Put Your Website On Auto Pilot

How to Save Your Time and Sanity by Automating the way you handle Website Feedback

The only way you can make enough time for developing and promoting your Website is by streamlining the way you handle feedback from your Website – by automating to the max.

The Webmaster’s daily prayer goes somewhat like this:

"God, please give me 28 hours today. If that isn’t possible, at least let me get the most out of the 24 there are!"

As your Website grows by leaps and bounds, the days seem to become increasingly shorter and the unanswered eMail keeps piling up in your inbox. Such is the price of glory!

On one hand, you are happy that so many people visit your Website and take the trouble of writing to you. On the other, you simply don’t have the time or energy to respond to each message personally. And it goes against your nature to simply delete such eMail feedback, or reply with a standard message saying "Thank you for writing, I really appreciate it"!

So what can you do?

The one word answer – AUTOMATE.

By their very nature, computers are ideal for carrying out repetitive, boring tasks automatically and perfectly. It is a simple job to make the computer that hosts your Website reply to most feedback messages, and even personalize the response to an extent. The rest of this article will tell you how.

STEP 1: ANALYSING THE PROBLEM

As with any complex issue, the key step is to look at the problem in depth. Handling Web based feedback is no exception. The first thing to do is identify the kind of eMail your Website generates.

The broad categories into which Website feedback fall are:

  • Praise or criticism
  • Requests for further information
  • Navigation difficulties
  • Suggestions for improvement
  • Recommendations of other Websites
  • Advertising queries
  • Registration or Membership information

Each category of feedback requires a different kind of reply from you. But surprisingly, within each category, the type of reply is very similar. This is of enormous benefit in automating the process. Let’s take a closer look.

PRAISE OR CRITICISM

This kind of feedback is very valuable to a Webmaster as it acts as an instant survey of whether or not the Website is serving the needs of the target audience it attracts. It is good practice to ALWAYS reply to this kind of feedback, with at least an acknowledgement and a word of thanks.

Often this is all that is required. A simple note that says:

"Thank you very much for taking the time and effort to write back to me with comments on my Website. I read every message personally and try my best to implement the suggestions of visitors. I invite you to return frequently to the site and see for yourself how your feedback has helped it grow and develop into one that serves your needs and interests. Thank you again for your feedback, I really appreciate it."

This ‘form-letter’ is sufficiently broad enough in scope to cover most kinds of praise and criticism, yet sounds personal enough to the recipient.

REQUESTS FOR MORE INFORMATION

If your Website is an information resource about a product, service or topic, you are guaranteed to receive many questions from readers. They may be:

  • seeking clarification of some part of your articles or other content
  • requesting more material about a particular product or service
  • asking questions about related topics or products

At first glance, this seems so varied and individual that automation isn’t possible. But here’s some homework for you. For the next month, collect all questions you receive from your Website’s visitors and look at them. It will surprise you to see that the same 5 or 10 – or maybe 50 – questions will keep repeating themselves.

NAVIGATION DIFFICULTIES

However diligent you are, there will be periods when parts of your site are inaccessible. A link may be broken, a server may be temporarily down, or the visitor’s browser or ISP may be at fault. If your site isn’t organized very well, visitors may find it difficult to reach the information they are seeking.

So they’ll write to you. Again, courtesy demands that you respond. But this category of feedback is easily automated, since there are only a few possibilities that need to be addressed.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

While feedback of this kind is rarer, it is infinitely more valuable. A reader who cares enough about your site to bother suggesting improvements is a person you need to build a relationship with.

Then how can this be automated? Maybe not entirely, but the first contact with such a visitor can be. By arranging for an eMail reply to be generated immediately when a visitor writes to you with a suggestion, you are establishing a bond. You show that you care enough to acknowledge the feedback. When you follow up with a personal message soon, the bond becomes stronger.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR OTHER WEBSITES

On many Websites you would have noticed a "Suggest a Site" link that lets you tell the Webmaster about another resource you feel should be listed on the site. Since this kind of feedback involves only one function, the entire response can be automated without requiring your intervention at all.

ADVERTISING QUERIES

If your Website sells advertising or sponsorship, you may get questions from interested people or companies. Most of the information they need can be included in a Media Kit. The only time your personal intervention is required is to seal a deal or negotiate a rate discount.

REGISTRATION OR MEMBERSHIP INFORMATION

Some Websites ask users to register or join as members. Many of them include a section asking visitors for their comments or opinions. The feedback generated in this way is varied, but the rest of the form data can be automatically stored in a database.

STEP 2: PLANNING A SOLUTION

Okay, now you’ve identified the different forms of feedback your Website throws at you. And you’re raring to go, and set up a process to reply to these eMails.

Whoa! Hold on for just a moment. An ‘ounce’ of planning now can save you ‘pounds’ of wasted effort later.

