Customer Interface: Marketing Lessons From Award Winners

Some of Webmaster’s 50/50 Award winners can teach us a few things about marketing

When Webmaster editor Leigh Buchanan asked me to provide an opinion on why the Webmaster Top 50 external sites’ marketing strategies are smart, I was flattered. I was overwhelmed as well. Lucky for me she didn’t expect me to slog through all 50 sites. What a relief.

Giving serious attention to even five Websites would have required a significant amount of time and that is something none of us can claim to have in abundance. So I  have selected a couple of my favorite hobby horses and will let *you* go look at the fine examples selected by the Webmaster judges.


Building a Web site is writing a software application for strangers to use. If you don’t know the transactional goal for your site, it’s time to re-think your premise. If your intent is to draw traffic in order to sell advertising then you have a different problem than the rest of us. If you’re trying to educate people about your product so they can make a buying decision, then your transactional goal is education. If you want people to buy online, then your site is the point of sale and must be dealt with accordingly. If your Web site aspirations are to provide superior customer service, solving problems becomes your goal.

What makes for great Web site implementation, is the careful crafting of the site to match the stated goals.


Let’s start with the toughest problem first. How do you get people to your site and how do you get them to come back? Is that a problem we all share? Not necessarily. Most sites are not intended to attract the world. They live for other purposes. Mine ( is there for people who are interested in learning more and as a low-rent extranet file transfer engine. It’s worth its weight in virtual gold.

But the people at The Year 2000 Information Center ( depend on visitors and repeat visitors to drive the advertising engine. Here’s their recipe:

One hot topic that has everybody in a tizzy (The Year 2000 Problem)
One Year 2000 Guru (Peter de Jager)
A cup of new product and service announcements
A dollop of help wanted classified ad section
Two quarts of products that will help get us out of this mess
A pint of applications and development tools users’ groups
Three cups of assorted links to other helpful sites
Two pounds of archives
One finely sliced and diced search capability
Several places people can electronically gather to discuss their experiences

Stir well.
Bake with fast loading graphics
Dramatize the coming dilemma with countdown clock that changes by the second
Cater to your advertisers without losing people to vendors’ Web sites
Serve with undying attention to detail and a staff that understands the need for the site to be kept fresh.


If you want people to learn more about your products at your site, you could take a lesson from Kodak. Their site is pretty as a picture.

The problem they face, as all of us do, is properly segmenting their customers and catering to those segments discretely. There’s a world of difference between the family cameraman and the professional photographer.

This is where Kodak shines. They offer lots of product information for various types of customers. Depending on your interest, you can dip into Kodak’s Business and Industry section and find categories such as Government Imaging Solutions, Education Solutions, Health Imaging, Motion Picture and Television or Professional Imaging.

Kodak has also bent over backwards to provide an equally diverse set of road signs to help those customers find those products.

Alphabetical Product Listing
Product Families
Product Tradeshow Booth
Searchable Product Catalog

Besides all that, they’ve put their money where their Web is and are providing for snapshot delivery over the Web. Proof that giants *can* learn to dance, as long as they keep their eyes on hot shots like Photoworks.


Barry Diller wants Ticketmaster. Barry is chairman of the Home Shopping Network and is buying 47.5% of Ticketmaster from Paul Allen, investor extraordinaire and a long time Friend Of Bill. Barry is then rounding up a few more shares on the open market to gain that all important 51% control. Chances are good, a visit to Ticketmaster’s Web site ( helped clinch the deal. Barry smelled money.

I smelled money too when I visited. The ease with which one can find a favorite artist and see where and when performances will be, unequivocally puts Ticketmaster on the Webmaster Top 50 list. It sure beats the alternative. Sitting in line overnight in the cold and rain or having a long conversation with an operator-standing-by:

“But when are they going to be in Breckenridge?”
“Is that before or after Cincinnati?”
“How much is it to get right up front?”
“Are there any cheaper tickets?”

In seconds, you find out what you need and make a buying decision. That’s a good Web site. But it goes a bit beyond good. This is a site that has to cater to the widest possible tastes. Sure they have lots of tickets for lots of  events, but their promotional side offers contests to win tickets to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, a “behind the curtain” backstage tour of The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, as well as ringside tickets to WCW Wrestling in Chicago. Are you a parent? A ballet buff? A wrestling nut? They’ve got your number.

Want to get the cheapest airfare to get to your entertainment of choice? Ticketmaster has a deal with the Internet Travel Network (Are they trying to catch Barry’s attention as well?). It’s branded Ticketmaster, so you feel right at home, and it, too, is one of the easiest to use interfaces for getting the job done. It also is an indication that Ticketmaster understands the power of the Web. They’re not trying to do everything themselves.

OK, so it’s got, daily Top 25 lists created by users so you know what’s hot. So it gives you a head’s up on what’s going on sale every week so you’re not left at the end of the line without a ticket. So it has info on local restaurants, venue directions, parking, seating charts, news & interviews, T-shirts, caps, and CDs. So what? Got a teenager in the house? Keep him away from the credit card.

This site has star quality. It’s cool.

No, that’s not just my opinion. It’s validated by the man Time magazine calls “the Arbiter of Cool”: Glenn Davis. Glenn runs Project Cool and says the coolest business Web sites, “do an exemplary job of matching the personalities of their products with that of their website — and they do it in a graceful and entertaining way, with style. Each site also offers useful information about the company and its products, in a way that fits the tone of the site.” Glenn understands that enigma known as branding. So does Ticketmaster. So does Barry Diller.


If a company that makes it’s living selling Internet routers can’t use the Web for customer service, we should all just pack it in. Fortunately for those of us who love the Web and want to see it thrive, there’s Cisco Systems ( blazing a trail of superior service. Why is this a great marketing strategy? Because it adds infinite value to the product. Tell your prospective customer to see the level of Web support they’ll get if they buy from you and you’ll make them happier than if you send them a T-shirt.

Cisco has more customer services per surfer than any other site I’ve seen and if you disagree, I want to know about it. At Cisco you’ll find automated pricing, automated product configurator, a Software Image Library that contains hundreds of downloadable software files. You’ll find the Technical Tips and References section, a database of reported bugs. There’s the Upgrade Planner and the ability to download what you need for an Instant Upgrade.

Peter Corless, a Cisco Content Engineer likes to say that they are, “moving more from the Web as a tool, to the Web as a service, to the Web as a business.” In the process, he notes, they are making their customers smarter. They know more about the specific product they are using than a service rep who is responsible for a wide variety of gear. Further, they have access to the panoply of tech specs on the Web site. When they do send an e-mail or call, they’re looking for more than just speeds and feeds.

“The Cisco channel and support representatives have to step back from controlling — or bottlenecking — customer transactions,” says Peter. “‘Control,’ in the classic sense of the word, is not an option. Instead, they must become facilitators and escalation points. They need education on the mechanism the customer is using to obtain self-service. The need to learn it inside and out — from the customer’s point-of-view and the finer details of how the machine operates under the hood.”

Peter offers up his Six Keys To Customer Service Success:

Listen To Your Customers.
Take Steps, Not Leaps.
Watch For Changes In Your Customer Base.
Stay Flexible.
Ensure You Have A Support Plan And A Supportable System In Place.
Manage Your Growth Carefully. Use Statistics To Measure Your Success.


The people who built these Web site examples all share one thing in common. They had a clear picture in mind of what they wanted to get out of it. So if you want to attract attention, educate potential customers, or provide customer service, you need to take different approaches from the get-go and your success will be measured very differently. On the other hand, if you want to provide great point of sale and sell lots of stuff, you’ll know you’re doing the right thing when Barry Diller comes a calling.