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How Marketers Can Tap the Web

Running online marketing programs to communicate with customers can be a lot of fun, but requires careful planning and tools to track success. And there are best practices marketers can use to improve the content, reach and impact of Web communications.

First and foremost, a professional Web site with a consistent design and look with easy-to-read text will help attract and retain visitors. Although 63 percent of consumers and small business owners turn to the Internet first for information about local companies, and 82 percent use search engines to do so, only 44 percent of small businesses have a Web site and half spend less than 10 percent of their marketing budget online, according to research from WebVisible and Nielsen.

Virtually all your prospects will view your Web site before considering your product, and it will either help move them forward in the buying process or turn them away. So instead of considering your site an online brochure, think of it as a lead-generation funnel.

Presenting a clear explanation of what you do for customers means writing Web content that is compelling and informative. Keep text error free and focused on the customer to improve relevancy. Remember, visitors want to know "what's in it for me?"

Site navigation should be easy, and contact information or contact links should be clearly visible from every page. Make it as easy as possible for potential prospects to know how to reach you at any point during a Web site visit. Additionally:

-- Be sure that your 'contact us' page is easy to find -- on the top of every single page on your site.
-- If you have an online contact form, keep it short.
-- If you include images, be sure to Web-optimize the size so they load quickly.
-- Triple check links to ensure the site is working properly.

For any busy distributor and retailer, keeping the company Web site up to date is a challenge.

"We have a vast array of information and we needed a way to share it with co-op members, partners, employees and retail customers quickly," said Tom May, director of marketing for MFA Oil Co. "With our diverse audience, we want to make sure our Web site caters to each person. Some visit the site to learn about our locations and products while others are more interested in company news or our newsletter. We also can share information about our scholarship and grant programs and monthly specials and coupons for our three retail store brands."

A Dynamic Portal

Giving customers and prospects a reason to return to your site means providing fresh content on a regular basis. This turns your Web site into a portal, which provides your business partners secure, on-demand access to business information, applications and services needed to conduct day-to-day business with you.

Portals with snap-in communication and messaging components can help resolve customer disputes, which have grown with intra-day prices and more effective product expansion. You can also communicate product availability during times of tight supply.

According to Cathy Duncan, executive director of marketer solutions for Telvent DTN: "Limiting the work required by your IT staff -- whether you're looking to build a new Web site or expand your existing one -- gives you the ability to provide benefits to your customers without the need to take on expensive, time consuming, and oftentimes risky, software development projects. Look for vendors who deliver Web-based portal solutions that eliminate the need for huge IT projects, high on-going maintenance costs, or changing your business processes."

"We think it's important to share valuable content with customers and prospects who are visiting the MFA Oil site," said May. "My team can now open the 'admin tool' and easily make changes to text or pictures, then click 'submit.' Our site is instantly updated. We have a lot of value-added information on new refined fuels products, such as biodiesel, ULSD and E85 and we are continuously adding information. It is important that my team is able to make the necessary changes immediately, without having to know HTML code."

Best Practices

Consider creating value-added editorial content, such as starting a blog or an e-newsletter, to generate leads for your business. Social media tools also provide delivery channels for this content, and give you an open channel of communication with your prospects and clients. This is a value-added marketing strategy whereby the more you give, the more you get. Devote enough time and resources to accomplish your goals, and don't participate in this type of strategy, unless you are committed to providing the time and resources to do the job right.

Defining and measuring success allows you to gauge your effectiveness and make adjustments as needed. Metrics to consider include: activity and engagement (number of members, posts, comments, links, etc.), and revenue and business development (new leads, conversions from community, number of referrals, etc.).

Track the percentage of visitors that become leads by comparing the numbers of online contact forms, inbound calls and customized e-mail responses to the number of Web visitors, as well as the number of people that view your 'contact us' page. By tracking lead-generation efforts, you will be able to pinpoint the initiatives that are working the best and focus more of your energy on those. You might decide that others aren't worth your time.

"We use forms to make it easier to get feedback from our customers and generate new leads," said May. "We think our Web site makes it easy to do business with us. Customers and prospects can really find out who we are. We provide multiple ways to get in touch with us to foster better customer communication. Everything we do on the site cross-promotes the sales programs for our business units."

Reporting tools let MFA Oil see how many people are viewing the site, which pages are being viewed most often, and how long a person stays on the site. "I'm digging into traffic information to fine-tune the site and make it even more effective for us," said May.

Kate Fredrickson works on marketing programs for the Energy division of Telvent DTN. She is currently building a new Web site and implementing a value-added social media strategic plan.

Omaha-based DTN, a division of Telvent, is the leading business information services company focused on agricultural, energy and environmental markets. For more information about DTN visit www.dtn.com or call (952) 851-7216.

— Nielsen Business Media