Microsites Emerge as Powerful Tools

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As Web-based business-to-business marketing continues to evolve and offer much more targeted approaches for reaching customers and prospects, look for microsites to play more important roles in overall integrated online marketing strategies.

What is a microsite? A microsite is a focused Web environment that uses a limited number of Web pages to create a comfortable, carefully tailored, easily navigable experience for visitors. Online showrooms and storefronts used in Web-based exchanges are examples of microsites.

What are the benefits? The inherent simplicity and standalone nature of microsites have made them an affordable, flexible and effective BTB online marketing tool. Microsites are easy to build and maintain because they don't need to be tightly integrated into corporate Web sites. They can be brought to market quickly because they are based on a campaign premise rather than a long-term company strategy. In many cases, microsites can be created without tapping the company's information technology resources.

Microsites are also effective for tracking Web traffic movement without hefty technology investments. On a corporate site, the process of sifting through multiple log files to track users' experience and interest in a product or service can be daunting. In contrast, campaign-specific microsites allow marketers relatively easy access to data that show which particular information was of value to the user. With basic levels of reporting, marketers can determine where visitors tend to go and which media placements were most effective. This reporting enables the marketer to develop a better understanding of customers and prospects and make a more accurate assessment of relevance of information and strength of design.

Why a direct, relevant tactic? To better understand the growing usefulness of microsites as marketing tools, it first helps to think of BTB marketers as having progressed through three distinct approaches to the use of the new online medium.

Marketers first employed the "build it and they will come" approach, characterized by developing a corporate Web site and waiting for visitors to flock to the information available on the site. The next approach, "advertise and they will come," put the emphasis on using online and offline advertising to draw visitors to the company's Web site, where more meaningful marketing information was available than ever before. Now, an additional strategy is being embraced by successful BTB marketers: "Go where the customers and prospects are." This tactic is designed to reach customers and prospects when they are in a "for-work" mode, where they are most engrossed on the Web.

This fresh approach to online BTB marketing arises from important insights about the way BTB customers and prospects are using the Web. Marketers have learned that for-work users of the Web tend to be focused and task-oriented in their surfing activities. When online, business users generally have a task to complete or information to gather. This means business users are likely to respond more positively to online marketing initiatives they see as helping them complete the task at hand than they are to marketing messages they see as deflecting them from their work.

The increased emphasis on being sensitive to context and to the user's "work ecology" plays right into one of the key strengths of microsites: A well-developed microsite can enable a marketer to speak directly to the target audience and be in tune with that market without taking those users away from current tasks.

Applications. Consider how a targeted, context-specific microsite can be extremely effective with a business user who is visiting a trade publication Web site to gather information about, say, pollution control equipment, or who wants to catch up on the latest news in the plastics industry. Up pops a banner ad from a vendor who is offering additional information related to the search the visitor is performing or the news being scanned. And when the user clicks on the banner, the link connects to a targeted microsite that offers links to white papers, case studies and other information sources likely to be of interest and use to the visitor.

The key is that the prospect isn't simply being hustled off to the main corporate site for a pure sales pitch that interrupts the work. Instead, the microsite can actually help prospects continue their tasks, as well as add value to them.

For instance, in conjunction with a new line of storage products, IBM developed microsites that provided links to relevant white papers, case studies and product information. In similar fashion, Microsoft effectively incorporated microsites into the overall online marketing initiatives that supported the company's launch of Internet Explorer 4.0.

The advantages of microsites go far beyond their suitability for serving as contextual bridges. Microsites also have been used in connection with trade show activities, including driving booth traffic and attracting prospects before and after the show.

Microsite applications in this arena include providing users with product previews and validation to be redeemed at the show for a premium item; in tandem with a direct mail piece featuring a trivia question with answers available only on the microsite (to be redeemed at the booth for a premium item); and as an interactive medium for advance appointment scheduling with company representatives.

In all of these cases it is crucial to include appropriate microsite URLs in all marketing collateral, prints ads and direct mail pieces.

Put it all together, and it is clear why microsites are becoming more popular and cost-effective marketing vehicles in the online BTB world. As business marketers find it increasingly important not only to deliver their messages to the for-work user but also to weave them contextually into the users' work initiatives, the popularity and effectiveness of microsites should continue to flourish.

• Karen Breen Vogel is vice president of marketing and e-business development at B2Bworks, Chicago.

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