NEBS builds database with free Website offer

Sep 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

By adhering to the simple premise that if its customers can grow their businesses faster, it will reap rewards down the line, business forms cataloger New England Business Services (NEBS) this past April began offering a service on its Website inviting customers to create their own sites for free. And in the process of enticing the small-business customers it serves to fill out an online application listing the products they sell and their target customer base, NEBS is enhancing its own database.

“One of the secrets to e-commerce is to provide reasons for people to visit your site more often,” says Joel Hughes, NEBS’s senior vice president of channel marketing. “So we thought if we provided this free service to customers, they’d come to our site more often and perhaps find things of ours they need to purchase in the process.”

In partnership with Web developer Webnow.com, NEBS steers browsers from its home page to a submit form in which they must list a few basic facts about their businesses. Then users are guided to a four-page blank Website to create their own site. On the site, NEBS uses point-and-click technology to guide customers to templates for their free site. Each of the four pages has photos and boilerplate copy from which users can choose. Pages also have open text areas, in which customers can type relevant information about their companies, such as hours, services, products, and other details. Users also get their own e-mail setup.

>From upgrades to…tailored offers?

While NEBS offers the basic site for free, it promotes three upsell packages: “silver,” “gold,” and “platinum” services, which cost $9.95, $14.95, and $24.95 a month, respectively. With each upsell price level, customers can add their own photos, graphics, typefaces, and ultimately, online ordering. “If they want to put additional images on their sites or add more products, we can upgrade the sites for them,” Hughes says.

Though NEBS did not initially promote the free site service other than on its own site (www.nebs.com), as of July nearly 1,000 customers had found the free Website offering and had created their own sites. In August, the company began advertising the service in print. “I’d be disappointed if at least 10% don’t go for the site once we advertise it,” Hughes says.

Based on the knowledge gained through the Website promotion, NEBS plans to approach the firms that filled out the form and offer them upgrades and, eventually, products tailored to their needs from NEBS’s 8,500-plus SKUs. “With the information customers provide, we’ll have an understanding that will enable us to begin [customized] product development,” Hughes says.

For example, “some of our customers have already expressed the need for their own domain names and ways to attract people to their sites,” Hughes says. “We have an arrangement with the Yellow Pages to have our customers get their own Web domain name and have it listed under different Yellow Pages categories.” Also per customers’ requests, NEBS is building the capability for customers who pay for an upgrade to take their own orders and process credit card orders on their sites. And as another upgrade, NEBS is offering business-specific e-mail newsletters for Web customers to pass along to their customers – a value-added service in the $24.95 per month package.

E-marketing

By obtaining e-mail addresses from the businesses using its free Website service, NEBS will not only be able to nurture these relationships but also, it hopes, cut print mailing costs. NEBS is asking these customers for permission to contact them by e-mail rather than through the mail. Furthermore, “with a forthcoming privacy statement,” Hughes says, “we’re going to assure them that we won’t engage in renting their e-commerce names.”

How open are business customers to more targeted e-mail marketing messages from NEBS? “We’ve just begun the process, but so far, about 85%-88% are saying they’d agree to e-mail contact,” Hughes says. “This will give us the opportunity to cut back on the number of catalogs we mail while providing customers with the proper information.”

While e-mail contact will ultimately save NEBS money, it will also simplify the buying process for customers, Hughes says. NEBS plans to build its online database in two levels: an aggregate level, which includes all customers, to enable NEBS to develop products that meet the needs of different businesses; and a product usage pattern level. “Instead of receiving our catalog with hundreds of products, we could promote one product at a time via an online offering,” he says. “By looking at a pattern of product use by line of business, we’ll see the most recent product purchases and instantly offer a customer the next logical product to purchase online.”

NEBS currently has a database of 2.66 million customers. It had kept its Website customer records in a separate – but linked – database until August, Hughes says, when it combined them into one big database. Via this integrated database, the company will be able to see more easily how customers prefer to be contacted – and it will contact them that way. “It’s clear from their patterns of use that some of our customers prefer to speak over the phone to our product specialists,” Hughes says, “while it’s also becoming clear that some customers prefer e-commerce.”

The company started offering online ordering last January; Web orders make up less than 2% of all NEBS’s orders, Hughes says: “We process 50,000 orders a week through all channels combined, including those placed through our Website.”

As for the kinds of companies taking advantage of the Website offer, Hughes says they represent many types of small businesses. And so far, 30% of them are new customers for NEBS.