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Expanding Your Product/Service Applications Using Your Web site

Many engineering companies find themselves with a product or service serving a mature market segment. They are weary of battling entrenched competitors for a few percentages of market share and are looking for new applications of their product or service. Let's say you have been building mission-critical programmable-logic devices long enough to see their unit costs drop as you grew better at producing them. At some point, you will wonder if the cost-effectiveness of your design has now allowed you to be competitive selling devices into applications below the Mil-883B spec. You dispatch your marketing people to start searching for application fits, but the possibilities seem endless and each possibility requires cultivating an entry and an application understanding. Now you can use your Web site to gather application candidates as easily as you gather customers.

In the service sector, you could have accumulated libraries of device-driver code for medical instrumentation or simply the experience to program them well. How can you find the product-design team in Korea with a device-driver problem for an automotive application that would be your next great expansion?

After you master this technique, you will realize why you are unlikely to read much about other companies employing the technique. Companies reveal their plans and expansions into new businesses sectors about as easily as gold-rush prospectors reveal how and where they found their half-pound nuggets. This is why the closest example we have permission to relate involves a titanium-casting manufacturer. Perhaps by not being too close to the trees, you will see the forest.

Williams Titanium Group focuses on the concept-to-completion of titanium castings. They have design resources that can transition a stainless-steel part into titanium, foundries that can be matched to production requirements and even a marketing team that can help the customer leverage the advantages of titanium. Having spent years becoming a leader in titanium golf clubs, Williams Titanium Group successfully expanded into the emerging areas of titanium racing wheels.

"We knew we could apply our expertise to other titanium applications," says Brad Schmall, President of Williams Titanium Group, "but we didn't have the resources or the time to explore the many application opportunities."

Williams Titanium Group began with a simple but effective Web site introducing the company and providing an "Ask the Expert" online form whereby visitors can describe a candidate-application problem for suitability to titanium. From there, the approach diverged from conventional Web site designs.

Step one was to brainstorm a list of the possible benefits of titanium from the obvious corrosion resistance to its unfamiliar bio-compatibility. The list can begin with bullets on your sales brochures and go to something one of your engineers heard. Through an analysis removing synonyms and breaking out multiple benefits hidden under a generality, a list of clear, standalone benefits emerges. The focus is to use object-oriented thinking to develop Web pages of product/service benefits that can be mixed and matched independently to support any titanium application. Each such benefit page is enhanced with supportive statistics, graphics, test results, etc.-often over time. The first cut yielded a dozen core benefits and another dozen appropriate only in unusual circumstances.

Step two was to develop a Web-page template for candidate applications. This began with a page for golf clubs in the unlikely event that there was a prospect in that mature market that Williams Titanium Group didn't know about. The core of the template was a bulletized list of relevant titanium features, a.k.a. benefits, linking to the benefit pages produced in step one.

"How about scuba-diving knives?" an engineer asked. "The strength-to-weight ratio applies when you consider tired divers swimming with the weight strapped to their calves."

Going down the list of benefit pages, the engineer added corrosion resistance to the applicable benefits but not bio-compatibility. Minutes later, the template yielded a couple of sentences alerting the reader to the applicability of titanium to scuba-diving knives, four benefit bullets linking to detailed supporting information, and a link to the "Ask the Expert" form for visitors with a scuba-diving-knife design on their hands. The first cut yielded about 60 application pages, and a methodology that can add another just minutes after someone has the idea.

Step three was to place each benefit page into the appropriate section of the main Web site search directories from Alta Vista to Yahoo. There is a methodology to obtaining the desired categorization from the various Web site directories (to be covered in a subsequent article), but the end result was that an engineer tasked with a scuba-diving-knife design could enter relevant keywords in a Web site search directory and get a list that included the matching page from Williams Titanium Group. Such a specialized match was guaranteed close to the inquiry, and without the need for the user to navigate down from a general-purpose home page. Of course each benefit page had a link up to the Williams Titanium Group home page.

"There may be an obstacle to titanium scuba-diving knives that we don't realize," notes Schmall, "but what better way to find out than by running the idea by the millions on the Internet?"

"Consider the alternative," notes Stu Hinrichs, an engineer at Williams Titanium Group. "I would have to research scuba-diving knives. Our sales guy would have to find knowledgeable people in the scuba-diving-equipment business, convince them to consider titanium, and then perhaps be told they'll give us a shot -maybe next year when there is a redesign window for the diving knives."

An "Ask the Expert" inquiry can be an end run to the whole process yielding a dialog with a qualified prospect with a concrete, near-term opportunity to test the titanium application.

The last step was to produce a page organizing the many benefit and application pages. Consider that there is no justification to do this from the home page in the conventional top-down design of most Web sites. Visitors groping about for titanium-application ideas are likely to be students or competitors. Customers tend to know what they want and only want to know if you can solve their problem. A Web page listing the growing collection of benefit and application pages by cross-indexed categories is all that is needed to manage future additions and modifications. Williams Titanium Group employees simply bookmark its page name and review it if they have an application idea. Traffic reports by benefit and application pages also provides an indication of which areas justify a more active marketing effort.

"Are we spamming the Web site directories by listing so many of our subordinate pages?" asks Schmall. "Or are we improving the effectiveness of the search directories by connecting their users directly to what they seek without a home page getting in the way?"

The end result for Williams Titanium Group is that they do more than prospect for customers on the Web - they also prospect for ideas.

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