In today’s marketplace, the hottest property isn’t on 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive or Wall Street—it’s virtually any address that begins with www. From brick-and-mortar companies to nuts-and-bolts industry, almost everyone recognizes the value of being online. The National Association of Manufacturers predicts that E-commerce will be central to the future of productivity and low inflation. How? Companies all over the world are finding that customer support costs are actually lowered with use of the Internet. When functions like technical assistance can be handled electronically, fewer people are needed to field telephone calls. Fewer people = fewer salaries = lower support costs.
If you haven’t got a Web site, get one! No other media can give a company the kind of exposure a Web site can. Potential customers can access information about your products and services when they need it, which may likely be outside the hours of nine to five when your sales and service people have all gone home. Kreative Plastics, Inc., a container printer and finisher specializing in custom processes for the personal healthcare, bio-medical, and highline cosmetic industries, understands the scope of this capability. "We want customers to know they have information available to them online outside of traditional business hours," states Shane Rottier, Process Engineer for Kreative. "It showcases our decorating and proprietary coating capabilities to an international customer base, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week."
"Our Web site is definitely a marketing tool," says Charles Arnold, Graphics Coordinator for Pad Print Machinery of Vermont, distributors of Comec pad printing machines. "When we first built our site we depended heavily on mass marketing techniques such as trade shows, industry publications, and the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers. After the site was up and running for about a year, we found that more and more customers were not only finding us, but also learning more about our capabilities by searching the Web."
If you’ve done the hard part and have your Web site up and running, what do you do now? For too many companies, the answer is nothing. The temptation for busy professionals with too little time is to let a site take care of itself—which can be as deadly as leaving the baby home alone. The maintenance of a Web site is an integral part of future business development and the growth of market share.
To take full advantage of your hot property, you first have to help people find it, and that’s going to involve some marketing. The term marketing on the Web can be a tricky one. It can refer to the advertising you do via the Internet, or to the marketing of your Web site itself, online or offline. There is no one correct Web marketing strategy for every company, but the ultimate objective should be to drive traffic to your site. Once there, you can educate consumers in a way that print ads or a brochure can’t. "We try to encourage people reading ads or calling us for the first time to visit the site," Arnold commented. "This provides them with quick access to a wealth of information about our products."
Laurie Windham, President and CEO of Cognitiative, Inc. and author of Dead Ahead: The Web Dilemma and the New Rules of Business, recommends a traditional approach to Web marketing. Her consulting firm focuses on both business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets, advising E-business and technology companies on the strategy of marketing in the E-business environment. "Raising awareness is a classic marketing challenge," says Windham, "and it is fundamentally no different in the Web world. Research shows that the traditional marketing communications mix is the right approach to getting the attention of potential Web site visitors, whether they are on or offline."
This insight is especially important in business-to-business situations, as with plastics industry companies. Traditional marketing tools shouldn’t be abandoned in the rush to E-mentality. Business professionals still read industry publications, look at print ads, read brochures, attend trade shows, and read their mail. Your Web site address should appear prominently in all these places so that when industry pros are ready, they can do more investigation online. Internet advertising still represents a very small percentage of overall advertising revenues. Insiders estimate that as much as 80% of online ad space is never sold and, according to Windham, in business-to-business marketing, may be ineffective.
For advice on where to direct your marketing mix, take it from the people who do it best, dot-coms. Dot-com companies use their sites as the point of doing business—not as the place they focus advertising budgets. Traditional mass-market advertising is used to direct users to their sites. For instance, priceline.com launched itself with radio and print ads, no online advertising whatsoever. Amazon.com, who was recently named Advertising Age’s 1999 Marketer of the Year, has used print advertising, with some outdoor, as the mainstay of its marketing strategy (Advertising Age, December 13, 1999).
But how do you attract the people that have never seen your print ads or company brochure? Often, the first place consumers turn for information is a search engine on the Internet. "Our brochures, flyers, and other advertising materials all include our Web site addresses," states J.D. Campbell, VP of Regulatory Affairs for Prismflex Inks (exclusive pad printing ink and screen printing ink distributor for Sun Chemical) and Designer Plastics (a custom pad printing business). "Although we feel that this type of advertising is important, we feel that it is more important for our Web sites to rank in the top ten listings on the more popular search engines." One of Campbell’s key strategies is to spend whatever money is necessary to achieve high rankings in the search engines, particularly Yahoo.
Budgeting for Web site marketing and maintenance doesn’t have to be expensive, though. "Creating and maintaining a Web site is a very reasonable proposition, unlike creating a new brochure which can cost thousands," says Trent Pepicelli, Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Innovative Marking Systems (IMS), distributors of Tosh pad printing machines. He spends one to two hours a month updating the IMS site, which he contends not only gives potential customers more information, but makes his company look more professional as well.
