Taking It to the Net

May 1, 2006
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This is the Information Age, and Internet surfing is an increasingly popular trend. According to the Harris Poll, more than two-thirds of all U.S. adults use the Internet. The Chicago Tribune cited three major companies that measure Internet usage: Hitwise, comScore Networks, and Nielson//Net Ratings. Nielson reported as of January 2006, that total online searches came to 5.69 million, an increase of approximately 39 percent over January 2005's total of 4.08 million searches.

"Web users are conducting more searches not because they can't find what they are looking for, but because search as a utility has become deeply ingrained into people's everyday lives," said Ken Cassar, chief analyst, Nielson//Net Ratings.

Nielson also showed that typical individual U.S. home Internet users averaged 33 sessions totaling up to 30.5 hours spent on the Web for the month of February 2006.

"The days of burying your head in the sand and saying, ‘None of my customers use the Web,' are gone," said David Squires, a 25-year veteran HVAC contractor and Online Access president. Squires suggested that consumers are not merely Internet browsers, but the new stealth customers. "They are researchers who do their homework and don't contact the seller until they are well on their way to making a purchasing decision," he said. "The higher the ticket price, the more research they are willing to do."

Admittedly, consumers aren't going to download an HVAC installation or purchase an IAQ system online. However, comScore Networks released a new research study showing that 25 percent of searchers purchased an item directly related to their query, and that of those buyers, only 37 percent completed their purchases online, leaving 63 percent that completed their purchases offline. "This research helps quantify exactly how influential search really is for the overall buying process," said John McAteer, Google's head of retail.

James Lamberti, vice president of search marketing solutions for comScore Networks, emphasized that even if consumers don't make their purchase online, it is still important in the buying process. "It's clear from this study that the influence of search on offline buying can be responsible for the major portion of the overall financial return from investments in search marketing," he said.

Choosing a Web provider that offers customer support is essential since understanding what it takes to be on the Web is more of a learning cliff not a learning curve.

WEBSITE NECESSITIES

Let's face it, when someone visits an HVAC site, they are there for a purpose. Rarely will contractors find Website visitors who, while searching for the latest basketball stats or reading about the newest movie being released, suddenly found themselves at an HVAC Website for curiosity's sake.

This sounds discouraging, but when visitors do log onto the site, they are a dedicated audience seeking to improve the comfort quality of their home. Unfortunately, according to Squires, most HVAC Websites consist of one to five pages and, "are nothing more than digital billboards or electronic refrigerator magnets."

Some sites haven't been updated in eons. "Your customer needs to see that your Website is maintained and up-to-date, not just old news," said Squires.

Other sites just send the customer to the manufacturer's site. Once there, the manufacturer site is glad to set the customer up with a contractor in the area, and it is highly unlikely that it will be the contractor that originally led the customer to the site. Conclusion: The contractor just lost a sale and wasted the company's marketing dollars.

Squires offered some suggestions for creating a successful HVAC Website:

  • The site should be a resource for customers. Content should provide answers to common questions.

  • Create a homepage that greets customers as friends.

  • Make sure the site has a clean, easy-to-follow menu system. Customers should be able to get anywhere - from anywhere.

  • A search function is a must.

  • Use many pictures and change them regularly. Use pictures that represent the company, not just the products sold. People deal with people. Don't just show a humidifier; show your people installing one. If you take pictures of your jobs, post them.

  • Post all complimentary comments and testimonials.

  • Facilitate communication. Ask for the information you need and provide forms to collect required information for scheduling or to answer questions.

  • Pay attention to every communication the site generates. "No response" is the No. 1 complaint in dealing with small business Websites. Remember, an ignored customer is now someone else's customer.

    COUNT THE COST

    "Before you determine your company's Internet strategy, you have to take into account not only creation costs, but all of the costs, skills, and tools associated with keeping your Website relevant," noted Squires. A Website is more than just a plug and play interface. It needs regular maintenance to remain healthy.

    Squires cautions contractors and businesses to be careful when choosing a Web provider. As a new presence on the Web, contractors can feel out of place. It can be difficult to understand the lingo, the service fees, and the entire system in general. Squires reminds contractors of three keys to successful Website ownership:

  • Hire a Web provider that makes provision for frequent updates without additional cost. Nothing is more of a damper to an effective Website than knowing that you're running up a tab by keeping it fresh.

  • Be sure the Web provider supplies visitor statistics.

  • Choose a Web provider that offers customer support. This is essential since you're not an expert. Understanding what it takes to be on the Web is more of a learning cliff not a learning curve.

    Publication date: 05/01/2006

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