We can believe that we know where the world should go. But unless we’re in touch with our customers, our model of the world can diverge from reality. There’s no substitute for innovation, of course, but innovation is no substitute for being in touch, either.” – Steve Ballmer

You’ve probably heard about Web 2.0. It’s all the rage these days. But do you really know what it is? More important, do you know how to use it to your advantage?

Today, I’m going to reveal one Web 2.0 technique you can use to help attract targeted, qualified prospective customers to your website. But first, here’s the 411.

Web 2.0 isn’t a newfangled Internet technology or software. And it’s not a marketing tactic, per se. It’s simply the evolution of the Internet into an environment of interactivity, reader participation, and usability. This, in effect, changes users’ Web behavior. As Tim O’Reilly – founder of O’Reilly Media and the guy who coined the term “Web 2.0” – puts it… it’s “harnessing collective intelligence” through user-generated content.

Web 2.0 opens up the dialog between user and website or blog. This connection can help generate traffic and a viral buzz. Patrick Coffey pointed out in a recent ETR article that not all Web 2.0 traffic is a good thing. But from a search engine marketing (SEM) standpoint, the benefits are clear and measurable: More traffic and frequent interactivity (or posts) equal better organic (free) rankings in search engine results.

Getting good organic rankings is a powerful way to find qualified prospective customers. A recent eye-tracking survey of people doing an Internet search showed that 70 percent of the time their eyes go to the upper-left side of the search results (the organic listings). Their eyes go to the right side of the search results (the paid listings) only 30 percent of the time.

One way to increase your organic rankings – and take advantage of Web 2.0 user behavior – is with targeted online acquisition polls.

Online polls can help you collect names and e-mail addresses, gauge general market (or subscriber) sentiment, and generate sales via a redirect to a promotional page. They also allow for interactivity, where a user can sound off about a hot topic. I’ve been including polls in my online marketing strategy for at least six years now, and have rarely been disappointed with the results.

Some websites, like surveymonkey.com, allow members to set up free or low-cost surveys and polls. However, they may not allow you to include a name-collection component or a redirect to a promotional offer. If that’s the case, either ask your Webmaster to build you a proprietary poll platform or use a poll script. (You’ll find examples at hotscripts.com, bgpoll.com/, ballot-box.net/faq.php, micropoll.com, and 2enetworx.com.)

Here are eight ways to help make your Web 2.0 poll a success:

1. Make it engaging.

Your poll question should engage the reader, encourage participation, pique interest, and tie into a current event. And be sure to have a “comments” field where people can make additional remarks. Sample topics: politics, the economy, health, consumer breakthroughs, the stock market, foreign affairs. Sites that highlight the most talked-about (and searched) topics on the Web include buzz.yahoo.com/, 50.lycos.com/, and google.com/press/zeitgeist.html.

2. Be relevant.

Your poll question should also be related to your product, free e-zine topic, or free bonus report topic. This will greatly improve your conversion rate (the number of people who actually participate in your poll) and your up-sell rate. Let’s say your free offer is a sign-up for an investment e-zine and your up-sell is a redirect landing page promotion for a paid investment newsletter. In that case, your poll question should be something like “Do you think the Dow will rise or fall in 2008?”

3. Offer an incentive.

After people take your poll, tell them that to thank them for their participation you’re automatically signing them up for your free e-zine or e-alerts… which they can opt out of at any time. To reduce the number of bogus e-mail addresses you get, offer a free “must-read” e-report too. And assuming it’s your policy not to sell or rent e-mail names to third parties (and it should be), indicate that next to the sign-up button. This will reassure people that it’s safe to give you their e-mail address.

4. Tag the responses.

Having your poll question somehow tie into your product line makes the names you collect extremely qualified for future offers. Each name should be “tagged” by your database folks according to the answer they gave. Segmenting the names into such categories will make it easier for you to send targeted offers to them later.

Let’s say your product line includes an investment e-zine on equities. In that case, your poll question might ask people which investment product they think has the best returns: money market, gold, equities, or options. Those who answer “equities” will be prime candidates for a promotion for the e-zine.

5. Use the results for new initiatives.

In addition to collecting names, online polls will help you gauge general market opinion – and could help you come up with new products. Keeping with our above example, you would flag all of the responses that come in. Then, if an overwhelming number of responders indicate an interest in an investment product you don’t have – maybe one on gold – you should consider developing one. Because you now have an instant market of people to sell that product to.

6. Strengthen your new relationships.

You need to reinforce the connection between the poll people just participated in and your e-zine or e-alerts. So make sure each name that comes in gets an immediate “thank you” (for taking the poll). Then send an automatically generated e-mail with the link for the downloadable free e-report you promised. Consider sending a series of “bonding” e-mails to them too – to help them get to know who you are, what you do, and how it will benefit them. This will help improve their lifetime customer value.

7. Gratify participants with the results.

Don’t just leave poll participants hanging. Make sure you tell them that the results will be published in your free e-zine or on your website (to encourage them to check it regularly). This will help increase readership and website traffic.

8. Publish the best reader comments.

On your poll landing page, mention that some user feedback may be published (anonymously) in your e-zine or on your website. Pick the very best, most powerful responses to use. Republishing user feedback is fundamental to the Web 2.0 concept. And it has been extremely successful for social networking communities and blogs.

Marketers have used polls to collect names for years. However, with the recent surge in (and buzz about) Web 2.0, now – more than ever – polls should be included in your online marketing mix.

Polls aren’t just for finding new customers. They allow you to measure customer sentiment – which, in turn, can impact customer retention and service

[Ed. Note: Wendy Montes de Oca is ETR’s Vice President of Marketing & Business Development. For step-by-step instructions on starting your own Internet business, get ETR’s Magic Button program.]

WendyWendy Montes de Oca, MBA is President of Precision Marketing and Media, LLC and publisher of the popular marketing and business building newsletter, Precision Marketing. She is an online marketing and direct response expert with nearly 20 years of experience leading the marketing efforts for top publishers such as Agora/Early to Rise, Weiss Research, and NewsMax as well as Fortune 500 companies such as General Electric, Chase Manhattan Bank, CitiGroup, and Automatic Data Processing.

Her consulting clients (past and present) is like a “Who’s Who” including top copywriters, anti-aging nutritionists, online publishers, supplement companies, travel service providers, political websites and more!

Her background includes multi-channel marketing (print, email, direct mail, radio, TV) with expertise in direct response marketing for the Web. Her marketing initiatives helped bring in millions of dollars in revenues for the companies she has worked for.

Wendy received a Bachelor of Science degree from St. John’s University and a Master of Business Administration degree from Nova South Eastern University. Throughout her career, she has been recognized with various awards for quality, innovation, teamwork, and new product/new business development.

She is also a distinguished speaker at marketing conferences such as Specialized Information Publishers Association (SIPA) and author of several marketing and business articles for Early to Rise, Makepeace Total Package, and Target Marketing, just to name a few. Her blog, www.musclemarketing.blogspot.com  was named by marketing industry staple, Best of Web, as “top internet marketing blog.” For more information visit www.precisionmarketingmedia.com.