Web Awards: Marketing

Using a formidable sense of their customers, Earth Treks and Merriman Capital keep their visitors coming back for more.

Most people can only imagine what an attempt to reach Mount Everest's 29,035-foot summit is like: laboring to find oxygen, battling snow blindness, tunneling through 60-mile-an-hour winds. But a climbing center and professional-guide service based in Columbia, Md., is doing everything it can to bring the experience home.

Since 11-year-old Earth Treks Inc. ( www.earthtreksclimbing.com) launched its Web site, in 1999, the guides on its seminannual expeditions -- from Ecuador's Cotopaxi volcano to the Himalayas' Mount Everest -- have regularly posted journal entries online from on high, detailing the travails of their excursions for anyone who wants to read about them. "Eighteen hours of snowfall make Camp 2 a living hell," reads one E-mail entry sent from an Everest trek last year. Notes another from the same climb: "Most of us picked up on news from passing climbers that someone had taken a fatal fall somewhere between steps 1 and 2, a somber note to close the day on."

That Earth Treks' revenues have nearly doubled over the past two years isn't surprising, given that the company has matched its marketing efforts to its customers' mind-set. People who are into climbing are fascinated by the challenge and the exhilaration of the endeavor. They are also drawn to communities of like-minded individuals. By inviting its Internet audience along on its adventures, Earth Treks not only generates a sense of camaraderie online but also creates the perception -- among both serious mountaineers and hobbyists -- that the company gets it.

Moreover, Earth Treks has built into its marketing strategy programs to cultivate its next generation of customers. With the aid of two Baltimore-area teachers, company founder Chris Warner recently started Shared Summits, an online program that enables local students, ages 6 to 18, to follow his staff's adventures while earning academic credit. In addition to learning about different cultures, geography, leadership, and teamwork as expeditions unfold, students can also E-mail the climbers, view digital photos, and check out real-time videos of the trip, shot by guides and streamed by satellite with the help of partners that provide IT and financial support. What's the question that students most often ask Warner in their E-mails? "How do you go the bathroom up there?" he says, laughing. (The answer: using suits with front-to-back zippers for easy access.)

Earth Treks invites visitors on adventures both outside its walls, in the Himalayas, and on them, at its indoor-climbing center in Columbia, Md.

Warner says that the program has received "tremendous response" from current customers and from the community at large, in the form of coverage in local media such as the Baltimore Sun. For example, on Warner's last trip to Mount Everest -- a successful attempt to reach its peak in May -- the CEO received 483 E-mails from children in suburban and urban middle schools. And largely as a result of the media exposure, 50,000 visitors logged on to the site on the day that he reached the top. Of those visitors, 20,000 have signed up to be notified automatically whenever Earth Treks posts new journal entries.

Sales are soaring, too; they reached $1.4 million in 2000. The company is fielding a record number of inquiries from people who want to scale the world's highest mountaintops, and revenues for the indoor climbing center have jumped by nearly 40%. Among the new customers are families hosting their children's birthday parties at Earth Treks and youngsters signing up for the Youth Rox climbing program, in which kids age 10 to 14 learn how to scale the gym's more basic mountains under the supervision of instructors.

Needless to say, Earth Treks has made back many times over the $3,000 it spent to launch its site and the $7,200 it spends a year on its Webmaster, Warner's sister-in-law.

Show me the money

Though dramatically different from Earth Treks' site in look and feel, FundAdvice ( www.fundadvice.com) is thriving for the same reason as its fellow Web Award winner: its marketing reflects the personality of its particular audience. The site, which is sponsored by 18-year-old Merriman Capital Management Inc., a $3-million Seattle-based investment-advisory firm, targets investors who are seeking financial advice from a dependable source.

