Lecture 4-1: "Active" Pages
In past weeks, we've discussed all sorts of different Internet technologies. However, we haven't really talked about technology that logs you into a website, keeps track of a shopping cart, and takes you through the checkout process. This week, we're going to shore up that discussion.
The problem with most technologies that we've discussed so far (except for Adobe Animate) is that they were never really designed to work with databases, files on a server, other web applications, etc. And, even in the case of Animate, you really wouldn't want to build an e-commerce application with it because it's more difficult to build an e-commerce site in Animate than it is to use other alternatives. What I mean by this is that the program is designed around what your users see and interact with; it is not designed to make coding the core server logic easy by any means. Truthfully, in many businesses, there are two completely different teams working on web applications - one on the interface (what you see) side of things and another who handles all the "server stuff".
This is where "Active" pages come in. Active pages look to the user like they are plain HTML pages, but they're not. They can actually do all of those things I mentioned before (connect to a database, manipulate files on a server, etc.) and a whole lot more. Let's talk a little about how this works.
Remember when we talked about web servers, and how content pages are served from them? It is the same way with "Active" pages - there is a special server that is used to deliver these types of pages (called an application server) to the end user. The pages themselves can be written in a variety of different programming languages, and the application server interprets those instructions and delivers content to the end user.
Note: For many small to medium-sized companies, the application server often resides on the same physical machine as the web server does. This keeps the server architecture fairly simple and allows firms to make the best use of their resources. This can also be a detriment, especially if your server ends up getting a lot of traffic - you can end up taking out both your web server and application server if you're not careful!
So, Active pages can "do more stuff" than simple HTML pages, but it may not be as clear to you as to where they fit in on the web. After all, when you "go shopping" on the Internet, it all looks like HTML mixed some magic fairy dust that walks you through the shopping process. What I want to do is take you through a quick little scenario that will help you more clearly see how active technologies are used on the Internet.
You received a gift certificate to your favorite e-tailer for your birthday, so you decide to order a couple of movies from their site. You navigate to the site, and they have no idea who you are. Wanting to get started right away, you click on the "log-in" button and enter your username and password. Active pages then take your log-in credentials, check them against the information stored in the company database to make sure they match and log you into the site.
Once you are logged in, Active pages then look at your past buying history and make recommendations for you. Remember that comedy you bought several months ago? Well, the Active pages on the site noticed that people who bought that film also bought (75% of the time) the movie that's being recommended for you now.
You decide that the movie being presented looks interesting, and you decide to click on it to get more information. Active pages now retrieve all of the movie information from the store database and present it to you.
You decide against purchasing the movie, but further down the page, you see that Active pages have presented you with even more options. It turns out that people who looked at the movie you're currently looking at also looked at several other titles, one of which you are interested in. You click on that one, add it to your cart, and begin the check out process.
When you get to the payment information page, you notice that the site remembered all of your address/credit card information from last time you shopped at the site. It turns out that this is more Active pages doing their work.
You finish the checkout process and move on to doing email, where you notice you have a confirmation of your order in your Inbox. As the last step in the checkout process, it turns out that there were program instructions to email you the contents of your order.
This is a rather simple example, but I think you get the idea. What I hope you're seeing as we go through this course is that websites are built using a layered methodology. HTML/CSS are the presentation layer, but there's also a program layer and a database layer that when combined together, pretty much run all of the Internet. Each layer is interdependent on another layer as well; without one of the layers, there really isn't anything interesting going on. In the e-marketing world, we call this a "3-tiered architecture", with each tier being represented by one of the layers I just talked about.
Active Programming Languages
While you are not going to be required to do any Active page programming in this course, I do want you to have an awareness of the primary languages that you will encounter out there that are used to create Active pages. The following table presents four of the main languages that you'll see out there (there are lots of others):
LanguageStands ForCommon File ExtensionsPERLPractical Extraction and Report Language.cgi, .plPHPHypertext Pre-Processor.php, .php3ASPActive Server Pages.asp, .aspxJSPJava Server Pages.jspRuby on RailsRuby on Rails.erb, .rhtmlPythonPython.py, .cgi
Please note that all of these languages pretty much all do the same thing. The main difference between them has to do with the architecture they sit on and the syntax of each language. In my experience, some are a little easier to use than others. The main thing to know here is that if someone's talking about using one of the above options for your site, then you're probably in good hands as far as capability and ongoing maintenance and support.
