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Spice up your Web site

Posted Sunday, April 20, 2003

I recently ran across a photo of two women in regal red robes surrounded by the terra-cotta warriors of Xian, China. What they are reverently holding is not an ancient Oriental scroll, but a bottle of Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay.

This is no random vacation snapshot. It's a photo of the winners of Cakebread's annual photo contest, as featured on the Napa Valley winery's Web site.

Each year, Cakebread Cellars encourages wine lovers to send a photo of themselves enjoying Cakebread wine in some exotic or interesting locale. Winners receive a weekend stay in Napa Valley and dinner with the Cakebread family. Winning photos are featured at the winery and on the Web site, suggesting that Cakebread drinkers lead adventurous, well-traveled lives.

This is just one example of the many marketing ideas small businesses are incorporating to build their brands, to encourage visitors to come back to their Web sites and to connect with customers. Here are six clever ideas to spice up your Web site, as exemplified by some creative small businesses across the country.

1. Hold contests. Several business Web sites, like Cakebread's, use contests to get readers involved and to help build their brands. Surfboard and clothing manufacturer Rusty recently held a contest to promote a new girls' surfboard. Customers submitted an original surfboard design, and the winners had their designs reproduced on a Rusty Girl surfboard. Rusty received 500 entries from all over the world. "It ended up being a huge success for us," says Carrie Ortiz, girls marketing manager at Rusty. Ortiz said the contest was part of an effort to use the company's Web site to build brand recognition and have "people educated about who we are and what we are about."

Contests also can be effective for building an e-mail database for marketing and for drawing traffic to your Web site. http//, an online retailer of boxer shorts, runs a monthly contest to give away a free pair of boxers. Owner Scott Marino says it has been very useful for bringing visitors to his Web site. Marino has listed the contest with several sites that promote free offers, and uses an affiliate program to get other sites to promote it. People who enter the contest are added to http//'s marketing database and Marino sends them e-mail with special promotions and new boxer designs every four to five weeks.

2. Use online surveys. Real-time surveys are another way to capture visitors' attention. has a cheeky survey on its home page, featuring a celebrity underwear question. The current survey asks whether George Clooney would look sexier in boxers, briefs or nothing at all. (Results: The boxers narrowly edge out the birthday suit.) It's a clever survey and Marino is contemplating a survey later this year about presidential candidates and their underwear.

Marino encourages visitors to send the underwear survey to a friend, making it not just a brand-building tool, but also a customer acquisition tool. Marino promises not to spam those to whom the survey is forwarded, but he can hope that when they visit his site to check out the survey, they'll be inspired to buy some boxers too.

The survey concept works for many kinds of businesses, and just by the questions you ask, you can make some clear statements about your business. http//, a site devoted to motorized parasailing, surveys visitors regarding the time of day they prefer to glide, whether they fly alone and whether they fly with a reserve chute. The company also uses the survey to ask demographic and marketing questions about age and level of interest in a magazine about powered parasailing.

Compare that to the tongue-in-cheek survey that Rogue Ales offers up to beer drinkers, asking their views about how to form a "Rogue Nation." Questions range from "Should lawyers be allowed to become citizens (of the Rogue Nation)?" to "Should men's synchronized swimming be allowed?" People might not fill out the entire 60-question survey, but just glancing through it gives a pretty good sense for the irreverent, independent brand that is Rogue.

3. Feature customer contributions. Another entertaining way to build brand awareness and forge customer involvement with your products is to encourage users to contribute to your site and to feature their stories, photos, artwork, etc. http// uses this strategy on its home page, featuring visitors' paragliding photos. It posts a new photo on the front page each week and has a gallery of prior photos. Another site featuring visitor input is Fly in the Soup, a Web site for people in the restaurant industry. The site offers up a selection of visitor-generated horror stories about working in a restaurant. Many are amusing, although most will cause you to think twice the next time you are tempted to be nasty to a waiter (who holds the power to lace your food with undetectable foreign substances). Some of the stories are painful to read, prompting the conclusion that featuring only the "best" stories or photos may be a better strategy. If you are selective about the customer content you show, this can be a great way to add interest to your site and build a community without jeopardizing quality and brand image.

4. Answer questions on your site. If you have a particular expertise, answer visitors' questions on your Web site and encourage people to e-mail questions to you. It can be a good way to acquire new customers and to build a reputation as a helpful, caring company. Roger the Plumber in Kansas City answers your plumbing questions on his Web site, and owner Roger Peugeot says the ploy has delivered some great customers. "We get people who will ask two or three questions... then the next thing I know, they're inviting us to their houses (to give an estimate)." "Ask Roger" is part of an overall Web site design that creates an image of a business you can trust. After reading about Roger's "Pipe Dreams" and seeing photos of his team — which he introduces as "The Bathroom Boys" — you walk away thinking that you'd feel pretty good about calling these guys if you needed plumbing. If your bathrooms are in Kansas City.

5. Give 'em games. If you want to get customers actively involved in your business, try an online game. Check out the Plant Game at http// In what the company gleefully calls the slowest game on the Internet, flower lovers can care for a virtual plant for 16 days by watering it, spraying it for bugs and shading it when the sun gets too hot. It's sort of an online gardener's Tamagotchi for "plant knuckleheads," as CEO Ben Swett fondly calls his typical customer. The game has a few unexpected surprises, and some visitors got so passionate about their virtual sunflowers that http// opened an e-mail support group for those whose flowers didn't fare well. One customer bemoaned his sunflower's demise by asking, "HOW DID THIS HAPPEN??? I definitely need support. I'm DEVASTATED." How's that for customer involvement? http// makes it easy to send the game to your gardening geek friends, hoping to pollinate the gardening market with a bit of viral marketing.

Just as unusual, if not more so, is the Oracle of the Three-Headed Floyds at the Three Floyds Brewing Co. Web site. The game, a sort of online Magic 8 Ball where you can pose questions and receive inscrutable or bizarre answers, is very consistent with the outlandish, colorful brand image that CEO LeRoy Howard says is important for Three Floyds to stand out from the crowd.

6. Offer live chat events and interviews. A few small businesses are starting to host live chat events or online interviews on their sites. Chef Talk, a site devoted to professional and aspiring chefs, recently held an online chat with Anthony Bourdain, author of the behind-the-scenes tell-all book, "Kitchen Confidential." The chat is a bit difficult to follow, but those who participated seemed to get a kick out of hearing Bourdain's musings. The event was a first for Chef Talk, and owner Nicko Sahlas is pleased that more than 40 visitors participated in the event. He plans to continue the online chats with well-known chefs and hopes to expand the audience as the events become more established. It's worth recognizing that setting up a chat event isn't for the faint of heart. Sahlas says it was tougher to coordinate than he'd expected. Chef Talk had to buy chat software, make sure its servers could handle the load, coordinate schedules with Bourdain's tour dates, sign sponsors to help cover the cost and co-promote the event and have multiple people coordinating the event itself. He calls the chat event "a really nice way you can give back to your community," which for Chef Talk is the professional chefs who visit the site regularly.

These six ideas can build repeat traffic, connect with customers and turn your Web site into an effective brand-building vehicle. As Howard of Three Floyds puts it, the Web site is "our biggest piece of advertising." Putting these ideas to work for you can help maximize the effectiveness of that ad.


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