by Marty Foley
[Here Marty Foley, webmaster of http://ProfitInfo.com and publisher of ProfitInfo Email Newsletter, interviews David Beroff, founder of Freedback.com. David's service has been covered by several publications, including PC/Computing and NetProfitsRadio.com.]
[Marty]: David, can you give us a little background on your online business operations?
[David]: I've been involved with software even before computers were available to the general public. At age 11, I wrote software that "drove" a cardboard model of a simple computer. I think it was called Cardiac, by Bell Labs.
My family and teachers encouraged me with early personal computers such as Radio Shack's TRS-80 and the Commodore 64. By 18, I was teaching Computer Science at Rutgers University. In early '95, friends introduced me to the Web, and I hesitated for fear that it would become a total and complete obsession. I was right.
A month later I established the Internet domain note.com, becoming the first person in the world to purchase promissory notes on the Web. I learned an awful lot, but saw my business activity drop each time a competitor established their own web site.
By late '96, it became clear that the situation online had reached the same point it had offline, where a few firms were able to invest the time and money to do very well, and most others were barely surviving. We fell somewhere in between those extremes, but it was clear we had to identify another business activity with solid long-term potential.
[Marty]: I guess that brings us to your free feedback form service. I know I don't have to ask you how you got started, but some others haven't yet heard the story.
[David]: Yes, Marty; it's funny how our paths kept crossing a few years back.
I had been toying with the idea of providing a free, public CGI web-to-email form service for months, and was encouraged when I kept seeing the topic arise on some of the technical discussion lists. But I sometimes procrastinate, and I never got around to actually implementing it.
Then, in February of '97, you brought up the question on a marketing discussion list about the ethics of using someone else's (unprotected) CGI program for your own site. I recognized your name as being one of the more well-known personalities of online marketing, and I just knew then that I had to take immediate action.
I reviewed a few of the scripts that were free and available to the public, and chose one written by a then-college student, Meng Weng Wong. He was actually running an identical public service, without any advertising. I wrote to him, briefly explaining what I had in mind, just to make sure that he was comfortable with this. He replied that he had no problem with it.
So I set up the script on my ISP's server, and then replied to your post. I explained that even though some other CGI scripts may work, I was explicitly giving you and everyone else permission to freely use the script on my site that would enable anyone, anywhere, to place feedback forms on their site, without the need for cgi access.
I called the service "FreeForm" under the note.com domain, and I gave some very rudimentary instructions on how others could place a free form on their site, set the "action=" to point to the public CGI back-end script on my site, and thus receive email whenever their site visitors filled and submitted the form.
[Marty]: A prime example of successful use of the marketing concept of "giving freely, before receiving anything in return."
[David]: Yup, the old Internet culture approach still makes sense today.
[Marty]: What are the benefits of having a form on one's site?
[David]: Online marketing professionals have found that they can considerably increase the probability of a future visit, a continuing relationship, or even a sale, when a visitor is given the ability to offer feedback or request additional information.
[Marty]: You and I sent a few emails back and forth about your new service until everything ran smoothly.
[David]: Yes, it was not very straightforward at first. I realized that I would be spending more and more time helping each person create their form, and I figured that one way to reduce this would be to write software which automatically generate forms. This proved to be an important key, since it cut down client support time and increased the probability that each new visitor would actually follow-through and use the service themself.
Today, it's a pretty simple process for people to visit http://Freedback.com, fill out a form describing their site and what they'd like, push a button, and let our HTML auto-generator do the work. They can then copy and paste the resulting HTML code into their web pages - and voila! Instant feedback forms without the need for cgi access through their own server, or any knowledge of cgi programming.
[Marty]: So, automation gained you several benefits. Making your site as hands-free as possible is one key to leveraging your time for other important tasks, such as marketing.
[David]: Exactly. I actually have a multi-phase form-building program in the planning stages, which will make things even easier by letting our Members auto-generate their forms in a more natural fashion.
[Marty]: You mentioned email discussion lists as a good marketing tool. What other methods have you used to promote Freedback.com?
[David]: Recently, we have been experimenting with various forms of paid advertising, but it's not always easy to figure out what will work in advance.
