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Loyal Customers Drive Online Success

A loyal customer base is what separates the haves from the have-nots in the competitive online marketplace.

Sites with the highest online loyalty are more likely to have increased sales over their competitors as well as a significant Web promotion budget, according to "The Direct Marketing Industry Online: Perspectives on 2001." The study was conducted by Millard Group and ActiveMedia Research and sponsored by The Direct Marketing Association.

Email marketing, search engine ease and promotional incentives are among the efforts that bring repeat business to a Web site, according to the study.

Expedia.com, HotBot and Amazon.com -- which were among the online destinations lauded for their customer loyalty efforts -- affirm that these tips are true. All three companies were among the recipients of Customer Loyalty Awards from Brand Keys, a New York City-based operation that surveys online marketing sites and determines loyalty among users.

"Expedia outranked all other online travel sites by most closely embodying the characteristics that consumers seek," said Robert Passikoff, CEO of Brand Keys. "The online travel portal bested Travelocity.com, Preview Travel, Priceline.com, Excite and Fodors.com."

The secret is to focus on the total customer experience, according to Suzi LeVine, marketing director at Expedia.com.

"We make our biggest efforts in the communication arena," she said. "We have highly targeted emails that provide relevant information and round out the customer's online travel experience.

"For instance, a few days prior to departure, our customers begin receiving emails that are specific to their travel plans. We send links to weather reports, schedules of entertainment events, and locations where they can purchase tickets to specific venues," she said.

The online travel agent also offers a Fare Tracker service that tracks ticket prices from different carriers to three destination cities. "This way, we are able to provide our customers with the lowest fares and deliver that information to their e-mail box every week. Fare Tracker also includes news of airline fare sales and a selection of great travel deals.," LeVine said.

"It is imperative that we respond to our customers' needs and provide them with a site that is easy to use, provides more choice and goes beyond selling tickets. When a customer uses are site, they get the underlying message: 'We want to be your travel agent,'" she concluded. "Further, we have been at the forefront of implementing technology to guard our customers' privacy. They trust us and feel secure with us."

Customer values that determine loyalty among search engine users are logical organization and ease of use, the number and selection of sites catalogues, the usability of search data and added-value features, such as news channels and specialized search options, noted Passikoff.

In addition to HotBot, search engines in the Brand Keys competition included Excite, Yahoo!, Alta Vista, Lycos, InfoSeek, AOL, Ask Jeeves, iWon.com, msn.com, Google, Netscape and Northern Light.

By adapting to what the customer wants, HotBot is able to maintain its leading position in the search engine category, noted Kirsten Rankin, public relations specialist with Terra-Lycos, parent company of HotBot.

"The HotBot site is geared toward research and Internet-savvy users who come to our search engine because it puts power into their hands," she said.

"Users can change the parameters as to how things are searched," she added. "HotBot.com is a sophisticated search engine with more than 40 tools to help users better articulate their searches and get relevant search results quickly and easily," she said.

"We recently added a personalized cache-search setting that lets users pre-set what language and in which domains their searches are conducted," she said. "People like having those options.



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