Lecture 4-2: E-marketing Communication Methods I
The really tough part about discussing E-Marketing Communication Methods is that it is a very large topic, and all of the various component pieces are tied together in some fashion. For my own part, this is complicated by the fact that your textbook mashes all of these topics together (for their own good reasons).
From a technology perspective, though, all of these techniques are very unique and distinct from one another. I think it's very hard to help you understand more sophisticated e-marketing techniques such as blogs, games, etc. without having a foundation in the basic technologies that make these things up.
What I'm really getting at here is that as we go along, we're generally following a path of levels of effort in order to achieve each e-marketing goal. I think you've probably seen that we started out pretty basic at first, but we're drilling down into the more sophisticated now. This is the area where you need to have very focused strategies and goals because you are often going to need to use very expensive programming expertise to help you with your e-marketing content. Not being focused here leads to many wasted hours and dollars.
This week, we are going to focus our attention on Email and Instant Messaging e-marketing (we'll save SMS marketing for Week 8 when we talk about mobile e-marketing), which are covered in Chapter 12 (the second half) of your textbook.
Your textbook makes the case that email is the Internet's "killer app" since it's used by a vast majority of Internet users. And, it has been thus far immune to being replaced by other technologies such as blogs, RSS, and the like. Any time we see something being adopted at such unheard of rates, that presents us e-marketers with a great opportunity to take advantage of.
I think your textbook covers some important aspects of e-marketing very well - there are definite pricing advantages to using email marketing over, for example, mail marketing (and, it's better for the environment). Also, the response time is much, much faster with email.
Your authors then move into a discussion of "opt-in" email marketing services. That is, only emailing those people who have indicated that they are willing to accept email marketing opportunities from certain companies and their affiliates.
It is here that you need to be very careful. For example, last week, I talked about building trust on your website. One of the things I talked about was having privacy and security policies in place that tell your users how your company protects their information. More and more, you are seeing companies say that they will "never sell your email address to a third party, etc." so that they can build trust in their brand. Frankly, I think this is a responsible policy - I get enough junk email as it is without some company selling my information to others.
My wife actually used to use a slightly different variation on her name or a different email address for each of the sites she'd buy from. That way, she would easily be able to identify which sites were selling her information and have it dealt with.
The final area I want to touch on with respect to the information on this topic in your book is the section on "best practices" for doing email marketing. I want you to pay attention to this section and make a couple of brief comments.
The first point I want to make is where they talk about providing an unsubscribe mechanism. They say that this builds trust, and it does, but it is also the law under the CAN-SPAM Act. In other words, you can't ignore this one!
The other point I want to make is about micro-segmentation - not only does this more personalize the experience, but it also keeps the list of people you need to mail, way down, which can help save costs and reduce the load on the email server. It also allows you to run several campaigns at once to determine which is the most successful.
Email Marketing in Practice
Within the field of email marketing, there are a number of technical things that you should be made aware of. The first is that there are two different types of email formats that you can send email marketing to:
Plain Text Format is just what it says it is - plain text and nothing else - like images, links, etc. (See example below). The advantage of using this method is that it is universally accepted and the file size of the email is generally quite small. The disadvantage of these emails is that they are really, really ugly...
HTML Format allows email marketers to incorporate graphics content, fonts, and formatting into their email marketing communications (See example below). So, you can "pretty up" your email communications, which can significantly aid their effectiveness. The disadvantage of these types of communications is that they may end up looking screwy in certain email clients, and certain email clients do not allow some of the graphic content to come through without "unblocking" the content. Also, note that the size of these emails is generally bigger than plain text emails, which can have a big impact on the email server if you have a bunch of emails to send.
