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    Interactive tools to enhance your website

    Feature, Marketing | September 1, 2009 | By:

    Reach out to your website visitors with interactivity.

    Increasing numbers of users view the web as a second home where they spend hours each day interacting with friends, colleagues, clients and customers. It just makes sense to tap into the many tools available to make your business’s site work harder for you.

    From quotes to conversations

    Every good e-commerce site includes some basic interactive tools. A simple form customers can use to secure quotes is a good start, as well as a means to do basic ordering via your website. Customers also appreciate a simple way to locate dealers for your products, and a “My Accounts” domain to track orders is also important.

    If your company does a lot of custom graphic work, a “Send-a-file” option can save you and your customers hours of time finalizing an order. Kevin Kelly, president of Yeadon, Pa.-based Globe Canvas Products Co., regularly accepts graphics files of custom prints that customers want for fabricated awnings.

    “By allowing our customers to send graphic files right over the website, we avoid the problems associated with sending graphic files by e-mail,” Kelly says. “Sometimes very large graphics files don’t transmit well over services like AOL.” You’ll also want an extremely powerful search engine that customers can use to find highly specific information. Google offers a free search engine for this purpose, which you can embed on as many pages of your site as you’d like. Other search engines can be custom made for your site by your site designer, or found on the web with keywords “free website search engine.”

    Another basic interactive tool is live chat, which enables your customers to communicate with you over your website via live, text chat. By simply clicking a button on your website, waiting for a text chat box to pop up on-screen, then typing their message, customers can begin a text chat with your representative.

    Most live chat solutions include an audio alert, which tells the responsible representative at your organization that someone is on the website and wants to text chat. You can find scores of live chat solution providers by entering “live chat” in any major search engine. One of the most sophisticated packages (and most expensive) is LivePerson.

    With these basic interactive tools in place, you can begin beefing up your site with more sophisticated offerings. Or course, not all of the more sophisticated tools will work for all businesses. An awnings manufacturer primarily targeting the 45-and-older crowd, for example, may not need the latest in social networking tools, but a maker of wildly colored backpacks looking to appeal to the 20-something-and-under crowd will likely find social networking tools well received in that market.

    With those caveats, creating a customer community forum on your website can be a wise move for many specialty fabrics businesses as a place for your customers to congregate virtually to talk about your products and service. Some customers could even become “evangelists” for your brand.

    “It’s a good time to become a niche, online community and do it right,” says Don Philabaum, CEO of Internet Strategies Group, a Richfield, Ohio-based consultancy that helps retailers build customer communities. “You have millions of people who have learned the value of being a part of an online community, and they’ll bring experience, enthusiasm, content—and their network—to your online community.” The basic web hosting package your company uses may already include an entry level tool you can use to create a community forum in minutes. For more sophisticated solutions, you can also check out companies like Communispace and WebCrossing.

    Online reviews

    One of the most popular forms of online communities are customer review forums, which enable consumers to offer unvarnished reviews of goods and services. While often showcased on retail sites, many of the reviews for these communities are also garnered by manufacturers, who then redistribute the reviews to the websites of all the retailers who sell their products online. “Of all the social networking tools, we see web reviews as the most attractive,” says Ido Eilam, CEO of Malden, Mass.-based Sunsetter Products, who adds that his firm may add web reviews to its website in the future.

    Short term, allowing customers to post both positive and negative reviews may cause queasiness for many specialty fabrics manufacturers and retailers, but over time, uncensored reviews—both good and bad—should engender much greater trust for those products, according to proponents.

    Moreover, recent research also indicates consumer reliance on online product reviews on the web has reached a tipping point. Indeed, a 2008 study released by Opinion Research found that 83 percent of all online consumers say online product and service reviews influence their purchasing decisions. And 32 percent of the same group said they had personally posted a review or feedback online. These days, customer review forums can quickly be fashioned by a web designer with a little tweaking of a standard-issue community forum. Turnkey solutions are also available from Bazaarvoice, KudosWorks and Zuberance.

    Networking for business

    Once you’re in the social networking space, you’ll also want to establish a presence or page on major social networks like MySpace and Facebook. There are also thousands of smaller, more narrowly defined social networks, some of which serve your specific market. You can find these on any major search engine using keywords that include your product, along with terms like “social network,” “community” and “discussion board.”

    Currently, one of the hottest social networks on the web is Twitter. Twitter’s design is a bit different from an everyday social network. Instead of being a website you can visit, people interact on Twitter by signing up to “follow” a particular person or company, and then reading short messages associated with that person or company that are “dumped” on a shared web page. Essentially, it’s a lot like sharing the same e-mail box with many other people who are following an extremely narrow topic, and watching what messages come in.

    Like most social networks, Twitter has its own culture and unspoken rules that need to be learned, but for some businesses, learning the ropes has paid off. So far, organizations that have had the most success with Twitter are using it to solve customer service issues that are publicly aired and publicly solved, and tap consumers for quick feedback on new product and service ideas. Some, who have an avid and substantial number of “followers,” are able to spike sales by offering Twitter discounts on goods and services.

    Once you’re comfortable with basic social networking, you’ll want to move on to embedding many of those same social networking tools in your press releases. Known in the industry as Web 2.0-Enabled Press Releases, these news breaks feature the same text you’d ordinarily include in a press release, along with tools that enable readers to comment on your press release online, e-mail the press release to a friend or bookmark the press release with one of the many social bookmarking services now popular on the web.

    “There has been a ‘sea of change’ in how the press release is viewed and utilized,” says Paolina Milana, vice president of marketing at Los Angeles, Calif. -based Marketwire. “The once 400-word all-text release has evolved into an interactive tool that incorporates multimedia elements, social media tags and bookmarks, in-release performance stats and feedback mechanisms.”

    Personalize it

    Another text-outreach tool that has been used with great success by many businesses is the personalized e-mail letter or newsletter. These marketing tools are created by personalization software, which incorporates a number of personal data fields associated with a customer into each e-mail letter or newsletter sent. Such tools can be used to create an e-newsletter, for example, that features a customer’s name, location, past purchase history and the like. Essentially, any data field you track about each customer can be dropped into an e-newsletter boilerplate.

    Often, e-newsletter personalization tools are included with the contact management software businesses use. Stand-alone solutions include Broadcast and Email Marketing Director.

    Fortunately, many of the aforementioned tools can be found as one bundle offered by solutions providers specializing in customer relationship management (CRM). Some of the least expensive solutions include those offered by AppShore, SalesNexus, Commence; and eSalesTrack. For a fairly thorough overview of the entire CRM solutions industry, check out the free white paper, “Top 40 CRM Software Vendors Revealed–2009.”

    Joe Dysart is a speaker on Internet business topics and business consultant based in Manhattan, N.Y.; +1 646 233 4089.

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