Advisers offer e-commerce assistance at conference

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— Resort business owners should engage an architect before taking on a building project, Jerry Nichols told a Steamboat audience this week. But bricks and mortar were the furthest things from his mind.

Nichols is vice president of an e-commerce consulting company based in Avon. He told a group of about 65 attending the e-Commerce Expo and Conference 2002 at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort and Conference Center that the rapid evolution of e-commerce calls for more sophisticated Web designs. Successful e-commerce sites today need the help of a specialist called an information architect.

"The money spent on an information architect will produce more results than anything else we can do for a client," Nichols spoke on the topic: "Integrating an Internet Strategy into your Business."

Nichols is Vice President of Resort Technology Partners LLC. His company provides technology-based products and consulting services to the hospitality industry. Frequently, the company builds and redesigns e-Commerce Web pages.

Even the smallest companies cannot afford to do without an information architect, Nichols said. Without one, the chances that prospective clients will be converted into actual customers are reduced.

Information architects are experts at structuring Web sites so the visitor arrives at the point of purchase, Nichols explained.

"We want to make (customers) go to where we need the results," Nichols said. "Our customers are a lot like you businesses in the resort industry. Most of our clients are in Eagle and Summit counties."

Many of RTP's customers are in the lodging industry, but everyone needs an architect, Nichols said. When West Vail Liquors came to his firm with a $2,600 budget for a redesigned Web site, he urged them to spend $350 on an architect.

Before redesigning a Web page, Nichols said, a Web development team needs to revisit the client's business plan and evaluate how it fits with the existing Web site. The business plan becomes the guide for the redesigned site by suggesting the company's top priorities. Failing this approach, it will be difficult to integrate an Internet strategy into the business, he said.

Web Searching

Even the most fully integrated Web page will fail to produce results if people are unable to find it, and search engines are the key, said Les Reaves, also of Avon and a presenter at the conference.

Reaves said the puzzle of solving "search engine positioning" has changed dramatically in the last year.

Three search engines, Yahoo, Google and MSN combined to include 85 percent of all domestic searches in the country.

Google is the only one of the three that is still free, and that makes it attractive, he said.

"Google is the engine all of you should be concentrating on," Reaves urged.

The bidding wars for key search words and phrases at search engines like Yahoo have grown increasingly competitive, with commercial Web sites bidding up to $1.50 per click for the key words they believe will deliver customers to their sites.

E-mail Marketing

Brian Elliott, technology manager for Steamboat Resorts/The Resort Company, and Marlene Wuest, online marketing manager for the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., presented conference goers with some other strategies for building loyalty to Web sites.

Wuest confessed that spam e-mails are the bane of her existence, accounting for up to 95 percent of the contents of her in box. However, she firmly believes that e-mail marketing campaigns are among the most effective ways there are to build on the success of a Web page.

"E-mails are more effective than direct mail," Wuest said.

The foundation of any e-mail strategy, she said, is to build a permission-based opt-in mailing list. Don't send unsolicited Spam, Wuest urged. Ask your target customers first if they want to receive your materials. In fact, ask twice.

"Eighty percent of e-mail users have granted permission to advertisers and marketers to send them material," Wuest said. "Spam causes a negative reaction to your brand."

Proper ways to get data for e-mail marketing lists, Wuest said include utilizing a box on the Web page, and leveraging existing marketing. For example, asking permission to e-mail on a direct mail piece.E-mail lists can also be built at trade shows, or by encouraging people currently on your list to forward messages to friends.

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