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Holsteins, Heroes and Heart: A Good Host Is Hard to Find

This week I embarked on what should be a simple task: finding a new web host. Like researching a new waterproof breathable jacket or non-stick omelette pan or taser to match your iPod nano, you trawl the Web, read the reviews, wonder which are bogus, glaze over at the offerings, wonder if you should be using Joomla or Wordpress, and if you need SSL and what is SSL anyway…

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FatCow.com stuck in my mind, to the point where I dragged up this tenuously related video: a demonstration of the exacting art of cow calling, from my last evangelistic trip Downunder.

This week I embarked on what should be a simple task: finding a new Web host.

Like researching a new waterproof breathable jacket or non-stick omelette pan or taser to match your iPod nano, you trawl the Web, read the reviews, wonder which are bogus, glaze over at the offerings, wonder if you should be using Joomla or WordPress and if you need SSL and what is SSL anyway … and be utterly stumped. Don’t laugh, many ordinary folk are preoccupied with selling their widget than learning the ins and outs of acronyms.

I was struck by how the hosting industry is somewhere back in the seventies when it comes to advertising and brand image–making my task harder than it should be. And for some reason, the reviews and rankings don’t give me the same confidence as say, dpreview.com for cameras.

On most you’ll see cheesiest kind of brand imagery–stock shots of generic faces wearing headsets, pictures of what looks like server boxes or hard drives and text with lots of exclamation marks. It’s the cyber equivalent of a used car yard with balloons spelling out D E A L and bunting flapping in a muggy breeze.

For many of us, our host is the mother ship–we rely on it all or in part for our livelihood. It’s our other address, our picket fence in cyberspace. If all goes belly up, it’s like being evicted and the house vaporized by an alien ship.

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I’m going to touch on three hosts that actually do have a point of difference:

Fat Cow for it’s “cowskin”, HostExcellence for it’s Support Hero, and Beyond Nines for its nonprofit niche.

FatCow

FatCow

For sheer standout power, FatCow.com kicks butt.

The site resembles an offshoot of Ben & Jerry’s, with lots of witty cow-speak like their HeiferCratic Oath and offering “acres of storage” and being a “hoof-click” away from a blog. It’s really quite appealing, replacing headsets with horns and humans with Herefords, and we copywriters love this kind of stuff. It’s also just a shade hokey, avoiding the sin of being “cooler than thou”.

Here’s a little copywriting from FatCow’s site:

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Why FatCow? We get this question a lot! Well, why call a computer an apple? FatCow was designed from the start to be a different alternative in Web hosting. We took a look around and saw lots of techno babble, confusing pricing schemes and not much in the way of customer satisfaction or support. We decided that a simpler, more customer friendly approach was needed.

So, charmed by the Cow, I was all antsy to go sign up, but dialed its milkmaid to see if she was as charming as Clarabelle. I confess I expected a personal, colorful experience as promised by the Cow. I expected to hear cows mooing in the background and be connected to hayseed with all the smarts.

A mild disappointment awaited me. The sales woman was perfectly adequate. And that’s the problem–she was an efficient, straight down the line messenger, but committed the crime of many, many call center personnel: she talked over the top of me, marching relentlessly ahead, not stopping for a moment when I tried to interject with “Yes but … what if … can I … does that mean … if I … what about … how much … “. Oh don’t we hate it when the salesperson acts like we’re not even there. She didn’t have any good cow jokes make up for it.

Sales Rule 1: Listen with two ears and one mouth in that proportion. Don’t talk over the top of people. The days of steamrolling customers in order to close the sale are over.

Then, when I asked her what distinguished The Cow from the rest, she shrugged it off with “we’re all much the same, no real difference.”

Holy Holstein! Did my pink balloon go pttttssshhht? Honesty is impressive, but I’m feeling depressingly undersold.

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Sales Rule 2: Know your competition, be honest, but avoid underselling just because you can. We’re in the mood to buy, so catch us while you can.

I asked about the owner of the company, since the blogosphere has made us all terribly nosey about “who’s up who and who hasn’t paid” (a classic, impolite Aussie-ism) but the salesgal was sketchy on the details. I hung up and temporarily shut the gate on the Cow, not because it isn’t a fine service–I’m sure it is, but I’m a typical, fickle consumer, and all it took was a let down at the point of contact to distract me.

Sales Rule 3: Make sure all your point of contact systems are firing in and around your brand promise, right down to the sticky label. Clean the guest toilet too.