Both Pepicelli and Arnold maintain their companies’ sites themselves, which saves money and allows them to get information posted more efficiently. "We are able to evaluate, upgrade, and maintain our own site," says Arnold. "Aside from the occasional banner ad or professional programming that may be required, the only expenses are site hosting fees, domain name registration, and my salary. Concepts and ideas can change very quickly on the Internet. If a Web site is a vital part of the marketing for a company, then that company must have the flexibility to change its Web site strategy on very short notice."
Conventional marketing wisdom states that it’s far more expensive to acquire a customer than to retain the customers you already have. The watchword here is service. It’s no different on the Web. Getting potential customers to your site is only the beginning of good Web strategy. Keeping them there and following up with prompt responses to inquiries is critical to the culmination of a sales relationship.
Holding visitor interest is the first challenge in this two-pronged approach. Dot-coms, businesses that rely totally on Internet sales, understand that merely offering information and products online isn’t enough to generate business. They must make the experience of visiting their site interesting, engineering it so visitors will be pulled through the information they need to culminate a sale. The October 1999 edition of Cognitiative’s Pulse of the Customer report observed, "Web users remain loyal to sites that are familiar and easy to navigate. In addition, fast response times in terms of site performance and turnaround time in customer service are critical to brand loyalty retention. Poor technical performance—such as frequent downtime and slow download speed, outdated content and poor customer service—are the leading reasons given when Web shoppers defect to other sites." Delays can be deadly. Smart companies will do well to understand the limits of potential customers’ attention spans. "Our approach to our Web sites is to keep them simple," says Campbell, "construct them to load very quickly before the viewer loses interest."
In addition to creating a compelling experience, Windham recommends raising awareness to a customer problem that may be solved via your site. Pad Print Machinery tapped into this strategy with the creation of its Discussion Forum. "We felt that if someone, even if not a current customer, could come to our site and get answers to a question or problem relating to pad printing, then they would remember us when the time came to locate a supplier," explains Arnold. "Once we decided that this would be a good avenue to take, we went to work on [the Discussion Forum] and added it to the site within a week."
Another aspect of the "interest factor" is keeping your site updated with current information. The plastics industry professionals surveyed here report doing update maintenance at minimum on a quarterly basis and, on average, monthly. Daily monitoring, if possible, can be time well spent. "We check [the site] on a daily basis for form and functionality," states Arnold. "If something appears incorrect or could use a little tweaking, I fix it immediately. Another time that the site is updated would be when we have a new product or innovation we’d like to share with the world."
Response is the next challenge in our two-pronged, service-oriented approach to Web marketing. "Slow response times negatively impact users’ impression of business," warns Windham. Her research shows that customers expect prompt response to their queries, preferably within a few hours. "Our strongpoint is our E-mail correspondence," states Rottier. "We check E-mail six to ten times per day and reply accordingly. We utilize E-mail to send and receive artwork, digital photos, and PowerPoint presentations."
Pepicelli has his computer set to beep when he gets E-mail, and returns inquiries within an hour. Dave Miller, Sales & Marketing Coordinator for Deco Technology Group Inc., distributors for screen printing, pad printing, and hot stamping equipment and supplies, underscores the need for immediacy. "What’s the use of offering instant access to our corporate office via E-mail if we’re not going to respond in like fashion? If a company doesn’t intend to respond quickly, they might as well list only a phone number on the Web site," commented Miller.
But don’t overestimate the limits of E-mail. If users have learned as much as they can on your site and are ready to talk to someone in "real time," they should have easy access to a human being. "By no means do we want to treat the silent visitor with any less respect than the customer who’s standing on our doorstep," says Miller. "[A Web site] will never take the place of a firm handshake and smile, but there’s no reason that it should be cold and off-putting. If your Web site is easily identifiable, and if you’ve made it easy for the industry pro to quickly and easily find meaningful content on your site, then the next step, the phone call, is somewhat of a logical next step."
Let users know you welcome their communication—online and offline. Technology is a poor substitute when consumers have complex questions or want a more personal interaction with the companies they do business with. Encourage their calls and visits. It promotes trust—an essential ingredient in any successful business relationship. Rottier advises, "The biggest tip Kreative can offer to a company developing a Web site is to include contact information, phone, fax, E-mail, etc., on every page in the Web site." This eliminates clicking through page after page to find your contact information.
The future of Web site marketing is a promising one. Companies stand only to gain by improving their E-commerce capabilities. "If current trends in access and usage continue, the Web’s significance as a marketing tool should as well," observes Miller. "Given the relatively low cost of maintaining a presence on the Web, it would be foolish not to try and utilize it to its utmost potential."
Check out these websites:
Cognitiative – www.cognitiative.com
Deco Technology – www.decotechsys.com
Designer Plastics – www.designerplastics.com
Innovative Marking Systems – www.padprinters.com
Kreative Plastics, Inc. – www.kreativeplastics.com
Pad Print Machinery of VT – www.padprint1.com
Prismflex – www.prismflex.com