Email Marketing Set-Up
The next point I want to make on this topic is that there are a couple of ways you can do email marketing. The first is that you can have a third party service take care of this for you. Doing so is fairly inexpensive, and those types of services definitely have the capacity to handle pretty much anything you'd want to get sent out. They also will sometimes have enrollment lists you can send to, as well as manage people who wish to unsubscribe.
The second method of handling this is by handling the task internally by using active pages or special software built for the purposes of managing email campaigns. To be honest, this really isn't all that hard to do yourself, particularly if you only have a small number of people you're trying to reach. There isn't a lot of code that you need to do this - it's less than 20 lines, believe it or not. Many of the languages we talked about already actually have code samples on the Internet you could look up if you were interested.
However, problems start to appear when you have a lot of emails to send out, or you have a large file to send. What can happen here is that the process of sending thousands of emails can crash or slow down the server hosting your content and/or your email server while it's sending the emails out. Put simply, you don't want to be penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to this - what good is getting an email out for little/no cost if your server is down and unable to service all of the traffic you're trying to drive to your site?
Speaking of sending emails, I want to spend a little time talking about building lists of people you can send your email marketing to. The opt-in lists that were discussed in your textbook are certainly one way to build a list, but they are not the only way. There are a couple of other ways that you can do this.
For example, there are a number of discussion boards/blogs out there that post the email address of the person who made the post as part of the post. That means that there's a perfectly valid email address floating out there in cyberspace somewhere for email marketers to collect. How is this done? Well, remember those bots we talked about last week? It turns out that there are bots out there that will crawl through the whole Internet and collect email addresses. So, make sure you're careful about the places where you post your email address!
Or, consider another example. Remember in week one when we talked about registering a domain name? Well, in order to register a domain name, you need to provide contact information, which is available in a publicly available directory (you guessed it, email address information is in there). Thus, in order to prevent bots from accessing the information, they place what's called a CAPTCHA in front of the data in order to protect it. You probably have encountered CAPTCHA in the past, but didn't know what it was called. In essence, it's a test to make sure the user is a human being and not a bot crawling through a site. Most of the time, it's an image containing a string of letters and numbers that you must enter into a text box before you are able to go to the next step such as in the image below:
As we stated in the lecture about bots, they really can't read images like this (though some tricky hackers can sometimes get through this barrier anyway). Thus, if we get a valid result, we know we're dealing with an actual human being. So, next time you see one of these things, you'll know why it's there.
If you think the things we've talked about are sneaky ways to build up your email list, wait until you read what I'm going to tell you next. Another way you can build up an email list is to take a "shotgun" approach. That is, using active pages or special programs, try sending a small email to every possible email address at a certain host and see which emails come back.
Programming techniques make this a relatively simple task, and processing the rejects is pretty easy also. Luckily, many popular email services have means in place to protect against this type of behavior (they detect the attempts and then block the person from doing any more of this). However, not everyone is so smart about handling this!
Your textbook contains one of those nice "Let's Get Technical" sections on Instant Messaging in Chapter 14, but I think most of you are already very familiar with the technology and what it is used for. Note also that Instant Messenger programs are now well-embedded on our mobile devices these days, so what was already a ubiquitous technology is becoming even more so.
That said, I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about the various marketing opportunities available to us through IM.
One potential avenue is to display banner ads in Instant Messaging software like in the screenshot below:
This is a rather simplistic example, and it should remind you of the banner ads that we discussed last week. However, there are a couple of other interesting opportunities that you need to be aware of with respect to this technology. One is that e-marketers can compile lists of instant messenger names (which is often easy since many people's email addresses are also their instant messenger IDs - particularly for services like Hotmail and Yahoo). Then, companies can put these IDs onto a list and converse with their customers when they are online.
Another alternative is to place a chat interface on your homepage where customers can talk to a customer representative like the image below:
Using this method, companies do not have to worry about what chat tool their customers are using and customers can talk to a live person who can answer questions about a company's products in real time. This is the kind of interaction that is very likely to help build confidence in an e-transaction.
