HOSTSEARCH: Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and Hartland Communications?
HARTLAND ROSS: I began working in the technology industry, specifically internet marketing and advertising and in 1998, I was charged with all Business Development tasks and revenue generation for a banner network located here in Vancouver, BC. The company was the exclusive agent for all Canadian ad inventory on the Doubleclick network. As the internet bubble burst, the company was unable to secure any additional necessary financing. As a result of many inquiries for advertising that we were not able to fill at the time, I saw an opportunity that was not being tapped into. I then began consulting for some old clients and with this came the requests for lists and advertising procurement. Since this time, we have expanded to offer other services including search engine optimization and web design.
HOSTSEARCH: In terms of marketing and advertising how do you differentiate a web hosting provider that is your client from its resellers and competitors?
HARTLAND ROSS: It is critical that every company whether in hosting or another industry be very clear on it's positioning and competitive advantage. We encourage all of our clients to clearly spell out these differences in all client interaction and advertising - this includes all online media as well as traditional offline marketing. Examples of these differences in the hosting include: price leaders, geographic focus, platform specific focus, decision maker and target audience, customer service levels, new technology and tools included, plan features, industry awards and bundled services such as marketing or domains etc.
HOSTSEARCH: For a company just starting out, what are the most critical steps in establishing a presence online? And is there more to it than trying to rank on Google?
HARTLAND ROSS: The most obvious first step is to ensure that a company has a web presence however in the process of design, search engine strategies must be taken into consideration as these very much affect design and layout. It's also very important to determine the purpose of the site - is it to be an ecommerce site, an information resource site or an online company brochure? The next focus should be on becoming listed in the search engines under "natural searches" for targeted keywords. Natural searches are those that are NOT influenced by bidded positions. Depending on the purpose of the site and the industry, it may be desirable to create a bidding account with Overture and Google Adwords for a highly targeted and limited number of keywords. A final step would include creating an online advertising campaign. The rational behind this sequence of events being that natural searches are free other than the costs to ensure the site is search engine friendly and these visitors are very qualified since they are looking for solutions that match your keywords and therefore services. Secondly since there is a time lag involved in this process, the more quickly this work is completed, the more quickly results can be seen. Once the site is live, these activities can be performed simultaneously. The benefits to online marketing and pay per click bided accounts (not just on search engines) is in their immediacy of returns which can be in the neighborhood of minutes to hours in some cases depending on how targeted the efforts are.
HOSTSEARCH: Domain registrar and web host GoDaddy.com just spent $4.6 million for 2 Super Bowl ads in an attempt to gain market recognition. Do you think this was an effective use of their money?
HARTLAND ROSS: The margins on domains are so very low (often used as a lost leader) that this strategy by Godaddy is longer term and clearly they are looking to increase their market share and be recognized as the industry leader in light of Google's recent announcement to enter this market. It seems like a lot of money to me however I know very little about Godaddy's revenue model and wouldn't feel comfortable judging this decision without more information. Godaddy has many sources of revenue and therefore many opportunities to upsell their clients.
HOSTSEARCH: For a more established company that wants to re-establish itself or redefine its image what can it do?
HARTLAND ROSS: In this instance, the entire company or brand needs to be addressed looking at all vehicles of communication from verbal to print to online. Focusing here only on the online component and as with any marketing, it is essential that all marketing be highly targeted. If as a result of any repositioning, the target audience has changed, it is essential that any company be totally clear on their new intended audience and their needs - especially relative to the previous target group. There must be a clear difference in who the new target is and/or how the new product is different. Re-establishing or redefining a company image must start with the prospective customer and their current perceptions, needs and the options available to them. All online communication including email, websites, banner ads and text must support this new positioning. Re-establishing a brand or image is tough and I would highly suggest getting advice from a professional marketing firm, as there is more involved than just making a few changes to existing ads or websites.
HOSTSEARCH: Of all the products and companies you could choose to market why do you focus on the internet services and web hosting industry?
HARTLAND ROSS: Actually we don't focus just on the web hosting industry. Rather we work with companies in the B2B space usually in software, internet services, the financial industry and of course web hosting. We prefer to stay away from consumer marketing because of spam considerations and the proliferation of questionable practices engaged in by so many companies targeting this market. We focus on these key areas since they respond well to online offers and solutions. Most are very internet savy and this of course facilitates the online buying, downloading and registration processes required by our clients.
HOSTSEARCH: What trends in web hosting services do you see forthcoming in the industry?
HARTLAND ROSS: I continue to see a lot of consolidation of the industry particularly with those who have achieved a critical mass and I expect this to continue. I also see growth in new hosting start ups. As a result, the industry is becoming very polarized to the very large hosting companies and those that are still very small. I'm also continually seeing a lot of innovation and technology solutions, services and tools being offered by hosts to their clients. I think these tools and services will be a key component of the value added by hosts to their various plans. I would say the industry still has a lot of growth although the market is becoming increasingly competitive.
HOSTSEARCH: What is the difference between targeted email or opt-in email and spam?
HARTLAND ROSS: Well this is a very difficult and subjective question and one of the main reasons we stay away from B2C lists. Generally we stay away from lists that were collected as a result of sweepstakes, prizes, giveaways, free stuff, surveys, etc. I also don't like opt out lists - ie if you don't uncheck a box, you just signed yourself up to receive special offers, or when you sign up for one list and you are then offered a page full of additional categories to choose from - again sometimes through an opt out process. Typically when a list has over a million names, we take a very close look at the opt in process. We prefer sites that are very targeted and where visitors have subscribed to be on that sites's newsletter or email list. From our experience, the large lists just don't perform. I immediately remove lists from our database when we end up being on mailing lists where we never opted in.
HOSTSEARCH: If you could give one piece of advice to a web hosting provider in terms of marketing what would it be?
HARTLAND ROSS: Before you spend money on online marketing, make sure you have optimized your site for conversions and that your site is clear, professional and establishes trust in visitors. Having 20 steps in the purchase process, the site being down, no phone number or address to contact, a phone number that always goes directly to voice mail or requires the person to wait 1 to 2 hours on hold are all examples I've seen far too often that severely inhibit the sales process.