First place

The Site Next Door

Company: Elizabeth Gray-Carr, Realtor
Web address:
Why it won: builds relationships with customers by offering interactive tools and unusually detailed information, including personal Web pages.
Company revenues: $250,000 (in commission income reflecting $12 million in home sales)
Site-launch cost: $5,000
Judge's view: "This site makes creative use of 360-degree viewing to give the customer complete access to offerings in an easy-to-navigate format that puts the viewer right in the middle." --Jed Emerson

Like all successful real estate agents, Elizabeth Gray-Carr is a people person. She is a walking font of information about school districts, developments, mortgage rates, recent sales -- you name it -- in her hometown of Anderson, S.C. The genius of the independent Prudential Real Estate broker's Web site is that Gray-Carr, collaborating with her husband and Web-site designer Tom Carr, has been able to translate all that knowledge (along with a personal touch) to the Internet. From the smiling, full-length picture of Gray-Carr on the home page to the photos and bios of her three colleagues, Gray-Carr's site feels warm and approachable.

But being cozy isn't enough to make the site a winner. What separates from the rest is its utility. For buyers, the site lists the agency's entire inventory of homes on the market and provides a 360-degree virtual tour of many of them. Buyers can also access extensive information on their desired neighborhoods, including the prices of homes that have sold recently, as well as school-district data and copies of plats.

Sellers can use those same comprehensive statistics to get an idea of how to price their homes. They can track what's happening with the sale 24 hours a day through a personal page on that details advertising schedules, house showings (complete with buyer feedback), and needed paperwork. Tom Carr expects that the paperwork feature -- just launched -- will cut the workload in half and reduce the number of phone calls the office has to field. Moreover, says Carr, sellers will be able to see where they stand whenever they want -- a major improvement over the twice-monthly paper mailings they used to receive.

Gray-Carr's thinking has evolved in the two years since she launched the site as "just another marketing tool." Now, she says, "it's become a tool for dissemination of information." On the site, visitors can locate nearby golf courses, look up the weather, study subdivision restrictions, and link to the Web sites of every school in the county. Anderson residents can even post messages for all their neighbors to see.

However, as convenient as the site has proved to be, it took a few months for Gray-Carr and her brokers to adapt their business practices to the electronic medium. They had to form new habits -- like responding to E-mail queries promptly and referring potential clients to the site instead of faxing them brochures.

"The real estate market is getting more and more technological, with all the dot-coms and Web sites advertising homes," says Gray-Carr. And she plans to take advantage of coming technical advances. When there are settled standards for electronic signatures, Gray-Carr expects to conduct more and more business online, including exchanging contracts. If it eventually becomes possible to hold a real estate closing online, you can bet Gray-Carr will be one of the first to do so. Says Gray-Carr, "If you want to stay in this business, you have to stay on top of the technology." --Lauren Gibbons Paul

Second place

Keep 'Em Coming Back for More

Company: Flying Noodle Inc.
Web address:
Why it won: The site has promoted an unusually high level of customer retention.
Company revenues: $400,000
Site-launch cost: $13,000
Judge's view: "The site allows one to move easily to purchase items and get on with it." --Jed Emerson

In 1994, Raymond K. Lemire was casting about for something to do with his life. The business that he'd been running, which sold bicycle trips all over the world, had just merged with another company. At that point, Lemire was sure of two things: his new business had to be direct mail, since that's what he knew, and it had to relate to food, since that was his passion. In 1995 he started a mail-order pasta club designed to appeal to harried professionals who want gourmet meals. Today Flying Noodle Pasta Club members receive two high-end pastas and sauces (such as strozzapreti and artichoke lemon pesto) by mail -- the "flying noodles" -- a month.

Lemire, who calls himself the "Big Parmesan," launched a Web site at the end of 1995. It rapidly cooked up more than 75% of his sales. A respectable 60% of his Web customers buy from the site again after their first order -- a rate that Lemire says is unusually high for his industry. "The hardest thing in the direct-mail business is to get the second sale," he says, at his office in Hanover, Mass. Club members can have their purchases automatically billed to their credit cards, a practice that contributes to repeat sales. More than 12,000 people subscribe to Flying Noodle's monthly E-mail newsletter. Web Awards judge Don Peppers pointed to the high repeat-customer rate and a lengthy newsletter subscriber list as signs that Flying Noodle is a customer-retention star.

But Lemire is not one to rest on his laurels. He plans to add a gift-management capability to the site and to sell all the accoutrements for cooking pasta to its al dente best. Says Lemire, "We're trying to put people at ease with the experience of buying gourmet food. It's just food. It's not something you have to bow down to." --L.G.P.

Third place (tie)

Water Views

Company: Starlite Houseboats Inc.
Web address:
Why it won: The site's interactive tool allows users to design and price the houseboat of their dreams.
Company revenues: $2 million
Site-launch cost: $7,500
Judge's view: "While a drawback is that someone is not likely to order a $150,000 boat based on surfing a single site, it does serve as a solid marketing tool to engage prospective customers who may order off the site or otherwise continue to connect with the seller." --Jed Emerson

Houseboats have come a long way. Tubby eyesores of old, they are now more likely to boast king-size beds, jumbo jacuzzis, elegant flying bridges, and high-octane engines. Two things haven't changed though: they're still found mostly on fresh water (they're not equipped to handle open ocean), and they're mostly used as alternate living spaces. However, a new twist is that their builders are increasingly likely to be trolling for business in cyberspace.

