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Creating a Customer Database for Your Site

One of any business’s greatest assets is its list of customers. It is a record of past sales and a source of future revenue. The Internet presents a unique opportunity for you to obtain information about visitors on your Web site and to convert those visitors into customers.

As you are probably aware, consumers on the Internet are often very hesitant to provide any information about themselves while online. Most of us have experienced the frustration of entering our e-mail address on one Web site and soon after receiving volumes of spam e-mail. In the worst cases, personal data is stolen from a Web site and those customers become the victims of fraud or full identity theft. The media has covered such cases extensively, so many consumers are now aware of the risk in providing personal information. If you plan to leverage your Web site to increase your customer database, we recommend the following:

  1. Be clear and forthcoming about how you will and will not use any personal data your company collects. Create a privacy policy and adhere to it.
  2. Do everything you can to safeguard the personal information you collect from customers. Don’t use obvious names for your database files–spammers are very clever about searching your Web site for files like “users.txt” or “customers.txt”.
  3. Review your database records regularly and expire old data. Having a database of 10,000 names isn’t very valuable if 8,000 names are invalid due to corrupted or outdated information.
  4. Never present your customer list on your Web site in any browsable format.

If you keep these main points in mind, you’ll be one step closer to having a database of happy, repeat customers.

Implementing an Online Database

There are many ways of actually collecting information from visitors to your Web site. Some fairly straight-forward methods can be used, even if you do not have advanced technical skills. We will cover several methods in this article, but regardless of how you go about collecting and storing the information, your first priority should be security.

Investing in an SSL certificate from a company like GlobalSign to secure data submissions is vital. SSL encrypts data as it passes back and forth between the customer’s Web browser and your Web server. Even if you create a simple Web form to collect customer data, that information passes through dozens of points on the Internet as it travels from the customer’s Web browser to you. Investing in an SSL certificate from a company like GlobalSign or GeoTrust to secure data submissions is vital.

Most people are familiar with a Web form; they are created with HTML and appear on your Web site as a form with various fields for customers to fill out. An accompanying Submit button is used to process the customer’s information. The processing of the collected information is the $64,000 question. What does that mean? How do you get an action to take place when the visitor hits that Submit button?

The engine that processes data in a Web form is called a forms handler. The forms handler can be a script written in JavaScript, PHP, ASP, Java, or many other languages; it can also be a bot process such as a FrontPage forms bot. When your customer presses the Submit button at the bottom of your Web form, the forms handler either sends you the customer’s data in some manner (email, FTP, etc.) or writes the data immediately to your online database.

FrontPage: The Simple Way

As discussed in our article “Popular Web Tools and Technologies” FrontPage is a Web development tool that enables you to design Web pages and advanced Web forms. While FrontPage is an application that you run on your local PC, there is a server-side component, called the FrontPage extensions, needed for proper forms handling. To create Web forms with FrontPage, verify that your Web hosting service supports FrontPage extensions.

You can use FrontPage and FrontPage extensions to create online Web forms that collect data and either send it to you via an e-mail or store it locally (in a secured area of your Web site for later download), or both. FrontPage also has the ability to store collected data in an Access database. FrontPage has some limited ability to validate Web form data: it can certify that fields expected to contain numbers actually do and that e-mail address fields appear to be valid (i.e., they are formatted correctly).

You should consider several things when collecting data with FrontPage. First, if you configure FrontPage to e-mail a customer’s Web form data to you, that data will pass through many points on the Internet where it could easily be captured and examined by unscrupulous people. So you should never collect vital personal data such as credit card information via an e-mail transmission. Secondly, the e-mail address where the data is to be sent (e.g., your company’s e-mail address) is coded into the FrontPage form; this means an unscrupulous person can easily grab your e-mail address and spam it. For these reasons, it is unadvisable to use e-mail to transmit customer data.

FrontPage forms can also store collected data in a local file (CSV format) or MDB (Microsoft Access) database. The only problem with this approach is that it is more difficult to transfer data from the Web site to your office for merging into a complete contact management application such as Gold Mine or a FileMaker database. The optimal solution in this scenario is to use the data live from your Web hosting company, which eliminates the technical difficulties of supporting data in multiple locations.

Script-Driven Database Solutions

Nearly all script engines such as PHP, Perl, ASP, and JSP have database functionality built in or available as an add-on to the language. Like FrontPage extensions, nearly any other script engine can be built as a form handler and assigned to process form data on a Web site. So which one should you choose? That depends on several technical factors (the type of Web server you’re using, for instance) as well as what expertise you have available to you. If you are working with a Web hosting service, they should have at least one script engine available to you for free.

If you are hosting your own Web site, we recommend that you survey popular script sites on the Internet to get a feel for what sort of commercial or freeware solutions already exist. Sites like www.hotscripts.com and www.scriptsearch.com are great resources.

Where and How to Store the Data

Once you decide on how to gather customer data on your Web site, you next need to decide how to store it. The most popular database for Web servers is MySQL. It’s free, it’s powerful, it’s widely used, and there are many resources available in print and online that will help you learn how to use it. Other solutions exist for larger scale data warehousing such as full SQL from Microsoft or Oracle, but these are generally used by large corporations with higher capacity needs (and higher budgets) than the average small- or medium-size business.

MySQL works particularly well with the PHP scripting language. PHP has built-in MySQL functionality and is the most widely used freeware scripting language used on the Internet today.

The problem still remains of how to make live use of customer data that is stored in a MySQL or full SQL database. Both of these solutions are transaction databases and by default don’t come with a user interface that gives you access to the data. If you are savvy in writing your own scripts (PHP or otherwise) you can craft an interface that gives you access to the data via a Web connection, or you can search for an out-of-the-box solution that provides you with the access you need. If you are accessing your customer data via a live connection to database provided by your Web hosting service, you must secure it via SSL.

The FileMaker Solution

Another approach to building a Web database is to use FileMaker, a complete database solution offering both robust data storage capability and a complete user interface via the FileMaker client. There are many FileMaker hosts on the Internet who can host a FileMaker database for you. FileMaker is not a freeware application but its cost is reasonable for what you get. FileMaker Server and FileMaker Server Advanced can be purchased for about $2,000 and FileMaker clients can be purchased for around $230 per seat.

If you are using a dedicated server solution (virtual or physical) from a Web hosting service, you will have the flexibility to install FileMaker Server on your server. You can work with your service provider to configure FileMaker to give you live access to your customer database while simultaneously allowing your Web site forms to add data to the same database. One great benefit of this setup is that your company operates from a single database, greatly increasing your efficiency.

Making the Final Choice

All the database solutions discussed here can work well for you. If you are working with a Web hosting service such as Verio, look first at the solutions they offer. Ultimately you must choose a solution that is best suited to your exact needs, works well with the other software you have (server operating system, Web server, etc.), and is within your technical ability to implement it.

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