The last thing I want to talk about with respect to Instant Messaging and e-marketing is "bots", a concept you are already somewhat familiar with. However, instead of crawling the web trying to categorize content, these are automated Instant Messenger agents that respond to requests for information. As the next link in the packet, I have created a short demonstration that shows you how these "bots" are used to provide information to customers very quickly.
Lecture 4-5: Campaign Metrics
The last topic I want to talk about this week is something we've talked about at some length this term - metrics. Mostly, we've talked at a high level about how we obtain the data that we need in order to look at all of the metrics described in this chapter. However, I do want to talk specifically about some ways to measure the effectiveness of email campaigns.
Generally, when companies create email campaigns, they use special promotion codes to help track the effectiveness of the campaign. These codes are usually applied during the check out process and usually offer some benefit to the customer such as:
Buy one, get one free.
$X off a purchase of a purchase (over a certain dollar amount)
A percentage off of your purchase (over a certain dollar amount)
Free gift with purchase
Any number of other deals
When these codes are applied at check out, they are stored in a database where reporting can then be done on how the codes were used and by whom. This can obviously give us a lot of very useful data about our customers, which is why these techniques are used so often.
In addition to driving website traffic and data gathering, I have seen companies use metrics to gauge the effectiveness of various advertisements they are considering before rolling them out to a mass audience. Consider a scenario where you have three different ads to promote the same item, but you're not sure which will be the most effective. Instead of guessing, perhaps you pick a small sample size and send all three ads out at once (sending each ad out to a third of your sample group). You can then check your metrics and determine which ad was the most successful. Thus, you've used campaign metrics as a decision-making tool.
Scheduling Your Campaign
As a business, you must make some strategic decisions as to when you're going to campaign and how often you are going to send emails to your customer base. There is a delicate balance you want to strike here - you do not want to campaign so much that you annoy your customers, but you still want to make sure your customers are thinking of your business (even if they are not ready to make a purchase decision).
I think a company that does a good job with this is Amazon.com. In the case of these guys, they generally have their new product database tied into the database that records my past buying behavior. For example, consider this email I once received from Amazon:
Dear Thomas Petz,
We've noticed that customers who have purchased or rated Beginning Adobe AIR: Building Applications for the Adobe Integrated Runtime (Programmer to Programmer) by Rich Tretola have also purchased Adobe AIR Programming Unleashed by Stacy Tyler Young. For this reason, you might like to know that Adobe AIR Programming Unleashed will be released on mm-dd-yy. You can pre-order yours at a savings of $15.30 by following the link below.
I do not find emails like this annoying at all; rather, I find them to be quite helpful because I feel that this is information I truly need. And yet, they definitely help Amazon.com increase sales.
That said, each business is going to have their times of the year when their email campaigns are going to be more effective, and it's important to use metrics to find out when these times are. For example, the holiday season is often a very critical time for many "brick and mortar" retailers. However, Valentine's Day might be the busy season for an online florist. For a boating company, early spring might be the optimal time to start a focused email campaign.
With all that said, there are some ways that companies can tie buying behavior to individuals instead of trends during a year. For example, some websites will ask you to enter birthday or anniversary information and offer to send you a reminder that the date is coming up. Of course, the idea is that you will buy your gifts from that retailer, but this is yet another way that companies try and create a "win-win" situation for consumers. And, this service can pretty much be provided at very little cost.
Once again, note that companies are able to correlate the sending of these emails with buying behavior.
Please review the lectures above and answer the following questions in details.
1) Summarize thoughts and ideas on the material (note that this is different than summarizing the material itself
2) Relate relevant experiences and current trends to the material
3) Examine relationships between what you learned and the business world.
4) Describe how you would apply learning experiences in the real world.
5) Provide additional information related to the material to your knowledge base.
6) Discuss about blogs from term web logs and direct marketing including e-mail, postal mail, and SMS.
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