The questions you should ask yourself now are:

  • how do you gather feedback?
  • how do you want to respond to visitor feedback – by eMail, on a Website, or by other methods?
  • how quickly do you want to answer questions?
  • how much time and effort can you afford to put into this process, or how many people can you hire to do it for you?

This will determine the solution you will employ.

HOW DO YOU GATHER FEEDBACK?

There are many ways you can ask for feedback on your Website. The two most often used are:

  • Web based forms
  • eMail links

eMail links have the advantage that almost anyone can use them, irrespective of the kind of Web browser they use. But as most browsers today are forms-capable, and the dangers of posting your eMail address on a Website (such as having it harvested by spammers) are increasing, Web forms are preferred by most sites.

By thinking and planning the way your forms are created, you can simplify the process of handling feedback and allow easy automation of the response. If, for instance, you create a separate form for users to submit a ‘site recommendation’, all these messages can be answered by a common eMail message. This lets you set up an autoresponder just for this purpose!

HOW DO YOU WANT TO RESPOND?

If you are an eMail addict like me, you might prefer to use it to handle all visitor feedback. On the other hand you might want to tackle them from your Website itself. Alternately your Website might only be a vehicle to drive queries about your off-line business and you’d respond to queries by postal mail, fax or a phone call.

Deciding upon this step early-on lets you plan and design your Website forms accordingly.

HOW QUICKLY MUST YOU RESPOND?

The nature of your Website determines the answer to this question. A customer ready to complete an order, a patient desperately seeking help with a medical condition, or an investor seeking stock tips would desire (near-) instant responses. A student visiting a site on medieval history wouldn’t mind waiting a week or more for an answer.

You need to set a goal that is:

  • in keeping with the needs of your Website’s audience
  • achievable consistently without too much effort on your part

WHAT ARE YOUR CAPABILITIES IN HANDLING THIS PROCESS?

If you are Amazon.com, you could afford to hire a fleet of operators to simply answer customer feedback. But if you are a one (wo)man show, you can’t afford this luxury.

Remember – don’t over-stretch yourself. While overwhelming customer service is indispensable for a successful Website, consistency is also equally important. Once visitors are used to a certain level of service, they’ll resent it if you slip below that standard.

STEP 3: TAKING ACTION

Now, armed with all the data and information you need, you are in the best possible position to take the steps that will add hours of free time to your life and let you sit back and enjoy your growing Website!

Again, staying organized is the best way to go about it:

  • choose an appropriate Web host
  • design the Web based forms
  • prepare the autoresponder messages
  • write the Webpages that contain answers
  • install a script that acts on the form data
  • configure your eMail client to filter feedback

CHOOSING THE RIGHT WEB HOST

In order for automation to work best, your Web host should allow you some flexibility and have some specific features. Here is a brief list – the Web host should:

  • offer HTML forms support
  • give you unlimited eMail autoresponders
  • allow access to your CGI-bin library
  • permit you to run your own CGI and Perl scripts
  • give full FTP access to your site with ability to create new directories
  • (optional) offer online database creation tools

To further add power to the process, get an eMail client program that has powerful filtering capabilities to sort out incoming eMail. I use Pegasus Mail, but many others like Eudora are just as good. Generally eMail clients that come bundled with Web browsers aren’t as powerful, though you might be able to manage with MS Outlook Express or Netscape Messenger.

DESIGN THE FORMS

There are many important advantages in using Web based forms to gather visitor feedback.

  • you can categorize the feedback into distinct groups e.g. one form for questions, one for site suggestions and one for navigation problems
  • you can ask for all the information you think is relevant. By making some fields in the form mandatory, you can ensure a minimum level of data is collected from each feedback message
  • you can validate data and prevent errors like typographic mistakes and incompletely filled data fields being entered into your form by using basic Javascript. For instance, the Web form can ensure that an eMail address is in the proper format e.g. abc @ xyz.com
  • you control the way feedback is offered by setting up YES/NO options or offering multiple choices from which the visitor selects one, and this allows easier grouping of the data and addition to a database, as well as ensuring that no important piece of information is missing.
  • The data entered into forms can be automatically imported into a database for later retrieval and searching

Here are some tips for designing your Web based forms:

  1. Use separate forms for each major category of feedback. For instance, use one form for visitor comments, praise and criticism, another one for them to ask questions and a third one to let them submit site suggestions.

  2. Keep the forms down to a limited size. Don’t ask for irrelevant data. Offer simple choices – check boxes to select, or radio buttons to click.

  3. Make some fields mandatory, like the visitor’s name and eMail address. This allows you to generate a personalized reply by eMail from the form data, and gives you a way to contact them later on.

  4. Use scripts to add inputted data to a database, generate an eMail copy of the information to you, and take the visitor to a specified section of your Website after filling up the form.