FatCow gets my award for having the funnest cowskin that got my attention and made me remember them.

Host Excellence

Host Excellence

I was told to sign up with this host by a developer who never followed through with my Web site redesign project.

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This host commits all the cheesy headset crimes too (just look at the guy on the front page and the pair of metal boxes), but can be forgiven for three things: the owner, Fathi Said, has a personal blog, though for some reason it’s buried in a tiny link at the bottom of the page; there are cute bios of actual staff with unglamorous mugshots, and shortly after signing up I was contacted by my “Personal Support Hero”–Tom Shaeffer. Support Heroes (is there more than one? The man will have a big job on his hands) even have their own Apple-like video resume.

A support hero reminds me of the personal banker once offered by some credit unions Downunder, who’d even come to your house to help you get your financial life in order. Or perhaps a personal shopper, who can save you a lot time as long as their taste doesn’t suck.

An email I got from Tom read in part:

My name is Thomas Sheaffer and I am your Personal Support Hero. I may not be able to shoot electricity from my fingertips, but I am the best person to contact when your Web site is in distress, or if you have any questions at all about doing how to do “this or that” online. And if I don’t know the answer already, I’ll do my best to figure it out for you …

Well, given the angst I’ve seen everyone I know go through designing a professional Web site unless they have money to get someone else to do it, I’ll be interested how much “this or that” you get for your $3.95/month hosting fee.

Host Excellence get my Customer Evangelism award, for creating a human hosting connection. Time is money, and hosts aren’t meant to help you design your site, but the better they can bridge that knowledge gap for tech-challenged mortals (as Tom puts it “Web design can be frustrating”), the sooner we will have sites up and running and serving customers. Let’s see if they can keep it going.

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Beyond Nines

Beyond Nines

This host isn’t specifically aimed at the everyman market–its specialty is hosting for non-profits.

As far as I know, the hosting world hasn’t segmented itself other than for real estate–and that was once upon a time.

I came to know about Beyond Nines after my failed attempt at coming up with a crowdsourced slogan for them (what’s wrong with “Hosting ‘Cos You Give A Damn”? Okay, don’t answer that).

Whether you like it or not, this site has the FatCow advantage–an arresting, sweet image of bouquets and puffy clouds. No toothy headset smiles beaming from the flickering screen. No glorified servers or cooling towers. Fascinated, I pushed aside the flowers and dropped an admiring note to the president, Glen Kendell.

He answered personally and immediately. Wow! He got it.

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“We focus on serving under-served areas–aquariums and zoos initially, but non-profits in the larger picture,” said Kendell from far flung Seattle. “And we’re are doing well in this economy; we expect increases in revenue and staff, while staying focused on serving those who give a damn.” (All right, he actually said, ” … those that serve our community.”)

Call this social capitalism from way back in the bleeping, blinking engine room. There’s no deal-breaking bunting on the site either, unless you count butterflies and strawberry fields forever:

“We’re not about being the cheapest option, but look to be fair to everyone involved, and provide real value. It starts with an attitude of humility–that we ourselves don’t have all the answers. We’re learning, just like many of our clients. We work it out together, patiently, proactively, productively. The non-profit customer gets more value, the community benefits, the business benefits, the circle continues. Win, win, win … “

Perhaps Glen’s granola-sprinkled background has something to do with his laid back attitude.

“I grew up in Idaho. Spent all day every day of my summers in the Snake River like a modern day Tom Sawyer. I grew vegetables from our backyard garden and sold them door-to-door. But I was also the classic overachiever. I wanted to be a scientist. Studied Physics and Geophysics. Got lured into the Internet world in the mid 90s and ended up here …”

In case you think laid back means la la land, Glen assures you he’s got teeth:

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“Just because we do business with non-profits doesn’t mean we’re not entrepreneurs. Don’t be fooled by the cute–watch our back!”

Beyond Nines gets my Point of Difference award for Hosting with a Heart, and snagging a sector that needs help because they dedicate their lives to helping others.

Have you stumbled across a host with a heart or at least half a personality? Save us the mindless surfing and share your find here.

Social Mediaclast the Galfromdownunder expects to see hosts divide and conquer all the specialty industries that need hosting with a heart, a hero, and a cute, fuzzy face.

 

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About the author

"Be social and the networking will follow." Lynette Chiang is an award-winning copywriter, brand evangelist, social media community manager, filmmaker, solo world bicycle adventurer and inventor of useful things. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Harvard University curriculums, the New York Times Book Review, FastCompany and the relationship marketing business press

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