Sharpen Your Site's Ability to Collect Data

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To maximize the power of an offer, smart marketers are combining offers across media. A simple postcard, letter campaign or full-blown catalog can work wonders in driving the right people to visit and return to a Web site. And because you cross media, you earn extra points for legitimacy and taking advantage of push as well as pull attractions.


To stage this kind of campaign, a site should continually collect data on its users through Web contact and feedback forms. There are several important considerations in the construction of such a form:


• AutoComplete: Make sure that your form works properly for users of the AutoComplete feature (also known as "autofill") of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. This is a big data entry timesaver that users really appreciate. The AutoComplete fields key off the labels given to the fields, so be sure the fields are labeled sensibly. Furthermore, Microsoft has introduced special tags that tie form fields directly to the user's vCard. Use these to extend the power of AutoComplete.


• Validation: As the data are collected, they should be validated for completeness and formatting. Client-side validation can be performed using JavaScript, whereby the data are evaluated before being returned to the server. Server-side validation is more reliable and the validation failure message is more customizable.


In the end, it's generally best to use a combination of server-side and client-side validation. And remember - it's not enough to have a good-looking form; it also has to work reliably. Extensively test your validation performance. Leave selected fields blank and try to submit the data. Validation failure messages are a corner often cut by a rushed designer.


• Free research? There is probably a lot most of us would like to know about our customers. And though it is tempting to ask everything on a form, there are a few reasons not to use this format for a mini-focus group. First, the more questions asked, the more likely it is to hit a user's hot button. (Some users will react violently to demographic questions such as household income or whether there are children at home.) Second, a long form, even one gathering nonsensitive information, can be a big turnoff. As a rule, I never like to see a form that is more than a screen and a half long.


• Required fields: If you choose to ask for demographic data beyond that needed to qualify the request, don't require customers to answer. Instead, clearly indicate which fields are required and which are optional.


• Open-ended questions: If you plan to include a space for open-ended questions from your users, be prepared to answer them. You may think of the form as the front end of a database - data go in and sit there until you are ready to act on them weeks, maybe months, later. Your users, however - if given an opportunity - will ask any manner of question or make an important request. Their expectations will be that these comments will be read and acted on.


• Incentives: You will get more people to tell you more about themselves if you offer an incentive, such as a chance to win something or buy something at a discount. Proceed carefully, though, or you may find yourself flooded with unqualified submissions from users who found your site via a third-party site specifically dedicated to free offers, contests and coupons.


• Auto-reply: As soon as you receive the submission, send an auto-reply to the e-mail address supplied. It will serve as a further check on validation. If the e-mail you sent bounces, you can purge the record from the list right away. Moreover, it builds legitimacy as your brand or offer crosses from one medium (Web) to another (e-mail). It also serves as a reminder to return to the site. Users may not have bookmarked your site, but now they have your info in their inbox. Finally, the auto-reply gives you a last chance to up-sell or underscore your message.


• Privacy statement: Explain simply and clearly how the data submitted will be used. Also consider being an early adopter of the World Wide Web Consortium's Platform for Privacy Preferences Project. Your P3P statement also will explain how the data will be used - not in English but in an extensible markup language format that the next generation of Web browsers will support. If part of your plans for the collected data is to share it with other mailers, indicate this clearly and give users a chance to opt out.


• It really is a World Wide Web. Remember that the first "W" stands for "world." If you are not prepared to fulfill requests from all over the world, make it very clear upfront.


• Browser information: Each time a browser makes a request of a Web server, it tells the server a little bit about itself. Included in this information is the "user agent" string. Your site already may report on this information in your site's traffic report. It is also possible to capture this information as the site's forms are submitted, revealing details such as the operating system, system version, browser and browser version used by your customers. Tying this information to the other fields in a user's request can help tailor future messages and is invaluable for troubleshooting.


By following the tips outlined above, a site can be well on its way to establishing its own user database of mail and e-mail contacts, suitable for building online communities and keeping the site's message in the top of mind.
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