We've also started an affiliate incentive program, where other web sites can point their visitors in our direction. I'm getting more confident with this, since the business model we're using only rewards the web site owner when their visitor actually creates a form and places it on their own site. Thus, it doesn't matter if a given webmaster doesn't place our banner very prominently, or whatever, since they simply won't get paid as well as someone who carefully describes our benefits to their visitors and strongly encourages them to take action.
[Marty]: So, you've managed to turn your Freedback form service into a regular income stream?
[David]: Yes. Our total traffic currently brings us over a third of a million visitors each month, with 50,000 of them consisting of a highly-targeted audience of web authors (webmasters).
We knew some firms are looking to economically market to such folks, so we've started to accept paid advertising. We also offer as much as US$1,000/month if anyone is interested in helping us sell our inventory of ad impressions. More info is at: http://Freedback.com/ad/?mf_i.
Incidentally, one well-known online marketer has used Freedback advertising to generate up to about 200 ezine subscribers in a single day!
[Marty]: It sounds like there's more cash flow now than when you first started. How did you get others to link to your site before you could afford to pay them?
[David]: One thing I try to always keep in mind is what Jim Wilson has in the background of his VirtualPROMOTE.com site: "Promote or Die". It's true. It can be a boring job at times, but I must do it daily.
Another important attitude to adopt is to consider the hosts of those sites as potential "clients." There's often only one email exchange to make or break that "sale," so preparation and attitude are key.
Preparation involves making sure that the site you're approaching for a link makes sense in the first place. Some decisions are easy. Like, for me, obvious potential hosts are sites discussing how to write HTML, or where to find CGI scripts, or places to find free stuff on the 'Net.
I also approach marketing sites, since I consider my service as a good marketing tool (often increasing inquiry rates by ten- or twenty-fold). And, perhaps just as important, I play a lot of "what's that demographic?"
For example, I advertise on http://www.newbie.net/frames/ because it was the only frames tutorial on the 'Net when I found it in '96, and it's still one of the best. People who are learning frames are likely to be people interested in learning how to do forms, as well. I'm also not shy about approaching people who may already have a "supplier" of forms.
Even when I don't make the "sale", something good usually comes out of it. Consultants who don't need my service often come into contact with other people who do. Sure, they might be able to sell them their time for $250 to implement the same functionality. But many of us are already overloaded, and that same consultant can choose to build good will all around and whisper to their client, "Y'know, I know where you can get this cheaper...." Well, in my case, free, but I think you get the idea, Marty.
Always build good will, and let that foster into building your "sales team" of people who are happy to make a referral.
[Marty]: What about the mechanics: how do you actually get people to link to your site?
I have a technique that I'm guessing *triples* my chances of getting listed. I can't count the number of webmaster-types that thank me for doing it; often I'm the only one out of literally hundreds who even bothers. Can you keep a secret, Marty?
[Marty]: Sure, I'll only tell thousands of people about it. I'm all ears, David.
[David]: Here's what I do: I find the exact page on another site where I would like to have a link. I then view the source code (HTML) that is used for each of the current links. A little cut-n-paste, and poof! - instant HTML with my link, description, etc. I'm telling them the exact page, I'm giving them the HTML; heck, if I could just FTP in and add my link directly, I'd do that too! "Just add water" works wonders!
[Marty]: Are all your links reciprocal (where you each point to the other's site)?
[David]: If someone asks for a reciprocal link, I'll usually grant it, but I don't offer it up front. And I do at least check the link to make sure that it isn't an obvious scam.
(I usually avoid huge lists of links, since my "slice of the click-through pie" will be so tiny. By the same logic, I don't go out of my way to keep huge lists of links on my own sites.)
One last thing: Keep records of everything. The URL's for their main page, their submission page (if they have one), the page where you expect to land, which promotional paragraph was used (I have a code for each one), contact info, results, date of any agreed upon action, etc. Then check your records periodically and make sure things are still as you expect.
[Marty]: As far as free or low-cost marketing methods, I remember you ran a contest.
[David]: Yes, in June of '97, Joseph Whitmore asked me politely but firmly to change the name "FreeForm" (the initial name for my service), since he had invested considerable money to protect that mark.
(Whitmore eventually changed gears due to a potential conflict with AT&T's trademark on "FreeForm", and now he is doing quite well with his electronic forms software firm at: http://Formatta.com/.)
