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Entrepreneur Magazine - October 1999


Want your customers to visit your site again and again? Keep them tuned in with message boards and valuable information.

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As Dan Harrison, 39, sees it, information is power. The more information this owner of in Moriches, Long Island, New York, gives his customers and prospects when they visit his Web site (, the more educated they become - and the more likely they are to visit his site again to purchase something. Information, in fact, has always been the secret weapon in Harrison’s marketing arsenal. When he started his Web site back in 1994, visitors could purchase more than 50,000 hot tub, spa and pool products and services - and at the same time learn what to do if their pools were turning green or their spas were frothy.

Visitors got that information by reading articles on the site written by Harrison or his staff, or by posting questions on message boards, in chat rooms or on the "Ask the Pool Guy" feature. "My site started out as a content site," says Harrison, who published the Hot Tub Life Newsletter and Pool Life Newsletter and sent them to his pool store customers for nine years before starting his Web site. (He closed his brick-and-mortar store in 1992). "We believe offering information gives us a competitive advantage. The more information our customers have, the better it is for all of us." Adding this information to Harrison’s 1,000-page Web site has certainly helped his company grow. He and his 43 employees saw revenues double to more than $2 million in just the first half of this year, up from $1 million in 1998.

As Web sites become more sophisticated, online experts and Web site owners alike are beginning to tout the importance of adding informative content, chat rooms and message boards to sites. They believe these additions create a need for visitors to return to your site, while at the same time boosting your credibility as an expert in your field. Harrison gives visitors a chance to join message boards and chat rooms, but he realized they often want information from an expert - not just another pool owner. That’s why he added "Ask the Pool Guy" and "Ask the Spa Guy" to his site in 1995. The site’s server collects the questions, which Harrison or one of his employees then answer within a few days. Harrison currently receives more than 400 questions per day. " This feature has been very successful," says Harrison. "When people want to find out the cost of something or learn how to clear up a water condition, they want to learn from an expert." "Ask the Pool Guy" and "Ask the Spa Guy" aren’t just informational services, however. They’re also mechanisms through which can collect names for an e-mail marketing list. The company uses this information to send targeted e-mail, catalogs and direct mail pieces to those customers who say they want more information. Currently, has nearly 400,00 names in it’s e-mail database. And adding to your content can help your bottom line in ways other than just increasing orders. By expanding the number of pages on your site, you create new banner advertising opportunities. Harrison, for example, has brought in more than $300,000 in advertising revenues since February 1998.

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Another option for getting visitors involved in your site and providing them with content is through live Web conferences, where speakers appear online at certain times to answer questions and offer tips and information. One company that does this well is, a popular gardening Web site. Besides an "Ask Our Garden Doctor" feature and a "Gardeners Forum" feature (where visitors can showcase photos of their gardens, ask other gardeners for advice or trade gardening secrets), hosts chats with well known gardening experts, consultants and authors who discuss issues and answer  questions from chat participants. 

Live chats, however, don’t work for everyone. A few years ago, Harrison announced "Ask the Spa Guy Live" on the five most active pages of his Web site. He even offered discounts on products and services during the chats.

But the results were disappointing. "The idea sounded great, and technologically it was perfect - it went off without a hitch," says Harrison. "But it was just a bust. At the peak of the six-week trial run, we only had six people [participating at once].

Harrison’s Web site is hosted and was constructed by his ISP, Synapse Imaging, based in Ronkonkoma, on Long Island, New York. Synapse used a Web-based discussion application software tool from Sebastopol, California-based O’Reilly & Associates called O’Reilly WebBoard ( to provide’s chat capabilities. You can purchase WebBoard yourself and use it in-house with your own servers for about $1,200, or rent it for an annual fee of about $720. Other products that offer chat capabilities similar to WebBoard’s include Eshare Technologies Inc.’s Expressions (, Galacticomm Technologies Inc.’s Worldgroup Server 3.2 ( and Lilikoi Software’s Ceilidh 2.5 ( Prices for these products vary, depending on the number of people using them, the number of chat rooms or message boards you have, and the robustness of your Web page.

INFORMATION OVERLOAD? and are good examples of companies that understand the importance of adding content. And they both sell products and services that are compatable with an informational selling model. But some experts maintain that adding content - and particularly chat capabilities - isn’t for everyone. "If you are going to invest time and money in a chat area, you have to be very strict with yourself and say ‘Why am I doing this? What do I get out of this?’" says Larry Chase, author of "Essential Business Tactics for the Net" (John Wiley & Sons) and publisher of an informational Web page called Web Digest for Marketers ( Chase says you have to vigorously promote a chat community for it to really work - which costs money and takes up time. Depending on your type of business and the amount of time you have to commit to Web site content and chats, that may or may not be worth the effort. Harrison has no doubt that the time he’s put into developing his company’s Web site has been worth every penny. "Adding content to a transaction site is very important," says Harrison. "If you need to buy a product and you type it into a search engine, you may find 10 places that sell it. Of those 10 places, seven may have the same price, and of those seven, if only one really explains to you what you are buying - whom are you going to buy it from?"