via email, telephone and fax; what’s next?

Time to work up the ol’ marketing muscle and crank it up a notch (Bam!, as a certain TV cook would comment.) Each person visiting your site is a potential customer; they have chosen you out of millions of competitors and actually shown up at your door. You want to treat ‘em right: show them around, impress them with your décor and ease of use, shake their virtual hand, and hand them a business card on the way out. This business card business can be a challenge, but there are other ways to encourage them to contact you in the future. One of these is the mailing list; encourage your visitors to leave their cards, in the form of email addresses.

One if by land, 2 if by email…
How do you get their address? Ask for it, and offer something in return. This gets us into the wonderful world of CGI’s; a CGI, or Common Gateway Interface, is a means of increasing the interactivity of your website through the use of software that resides on the server that’s hosting your website. What this means is that whoever is setting up your site needs to do additional WebSite Software Voodoo Conniptions (a technical term) that enable visitors to fill out forms, and have the server send you the resultant data via email. For instance: a visitor comes to your site, and you tell them that you have fantastic monthly sales that are available only to people via the web. To take advantage of these sales, the visitor has to fill out a form and push a "submit" button. Clicking the submit button bundles up their data (email address, snailmail address, whatever), and, in our example, sends it to you in an email. You get the email, add their data to your database of prospective customers, and end up with a valuable business asset: a list of customers to notify of new products, sales, or anything you think up to encourage a repeat visit.

If your webmaster is good; he or she can cook up CGI’s that keep the data in database format, ready to integrate with your next email campaign. This is how you fill your digital Rolodex with customers eager (or at least tolerant) to hear your message. This is just a small example of what CGI’s can do; they are by no means limited to email returns.

To encourage the visitor to fill out the form, offer them something: notices of special sales, a free postcard, or an informative monthly newsletter. Sites I’ve worked on have gone the postcard route (harmonyhollow.com) and the CyberSale offer (sharmusic.com). The resulting email sent in by customers in response to the sharmusic.com emailing was gratifying indeed, and a great opportunity for one-to-one marketing.

How is this different from spam?
Spam is that irritating email advertising you get from someone you never heard of that is targeted at everyone, whether they have expressed an interest or not at what is being offered. Your advertising, however, is only going out to people who have asked for it by filling out the form. You also differentiate yourself from spammers by being up front about what you are doing, and ALWAYS give your recipient the opportunity to remove themselves from the list with an appropriately worded email back to you. (Spammers also do things like sending their email disguised as coming from someone else. Don’t do this. It will make you a bad person.)

Other CGI’s: the guestbook
A guestbook is a way to post comments from your visitors on your site. This can be a 2-edged sword, as they can leave critical comments as easy as complimentary ones; but it is a nice way to build up a little community of folk commenting about your site. You can always edit out the dopey comments; I’ve had to pull comments from some drunk in New Zealand from one of my sites. This can be as simple as a listing of comments , or as elaborate as a chatroom where people can follow multiple conversations. All this CGI jazz is a step above the easy programming of HTML, the lingua franca of the web; if you want to get into this, you will probably need Professional Help (actually, anyone working on the web needs professional help, but you knew that…).

Next month: Speaking of interactive, let’s do a question and answer column; send me questions, I’ll dig up answers (web-related only, please; I was kidding months ago when I mentioned that little icon on your desktop there. I have no idea what it does - what happens when you click on it?) If I don’t get any questions, I’ll be forced to make some up, so write in today! If you are not yet online, you can snailmail me care of Business to Business Magazine.

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