From the October 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

As Dan Harrison, 39, sees it, information is power. The more information this owner of poolandspa.com in Moriches on Long Island, New York, gives his customers and prospects when they visit his Web site (http://www.poolandspa.com), 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 in-formation 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.

Adding Content

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 poolandspa.com 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, poolandspa.com has nearly 400,000 names in its 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.

Live Chats: All Talk?

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 Garden.com, a popular gardening Web site. Besides an "Ask Our Garden Doctor" feature and a "Gardener's Forum" feature (where visitors can showcase photos of their gardens, ask other gardeners for advice or trade gardening secrets), Garden.com 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]."

Getting There

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 (http://www.webboard.oreilly.com) to provide poolandspa.com'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 (http://www.eshare.com), Galacticomm Technologies Inc.'s Worldgroup Server 3.2 (http://www.gcomm.com) and Lilikoi Software's Ceilidh 2.5 (http://www.lilikoi.com). 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?

Garden.com and poolandspa.com are good examples of companies that understand the importance of adding content. And they both sell products and services that are compatible with an informational selling model. But some experts maintain adding content--and particularly chat capabilities--isn't for everyone.

"If you're 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 (http://www.wdfm.com). 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 it is you are buying--whom are you going to buy it from?"

Hot Disks

Quick content:If you want to get information on your Web site quickly, try Trellix 2 by Trellix Corp. (http://www.trellix.com). It gives you standardized templates to create presentations or project plans easily, as well as text-editing and formatting tools. You can also apply your own designs to your Web page. The software ($249 street) runs on Windows 95/98/NT 4.0 and requires 24MB RAM (32MB RAM for Windows NT 4.0) and 28MB hard-drive space.

Translation, please: Hoping to put all your brilliant reports and other documents on the Web but baffled by HTML? Now you can easily convert your paper documents into HTML with Caere Corp.'s OmniPage Web software (http://www.caere.com). The software ($500 street) runs on Windows 95/98/NT 4.O and requires 16MB RAM (32MB recommended) and 45MB hard-drive space. In addition, it requires an SVGA or VGA monitor with 256 colors and 800 x 600 resolution, and a CD-ROM drive.

Ship out: Want to cut your shipping costs, but don't know how to do it? Universal Parcel Shipping Software Systems can help you do so, thanks to its Universal Parcel Shipping Software v.9.1. The software automatically compares AirEx, DHL, FedEx, UPS and USPS rates, and also allows you to compare prices for different shipping methods (ground, commercial, next-day air and so on) to areas in the United States and Canada. The product requires DOS 3.0 and runs on any combination of DOS or Windows 3.1/95/98/NT 4.0. Visit http://www.upss.com for a free trial download. The program costs $99 if you decide to keep it.

Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at mcampanelli@earthlink.net

Web Site

http://www.isyndicate.com

By Robert McGarvey

New content is a sure way to drive up a Web site's visitor count, but continually putting it up is a hassle. This site may be an easy solution. Click on a few links, and, within minutes, you can add daily Associated Press or Reuters news headlines, a daily horoscope and more to your page. What's the cost? Nothing, in most cases. The iSyndicate site offers some premium content for sale, but the bulk of its offerings are free for the taking.

Contact Source

Garden.com,http://www3.garden.com