Tool reins in partner sites, creates solid branding

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The SoftAd Group Inc., a small e-business vendor with some big customers, last month released a new version of its software, enabling companies with complex b-to-b sales channels to create a brand-consistent Internet sales strategy.

SoftAd, based in Mill Valley, Calif., delivered Version 3.0 of its ChannelNet platform, which includes new capabilities to enable consultative selling over the Web. The new tools work in conjunction with the suite's Site Builder tools, which make it easy for a company's sales partners-for instance, a dealer network-to build so-called micro-sites that work in tandem with the parent company's back-end databases.

SoftAd's most high-profile b-to-b customer so far is Ford Motor Co., which used the software to build more than 4,500 dealer sites for its Ford, Lincoln-Mercury and Volvo divisions. Each site can be customized to the needs of the individual dealer but also works with the product specs and configuration tools back at the Ford main site.

The channel-friendly system helped Ford fend off auto retailing dot-coms by leveraging, rather than disintermediating, the company's massive dealer network, SoftAd CEO and founder Paula Tompkins said.

``You get a very solid branding, content, interaction and data experience [at the dealer site], the same as if you go to the [Ford] corporate site,'' Tompkins said. ``The brand managers at Ford don't have to worry about a dealer going off on his own and coming back with a Web site that looks like a late-night TV ad.''

Ford dealers like it, too. Jerome-Duncan Ford's SoftAd-enabled Web site is now its number one source of new car leads, said Paul Sarzynski, Internet manager for the Sterling Heights, Mich.-based dealer. And it's easy for the dealer with a small Web staff to use. ``The Web site utility enables us to very simply and effectively change the look, content and feel of the site with minimal time and effort,'' Sarzynski said.

By the nature of its product, SoftAd deals are large. And Ford isn't the only one it has in pocket. For instance, it helped U.K. financial company

AssureSoft Ltd. create 14,440 Web sites for its channel partners, mainly independent financial advisors. The individual advisor, while retaining consistent branding and product information, can customize each site.

Not born yesterday

Though it tackles e-business issues, SoftAd isn't a dot-com newbie. It has been working on interactive selling issues for more than 15 years, first using CD-ROMs and later taking advantage of the Web and e-commerce, Tompkins said. The latest ChannelNet product hits a niche too many other sell-side technologies are missing: channel relationships, she said.

``Ours is kind of a funny product because we cover content management, personalization, consultative selling, a rules engine and more,'' Tompkins said. ``We not only help build the enterprise site, we enable the enterprise to the level of channel partners via micro-sites.''

SoftAd is particularly focused on issues dear to marketers' hearts, such as brand consistency and first-rate customer experiences. That comes from focusing not on back-end data crunching, but on front-end customer relationship issues, Tompkins said.

SoftAd's latest release, ChannelNet 3.0, adds a new rules engine that helps companies assess a customer's needs, configure a product or service and then build promotional opportunities around the selling process. It integrates with Site Builder, which enables channel partners to build micro-sites that can also sell based on the same core rule engine.

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