As the editor of CATALOG AGE’S quarterly I.MERCHANT supplement (and as someone who sees little need to leave the house now that I have Internet access), I visit dozens of Websites each month. Most of them, I’m sorry to say, don’t make the most of the tools that are unique to the medium. Many catalogers feel that just having an online presence is enough, and if they offer online ordering, that’s a bonus.
But the Web is a distinct medium from print catalogs, and to succeed online, you need to adapt your print book to take advantage of its benefits (immediacy, unlimited space) and downplay its drawbacks (poor visual quality, potential for technological snafus). And the best online marketing concepts enable you to do just that while achieving your primary goal: boosting brand recognition and revenue.
THE TOP 10 1. Search engines. You sell widgets? Include the word “widgets” in your Website’s meta tag (the words inserted in the description and keywords fields at the top of an HTML document). Your Web address should then show up whenever Web surfers input a request for “widget” into a search engine such as Yahoo!, Excite, or the dozens-if not hundreds-of other engines in cyberspace.
Even better, a number of specialized search engines exist exclusively for catalogers. With names like Buyer’s Index, Catalog City, and Catalog Link, they’re bound to attract Web surfers who are interested in shopping-not just those who entered the word “dog” in a broad-based search engine and came up with your veterinary supplies catalog when what they really wanted were sites of dog breeders. These catalog-specific engines usually enable users to search by product category and sometimes even by specific product (say, “dog bed”) as well as by specific catalog title. And while they can provide direct links to a catalog’s Website, these engines can also collect the names of catalog requesters-making them an important prospecting tool for marketers that aren’t yet online.
2. Online malls. Similar to the better catalog search engines, which provide links to participating catalogers’ Websites, online malls are one-stop shopping sites that host a variety of tenants. If you already have a freestanding site, you can link it to an online mall for what’s usually a low fee. CyQuest Online Specialty Malls, for instance, charges only $20 a year for a reverse link to and from an online catalog and one of its malls. Online Sports, another specialized mall, charges $100 a month for a link to your site, listings in the appropriate category locations within its site search engine, and access to a secure server for transactions-a nice way to dip your feet into the Internet commerce pool if you don’t yet offer online ordering.
If you’re after a highly targeted audience, a specialty mall (such as CyQuest’s astronomy mall) may be the way to go. But more generalized malls, such as Go Shopping Online, allow browsers to “accidentally” stumble upon your brand. By offering functions that let Web surfers browse by category or function, online malls can attract shoppers who have never heard of your brand.
3. Affiliate programs, like online malls, can expose your brand to prospects. In such programs, you link to another site, to which you pay a commission for all sales generated by that link. Internet bookselling behemoth Amazon.com is most closely associated with affiliate programs, and for good reason: Its links pop up everywhere. Amazon.com numbers among its thousands of affiliates fan club sites, dog breeder sites, childcare and healthcare sites-even an obscure site devoted to writer Emily Bronte.
Affiliate programs are ideal for marketers that, like Amazon.com, sell broad-based products. But specialty catalogers could benefit too-though they don’t appear to be doing so. For instance, a sweep of nearly a dozen sites about dogs produced not one affiliate tie-inwith a pet supplies cataloger. Tsk tsk!
4. Online communities. Most Web merchants also appear to be overlooking the value of online communities-a shame, given that they’re an ideal way to encourage repeat visits and engender brand loyalty. Seed cataloger W. Atlee Burpee Co. has taken the concept to heart, though. Its Burpee Neighbors page invites customers to submit stories and photos about their gardens, with the cream of the crop posted each month. Burpee also solicits gardening questions from customers, which it answers with the help of the National Gardening Association. Subjects of general interest are included in the online library, but Burpee also promises to send a personal e-mail reply within 48 hours-a clever way to build an e-mail list while establishing a reputation as a gardening authority and as a company that cares about its customers.
You don’t have to be a big-name player to establish some sort of online community. Nancy’s Notions, which sells needlework supplies, features a bulletin board in which crafters can share problems and success stories; Red Oak Deer & Fence, a Texas supplier of hunting and fencing supplies, also has its own message board.
