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Workz.com. Helping Small Businesses Grow and Prosper Online

Q&A: Wilson on Working the Web

Published: Aug. 31, 2001
Company: Wilson Internet Services
Owner: Ralph F. Wilson
URL: http://www.wilsonweb.com

Ralph F. Wilson, who holds a doctor of ministry degree, edits the popular Web Marketing Today, Web Commerce Today and Doctor Ebiz publications.

You launched Wilson Internet Services in 1995 as a one-man business. The site has enjoyed considerable growth and popularity. How did you plan or compensate for its success?

I was fortunate to be on the ground floor of a period of Internet growth that, for a while, doubled the number of Internet users every six months. It was incredible.

I can't really take credit for my success. I see it as God putting me in the right place at the right time, when the business use of the Internet was in its infancy.

Given this wonderful opportunity, I've tried to learn rapidly and share what I've learned with my subscribers.

The beginning of my site was a one-page list of all Web marketing articles I could find on the Web. The site grew gradually as the number of my own articles increased and more people found out about the resources.

But now the amount of available literature has mushroomed so it's hard to keep up. It has now grown to 8,200 articles and resources.

What has been the biggest technical headache?

For about two years, I wrote all the links to articles and resources directly in HTML. Switching to a Microsoft Access database was an important step. Finally, I added link editors to help with the project and to update Web pages more easily.

Recently, I've phased out completely the HTML Web pages containing those links so categorized link pages are dynamically generated by ColdFusion. This approach saves many hours of maintenance.

Moving elements of the site to ColdFusion has been time-consuming, challenging and expensive in programming costs. I believe investing in my site will pay good dividends in the long run.

Until recently, the subscription sales for my paid newsletter didn't take place on my main Web site, so the process was sometimes confusing to my subscribers. Now I have integrated the entire sales and information delivery system. This will please my subscribers and lessen the time I have to spend on customer service issues, such as answering confused subscribers' questions and retrieving lost passwords.

If you were to start a new site today, what would you do differently?

Actually, I began two new sites in 2000 that built on what I had learned with WilsonWeb.com.

JesusWalk is a weekly e-mail Bible study that reaches about 4,500 subscribers in 108 countries, 20 percent of whom are in e-mail discussion groups using the free services of Yahoo! Groups.

One of the lessons I learned was to outsource the functions I couldn't handle easily myself, such as e-mail list hosting. Another was to recruit and train volunteers to help with the day-to-day management of these online communities. I'm getting a better handle on how much I can do myself, and what I shouldn't try to tackle alone.

My other new site is Doctor Ebiz, a free weekly e-mail newsletter focused on small businesses. Because I would find myself answering many e-mail questions each week anyway, I decided to begin a Q&A newsletter that would be short, easy-to-read and deal with the questions about online business that small businesspeople struggle with.

I've tried to build viral marketing elements into promoting the newsletter, such as syndicating it to 400 other Web sites using MasterSyndicator.

I also learned that I could substantially increase the number of new subscribers by offering free e-books as a bonus for subscribing.

What two or three tools are indispensable for running your Web site?

Good e-mail tools are essential. Though Eudora is a sturdy e-mail client, I moved to Outlook 98/2000 because it gave me an integrated system for calendaring events, maintaining a to-do list, filing names and contact information of hundreds of e-mail correspondents, and filtering e-mail into various folders. Outlook 2000 is constantly open on my desktop.

I also rely on the Lyris list servers at SparkList to help me maintain five separate e-mail newsletter lists. I can remember trying to manually handle all the bounces I used to get with my old Majordomo list server. The month before I moved to a Lyris I received 6,000 bounces from bad addresses. Lyris cleaned the list painlessly.

I am becoming increasingly dependent upon ColdFusion and MySQL databases to deliver content, handle subscriptions, change e-mail addresses, take surveys and receive feedback from readers. With a small site I could get away with a patchwork of CGI programs. But the larger it gets, the more important it is to integrate the elements in a more manageable form.

Wilson Internet Services carries quite a few advertisements. What is your perspective on small businesses relying on advertising as a big part of revenue?

A lot has changed in the past year. I still get some great advertisers, but my advertising income has probably fallen 80 percent from early 2000 due to the failure of many dot-coms and belt-tightening by all Internet companies. This is not a good time for small businesses to rely on advertising revenue, though I expect advertising revenue to improve over the next year.

Instead, I am recommending that small businesses focus on selling products themselves -- hard goods, software, information, e-books, entertainment and services.

I'm not talking about affiliate programs that refer visitors to other sites, because that income is relatively small, but selling products on your own site. E-commerce sales haven't gone down but [they've] continued to rise as Internet advertising spending [has] plummeted.

How can small businesses find advertisers?

First, content is primary. If you don't have excellent, unique content, you won't get the traffic necessary to attract advertisers.

Second, work at targeting site visitors and newsletter readers. More is not better; targeted is better. Ads to a general audience are bringing perhaps $1 to $5 (U.S.) per thousand visitors or newsletter recipients. A targeted audience can command ad rates several times that.

Finally, actively look for companies in your industry that would be interested in marketing to your site visitors. See if they are advertising with your competitors -- or anywhere -- on the Internet. Try to understand their marketing strategy. Then find the name of the marketing director or ad agency handling their online advertising and contact them directly. Offer to test their ads on your site. I don't recommend offering this test free or they won't value it, but cut the rate way down. Follow up to see how well this worked.

You can't afford to give advertising away, but you can provide temporary discounts that attract new advertisers.

I am continually getting requests for pay-for-action advertising, where the advertiser only pays for results and expects the site owner to take all the risks. But -- with few exceptions -- accepting this type of advertising will begin a death spiral for your own ad revenue. Charge an appropriate and competitive amount for your advertising and then look hard for advertisers with money who will appreciate your particular niche.

You've offered a paid-subscription newsletter for years. What are people willing to pay for expert advice? Have you seen changes or do you foresee changes in what people will pay?

People are willing to pay for content if your content is unique or difficult to obtain elsewhere. Once you determine a hunger for a particular type of information, work to understand this niche and write exactly what your customers are struggling to learn.

A few years ago, paid Internet newsletters were rare because most information was freely available on the Net. But businesses that gave it all away free are dropping like flies, so there remain fewer sites with up-to-date, excellent niche content. Now Internet users are getting more used to the idea of paying. I think it will become easier to sell content in the future.

What are three or four things you'd tell a small business just starting out?

Find a type of business that you actually enjoy and know a lot about.

Don't believe the hype that it's easy to make money on the Internet. There are great opportunities but no easy money. To succeed you'll need to work smart, invest your time, learn to do a lot of things yourself, and be fast on your feet.

Seek counsel before you begin. You can receive free e-mail counseling from SCORE and assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

In particular, make sure that your planned revenue sources are realistic.

What is the biggest obstacle to a small, online business starting out today?

The most difficult task is finding a niche that is unfilled, under filled or poorly filled, and then filling it with excellence.

There are so many businesses on the Internet that the competition seems fierce. Most of those businesses have a Web site but aren't really doing any business.

Spend enough time learning what's in your niche so you understand the reality of that marketplace. Then come up with a superior way to serve the customers in that niche.

Do you see anything on the horizon that will affect small businesses online?

I expect the U.S. Congress to pass laws that limit spam and require Internet merchants to collect sales taxes for all states, not just their own.

The Internet landscape and methods keep changing rapidly. Banner ads worked two years ago, now eyes are trained to ignore them. E-mail was once welcomed, now people are much less willing to sign up for another newsletter.

Change is constant. If you can learn to adapt quickly to change -- and enjoy it -- you'll do well on the Web.

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