I figured it was as good a time as any to explore new names for the new domain. I ran a contest amongst our Members to identify a range of names. I had a lot of fun, and I think every one else did, too. Your own entry of "Feedback" came in second place, if I recall.
[Marty]: Yes, and "Freedback" was first?
[David}: Nah. I had actually come up with a dozen or so names of my own, and was curious to see if others would come up with similar ideas. Some did, many others were creative in new directions, and the winning entry of "Form-a-Form" yielded Johnny Bazookatone a month's worth of free banner advertising.
Another interesting point is that our growth in traffic was strongest during that period; numbers were doubling every month. I'm still not entirely sure what was behind that acceleration.
[Marty]: Which promotional approach pays off the best for you?
[David]: The most successful method that works for us is to find ways to encourage our Members to spread the good word for us.
We follow the lead of LinkExchange.com, giving our Members the HTML to publish our discrete 88x31 microbutton and tagline on their own web pages, which reads, "FREE feedback form powered by Freedback.com." Over 2/3 of our visitors come from this method, and a good number of those then add this code to their own webpages.
(Some will recall the Jhirmack shampoo commercial, "and they told two friends, who each told two of their friends, and so on, and so on, and so on...") This concept of visitors- becoming-Members-yielding-more-visitors is largely responsible for our healthy geometric growth.
This concept has also been called "Viral Marketing," but I prefer the term "Organic Marketing."
[Marty]: What is your service's Unique Selling Proposition?
[David]: I've been told that Freedback.com is the easiest to use among services in our class, and offers the quickest implementation time. We have the largest user base by far among our competition, with over 50,000 Members at this time.
[Marty]: What are some of the other online ventures you are currently involved in?
[David]: I run a domain hosting service named music.note.com, but to be honest, I try to concentrate most of my efforts towards Freedback.com. Once you identify your firm's strengths, it's important to direct one's energies towards developing them to their fullest.
[Marty]: How did you learn about what it takes to succeed?
[David]: The hard way. One lesson came from the dissolution of an employer, largely due to the company's inability to succeed.
Strongly-defined goals and an ability to work with other people are also both very important to long-term success.
[Marty]: What major mistakes do you see other Internet entrepreneurs make?
[David]: The biggest thing that I see which frustrates me are people who gather tons of promotional programs, but zero content. There is then no incentive for anyone to return to these sites, and the owners often resort to things like massive spam campaigns to build up hollow interest.
[Marty]: What are some challenges that you've been running into?
[David]: The email load is incredible, maybe 150 to 200 emails a day. I can't filter out spam easily due to the offhand chance that a Member is reaching out for help but not communicating clearly.
There is also a delicate balance between automating Member support versus giving them personal attention.
Like any young business, cash flow is also a concern. Geometric growth also implies geometric increases in connectivity and hardware costs.
[Marty]: What mistakes have you made in regard to your online business?
[David]: Procrastination and organizational skills are areas I can stand to improve on, but a few weeks ago, my biggest mistake came to light.
A burglar grabbed the temporary computer I was using, and worse, the transfer disk that I had used to move critical data between that machine and the one that was in the shop.
The amount of data, email, marketing plans, technical information that I lost.... Since the computer was a "temporary" one, (a loan from my wife), I hadn't really thought about backups; there were none. I was devastated. I don't even want to think about it.
[Marty]: Sorry to hear that, David. A very hard lesson to learn, I can imagine. On a more positive note, what future expansion plans do you have for the Freedback Form service that others might learn from?
[David]: Several members have already translated Freedback.com into various world languages, and I keep meaning to publish these. I'm also working with several partners to serve our advertisers with better targeting opportunities. And Members keep asking me for a fee-based version of our service which would eliminate the ads for their forms.
I keep getting such nice thank you notes from people... I'm quite confident that Freedback.com is going to prove to be a home run, both for our advertisers and our Members.
[Marty]: Thanks for allowing me to interview you, David.
[David]: Sure, Marty! This was fun! Let's do it again sometime!
MONEY helping fellow Webmasters! FREE incentive program.... Show your visitors
how to add Free Feedback Forms to THEIR site (with Freedback.com) and YOU earn
FREE CASH: http://Freedback.com/promote/c_trade.html?mf_i
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