February 20, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 11:45 am

Businesses benefit from new web tech

Advances in web technology are enabling firms like Horizon Marketing Group in Cromwell to provide cost-effective solutions to a range of businesses. Chris Uzzo (above) is Horizonís vice president of search marketing and analytics.

The Connecticut Association for Human Services (CAHS) in Hartford wanted to find the best possible way to reach out to individuals in the low to-moderate income bracket about the state's new Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which went into effect in Connecticut this May.

"We want eligible individuals to get access to the credit but we don't have the money to place targeted ads in different regions across the state," said Jim Horan, executive director at CAHS, a nonprofit organization.

So Horan turned to the Cromwell-based Horizon Marketing Group Inc.'s newly created HMG Labs to develop an alternative communications strategy for the coming tax season.

The lab, which tests and evaluates the effectiveness of a suite of emerging technologies on a continuous basis, recommended the use of Quick Response (QR) bar codes and text messaging. Research indicated that CAHS' target group has access to this technology.

"They charged us $10,000 for the concept and for enabling us to implement the strategy and monitor results. Print, TV or radio ads would cost a lot more since we need to advertise in a market fractured into Hartford, Waterbury and New Haven," he said. "We're using cutting edge technology in a way that we've never used in the past, especially for a nonprofit."

But there's more to just getting the word out about the tax credit.

Horan said when people scan a QR code or text CAHS after seeing the number on, say, the back of a bus, CAHS develops a database with user information for future programs such as free tax preparation, free financial education classes and screening for eligibility for food stamps.

"This will allow us to assess what kind of assistance a family might need," he added.

Just about every big name marketing firm on Madison Avenue in New York to the small marketing outfit next door is evaluating emerging web technologies for clients, who want real-time information on how people are reacting to their service, product and brand online.

It's positioned to become one of the hottest offerings from a business analytics standpoint. So regional firms like HMG are getting on the bandwagon and providing this service, making it accessible to clients like CAHS who cannot afford to hire the bigger firms.

"We have 24 people in our team who are topic experts in specific areas of technology usage such as mobile strategy, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, live chat, virtual trade shows, gaming, QR codes, and augmented reality," said Chris Uzzo, vice president of search marketing and analytics at HMG. "The whole point is to help clients eliminate learning curves at their end."

The goal for Uzzo and his colleagues is to increase conversion rates for clients in the B to C space, and site visitations for clients in the B to B vertical.

For example, HMG might recommend a game for a consumer-oriented company's website or via a mobile app, which could result in greater brand awareness and loyalty, culminating in repeat purchases.

It could combine two technologies — called a mashup in marketing lingo — to track user experience. For example, a combination of Twitter and Google Maps for real-time feedback or a mashup of QR codes and mobile sites.

Or it could implement a brand-building program like it did for Chegg Inc., a leading national online retailer for college textbooks.

HMG Labs utilized business analytics tools to enable students to spread the word about Chegg by giving them access within the interface to video, Facebook and Twitter. Those that "shared" a certain number of times received points, which could count for discounts on future purchases.

Matthew Nemerson, president and CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council, said large corporations like Ford Motor Corp., Hewlett-Packard, and Procter & Gamble are getting very good at building a real-time relationship with their customers, which is what customers are increasingly expecting from companies.

"Ironically, bigger companies seem to know more about their customers than the local barber or deli owner does. So marketing firms have a huge opportunity to bring back the personalization that people expect from smaller and local companies," he said.

Julie B. Kampf, CEO and president of JBK Associates Inc. in New Jersey, heads a small woman-owned executive talent development firm.

She believes her organization must adapt web technology to increase business presence in the digital space.

HMG Labs sends out periodic email communications on emerging technology usability. This service is currently free of cost to clients.

"Since they thoroughly analyze and test every concept, we can be sure of its functionality and effectiveness, saving us time and lowering costs," she said.

The cost ranges from $1,500 for a simple Twitter brand page to several hundred thousand dollars for a custom game, typically designed for large corporations.

Even so, large companies say many smaller marketing firms are more affordable than the big players and are as reliable.

"Smaller firms offer significant cost savings because they have less overhead," said David O'Brien, strategy director at Bloomfield-based Tailwind, a subsidiary of Cigna Corp.

The firm is exploring the use of technology in the coming year to engage policyholders of Cigna health insurance toward leading active and healthy lives.

Hartford-based Jason Black, editorial services manager at Nokia Developer, Nokia's online community for third-party mobile app developers, said HMG Labs designed a "Like" button feature in the online newsletter he sends out to the more than 200,000 developers around the world. When readers "hit" the "Like" button, the content gets posted on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, expanding the reach.

"It's doing what I can't do through traditional advertising because I don't have that kind of budget," Black said. "Sharing opinion is something new to newsletters. It allows us to monitor the engagement in our content and see what people are truly interested in. It's something we would not have thought of on our own."

With the long road to economic recovery in 2012, marketing firms are sharpening up tools to account for every dollar spent by clients on web technology use.

User experience in a social context, use of mobile apps and integration of application programming interfaces are positioned for growth in the coming year.

While smaller marketing firms like HMG are jumping into the ring with the big players, winners will emerge based on cost and conversation rates.

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