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Soft Selling on the Back Porch

Sometimes a little back porch advice can go a long way, according to a num-ber
of e-commerce sites that have added ‘Ask-The-Expert” forums to their marketing
mix. Based on the premise that friendly answers to Web cruiser questions
can only lead to new business, a number of ceiling and wall contractors
have created online advice forums that to add human voice to their Web
image-and revenues to their bottom lines.



As you’ve probably surmised, Ask-The-
Expert forums are basically Q&A
pages where customers can go to post
questions and get answers posted in
response by a company expert. CoCo1
(www.coco1.com/art_library.asp#), for
example, offers an online forum where
wall and ceiling contractors can post
their expert advice in response to Web
visitor questions. And Service Magic
(www.servicemagic.com), an online
directory that matches contractors
with homeowners seeking improvements
or repairs, offers a similar service
on Expert Home Advice
(www.experthomeadvice.com/walls-ceil-ings/
removing-wallpaper-and-textured-paint.
html).



There are others. Jim Neidner, a longtime
builder/contractor answers consumers
ceiling and wall questions—along with a
host of general building and remodeling
questions—on SuperHomeCenter
(www.superhomecenter.com/sh_main.htm), a home improvement information
clearinghouse. Design Manifest Remodeling Contractor
www.designmanifest.com/services.html) offers expert
answers to Web cruisers via e-mail. And
GreenHomeBuilding.com (www.green-homebuilding.
com/ask_the_experts.htm),
an info clearinghouse on environmentally
conscious construction practices, offers
similar advice and insight from more
than two dozen building contractors and
related specialists.



Generally, these types of expert advice
forums are a breeze to set up. More often
than not, a company Web designer
needs to do little more than post a picture
of a company expert on an Ask-The-Expert page, add a little back-ground
text describing the employees
expertise, and presto—an online expert
is born. Web cruisers are invited to send
in questions, and before you can say
“return-on-investment,” an new revenue-
generator is born.



Moreover, while setup costs are minimal,
payback can be substantial. According
to Internet marketing analysts, the
best Ask-The-Expert services can generate
multiple, ever-growing communities
around a Web site—communities that
represent an enthusiastic following of
pre-qualified, potential customers who
often become volunteer company evangelists
in the process.



Often, these Ask-The-Expert services
start out as extremely low-maintenance
projects, with the company Web designer
manually uploading questions and
answers onto Web pages every few days.



But once traffic starts building, companies
generally upgrade to bulletin board
software that is designed to automatically
maintain such forums. Using such
software and services, people can come
and go, post questions, post answers—
and start conversations based on the
Ask-The-Expert Q&A—all with virtually
no intervention needed from the
company IT department.



You can try out such bulletin board packages
for free at the Free Bulletin Board
Software Directory (www.email-addresses.
com/emai-bb.com), where
you’ll find free software and services like
Quicktopic (www.quicktopic.com),
Bravenet (www.bravenet.com/samples.
forum.php), Everyone.net Plug-In
Community (www.everyone.net/com-mun_
tour.html) and Voy (www.voy.com).



Or, you can sample some of the more
sophisticated, fee-based bulletin board
solutions, including WebCrossing by
WebCrossing (www.webcrossing.com)
(starting price: $295) and Web board by
Akiva Idea Technology (www.akiva.com)
(starting price: $995). Such advanced
programs offer an exhaustive array of bells
and whistles, including full-text search of
all posts with phrase and Boolean searches
and automatic suffix matching, real-time
instant messenger add-ons, as well
as the ability to import and export large
groups of users for use on mailing lists
and with other marketing tools.



Either way, once you’ve established your
Ask-The-Expert forum, you can look
forward to the following marketing benefits,
according to Internet analysts:



A more intimate connection with your
customers. While company Web sites
are often understandably designed to
wow and overwhelm visitors with a
company’s technological prowess on the
Web, Ask-The-Expert forums enable
company personnel to get up-close-and-personal
with customers and cruisers.
Gifted company experts have the ability
to establish an informal relationships
with their forum base, and, over time,
are often seen as friends first and company
representatives second.



A medium to pinpoint your company’s
identity, mission and culture.
Companies
with especially adroit company
online experts realize that the personality
of the expert and the company’s identity,
mission and culture are often perceived
as one in the same. Freewheeling
or conservative? Progressive or prudent?
Flamboyant or reserved? Simply pick an
online expert who can reflect the identity
you’d like to create, and you’ll be able
to reinforce your message on a daily
basis.



An easy way to spike mailing list subscriptions. There are few things Web
consumers appreciate more than straight
advice about the products that interest
them. Establish a reputation for offering
those straight answers in an Ask-The-Expert
forum, and you’ll have no problem
signing people up for a company
mailing list that focuses on the same. Of
course, once you have that mailing list
up and running, there’s no harm in
weaving in a little news on new products,
discounts and special promotions.



A tool to sharpen your company’s marketing
message.
Over time, your company’s
marketing department will be
able to distill flaws in the company’s
marketing message, simply by studying
the underlying pattern in the questions
consumers are asking. Obviously,
repeated questions voicing confusion
about the same facet of your company’s
products or services will highlight what
needs to be changed.



A way to take the pulse of consumers’
needs and wants.
Ten years ago, most
companies probably would have done
handstands for a virtually cost-free service,
which could automatically monitor
and store data on consumer sentiment
regarding their products and
services on an ongoing basis. And they
probably would have done cartwheels
for a system that could also automatically
feed those sentiments into a highly
manipulable database, which could
analyze that data based on virtually any
combination of variables. Fact is, such a
system is here: an Ask-The-Expert
domain tied to an everyday company
database.



Higher search engine returns. As many
Web marketer know, one of the primary
ways to get the attention of the search
engines is to offer deep insight into a
very specialized interest area. Design
your Ask-The-Expert domain as a clearinghouse
of information on an extremely
specific special interest, and you’ll
soon find your site appearing higher up
in search engine returns. Search engines
reward sites that give back useful insights
and information to the
Web community, so why
not make your site one of
those, while reaping
increased sales in the
process?





Enhanced industry credibility.
This is an often
unforeseen benefit of an
Ask-The-Expert forum. Initially, your little Q&A domain may
not seem like much. But over time, you’ll have built an extremely
thorough knowledge base that will begin generating its own
traffic. Simply by stopping by your Ask-The-Expert forum,
industry trading partners will be reassured that your company
truly “knows its stuff.” Ditto for television, radio and print journalists,
who are always on the look-out for highly credible news
sources that can be quoted as highly recognized industry authorities.



About the Author

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based
in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

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