By Peter Shikli, P.E.
After converting the company brochure into a Web site, many engineering managers are making a disquieting discovery- their Web site is one among millions and their web developer is talking about how to make the Web site entertaining and engaging in order to stand out. These managers doubt that customers will ever be coerced into revisiting the company Web site by animated graphics and interesting sound bites that take forever to download-and they're right.
There are many better ways to attract Web site visitors-and one of the cheapest and most effective is to use a Web site as a lead generator for your electronic newsletter.
Begin by recognizing that engineering customers are more likely to be business or technical people with more money than time, and that they don't look to your company for entertainment. "Our customers look to us to save them time by giving them information," says Mike Slaby of Sun-Ag (www.sunag.com), an engineering company providing liquid and vapor pollution control products and services. "Such customers don't have the time to keep coming back to our Web site to see if there is anything new."
Now for the good news- it is significantly cheaper and more effective to push information to busy people in order to maintain marketing visibility than to pull them in to revisit your Web site.
Engineering professionals seek fast information on specialized topics. By collecting and distilling such specialized knowledge and then communicating it to an audience that finds it useful, an engineering company can attain an effective mix of marketing and consulting. This balance, which is easy to arrange and almost free to maintain, should be one of the primary missions of a well-engineered Web site.
The approach begins with a Web site that establishes credibility in a specialized field, often with little more than a bulleted list of capability statements that are so specialized that one of them is exactly what the Web site visitor is dealing with. A "more information" link then provides an on-line form for standard information such as name, address, phone, and e-mail address. The form could also have pick lists to help categorize customers and their interests. Of course, the site should be well-placed with various directory services (Alta Vista through Yahoo) for easy access.
Once you have a growing mailing list (a.k.a. lead list), servicing it is easier, faster, and cheaper than any paper newsletter. You can establish a mail group for each area of interest and add e-mail addresses to each group as you get sign-ups. Unlike paper newsletters, which require extensive layout design to present the right company image, e-mail is simply text. You don't spend hours working with fonts, columns, and clip art.
Electronic newsletters also save the money it would cost to send paper newsletters through the mail. In addition, paper newsletters take an average of one week to prepare; e-mail messages are prepared in under an hour and delivered in seconds.
Here are some practical tips from the lessons-learned department:
1. Be brief. Rule number one in addressing busy people is to keep your e-mail message to a paragraph or two. Provide links to detailed messages on your Web site.
2. Be direct. Your Web site doesn't have to convince visitors to sign up. Visitors arrive knowing what they want and if you have it, they sign up-sometimes right from your homepage.
3. Specialize. Your Web site visitors already subscribe to trade journals and professional magazines. Resist the urge to cast a wider net with sign-up categories like microelectronics, which is serviced by dozens of quality magazines.
4. Lose the bulk mail stigma. Call the sign-up something like "Electronic Bulletin Sign-Up," give frequent options to reverse a sign-up, and never sell e-mail addresses.
5. Avoid regularity. There is no need to commit to a weekly or monthly delivery like a magazine. Why collect stories or bulletins when it is more useful to send information as you get it?
6. Use full signatures. Unlike the body of your message, your signature need not be brief. It should provide your name, company, phone number, e-mail address, and Web site address. You can also include a note reminding readers that they can use the "forward" button on their e-mail software to "cc:" your message to a colleague.
7. Convert from paper. If you have an existing newsletter or other paper-based bulk mailing list, include a sidebar giving readers with e-mail addresses a way to convert to your electronic bulletin format. You save money and they get the information sooner.
8. Simplify, don't qualify. Review the questions you pose on your sign-up form to see if any of them are holdovers from the days you had to qualify prospects to justify the cost of sending them brochures or newsletters. Your incremental cost of adding an e-mail address to a mailing group is zero.
9. Be ready to scale up. When the audience grows beyond a few hundred, invest in a professional-strength e-mail program, such as Eudora Pro, and mail-merge tools, like Arial's E-Mail Merge or Softquad's NetMailer, which allow you to personalize each message. Take a look at the listserv systems used by newsgroups to service hundreds of thousands of members.
10. Watch for the bad guys. As with your regular bulk mail, assume your competitors are subscribing and are out to steal your subscriber list. With e-mail, this means never sending a message with your target group in the "To:" or "cc:" fields of the message-use the "bcc:" field instead, or a mailmerge tool that produces individual messages.
Peter Shikli, P.E. is founder of BusinessWare, a Web site development and Internet marketing firm in San Clemente, California, and chairman of the Internet Consortium of Orange County. He can be reached at 949/369-1638, ext. 77 or through Bizware Online Applications.
Copyright 1998 National Society of Professional Engineers