From the April 2001 issue of Startups

Don Mayer was a refugee from software sales, trying to get his start-up off the ground, when a friend suggested giving the new company a name reflective of its lowly status among the dotcom giants. Mayer didn't like the idea at first, but the more he considered how it would help him stand out among the online computer retailers with techy-sounding names, the more he liked it.

With all the failed dotcoms out there, who survived the fallout-and how? Read Easy.com, Easy.go.

Small Dog Electronics, the name he finally chose for his Waitsfield, Vermont, online computer retailer, has just 13 employees. Yet Smalldog.com showed up on Interactive Week's 2000 ranking of the top 500 Internet companies (in 299th position). It's more than the name that did it, of course. That was just the first step in a comprehensive-and successful-effort to make Mayer's company stand out in an overcrowded dotcom world.

Mayer attracts and engages visitors with extensive and constantly updated content, drawings for giveaways, online advertising, e-mail newsletters and other enticements. Perhaps most effective, he employs a highly personal touch that includes live webcams so visitors can see him and other employees at work in the Small Dog offices.

But it all comes back to that initial standout impression. "The emphasis on small and dogs gives us a softer appeal on the Internet," Mayer says. "People tend to look at it a little more differently than a standard Web site."

That difference is getting harder to obtain-particularly following last year's dotcom fallout. Today, cutting through online noise is a key issue for any dotcom, anywhere. "If anything," says Jim Wilson, owner of Direct Marketing Network, an Internet marketing consulting firm in Laguna Niguel, California, "that's an understatement."

Drawing A Crowd

Getting attention online wasn't always a problem. "At one point, any time anybody put up a Web site, whoever was online knew about it," says John Ferguson, president of Baron Consulting Group Ltd., a Cave Creek, Arizona, online marketing consulting firm. "But that's rapidly changed. Now they have to stand out in a crowd."

Fortunately, say Ferguson and other experts, there are many ways to increase awareness of your Web site. Some you almost have to hard-wire into your business model, while others can be tried on an ad hoc basis to see what works and what doesn't.

The most effective way to stand out in a crowd is to pick a niche you can dominate. Steve Green, publisher of Pizza Marketing Quarterly, knows his three-person online publication can't beat out media sites like CNN.com. But it doesn't have to. "You don't have to stand out in a dotcom world to everybody," says Green. "You just have to stand out to the people you want as customers."

Brain Food
A good resource to check out comes from marketing expert Jim Wilson, whose JimWorld site is a repository of how-tos, lists of FAQs, links to resources, online chats and other tools for learning about how to draw visitors to your site.

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Whatever niche you pick, make sure you really can stand out in it, adds Ralph Wilson (no relation to Jim Wilson), an Internet marketing expert. "Find an unfilled or partially filled niche, and then fill it with excellence," he stresses. "There's no longer any place for mediocrity on the Web."

Providing fresh, relevant content to online visitors is perhaps the most important element of standing out in the dotcom crowd. This means more than providing a list of links where visitors can find information-you need original articles, technical how-tos, lists of FAQs and answers, product descriptions and reviews, and more. "People are looking for information," reminds Ferguson. "That's why they are on the Internet."

All that original material has to be changed out regularly as well. Marketing experts say that if you don't present visitors with new information each time they visit, they're less likely to come back. If, on the other hand, you always give them something new, odds are higher they'll bookmark your site and make it a favorite destination. Mayer airs his opinion on computer industry controversies in a feature called Soapbox, has an online newsletter called Kibbles and Bytes, and features special offers that change daily. "We change our Web site every single day," he says. "Any time a customer comes to our Web site, it's going to be different."

One way to ensure a different look is to customize your site for each visitor. You can have customers log on to the site, or recognize them through the use of cookies implanted by a browser, and then present each visitor with a personalized appearance ranging from a greeting such as "Hi, John Smith!" to a specific suggestion for today's shopping. Customization makes visitors feel you're aware of their special needs.

Get ideas for designing your site by visiting other sites. Include competitive as well as noncompetitive sites known for excellence in design, such as Amazon.com, but be careful about trying to copy the impressively flashy sites run by some large firms. Lots of graphics, animation, music files and other bandwidth gobblers may make a splash, but they also hurt performance. If you have a fast DSL or cable modem hookup, you're spoiled. Sign on to your site with a dial-up phone line and an old modem to see how long it takes to load. Anything more than a few seconds is too many. "People will not wait," Jim Wilson says.

No site can be designed without keeping online directories like Yahoo! and Internet search engines like Google.com and Excite.com in mind. Many surfers use engines and directories as their starting point for shopping expeditions. To boost your site's chances of being included high up in search results, you have to know how online indexers use keywords and what traits human indexers look for in the sites they rank.

Giveaways are widely used to build e-commerce traffic. Handing out free samples can introduce prospects to your product while drawing visitors to your site. Drawings for prizes can be very useful for your overall marketing scheme if you capture e-mail addresses and other information about visitors who come looking for freebies. "It's a great way of building a potential client database," says Ferguson.

Sometimes all you have to give away is a chance to make a friend, get involved in a conversation or offer advice. Newsletters, special offers via e-mail, message boards, chat rooms and online forums are highly recommended by Internet marketing experts because of the way they interactively involve visitors in your site. You can also involve users by getting them to fill out surveys, ask or answer questions, comment on news stories, or just post their own observations.

Another way you can reach out is with advertising, both online and offline. While Small Dog purchases banner ads on a number of Web sites, Ralph Wilson recommends advertising in e-mail newsletters as a more effective alternative to banner ads for many small businesses.

Ferguson urges e-business owners to integrate online advertising with offline marketing such as TV and radio commercials, print advertising and even letterhead and forms. "If you have a Web site, everything you have printed should have your Web site address on it," he says. "If you imprint your napkins, it should have your site address on it."

Finally, track and analyze the traffic your site attracts. If you know where your visitors are coming from, it's much easier to know what's working and what's not. Studying referral statistics helped Green realize that the consultant he hired to help redesign his site was working out, because the number of referrals he got from a major index site shot up. "I don't know what he's doing," the publisher admits. "But he's doing a good job."

Online Limits

Unfortunately, however, you can go wrong with online promotion. If a giveaway proves too popular, your site could be overwhelmed by freebie-seekers. If you pick the wrong domain name, you could be lumped in with Web sites in another industry unrelated to yours. If you change your content frequently but neglect to make archived files available to visitors, you could turn off people who liked what you had last week.

In the end, though, the difficulty of making your dotcom stand out is more than matched by the many proven techniques for doing so. "If you learn how to use the principles of Web marketing, you can raise your profile so you can influence hundreds of thousands of people," says Ralph Wilson. "It's not easy, but it's a tremendous opportunity."


Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer who specializes in business topics.