March 5, 2004, 12:00 AM

The Information Age

(Page 2 of 2)

Akin offered to take responsibility for the site into the advertising and marketing department, but with a caveat: “We didn’t want to be judged by how much we sell online, but by the amount of people who come to the site to look up information,” he says.

Judge not on sales

Once responsibility for the site was moved, the next hurdle was finding the content. “We were stymied for content,” Akin says. “We didn’t want dry, technical stuff that requires a high level of understanding to get anything out of.” Rather, Akin says, “We wanted diagrams and pictures in a step-by-step format that you could print and take out to the garage with you.”

Just over a year ago, Advance responded to a cold call by autoMedia.com Inc., an agency that produces auto-related copy for a number of entities, including its own web site, and has a stable of freelance writers that include some names well-known among auto enthusiasts. It now contracts with autoMedia to buy original and re-edited material. “The writers have a tone and a passion for what they’re writing and that’s what makes it so interesting,” Akin says.

AutoMedia provides about two-thirds of the material on the site. Akin, Internet marketing manager Mark Palmer, consumer education manager Brian Gregory and a copywriter produce about a quarter of the site content. The balance comes from parts manufacturers. Advance also posts race schedules and other event information at the site.

Today, the site contains 3,000 pages of content, and the company plans to add 2,000 more this year. Akin estimates Advance has spent $500,000 on creating the content. The company spends millions a year on TV and radio ads, newspaper circulars, billboards and store signs. Marketing and advertising in those other media are fleeting, Akin notes, but the web site information persists.

In addition, coming to the web site represents a choice by consumers, in contrast to the passive way in which consumers are exposed to other marketing, which makes the web site content valuable as a marketing tool. “They’re coming to our web site because they want something from us,” he says. “That’s the most interaction they’ll have with us short of coming to the store. It’s a very, very small piece of the advertising budget, but it’s the best value.”

Next up: Advance plans this month to make the content searchable so customers can find what they want without navigating through the site. And it’s all being translated into Spanish, with Spanish translations of all new content appearing within 24 hours of when the English version is posted.

A traffic driver

Customers coming to HancockFabrics.com, the web site of Tupelo, Miss.-based Hancock Fabrics Inc., may not be getting their hands as dirty as the customers at AdvanceAutoParts.com, but they are equally eager for information about their hobbies. About 5% of all traffic to the web site is to the free projects area or to the Quilt of Dreams area, which promotes a quilt contest that has resulted in thousands of quilts that Hancock customers have made and donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “They’re definitely a traffic driver,” says David Uptagrafft, manager of online services.

The free project area is an online version of the project material that Hancock distributes to stores. When that material is prepared for printing, the company creates a PDF for the printer. Hancock then posts that PDF to its web site. All material is created by Hancock staff and reviewed by Hancock’s home economist. It keeps about 75 projects on the site at any one time and rotates them according to the seasons. “It’s important to keep that content fresh,” Uptagrafft says.

Hancock fabrics also drives site traffic with the Quilt of Dreams. Quilters compete for a Hancock gift certificate, but also are making quilts for the children at St. Jude Hospital. Among the requirements for a quilt to be considered for the competition is that it contain a piece of St. Jude fabric that children design and Hancock produces. In addition to doing good for the hospital, the competition has helped position Hancock as a source of quilting material. “Traditionally, we haven’t been a quilting shop, but we wanted to get into that,” Uptagrafft says. “This helps a lot. Quilters buy dozens of fabrics to make a quilt.” In addition, Hancock is the only source of the St. Jude fabric.

Long-term interest

In 2002, the first year of the Quilt of Dreams, quilters entered 762 quilts in the competition. Last year, they submitted 3,500.

The web site is important to the success of both the Quilt of Dreams and the free projects because it exposes more customers to the concepts than the stores can. “The web site makes it much easier to distribute the rules and the forms,” Uptagrafft says. “People who have never been to a Hancock store come to the site to learn about it. They wouldn’t have found out about it at all if not for the web site.”

In addition, having the entry form on the web site saves thousands of dollars in printing and distributing forms to stores and prevents unnecessary printing of thousands of extra forms to make sure each store has enough. “It’s easier for customers to just print the form off the web site than it is to go to a store to get one,” he says.

In the end, Hancock Fabrics and other content-heavy sites get an additional benefit. “We’re helping people develop a long-term interest,” Uptagrafft says. “We have great interest in teaching people how to do things because we can benefit from that interest.”

kurt@verticalwebmedia.com

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