Time to Tell A Friend

The internet has the capacity, sometimes, to divorce not just our minds from our bodies and siphon us into cyberspace but also our common sense.

When it comes to business models the internet seems to have managed to make us forget everything we knew in the Real World (RL for the acronym lovers) and slow down the length of time it takes us to re-learn it.

How else can we explain the fact that the number one selling tool in the universe is so underused on the internet that hardly anyone remembers to implement it. All right, I've played games long enough, time to get real and tackle exactly what I'm talking about.

In the real world before you change your mobile phone, splash out for that flat-screen plasma TV or set out to test-drive the latest muscle-car at your local dealer you first discuss it with your friends. That's because you're the product of an evolutionary process that has conditioned us, as a species, to pool our resources in order to reach a decision that is far more informed than anything we could have managed on our own.

More brains than one

Left alone, on an island, without even a Man Friday to talk to our store of knowledge and our ability to make informed judgements would soon deteriorate to the point where the quality of our decisions would jeopardise our chances of survival.

The net is no different. We see a product that's hot, a web page we like or a news item that's topical and our immediate reaction is to tell a friend (or several). With the internet and email our telling a friend becomes both immediate and personalised. Except that when we're in full flow, buried in reading the text on a page, checking out the stats on a sports car or weighing up the merits of a particular product we're loathe to leave the page in order to load up our email programme and spend time firing-off a message or two.

Savvy website designers who understand this have responded with the 'Tell A Friend' facility, a nifty applet that, at a click, allows you to tell your friend or friends what you've found on the net. That way you and I, as sophisticated consumers, carry on with our online activity and still engage in the critical knowledge-sharing interaction that's a characteristic of our species.

This is a classic win-win scenario. We do our bit. Website owners get to benefit by recommendations and fresh traffic and our friends find out about websites they probably wouldn't have come across as quickly (if at all).

In website design parlance a 'Tell A Friend' facility is 'empowerment'. It's allowing the surfer to increase their interaction with the website and maximise their return from its use.

Not as easy as it looks

Of course, had all this common-sense behaviour really been as common as that I would not have written this article and, in all probability, you would not be reading it. I have no idea why website owners do not ask for it to be implemented more frequently, but I do know that when they do they don't always get it right.

Remember the reason we didn't use our email client to send a message to our friends in the first place is because by the time we find what we want on the net and launch ourselves into the web pages we're in too deep to readily want to interrupt what we're doing and send a message to anyone.

There are two types of 'Tell A Friend' facility you can use. The first takes you to another page where you can type in your friend's email address, your own and (usually) a brief message. The second type allows you to do all this, prompts you for a message right from the page you're surfing.

It is the clever use of the second type implemented by web design experts, PQL (http://www.pqlwebsolutions.co.uk/), that proved its mettle when it allowed the pages it appeared on at Cool Publications, an internet publisher website, to increase their traffic load by over 300%.

When analysing why this happened at the Cool Publications monthly traffic stats meeting it became apparent that while in the past we'd relied on valuable word-of-mouth publicity to spread through the digital equivalent of more traditional means (i. e. fire-up your email and send off a message much as you would have picked up the phone when you found a spare moment and talked to your friends about what you'd found), in this case we'd actually 'prompted' the surfer to tell their friends and, what's more, made it possible for this to happen without ever leaving the page.

"Breaking the flow of concentration of surfers is never a desirable thing to do and neither should you take them off your website in order to have them send a message to a friend. The same one-click ease of use that got them there can conspire to take them somewhere else," says Lead Designer, Paul Beardsell at PQL. "Taking advantage of word-of-mouth publicity is essential to your business but it should never happen at the expense of a sale."

So, if you have a page on your website (or a product) which you think it'd set the world alight and surfers would like to share with their friends, go ahead and implement the code to make this possible. As long as you remember that empowerment also means ease of use and additional sales, and all this should work, seamlessly together.

David Amerland is the Projects Editor at Cool Publications, an internet publishing company that has revolutionised web marketing and publicity. Prior to that he reported for The European, worked in PR for a national sports corporation and was the lead reporter for Your Money, Savings and Investments magazine.

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