Extranets - Brochureware Sites

"Brochureware" sites are the most common types of web sites on the Internet. They are made up of HTML pages (with or without JavaScript) and two general ways to link with customers - e-mail and/or forms. Brochureware sites are not "database-driven" so only limited interactivity with visitors is possible.

This page has three sections: :

Each section outlines techniques which will allow you to automate aspects of your brochureware site and extend your otherwise "e-mail only" extranet. The implications of "random" web site visitors rather than known clients is also discussed.

Making the most out of e-mail links on Brochureware web sites

When visitors click on an e-mail link on a web page it they normally start up their e-mail client ready to send an e-mail message. Although this is a very easy technique to use there are two downsides:

  • The message is typically not secure i.e. it is not encrypted
  • The person sending the e-mail can change the message contents so you have little control over the format of the message

Despite these drawbacks:

  • You can easily embed a Subject Line into the e-mail message so you can tell which product or page the visitor was interested in when they clicked on the e-mail link.
  • Even though the user can change the contents, you can create a form that uses (free) JavaScript code to format the contents of the e-mail message in a standard way

AutoResponders are another way to leverage e-mail messaging from a brochureware web site.

Whether these techniques are available to you depends on whether your ISP lets you use an unlimited number of e-mail "aliases" on your web site - for example one e-mail address per page or per product.

If you can use unlimited e-mail "aliases", you can assign a specific e-mail address to a specific page and on that specific page (or pages) link a specific e-mail address to a specific offer or user action.

So, any e-mail coming to a specific e-mail address (assuming you have set up your e-mail system correctly) means only one thing - for example - send a specific file to the person that sent the e-mail.

This simple technique is the cornerstone of "AutoResponders" - a VERY useful technique for handling targeted promotions and offers.

You can also use the same idea to provide specific documents to specific customers (whether or not you have a web site).

For example you could use this technique to let people request specific documents - e.g. an e-mail to statements@anycompany.com could mean that the sender wants you to send them a copy of their current financial situation. (To automate this you would need to link the e-mail address to the customer via an external system. You would need some kind of password protection and probably an encryption process).

Although e-mail is an easy way to link to customers from a Brochureware web site, the downsides are:

a) the message is not secure unless being sent from a secure server
b) each non-standard e-mail has to be processed manually
c) there are limits to what standard e-mail messages can do

To summarise, beware of the built-in limitations of "random" e-mail when thinking about automating "Brochureware" web sites - beyond the selective use of AutoResponders.

Integrating eMail and Forms/Files

Using forms and files on a "Brochureware" web site help standardise incoming information. Forms therefore enhance the predictability of eBusiness information derived from your web site, which means you have a far better chance of automating your procedures.

A form is made up of a collection of data fields that you use for gathering information from people visiting your Web site. Site visitors fill out a form by typing text, clicking radio buttons and check boxes, and selecting options from drop-down menus. After filling out the form, site visitors submit the data they entered, which can be processed in a variety of ways depending on how you have decided to process the results.

Forms have a variety of uses, such as:

  • Gathering visitor information.
  • Receiving requests for information
  • Collecting order, shipping, and billing information.
  • Getting feedback about your site or your service.
  • Setting up guest books or on-line bulletin boards.
  • Letting people search your Web site.
  • Prompting visitors to log in to your Web site with a user name and password.

Generally, when a visitor submits a form, the data collected inside the form is processed and saved in one of the following ways:

  • The results are saved to a text or HTML file.
    Each time a site visitor submits a form, the results are appended to a file.You can open the file and view the results or create a link to the file so that site visitors can see it.
  • The results are sent to you via e-mail.
    Each time a site visitor submits a form, your web site sends you an e-mail message containing the results of that form.
  • The results are saved to a static database.

A key point with "Brochureware" web sites is that except for automated responses via the web site itself, everything is one-way traffic - it is the visitor sending you information. Also, in most cases there is a delay between the visitor sending the information and you receiving the information and acting upon it.

Automating downloads from / to your web site

When designing your site for eBusiness, the time it takes for the information you gather on your web site and the effort required to act on that information both need to be considered. To a certain extent the format of your data dictates your available options:

HTML Files - If your web results are being saved to a publically available HTML file, chances are you won't need to download it to your system for processing - although you may want a backup from time to time.

E-mail - E-mail created via a web form is likely to be using a predictable format and the information you want is text embedded inside the e-mail message itself - as opposed to e-mail attachments. Depending on your e-mail package, there are many ways to process these types of messages.

For example, you could use your e-mail package to automatically identify which form was used, and then strip out the contents and append the contents to a predetermined data file that was periodically imported into your desktop accounting package.

This is the basis of a simple order entry system driven via your web site. (You probably won't have a Credit Card Number using the above scenario because the form was not processed via a secure server, but for existing customers who have accounts with you, the above scenario may be perfectly adequate.)

Text Files / Database Files - Although these two data formats are conceptually different, they are both still "files".

The software used to transfer the files saved on your your web server to your office computer is called FTP software. FTP (File Transfer Protocol) software is available from many vendors, but there are two distinct types:

  • Per Session
  • Persistent

You run Per Session FTP software each time you want to use it - either manually or automatically. Examples are:

Persistent FTP software provides an integrated and continuous link between your Desktop PC and your web site. Examples are:

Both approaches are equally valid. Aside from personal preference, an important issue is whether it costs you money to be persistently linked to your web site - either on-line charges and/or telephone charges.

If the marginal costs of your telephone and on-line time is zero, then continuously being connected to your web site means that you can treat the files on your web site as if they were part of your internal network. (A persistent connection may not be a significant advantage - unless you have a fast connection to your web site you can't work quickly with larger data files).

The more typical scenario is a "per session" connection - your desktop software routinely checks to see if one or more files on your server have changed or a new file has been added - and if it has - you automatically copy / move the file from your web site to your desktop system so you can process them in-house.

Most FTP software lets you automate the reverse sequence - i.e. you can upload files from your desktop system to your server. This can be particularly useful when publishing relatively dynamic information on a regular basis - for example price lists and other time sensitive information.

To summarise - Capturing information from visitors to your web site can be standardised by using Forms. You easily set up systems that download files from your web site automatically, and at low cost.

Combining eMail, Forms/Files and PERL/PHP Scripts

PERL and PHP are "scripting" languages that can be used to help automate your web site and your business. Some sites are almost 100% PERL / PHP scripts, and resources for both languages abound.

One limitation to PERL / PHP is that many ISP's do not let you use your own scripts on their shared servers. They are concerned about rogue scripts bringing the server to it's knees or compromising security.

Even though scripts can be time intensive, and are likely to cost you more than straightforward HTML and/or Form/File development, the results can make your life so much easier by totally automating your links to AND from your clients.

The bottom line is that if you want to do something special, PERL and PHP will definitely help. And if your current ISP won't cooperate - move to a new ISP.

(We have extensive experience developing unique web-related applications in PERL / PHP so if you need help to automate your brochureware site we are available on a time and expenses basis).

See also: Server options | E-Mail Only systems | Database-driven Sites | Peer-to-Peer options

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