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Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century poem, for all its political incorrectness, centered on the choice between product stability and product enhancement – the wife of many years or the harem of Havanas that beckoned.

Fast forward to the Internet age where web hosting is web hosting, a server is just a server. A lot of companies offer disk space, bandwidth, and the other usual suspects of a web presence: reliability, redundancy, support. So, what’s the digital cigar and what smoke will it yield? Value-added services, bolt-on products, and other tools that enhance the hosting experience, helping customers grow and profit.

Last analogy - in and of itself, hosting is the hood of the Internet business engine. What’s underneath yours? The answer will explain if your business gets where you want it to or if it sputters on the shoulders of the Internet, consigned to a space in the dot-com junkyard. That’s why hosting has evolved from disk space and bandwidth to a series of base plans where users can add features as needed and at will.

Across the industry, this has been a year of innovation; it has had to be. One reason is the changing face of the customer: the early adopter phase is over; the new generation of customer is the one who doesn’t know or care how the back end of a web site works, but is very aware of its value. Exactly how individual customers measure value is the big variable.

Service enhancements during the year have included the introduction of web site-building software to marketing tools to better spam filters. Spam prevention has come under particular scrutiny because it impacts on virtually every business. Nucleus Research of Massachusetts found that unwanted e-mail costs about $2,000 per employee per year, and that’s just in lost man-hours.

An equally pressing concern is security. Barely a day goes by that you don’t hear about a new virus or worm being unleashed on unsuspecting computer networks. The bigger a company is, the more inviting a target it makes. Ironically, security is an unintended consequence of technological advances. As businesses want more powerful applications that will support increasing numbers of users with greater interoperability, the flaws inherent in a single application are multiplied. That’s not going to cause companies to scale back, but it’s worth noting.

While security and spam are concerns, companies spend more time looking for ways to grow their business. With more than 62-million addresses on the Internet, the desire to rise above the clutter is a key concern for any web-preneur. Between the domestic economic rebound and activity abroad, the Internet continues becoming the global marketplace. So, customers are looking for more than a web presence, they want ways of announcing that presence. That’s why service providers offer marketing tools, from search engine submission help to e-mail marketing software to discounts for initial paid search engine inclusion.

It’s often said and just as often forgotten, that it’s cheaper to retain existing customers than to seek out new ones. That’s why e-mail, targeted e-mail, will always have a place in any marketing plan. Software that lets users build mailing lists, publish newsletters, and create, send, and track HTML messages is low-cost and effective, provided that you’re sending customers information they actually want.

E-mail marketing allows for personalization of messages on a scale no other medium can approach. It gives the sender total brand control, ensures that pricing and product information is accurate, and allows for full leveraging of information databases. Best use ultimately depends on the individual user’s goals: small companies may want little more than the ability to send a newsletter with tips and other information, and perhaps a price special. The enterprise user is more likely to have a brand and message that must remain consistent with broader marketing efforts. A retail company can craft specific product messages and target them to individuals most likely to be interested based on information collected about the buying habits of customers.

Whether hosting provider or hosting consumer, both sides have the same question – what do customers really want? For hosting companies, the answer lies in knowing not just who their customers are, but who their customers’ customers are. Who are your customers trying to reach? That goes a long way in influencing the value-added services hosting companies offer. As easy as “service the customer” sounds, a simple solution would mean fewer companies going out of business.

The most effective means of getting on the right track is to ask the question. Customers are an infinite source of insight and wisdom, particularly for a hosting company. If only one of them suggests that you begin offering a particular service, take it for what it’s worth. When one-third, one-half, or more of your customers want the same thing, the right answer is to give it to them. Is your service provider doing that for you?

Alex Lekas is VP/Corporate Communications for AIT, a North Carolina based hosting and e-commerce company serving more than 190,000 domains in 107 countries.

http://ait.com

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About Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas is VP/Corporate Communications for AIT, a North Carolina based hosting and e-commerce company serving more than 190,000 domains in 107 countries.

http://ait.com WebProNews Writer
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