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Microsite rewards anything but small

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With marketing budgets severely constrained and Internet users balking at intrusive online ad formats, marketers are turning to microsites as a cheap and powerful way of getting their messages out.

Microsites are small Web sites of just a single page or a few pages, put up for a special purpose and set apart from a company’s main Web site. They’re designed to communicate on a tightly focused issue, such as a new product, technology or promotional offer. They’re generally used to inform visitors, rather than create brand awareness—but not always. IBM recently created a high-profile microsite to tout its new on-demand computing campaign.

For those deploying them, microsites are popular because of their low cost and ability to track a campaign’s effectiveness.

Consider the experience of Mirror Image Internet Inc., a pro-vider of Internet site mirroring, which got big results from a small investment.

The Woburn, Mass., company ran two campaigns this fall. The first directed users to a page containing a streaming video of the company’s COO making a marketing pitch. This campaign was sent to 2,000 opt-in names collected by Mirror Image. A second campaign, directed at e-retailers and pegged to the holiday season, used a list of about 5,000 opt-in names rented from a third-party list manager.

The first campaign resulted in $110,000 of business commitments, with more still in contract negotiations. The cost was minimal because it was done entirely with in-house technology and lists. The second campaign, which cost about $5,000 for list rental and creative partners, generated $36,000 in business during its first two months.

“With a microsite, you’re really targeting the individuals you want. You’re eliminating the fluff, and driving them to a site that contains the information you want them to see,” said Tracy Courtemanche, Mirror Image’s director of corporate marketing.

Although consumer marketers have led the way in microsites, the medium is gaining popularity with b-to-b companies. Among those b-to-b marketers, technology companies have been in the forefront, according to Kevin Scott, an analyst with AMR Research.

“People who produce and use technology are more likely to take a chance than an old-school company,” Scott said. “Also, technology has a faster end-of-life for its products and services than, say, the paper-pulp industry. They need to get their messages out through as many channels as they can as fast as they can.”

Scott believes microsites should be used by all industries. “It’s an effective marketing tool and an effective measurement of marketing,” he said.

Focus is key Storage vendor EMC Corp. uses microsites to get out information about particular issues. For instance, the Hopkinton, Mass.-based company put up a site to discuss business continuity—also known as disaster recovery—after Sept. 11 last year. The site is still up, said Dan Kuperstein, director of Internet marketing at EMC.

“It’s got to be a focused message, and that’s important. If you are going to ask the end-user to go to a site, there has got to be a valuable payoff,” Kuperstein said.

The EMC business-continuity site contains white papers and other information about disaster recovery, demos, guidelines for continuity and a click-to-talk button.

Focusing a Web site starts with picking a simple, easy-to-remember URL. The URL for EMC’s business-continuity site is www.emc.com/continuity. “You don’t want the URL to be too long if you’re going to use it in direct mail,” Kuperstein said. In fact, some companies register domain names specifically for a single microsite campaign.

Middleware vendor BEA Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif., agreed that simplicity is the key to a successful microsite campaign. Claire Darling, senior director of demand marketing at BEA, said the company has created microsites in conjunction with partner programs for its portal technology and in conjunction with an ad campaign aimed at competitor IBM. This month, the company plans to launch another direct marketing campaign for enterprise application integration, with microsites customized for the site visitor’s corporate role. “If I am CIO of AT&T, I will see a very different view than an architect at AT&T,” Darling said.

LightPointe, an optical networking vendor based in San Diego, Calif., uses a microsite to educate potential customers about the optical technology underlying its products, which use lasers to carry data (instead of fiber optic cable). The company launched www.freespaceoptics.org in the spring.

“Some users have an immediate need; they are very interested in product and in engaging a sales person. Others just want to learn more about the technology,” said Jeff Bean, director of public relations and marketing communications for LightPointe.

Most advocates believe that microsites should be used for information and education, rather than brand-building.

But there are exceptions. IBM, along with ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, built a spoof ad site last month at www.bagotronics.com around a phony company called Bagotronics, which purported to sell cheap time-travel equipment to let companies go back in time and fix business mistakes. The site included a streaming video infomercial starring Ben Vereen. Clicking almost anywhere on the site called up a message urging users to pick up the Oct. 30 issue of The Wall Street Journal, New York Times or San Jose Mercury News for more details. The site was touted with a print ads earlier that week.

“Bagotronics was wildly successful,” said Sher Taton, senior marketing manager-worldwide integrated marketing communications for IBM. “It got a lot of people talking, got a lot of press writing about it. It did exactly what we were hoping to do.”

The Bagotronics site, like many microsites, was short-lived. It was up for only the 48 hours prior to the first major speech by new IBM CEO Sam Palmisano. Now, visitors to www.bagotronics.com are driven to the company’s permanent on-demand microsite at www.ibm.com/ondemand. That site contains a Webcast of Palmisano’s address, white papers and case studies of IBM customers.

Mining sites for data Part of the popularity of microsites comes from the rich user data that can be gleaned from them. For example, by publishing different URLs in direct mailings, e-mail campaigns, advertisements and other marketing tools, a company can track the effectiveness of different campaigns.

That’s one way BEA measures the effectiveness of ad campaigns, Darling said. “If an ad drops on Monday, we can see the click-throughs increase Monday afternoon by the hour,” she said.

IBM is using a type of microsite called a “landing page” as a replacement for business response cards, where users fill out their addresses, company information and buying interests. “It’s much more cost-effective and easier to do [than using response forms at trade shows],” said Dianne Lucca, senior interactive marketing program manager for IBM Americas.

BEA also uses landing pages in place of business response cards and instead of toll-free phone numbers for customers to request information, which reduces costs for phone lines and call centers.

Users are more willing to give out information about themselves on microsites than they are on general-purpose Web sites, said Forrester Research analyst Jim Nail. And marketers can track site usage simply by bulk e-mail programs that give each recipient a unique URL, Nail said.

E-mail is the most effective means of driving users to a microsite, because it arrives when the user is most receptive to your message and is already on the Internet, EMC’s Kuperstein said. TV commercials are the least effective means of driving traffic to a microsite, he said. Banner ads and direct mail rank somewhere in between e-mail and TV as traffic drivers.

IBM reported that it has achieved click-through rates as high as 42.5% with e-mail campaigns for its microsites. The company also drives traffic through banner ads, direct mail, print and TV ads. But the most successful driver of all for IBM microsites is its own Web site, www.ibm.com, which gets 4 million to 5 million site visits per week.

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