That's just what Roger Aldis decided to do. Last year he launched a Web site for his Dallas-based company, Starlite Houseboats Inc., which had been in business since 1994. A houseboat is a complicated purchase, and CEO Aldis wanted to give potential customers an easy way to do research on it -- much like shopping for a car on the Web. Today visitors can use an interactive tool to "design" their dreamboat by selecting from a menu of seven floor plans that have an average base price of $139,000. They can also select optional equipment (like home-theater systems and swim platforms), hit the Send button, and receive a quote in minutes.

Our judges thought Starlite was a standout, even though it didn't reach the exalted heights of its competitor, General Excellence winner Sumerset Custom Houseboats Inc., which judge Evan Schwartz called the "Dell Computer" of the houseboat industry. (See " Web Awards 2000: General Excellence.")

Before the advent of the Web, would-be houseboaters had little choice but to trudge to boat shows and far-flung dealers' showrooms in search of information. And they had to subject themselves to high-pressure sales tactics in order to get an actual quote. Aldis wanted to let people get a real-world price quote in a matter of minutes -- no salesperson needed. That feature got high marks from our judges. "[The online configurator] is a powerful marketing tool in that it instantly connects the user's preferences with the end product," said Don Peppers.

But Aldis doesn't cut out the dealers altogether; Starlite has one in Atlanta and one in North Carolina. In addition, the company still hauls its boats to the big shows. But Aldis believes that his site's online configurator puts his customers at ease and makes them more likely to buy from Starlite over the long run. "They decide when they're ready to buy or if they want to talk to someone," he says.

Proof that the approach is working: people have configured more than 600 boats online since the site's inception, in October 1999, and the company has received online orders for 29 boats since then.

Peppers suggested that Starlite should next add to its site "relevant content that addresses general concerns (FAQs) of the entry-level houseboat market." --L.G.P.

Third place (tie)

Plumbing the Depths

Company: Plumbing Express
Web address:
Why it won: Its educational offerings help consumers, building trust in the company -- and sales -- in the process.
Company revenues: $15 million
Site-launch cost: $3,000
Judge's view: "Valuable online coupons entice customers to use the service. Self-service information areas help to build a sense of community and offer a comprehensive solution." --Don Peppers

Polybutylene piping announces its presence in a variety of unwelcome ways. First, there's an ominous bang. Then the water pressure drops down to nil and water begins pouring out of the pipes, ruining floors, ceilings, walls, and belongings. Home builders began installing the faulty piping in U.S. homes in the late 1970s. It was recognized as being fatally flawed in the late 1980s and was finally pulled from the market in 1995. Today an estimated 6 million to 10 million U.S. homeowners are affected by the dreaded stuff.

That's where comes in. Operated by Plumbing Express, an Alexandria, Va., company that specializes in polybutylene remediation, the site aims to tell visitors everything they need to know about the problem.

The education-oriented site has helped company CEO John Ellis, 35, expand his business exponentially. Plumbing Express began to focus on polybutylene remediation in the mid 1990s, but the business didn't take off until the site launched, in November 1998. Although Ellis and his partner, Peter Page, had advertised in all the usual channels, they found they were not getting their message across. Says Ellis, "It's not the kind of issue you can market in the conventional sense. You can't put 27 pages of information in a 30-second TV spot." That peculiarity of their product led them to create the Web site.

Ellis says his initial investment of $3,000 has paid for itself many times over in all the new business the site has brought in. Site traffic has grown at a rate of nearly 5% a month, and an increasing amount of the company's business is directly attributable to the Web. --L.G.P.

Conversation with Don Peppers

Judge: Marketing

Don Peppers, who coauthored The One to One Manager and other books with Martha Rogers, has spent most of his career honing the duo's now-famous message, which focuses on building long-term relationships with customers, suppliers, and employees. Peppers's choices for first and second place in the marketing category, real estate agent Elizabeth Gray-Carr and pasta company Flying Noodle, serve as fine examples of marketers that are winning their customers' loyalty. But there's always room for improvement. Here are his comments:

On what Elizabeth Gray-Carr should do next: "If there's one kind of business where relationship building and relationship selling make a lot of sense, it's realty," he says. Today, he notes, most real estate agents consider their relationships short-term. Peppers suggests that they can make those relationships more long-term by using their sites to provide customers with more and different services. "If I go to, eventually I should be able to get help on a moving company, on newspaper subscriptions, on turning on the utilities, on finding the nearest house sitters and baby-sitters, and so forth," he says.

On building long-term bonds: "Flying Noodle tries to entice you to take their newsletter. Why do they do that? So they will have an ongoing relationship with you. They're trying to create a degree of stickiness there so that when you come to the site, you stay there, and they have a 60% repeat-customer rate. That's pretty damn good." --Elaine Appleton Grant

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