Analytics & Data

Collecting and Using Data from Your Website Visitors

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Web Marketing Today. Practical Ecommerce acquired Web Marketing Today in 2012. In 2016, we merged the two sites, leaving Practical Ecommerce as the successor.

Who are your company’s best online prospects? Probably the people who have already visited your site. How can you continue to market to them? One way, of course, is through an e-mail newsletter. But you can market more directly than that.

Six months ago I began receiving information from Web forms on our site not only via e-mail messages, but also saving it in tab-delimited databases on my Web server for future use. As a result, I am able to direct market to those who have visited my site in the past. Let me explain the process in a somewhat technical manner. I hope you’ll be able to adapt parts of this strategy to your own site.

Qualifying Questions

First, you’ll need to set up a form to receive data. In order to be useful, you must distinguish “Kilroy Was Here” inquiries from good prospects. To do that you need qualifying questions.

Part of my business is designing online retail stores for clients, and recently I wanted to contact those who had visited my site over the past six months to see who might be ready to have me set up a store for them. I used three qualifying questions to help me determine the best prospects:

  1. “Approximately how many products (SKU numbers) do you anticipate?” This told me the scope of a project.
  2. “Which best describes you?” allowed these choices:
    • Just browsing. Not interested in an online store
    • Want my own store and need a developer to set it up
    • Want my own store, I’m a essentially a do-it-yourselfer
    • I’m a developer/designer looking for store-building tools
    • I’m an ISP looking for store-building tools
  3. Finally, I asked: “Would you like someone from Wilson Internet Services to contact you?”
    • Yes, please call me
    • Optional
    • No, don’t contact me.

I decided that I would contact individuals seeking to build a store of any size, that my best prospects were those who said they “need a developer” as well as “do-it-yourselfers” who might have gotten discouraged with the process. I determined not to send e-mail to individuals who specifically asked me not to contact them.

You can see how important qualifying questions are to targeting your best prospects. What kinds of qualifying questions would be best for your business? Why don’t you jot down a couple before reading on?

Forms with Database Capability

Setting up forms is definitely a higher level skill than learning HTML, so it’s a hurdle you may need some help with. There are many forms-to-e-mail programs out there, probably one supported by your Web hosting service. Ask your ISP if he has:

  • MIT’s Cgiemail by Bruce Lewis (
  • Matt Wright’s FormMail (
  • FrontPage Forms (FrontPage 97 called them WebBots, FrontPage 98 calls them Components) using FrontPage extensions.

E-mail feedback from your forms allow you to provide immediate responses to visitors. But without a database to store their data, a longer term e-mail marketing campaign is difficult. Yes, there are programs such as Arial Software’s SignUp ( which parse e-mail fields into a database, but they can be quite picky about the exact format of e-mail messages, and don’t work well with longer memo fields.

One further advantage is that you can choose to place the logfile in a non-Web location and download it using FTP, or you could place the logfile in a password-protected directory so you can access and download it with your Web browser.

Importing Data Logfiles

Most smaller businesses are familiar with desktop databases such as Microsoft Access (, FileMaker Pro (, or Microsoft Excel ( (Of course, Excel isn’t really a database, but for small files, many businesses use it that way.)

Excel allows you to import a tab-delimited text file by just opening it. With Access, you first need to specify the names of the fields, and then import by using the File/Get External Data/Import function. Once in a database program, you can sort and manipulate the data into usable form, and from it determine who are your best prospects. Access has a powerful Query function that allows you to sort the data for just the fields and records that are pertinent to your particular task. This enables you to prepare a report for telemarketing, or a list of prospects to whom you desire to send e-mail.

Targeted E-Mailing

One of the most powerful capabilities of a database is to send out personalized e-mails for one-to-one marketing to your clients.

“Isn’t that spam?” you ask.

If you define spam as “unsolicited e-mail” it can be. Did you give your online visitors a chance to indicate that they didn’t want you to contact them? That’s important. You certainly don’t want to make enemies when you’re trying to win customers. I used to give visitors only two choices: “Do you want someone from Wilson Internet Services to contact you?” Yes or No? Now I give three choices: Yes, No, and Optional. This gives me an additional way to judge a prospect’s seriousness, but it also increases the number of people who will allow me to e-mail to them, since many people will choose Optional, if given the choice over Yes or No. I take Optional as a Yes. Here’s the rule. Don’t e-mail to people unless they have indicated that you may do so.

When you have the person’s name, e-mail address, and interests, you can send messages targeted to the precise needs of people in your database. When I send out e-mails of this sort, I always include the person’s name in the subject line, so they can see at a glance that this isn’t spam. For my online store promotion I used this:

Subject: Sandy, have you built your online store yet?

My message mentioned the prospect’s visit (I could have given the exact date if it had been pertinent), asked whether they still needed my services, described my “offer” (in this case some lower prices and increased services), and then told them how to contact me for more information (a “call to action”).

The Technical Side

I must admit that this type of e-mail marketing couldn’t be described as “easy,” but neither is any one-to-one marketing approach. The qualifying questions must be carefully thought out, the form designed, the data written to a data logfile, and downloaded. Then it must be imported and queried for the best prospects. You need to write compelling copy. The final step, however, is crucial: merging the data and copy into an e-mail message and sending it.

PC owners have three basic options:

  • Office 97 (Word, Access, and Outlook)
  • AlphaSoftware NetMailer
  • Arial Software Campaign

I found Arial Software Campaign 3.03 quite useful in setting up an e-mail merge marketing campaign. With Campaign, the process involves four steps:

  1. Set up a database filter from a database. Campaign reads native Microsoft Access, but it reads data from Paradox, ContactPlus, ACT!, dBase, FoxPro, GoldMine, Media Map, Lotus Approach, and delimited text files. Once you select which database and table or query information is in, you can select up to three data definitions from five fields. For example, I chose either “Need Developer” or “Do-It-Yourselfer” from the “Role” field, and anything except “No” from the “ContactMe” field. Alternatively, you can write an SQL query exactly defining the data you want.
  2. Set up a message that includes fields from the database. I wanted this to look as personal as possible, so I put the prospect’s first name in the subject field, as well as addressed the message to them personally.
  3. Merge the database with the message. Campaign writes the e-mail merged messages into its own outbox. I always check to make sure everything went as planned, and more than once have deleted all the prepared messages and started over.
  4. Send the mail out using an SMTP server or e-mail program. Since I don’t have a permanent connection to the Internet, I first send the prepared messages to Eudora Pro, and from there e-mail them to the Internet.

When I e-mailed this online store campaign I didn’t get one “Don’t spam me” reply. Some obsolete e-mail addresses caused delivery failures, a couple of individuals I had corresponded with previously let me know how their projects were coming, and one person thanked me for the reminder, assuring me that he would be contact me soon to begin a store. I expect to hear from some others this coming week. Not bad for a small mailing of two dozen carefully selected prospects.

Direct e-mail marketing is one of the Internet’s most promising fields for marketers. You’ll definitely find it worth the effort market directly to your site visitors via e-mail.

Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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