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I called it “the hidden secret of Web site success” and it stimulated more notes to my own Web site, a-clue.com, than anything I've written in quite a time.

"The secret to a successful mass-market Web site lies in doing what 99 percent of companies avoid like the plague," I wrote. "Post your e-mail address. Post it publicly, post it proudly, post it everywhere you can.

"I know. Spambots are going to get you. Virus writers will find you. Every consumer and his Aunt Myrna is going to whine at you about their personal problems opening your packages of Sweetums Cereal.

"Great. Wonderful. That's just what you want."

Over the last few years the trend has gone in just the opposite direction. It's easy to see why.

Executives treasure their e-mail access as a way to reach inside the company, or to chosen confederates. Lower down the ladder everyone is afraid, not just of viruses, spams and the like, but of "Astroturf" campaigns (fake grassroots) of interest groups, or of suggestions by “consumer reporters” that people "take their complaints to the top."

So we have press releases where I can't find out who to contact, or how. We have "forms" for everything which don't draw a response. We have a vast pulling-up-of-the-drawbridge between the big companies running Web sites and their customers.

We also have a recession. It's not entirely a coincidence.

But before you get that image of Mr. Big Cheese spending his entire day picking through Outlook Express and never getting anything done, let's get a few things straight first.

If you're running a Fortune 500 company this doesn't have to be your own, real, private Pop3 e-mail box you're using. It doesn't have to be answered by you, either. You can create procedures for handling this e-mail traffic just as you do your paper mail, where you don't look at 99.9 percent that comes in the door.

In the real world filtering is a cost of doing business. You have a mail room, and procedures. Why should e-mail be any different?

Automated gatekeepers can toss the spam. Firewalls can toss the viruses. Secretaries can handle the routine correspondence in your name, and junior executives can route most of the rest to the proper place. If you want a separate, private box that only you access, you can have that, too.

Some companies already do this, although they do it wrong. Jeff Bezos sends me a ton of spam, from jeff@amazon.com. So why isn't Jeff more successful? It's because he doesn't understand the second half of the feedback loop.

Here it is. Engrave this on your brain. Here is the key to Web site success.

Every person who writes you gets a coherent, personal, real-life response from a living, breathing, caring human being (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) within 10 minutes of their hitting send, if it's anywhere near business hours. Someone acknowledges them, validates their humanity, and gets to work solving their problem, if that's possible. (If the e-mail in question represents mere harassment, have your lawyer respond.)

Anyone who sends you an e-mail is giving you "transaction permission" to respond. Your goal is to connect with the prospect, deal with their problem, and then try to increase that permission. The goal should be the same as the goal of the Web site, to get them to join an appropriate list, to maintain contact, and to expand that customer relationship.

Business is a feedback loop, and e-mail is the feedback medium.

Many great companies in America owe their success to having a founder out-front, giving the company a human face. Charles Schwab, Papa John's Pizza, and now Ford Motor Co. all put the boss into their advertising for a reason. It is to make a human connection between the customer and the brand. And nothing makes a personal connection more than a personal e-mail, one based upon a careful read of the e-mail that came in.

Does this "scale?" Hire enough people and install enough technology to make it scale--make it your top priority.

Do people have to know you're not reading each one of their messages personally? Of course not. Santa Claus wasn't hurt by the scene in "Miracle on 34th Street" where all the letters were dumped on the judge's desk so the old man in the dock could prove he was the Real Deal. What kids really want to know is that what they want will be under the tree when they wake up Christmas morning. If you get it to them, you can be a Big Time Brand too, just like Santa.

So here's what you should do. Stop posting "web addresses" on your ads. Put a personal e-mail address there instead. Then, make sure you answer that e-mail.

When business knocks on your door, you answer. When a customer walks into your store, you have someone there to help them.

Encourage it. Make it work with e-mail. It will turbo-charge your growth.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dana Blankenhorn  (danablankenhorn@mindspring.com) is the author of the new book, The Blankenhorn Effect: How to Put Moore's Law to Work for You, available at Amazon.Com.