Creating an Online Identity

Online companies are putting branding to work with remarkable success. "The Internet helps promote companies' products in a very efficient manner and especially to all audiences in all parts of the world," says Dettore. "Typical advertising media hit only a segmented or regional strategy, so the Internet is one of the most cost effective ways to brand."

Kosgrove says that companies that want to build their brand online may actually have an advantage over brands in the physical world since there is the opportunity to start freehand have new associations. "Any long established brand has had bad experiences, and there are mistakes that have been made in the past," he says. "Whereas if you are fresh and new, you have a clean slate."

In short, e-branding is very important and must be taken into consideration. John Lynch, from Synnetry, an online marketing firm says, "Sites need to be branded so that the consumer can have confidence in the site and is willing to make a purchase there."

Some tactics to build an online brand include:

1. Selection and speed
Online brands don't usually tout themselves as cheap. The main benefit is that they are going to be fast, and they will have a large selection.

That tactic is certainly true with large online stores such as Amazon, "The World's Largest Bookstore." The company can't offer the warm, friendly environment that Borders can, says Kosgrove, but they can promise to ship you the book of your choice practically overnight.

2. Customization
Another way that brands can differentiate themselves is by providing online customized solutions and products for visitors based on information that they plug into registration forms.

The Web allows companies to take on new edge or benefit that a company would not be able to use in the real world. For instance, a pet food brand on the store shelf does not have many choices about the positioning of its product. Online, however, a company can brand itself as more than just a dog food supplier, but rather as an animal nutrition expert, says Lynch. The site can walk visitors through a personalized analysis based on the animal's needs and activity level.

Once the information is entered into the database, answers are compressed, data is cross referenced, and information telling you which formula of food your pet should be consuming is spit out. "Then it isn't just a bag of dog food, but nutritional care for your animal," says Lynch.

There is no way that a pet food company would be able to gain that brand identity in the real world. "What pet store owner is going to carry that message for the ped information telling you which formula of food your pet should be consuming is spit out. "Then it isn't just a bag of dog food, but nutritional care for your animal," says Lynch.

There is no way that a pet food company would be able to gain that brand identity in the real world. "What pet store owner is going to carry that message for the pet food manufacturer to the pet food buyer?" asks Lynch.

"Through the Internet, they are allowed to create a better position for themselves than they could if they were going through regular distribution channels."

3. Using Interactivity
Creating services that other Web companies don't have will ensure that your brand is stronger than the rest. Luckily, the Web is the perfect place to do just that. Unlike other media, online customers can interact with the brand and its identity in a way that no other medium can offer.

Ways to increase contact and keep your brand in front of people include creating:

  • ·         Newsletters
  • ·         Targeted emails
  • ·         Message boards
  • ·         Chat
  • ·         Advice columns 

4. Build a community
Community is the other buzz online. If your brand can stimulate a community around it, then it has a powerful ally. For a community to be successful, you need to have a category that will engage people and spur them to want to talk with one another. For instance, people seem to never tire about the wonders of the Apple computer. The company's brand is the focus of debates and discourses in the computer world. Customers, prospects and critics of the brand have strong opinions about what they like and don't like, which leads to many opportunities for community interaction.
Some other points to keep in mind when building an online community include:

  • ·         Members must share common interests and get satisfaction from connecting with others
  • ·         Members should be able to participate in something such as a forum, chat group, auction, or join mailing lists or user groups
  • ·         Give members something to care about by establishing a clear economic or social benefit; personalize user experience through interactivity with other members and develop opportunities for common leadership/ownership;
  • ·         Encourage early and steady contributors.

5. Form Strategic Alliances
Like co-branding, strategic partnerships between Web brands can help strengthen identity, enhance visibility and increase revenues for companies.

"If someone comes to your site and sees you link with other people that they respect, they are going to feel good about being on your site," says Kosgrove. Good alliances on the Web allow traffic to flow between sites that have a common interest.

One way that synergistic sites can partner is by swapping banner ads. "If your site sells ties, it would be good to form a relationship with a store that sells shirts. Anyone who buys a shirt is going to want to buy a tie," says Lynch. "Synergistic sites can swap banner ads usually without any fee being paid."

One of the best ways that an e-commerce site can partner with other sites is to embed themselves within another company's site. For instance, each time you purchase a package from an e-retailer, chances are that you are also giving business to UPS or Federal Express. Both shipping companies invite companies to use their software to calculate shipping weights and secure deliveries to the purchaser's home. Federal Express also allows catalog companies like Lands End to move Federal Express data to their own Web sites so that Lands End customers can track their packages' progress.

Dell Computer Corp. partners with smaller computer dealers online to let customers configure their own computers. It may look as if you are on Joe's Computer Shack Web site, but actually Dell has lent Joe software so customers can customize their PC. "The best sites in the world, in terms of traffic and selling, are the ones that you don't even know that you are going to," says Lynch. "You are not spending all the promotion money, and you are multiplying your promotional money by many times because you have other people who are trying to get people to go to their site who in turn are at your site. 

6. Building credibility
Since competition is only a few clicks away, the standard for customer support must be higher for the Web than it is in the off-line world. The most essential aspect of customer support on Web sites is to respond to every request for information with accurate answers or corrective actions within competitive time frames.

"If your other communications look warm and friendly and you brand yourself as service-oriented, but  your Web sight is impossible to navigate and doesn't have an email response or is just kind of clunky, people are going to say, 'I thought you were someone else but now I know who you really are'," says Kosgrove.

So be sure you do your homework about what goes into a strong Web site. This is of the utmost importance when you are building a new brand or bringing a new brand to the online arena. Some of the basics that your Web site should have include:

  • ·         Personal Domain Name
  • ·         Contact Information
  • ·         Simple site design and navigation
  • ·         Easy to identify prices, if applicable
  • ·         Quick server response

7. Dedication to Service
Online customers have little opportunity to see your brand's dedication to service. If your customer service skills aren't up to par, however, it's likely that a customer won't come back to interact with your brand or your site.

Despite that logic, market watcher Jupiter Communications found that 42 percent of the top-ranked Web sites either took longer than five days to reply to customer email inquiries, never replied, or were not accessible by email.

"This effort illustrates that many Web sites have been unable or unprepared to respond to the flood of user questions that come in via email from their sites," says Ken Allard, group director of Jupiter's Site Operation Strategies. "Answering thousands of questions per month is an enormous challenge for sites offering complex products and services, especially if they never had a traditional call center. Yet companies that delay responses to user questions instantly lose a significant degree of credibility and user loyalty, and not responding perpetuates the consumer notion that using the Web site is not a reliable method of doing business with that company."

One way to solve the email deluge is to take advantage of "auto-acknowledge" software that responds to all incoming requests stating that the question was received and estimates a time frame for how long it will take to respond to the question.

While email is the primary communication tool, it is not the be-all, end-all of customer service. Companies that want to attach a sense of dedication to their brand should think about having a call center, support staff or other communication tools that will help strengthen the relationship between your brand and customer.

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