And you can expand the definition of online community beyond that of providing a give-and-take among customers. New England Business Service (NEBS) doesn’t offer any sort of bulletin board for its customers, which tend to be small businesses. But it does feature an online library of articles on management, marketing, and similar topics, as well as what it calls “interactive tools”-quizzes on subjects such as branding that allow users to determine whether they need help in those areas.
5. E-mail newsletters are a natural outgrowth of online communities, in that they bring the community-and your catalog’s brand and selling messages-to the user. Once a week, online music marketer CDnow sends subscribers a listing of sale CDs, promotions, and newly released titles. Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel site sends out a daily newsletter that highlights four or five bargain trips or fares and includes a reminder that the site now also books trips.
You need not commit yourself to sending newsletters regularly, however, to take advantage of e-mail marketing. You can send messages periodically to announce new offerings or special sales-an ideal way to rid yourself of overstocks.
6. Auctions are another simple way to get rid of overstock. Online computer merchant Egghead.com makes its intention plain with the name of its online auction site, Surplus Auction. But allowing shoppers to bid for merchandise has other advantages; it encourages repeat business and builds a sense of community. In fact, several computer catalogers, such as Micro Warehouse and Creative Computers, have created online auction sites (Web Auction and uBid, respectively) that sell vacations, jewelry, consumer electronics, and other merchandise besides computers-a savvy means of capturing prospects who may want to buy computers down the line.
7. Online-only product promotions. If you make them a regular feature of your site, Web-only specials encourage users to return to your site regularly. What’s more, the immediacy of the Web lets you dispose of the excess inventory much more quickly and cheaply than producing a special sale print catalog.
But you needn’t limit online-only promotions to overstock, particularly if your goal is to drive traffic to your site so that you can reduce catalog mailings. Pet supplies cataloger R.C. Steele, for instance, includes a free dog or cat toy with every online purchase; Grandparent’s Toy Connection discounts online orders 5% and includes a free gift.
8. Online contests and sweepstakes. In April, golf products marketer Golfsmith, which sells to retailers and consumers, promoted two sweepstakes on its home page. Business-to-business customers (golf equipment makers and retailers) could enter to win a set of graphite shafts, used in manufacturing clubs; consumers could register for a drawing of clubs and other gear from manufacturer Taylor Made. Because contestants had to submit their street and e-mail addresses, the contest was a painfree way for Golfsmith to build its e-mail list. The dual contest also enabled the cataloger to separate its consumer and b-to-b names. And entrants are likely to visit the site again, to check out future sweepstakes.
9. Online questionnaires and registration. In its online catalog request form, teen apparel marketer Delia’s asks for the prospect’s birthdate as well as the usual address information. This information allows Delia’s to send an e-mail birthday greeting to the requester, which works toward building brand loyalty and good will, and also enables Delia’s to assess the age range of its customers. This strategy could help the cataloger decide whether to produce a spin-off (say, geared toward college-age students once a significant portion of its current audience ages beyond the teen years), for instance, or to expand its product offerings.
Along the same lines, b-to-b marketer Dental Supply House asks visitors for their title, so that it can ascertain whether it’s the dentist, the dental assistant, or the hygienist who has the buying authority, and how they found the site (links, ads, search engines, referrals), which will help it refine its marketing plan. Incidentally, Dental Supply House encourages registration by offering first-time buyers a discount off their second order. If you’re trying to collect data-especially anything beyond the basic address-offering some sort of incentive is bound to boost participation.
10. Reward programs, such as ClickRewards and MyPoints, work like frequent-flier programs: Shoppers earn points for every dollar they spend with participating merchants. With ClickRewards they can redeem the points for air mileage; MyPoints lets them redeem the points in merchandise from participating marketers. Such programs do more than encourage shoppers to return to your site; because the programs send out their own e-mail newsletters promoting the participants, you can reach prospects you might not have access to otherwise.
These frequent-buyer incentive programs, then, can help you achieve several goals-as do most of the other Internet marketing tools. Whether you want to drive traffic to your site, increase brand awareness, turn inventory faster, or reduce mailing costs, at least one of the top 10 Internet marketing techniques can help. And since relatively few Websites seem to be taking advantage of them, if you try them now, you’ll be a step ahead of the competition.