Put Some Sizzle into Your Online Relationships!

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Valentine's Day is the most important "relationship day" of the year, so what better time to discuss the state of your online relationships with customers and prospects? If they're like your human relationships, chances are they could use at least a little recharging.


It doesn't take a sociologist to figure out that most online relationships --especially those involving businesses trying to "get closer" to their customers and prospects -- are often less than fulfilling. A lot of talking past each other (via huge quantities of Web pages and banner advertising in one direction -- and unanswered e-mails in the other), and not enough serious discussion, passion and honest feedback.


After all, online relationships are really human relationships. Or, at least they should be, since humans are creating the Web pages and advertising, and ultimately trying to sell products and services. One useful way to explore the state of your company's online relationships is to apply the same terms we use to examine serious romantic relationships.


How effectively are you communicating? Communication, as we know from long and hard experience, is the key to success in all relationships. Effective communication isn't just something that happens between two people. It grows and blossoms over time, as individuals learn each other's needs and wants. You move from one stage to the next. Naturally, you may have arguments and disagreements along the way, but successfully handling those bumps can help solidify the relationship.


The same thing occurs in the online world. Just because you come up with a glitzy new design for your Web site, or decide to spend $2 million on a banner ad campaign, doesn't mean you are communicating effectively with your constituencies. In the online world, an initial stage of the relationship -- asking for a first date, as it were -- may involve alerting prospects via direct (snail) mail to visit a particular Web site, at which point you request the prospect's e-mail address. In exchange for getting the address (equivalent of the date's phone number), you agree to get back in touch anytime you have something worthwhile to discuss, like news about new products or educational information about your industry.


As you come to know each other better, you reveal more about each other. A customer may ask for information about the particular features of a product you sell. You respond with an explanation about the product's materials, and a discount coupon if he or she buys by a certain date. IBM's Small Business Center (www.ibm.com/smallbusiness) does a particularly effective job of engaging visitors, and prompting through the "first date" phase with offers of online resources for small businesses, the opportunity to get business questions answered by experts via e-mail, and the chance to sample IBM Web-design and hosting products.


How well are you anticipating your partner's needs? This can be a tough one in our conventional world, because it often involves relying on intuition and guesswork. If you arrange for a romantic weekend in Bermuda just when your partner is feeling most stressed out, you may well have come up with the right antidote, or you may discover that a weekend at a spa in Arizona might have worked better.


In the online world, it's much easier than in the conventional world to anticipate the needs of customers and prospects. That's because you have (or should have!) huge amounts of data that tell you about their interests and needs. For example, a bank issuer of credit cards e-mails "How To" articles about accessing the best online travel deals on a monthly basis to its customers that use their credit cards extensively for travel. The bank knows for sure that travel is important to the recipient, and depending on further responses, can hone in on the interest -- low-budget versus business travel, for instance.


For many companies, the challenge isn't to accumulate the data -- it's sitting there on database servers somewhere -- but to have systems (and people) in place to help make sense of it, and then to use it appropriately to extend relationships.


How committed are you to the relationship? In our daily world of serious relationships, commitment is expressed in any number of ways -- by being attentive to the other person, by making time for the other person, by being there in both the good and bad times ("in sickness and in health"). Of course, you in return want similar expressions of commitment from your partner.


On the Internet, it's often easier to demonstrate and expand commitment than in the real world. A company that has its act together on the Internet can make sure to continually extend its relationships with customers and prospects. Thus, Lexmark, www.hpc.lexmark.com, the maker of computer printers, works to reward every expression of interest by a customer with something tangible and of value. As customers send in their completed warranty cards, they are offered opportunities via e-mail to access informative articles about using all the features of their printers. As they make purchases, they receive discount offers on related and upgraded equipment.


What is your sense of accountability? At certain points in all relationships, the participants ask themselves how it is working. Ideally, in our real world, they talk things out when there are bumps in the road.


In the online world, accountability is something we fathom by examining the numbers. But which numbers really tell you about the strength of your online relationships? Such statistics as page views and click-throughs tell you only how many potential candidates are out there to have relationships with. The statistics tell you nothing about who you are relating to and the strength of those relationships.


In the end, of course, it's the return on investment numbers stemming from your online activities that tell you about the strength of your relationships. But there are any number of other metrics along the way that provide important insights about how relationships are proceeding-- things like the number of recipients of your online newsletters who are clicking through, what they are clicking through to, the demographics of those who are clicking through, the number of responses to specific online promotions, and so on and so forth.


Symantec, www.smallbiz.symantec.com, the maker of security , communications and contact management software tools, has been able to monitor its relationships with thousands of small businesses by measuring their use of e-mail newsletters, online self-help articles and purchases resulting from its activities for nearly two years.


Certainly, there are other aspects to successful offline and online relationships. Accountability, follow-through, respect, creativity and, yes, romance all help foster successful relationships. In the online world, companies need to continually discover new ways to enhance and expand their relationships with their customers and prospects. After all, relationships that aren't nurtured whither and die.
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