PREPARE THE AUTORESPONDER MESSAGES

For each category of feedback, define the most appropriate answers and create a generic message which you’ll use to reply to the visitor. As discussed earlier, this may be a single common message to respond to user praise or criticism, or to site suggestions.

Or it may involve answering the most frequent queries – 5, 10 or even 50. To do this, you would create a separate section of FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (or FAQ) which contains the answers. The FAQ must be frequently updated and expanded to include newer questions and information.

For advertising and sponsorship queries, you could create an online Media Kit that contains all material relevant to an advertiser – traffic, visitor count, demographic data, page views, rates, nature of ads, payment options, discounts and more.

If a visitor writes about navigation difficulties, you’ll need to respond with a list of the probable causes – server downtime, changed file names, slow Internet connections, incompatible browsers – and also suggest ways to overcome them. For instance, you could

  • direct the user to a SEARCH page within your site to look for the new location of the Webpage
  • request him to try after some time when the server is functional again
  • invite them to send you eMail for help

In all cases it is best to create these messages in two formats:

  • a Webpage
  • an eMail message

CREATING THE WEBPAGES

For each category of auto-response messages, create a separate Webpage.

For instance, your FAQ page could have a long list of the most often asked questions, with each one linked to the answer or another Webpage containing the answer. As your site grows and expands, you could constantly add new questions to the page, making it a valuable resource in its own right.

To assist with navigational difficulties, a section titled "How to use this site" detailing your navigation aids, the layout of your site and a SITE MAP could help users enormously.

INSTALL A SCRIPT THAT ACTS ON FORM DATA

Now that you’re all set to go, let’s see how you can play around with the data that a user enters into your Website form. Here are some possibilities:

  • copy the information from all (or selected) fields into an online database
  • send the same data to you as an eMail
  • generate an eMail response automatically to the user based on the eMail addresses entered into the form, and containing a message pre-defined by you
  • automatically transfer a user to a pre-determined section of your site upon completing the feedback form

These basic functions are enough to handle most Website feedback issues.

But how do you bring such functionality to your Website forms?

By using programs called scripts. There are many kinds of scripts, but basic CGI and Perl scripts can handle these functions effectively. You, the Webmaster, will install a script on your server. The data a user enters into a Web based form will be submitted to the script which acts on it in a specified way to bring about the desired effect.

An example might help you understand this better. Let us take the case of a FAQ page and its related form. A user Mrs.Alice visits your site, reads about a product, and wants more information. So Alice fills up the form and clicks on the SUBMIT button.

Here’s what the script does:

  • collects the user’s name and eMail address and files it in a database so that you can contact her later, if necessary
  • copies the data into an eMail message to you, for your records and immediate action
  • instantly generates a personalized eMail message beginning with "Dear Mrs.Alice" and going on to acknowledge receipt of the form data and inviting her to visit the FAQ page at http://www.yoursite.com/FAQ.html if her need for the information is urgent
  • transfers her automatically to the FAQ page itself!!!

Then why the eMail? Because it acts as a reminder in case Alice decides she wants to come back later and check out your site for this same info. Plus it shows that you care enough to send a reminder by eMail – this helps build trust in you and your Website.

CONFIGURE YOUR EMAIL CLIENT

Do you remember how the script generates a copy of each form’s data into an eMail message to you? Acting on this eMail might become a chore when more and more visitors come to your site and send in their feedback. By adding another level of automation, even this can be made simple.

While creating your HTML forms, remember to use a unique identifier for each distinct type of form. Then in your eMail client, configure the Filtering option to automatically send all eMail with that identifier into a separate eMail folder!

For instance, Alice’s eMail would be filtered into a folder titled "User Questions". From time to time, depending on the urgency of your site’s content, you would open that folder and read the messages.

If the question is likely to have been answered on your FAQ page, you could either do nothing, or send out a ‘form letter’ asking the user whether or not she found the answer to her query on the FAQ page helpful. Even this can be automated!

If Alice’s question is one that isn’t on the FAQ page, type out a detailed reply including references to helpful material on your Website if available. Then, before you send the message, copy and paste the content into the FAQ Web page. That way, by periodically updating your FAQ, you don’t need to answer the same query the next time!

PUT UP YOUR FEET AND ENJOY LIFE!

There you are. A simple, no-nonsense way to automate the entire process of handling feedback from your Website. If you receive 30 feedback messages a day from your Website, and take an average of 1 minute to reply to each, automation will save you 30 minutes a day. Or 15 hours a month. Or 180 hours a year!

Think about that – an additional five days every year.

So maybe God did hear your prayer. And answered by giving you the means to automate your Website.

What would you call this? Webmastering heaven? Hands-free driving?

No matter. Sit back and enjoy the ride!

Author’s Note:

For a working real-life example of the concepts discussed in this article, visit my Website at http://www.DrMani.com The script I used for this site is MasterRecommend.cgi from William Bontrager’s site at http://www.willmaster.com

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