Internet Basics for Catalogers

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I was reading an article the other day filled with great advice about the nuts and bolts of the catalog business. But what really struck me wasn't what the author had written -- but what he hadn't. The following words never appeared in the article: Internet, home page, e-commerce, e-mail, URL and online.


The author never wrote a word about catalogers having a presence on the Internet; and in these days of skyrocketing Internet growth, these are vital issues. So here are some questions that catalogers should be asking about their Web sites and their use of the Internet.


Are you driving traffic to your site? According to researchers at International Data Group, Boston, the average cost of building an e-commerce site is $6 million. And just because you have a Web site, that doesn't mean people are going to visit. You have to drive people to your site. Look at what the major Internet players like Amazon, Yahoo and Priceline are doing: They're spending millions of dollars on mass media just to drive traffic. While most catalogers can't afford those kinds of media buys, there are some fundamental things you can do.


Your Web address should appear in all of your materials. That means every page, every order form should have the URL for your site. But that's not enough. You also need to find ways to capture the ever-changing attention of the Web audience.


One option is using affiliate programs. In these programs, you put banner links on other sites with content that appeals to your target audience. Finding the appropriate sites is hard work, and you usually pay for customer referrals. But if the program is structured properly, your cost of customer acquisition can be kept at acceptable levels.


There are companies like LinkShare, Be Free and Dynamic Trade that specialize in affiliate programs and can help you with yours.


Today, more catalogers are considering the use of an opt-in e-mail service to drive traffic. With an opt-in e-mail program, you e-mail promotions and offers to prospects who have already asked to receive them. If handled properly, this type of program has comparatively low costs with a high return on investment. But be careful. There is no industry-wide definition of "opt-in," and some companies aren't all that they claim to be. If you get in the wrong program, you could find yourself labeled a spammer, a reputation killer on the net.


Are you integrating e-mail into your marketing mix? There is nothing more important than getting the e-mail address of the people who visit your site. Many still argue that the Web site is not a storefront. It isn't just a window peek through as they are strolling around the Web. It's a gateway into the homes of your customers and you need to use it as effectively as possible.


To acquire e-mail addresses (and permission to use them) you should give the Net user something special. Unique one-time offers, previews of upcoming products or sales, regular updates on your particular industry -- give them something that will catch their interest, promote your product and drive traffic to your site.


E-mail also is a powerful market research tool. Like the telephone, you can use e-mail to qualify leads and conduct research surveys. You will find that the "answer a few questions and get a special offer via e-mail" approach is an exceptional way to gather information from your customers.


Are you protecting your customers' privacy? Along with spam, privacy is one of the biggest concerns of the online consumer. The home computer isn't a mailbox to be filled or a phone to be rung; it is a very personal space for most consumers. They do their finances, track relatives' birthdays and write love letters on their computers and consumers get very angry when they think that space is being violated.


To gain the trust of your customers, be sure to post a clear-cut, simple-to-understand privacy policy prominently on your home page.


A strong catalog privacy policy should include information about how you disclose customer information to third parties, whether you sell or share e-mail addresses without prior authorization and a description of the technological tools being used to maintain the security of any information being transmitted.


You need a privacy policy, if for no other reason to tell your customers that when they get a piece of spam (and nearly everyone does), it wasn't because they used your Web site.


Which leads me to a final point. The beauty of the Internet is that it's interactive by nature and convenient to use. But that also means your Web site users are always a single click away from someplace else. To keep their interest, you have to constantly provide something new, something different, in an easy-to-use format. Otherwise, in a flick of a finger, your customer is going to be off to someone else's site.


So remember, without efforts to review, maintain and drive traffic to your site, you are just a drop of water in the ocean that is the Web. But a well-used, well-maintained Web site is the perfect addition to the cataloger's portfolio of product marketing and delivery options.


Ian Oxman is president of ChooseYourMail.com, Chicago.
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