Aware that investors are looking first for security, FundAdvice's top priority is to establish credibility. One way it does that is by providing a link to SoundInvesting.com, the online arm of a one-hour investing show that airs in Seattle on Sundays and often features commentary from Paul Merriman, Merriman Capital's president. After downloading the appropriate streaming-media software, visitors not only can hear audio clips from the most recent program but also can tap into an archive of the shows that have aired during the past five months. Another way the site establishes credibility is through links to some of Paul Merriman's distinctions, including press awards that FundAdvice has garnered and mentions of the high-profile publications that have quoted the president (nine), the national TV shows on which he's appeared (five), and the three investing videos he's produced.

FundAdvice also works to tackle the mystery of how money managers actually manage money -- an issue that often goes unaddressed, to the frustration of many investors. Specifically, the site gives visitors an overview of Merriman Capital's investing philosophy by providing them with five "model portfolios" that the company, which manages more than $300 million in assets, has designed. Based on algorithms devised in part by Merriman himself, each model is aimed at a different type of investor, ranging from the conservative to the aggressive. The algorithms anticipate how the market will change based on past movements that seem likely to persist. Accordingly, two to four times a year, the company shifts its clients' portfolios among the funds that it believes will optimize their returns.

Perhaps most startling about FundAdvice, however, is its glaring honesty. Any number of Web sites offer advice for novice investors. What distinguishes FundAdvice is the forthrightness with which it addresses topics that beginners are eager to learn about but are often shy about broaching -- topics like "How can I save myself from taxes?" and "Do dividends increase my 401(k)?" Other links connect to the more than 100 articles Merriman has written about investing and to outside sources, including Amazon.com, U.S. stock exchanges, and -- surprisingly -- Hoover's Online, Lipper, and other financial-information providers. "I'm happy to provide our visitors with whatever information they need," says Merriman of the rationale behind giving visitors a gateway to other financial sites. "The reality is that even after you show people how to do something, they're still likely to ask you for help."

In fact, since its launch in 1998, FundAdvice has enticed 25,000 people to sign up for a monthly E-mail newsletter concerning the site and its themes, Merriman says. "It's like getting to propagate your name to 25,000 people monthly and make money on the deal," observes Larry Chase, publisher of E-mail newsletter Web Digest for Marketers. "It costs $1 per 1,000 E-mails, roughly," says Chase of the cost to send Web Digest to 175,000 E-mail boxes monthly. "For lead generation and prospect conversion, you can't beat it. If you aren't making money, you're at least reducing your costs in getting your name out."

Merriman Capital has the good fortune to be making money off the effort. Launching FundAdvice cost just $2,000, and annual expenses -- including Webmaster's compensation, promotional costs, and hosting charges -- come to some $100,000. But the site has already brought in assets of $40 million, says Merriman, and revenues have jumped by 23%. Of the 583 prospects who contacted Merriman Capital in the first half of 2001, he says, 251 came from the Internet, and 147 of those became clients.

Different strokes

The marketing philosophies of Earth Treks and FundAdvice may be similar, but how they play out couldn't be more different. At Earth Treks, where community is key, Warner must constantly update the content to give people a reason to come back. At FundAdvice, where stability is paramount, Merriman concentrates on arming visitors with the kind of sturdy information that will lead them to entrust their assets to the company. "We aren't as interested in getting people to come back on a daily basis," Merriman says. "We want the site instead to be instructive."

Through their divergent approaches, the two companies reach a common ground: both ultimately inspire confidence in the public. As Web Awards judge Marcia Yudkin observes, "At both sites, the links work, the layouts are attractive, and everything about the sites functions the way it is supposed to, which isn't true of many sites."

The proof is in the payback that both companies are seeing. And it's not on just the financial level. "Of the feedback we get, many people say they see us as honest presenters of information," says Merriman. "It's a good feeling." Warner voices similar sentiments. "Putting myself in the shoes of a 12-year-old student and understanding what gets him or her excited? That's powerful."

Constance Loizos is a San Francisco-based writer.

Copyright © 2001 Constance Loizos.

The 2001 Inc Web Awards

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