Micro Managing

Since the late ’90s, multichannel merchants have had seared into their brains the phrase “The competition is just a click away.”

Fair enough, but more and more, marketers are discovering that something close to the opposite is also true: A new storefront is just a microsite away.

Marketers are finding that by launching so-called microsites, they can defend their market share against more-nimble, single-product marketers; they can inexpensively test products or lines; they can tailor narrow segments of their offerings for specific market niches; and they can extend their brand in ways not possible on their main Website.

Mike Abney, director of e-commerce for Covington, KY-based online-marketing consultancy DMinSite, defines a microsite as “one piece of the total site that is exhibited as a stand-alone site.” It can exist within the main site or have a different URL altogether. Mark Wachen, chief executive of New York-based Optimost, which specializes in optimizing online conversion rates, says a microsite “is more than one page, but it also has its own navigation scheme that’s separate from the parent site.”

Swatting away the “net gnats”

Positive Promotions sells a wide range of cause-related promotional items, from embossed water bottles and lunch bags to imprinted pens and balloons, to market special events, education, and awareness. The Hauppauge, NY-based company in July launched PositiveBCA.com, a breast-cancer awareness microsite, as an offshoot of its core site, PositivePromotions.com.

“We reach a lot of different markets,” says Joseph DiLeo, e-commerce manager for Positive Promotions. “You can try as hard as possible to satisfy all the different markets in one site, but ultimately they have to come to a home page, and that home page has to serve everyone.”

In the case of Positive Promotions, professionals looking only for healthcare-related products could get lost in the main site. “In order to target some of our bigger markets and make them feel more at home, we decided to experiment with microsites,” says DiLeo.

As of mid-September, PositiveBCA was too new for the company to quantify its results. But DiLeo says it is pleased enough with the effort that microsites for other segments are definitely in the works.

DMinSite’s Abney says that microsites are a great way for larger companies to compete with what he calls “net gnats,” small single-product online merchants working on home PCs who may be unable to offer the level of customer service of a larger competitor but nonetheless can nibble away at its market share.

“Those guys will do a very simple HTML site, but because it’s simple, it might get indexed really well and show a lot of relevance to the spiders [programs that crawl the Web looking for pages to feed the search engines] because it only has one product line,” Abney explains. “I may be able to take better care of that customer long-term, but if that customer never finds my site, or if he finds a site that’s more appealing for his first order, I may never get a second chance at that guy later on.”

Because microsites are typically dedicated to a narrow product or service line, Abney adds, they can come up higher and more frequently in search engine results than the main site would under the same searches. “It appeals more to the spiders to have a microsite,” he says. What’s more, a microsite will also often look more relevant to people shopping in a specific category. “It looks like a storefront,” he says. And by all accounts, because microsites are more focused, they typically produce higher conversion rates than a company’s general site.

Put it to the test

Microsites also allow multichannel merchants to test brand extensions and experiment with merchandising and brand positioning in ways they wouldn’t have dared attempt back in the days of print-only cataloging. For instance, Optimost’s Wachen says, “if you want to test a new navigation scheme or a new way to emphasize products or product categories, you can create a microsite to help you understand the dynamics of those things before you make the investment to do a complete site overhaul.”

Microsites can also be ideal for testing marketing messages for new merchandise. “Say a company is launching a product and they haven’t nailed down the marketing message,” says Wachen. “Instead of going full tilt and committing to a road on which it will be difficult to do a U-turn, it can create a microsite and test options there.”

At the same time, microsites offer marketers a chance to introduce people to other categories of products and services they may not know the merchant offers, says Abney. Then once you have that customer in your database, you “can expose them to other product lines as well.”

Going micro

Abney’s advice on what marketers should make the focus of their microsites is fairly simple: “Overall it should be where you’re getting the most competition.” He advises conducting Web searches on your biggest merchandise lines and categories to determine where a microsite may be able to help you retain or gain market share. “See what competitors pop up,” he says. “You need to compete with those guys.”

Specific product lines and categories often form the basis for a microsite. Microsites can also be event related. For example, a retailer of entertaining products or party supplies might create a Fourth of July Headquarters or a Super Bowl Party Center as a microsite. A password-protected microsite just for wholesale customers is another option. Microsites aimed at international audiences that process transactions in foreign currencies are also possibilities. “I can set up a microsite for the euro or the Canadian dollar,” says Abney.

Woodworking tools, parts, and accessories merchant Eagle America created a microsite specifically for its lower-priced items. The Chardon, OH-based company sells its higher-quality, more expensive products on EagleAmerica.com and its less expensive products on PriceCutter.com.

“PriceCutter looks a lot like Eagle, but the items sold on the PriceCutter site are much less expensive,” says Abney. “Eagle is where they sell their ‘better’ and ‘best’ products, speaking from a Sears point of view, and PriceCutter.com is where they sell their ‘good’ and ‘better’ products.”

The creative and navigational similarities between EagleAmerica.com and PriceCutter.com speak to an issue that often arises: how prominent the core brand should be within the microsite. Most believe that a microsite can only benefit from the goodwill and reputation that the parent brand has cultivated.

St. Louis-based Nu-Era Group is a case in point. During the past year the merchant of retail fixtures and accessories has been redesigning Nu-Era.com to include a series of “boutiques” selling products for specific types of retail operations. As a result, shoe-store owners can shop in an online boutique just for them, one that’s stocked with mannequin legs, wire shoe racks, and shoe mirrors. Operators of dollar stores, meanwhile, can find utility carts, point-of-purchase displays, and portable “dump bins” on another Nu-Era microsite.

The strategy makes it easier for specialty retailers to shop. “We figure if they’re a jewelry-store owner, let’s put all the jewelry stuff in front of them,” says Christopher Weiss, Nu-Era Group’s director of e-commerce. “Why make them wade through a bunch of stuff that obviously isn’t for them and isn’t going to convert as well for us?”

The company considered launching the boutiques under new URLs but in the end decided to keep them under the Nu-Era umbrella. “We really didn’t see a reason to water down the brand,” says Weiss.

Conversely, if a microsite isn’t maintained with the same energy and attention to detail as your core Website, it could end up weakening your brand.

“You can’t just put a microsite out there, give it a different URL, give it a different look and feel, and expect it to take off,” says Abney. “If you’ve got a specific group in mind, you have to market to that group. You have to optimize, you have to do paid search, and you have to promote it.”

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