Internet Solutions: Moving Beyond The Hype To Help Small Businesses

n/a

Have you lost count of the number of times you have heard about the billions of dollars of online commerce transacted in the last two years? How about the billions more to be spent in the next two years? This seems to be a universal imperative for everyone in business.

Online marketing and e-commerce are important components for any business to consider in its overall marketing and technology plans. What does this mean for you?

Before a business creates a Web site, it must think clearly about what benefit a Web site will provide and must be willing to do what it takes to maintain a successful site.

Will the site primarily be a vehicle for online commerce, information about products and services, customer support or some other purpose? Actually selling products on the Internet is only the tip of the iceberg for business use of the Web. In fact, a May 1998 Find/SVP survey indicated that more people made purchases in 1997 off-line after researching the product on the Internet than those who purchased directly from the Internet ($4.2 billion vs. $3.3 billion).

Should Your Small Business Have a Web Site?
Here are a few questions to help you think through the decision of whether or not to establish a Web site for your business:

  • If the business is selling a product, is the product a natural "fit" for selling on the Internet? Can it be delivered to a national or global marketplace?  

  • If the business is service-oriented, can it provide meaningful information about its service and industry? People make buying decisions on the Internet based on information. The successful businesses are those that help educate consumers to make a good buying decision. For example, I recently replaced the air conditioning in my home. I found a wonderful Web site for an air conditioning company that evaluated all the brand names and gave me tips to look for in an A/C company. Helpful, objective information like this builds powerful credibility.  

  • Does the business need to build a targeted client list or qualify its customers? Do they have clear plans to do this through their Web site? The Internet is the realm of the self-directed consumer. Those consumers who come to a Web site to conduct business are generally ready to buy.  

  • Can the business leverage the Internet to reduce expenses? For many, the Web can reduce costs for production, fulfillment and distribution and provide a cheaper and more efficient means of communication to remote staff, vendors and customers. Businesses can also make information available that reduces customer inquiries.  

  • Can the business use the Internet to improve customer relations? Customer relations can be enhanced on the Internet in a number of ways including providing up-to-the-minute and detailed information about products or services, helpful information, means for immediate feedback, and technical specifications, support, etc.  

  • Does the business have plans to market its Web site? At the very least, this should include submission to search engines and inclusion of the Web address on all collateral material. The business could also purchase or trade for banner ads, place listings in directories, etc. Simply building a Web site will not bring traffic; people need to know it exists!

When Should Your Business Develop a Web Site?
If the collective answer to these questions is a yes, a Web site may be just the right strategy for your business. The next question is when do you launch your Web site? If the Internet is a crucial component of the overall business strategy, begin the site with the start-up of the business. If you have a business up and running, put plans in place to build your Web site and go live as soon as possible. Now, step back and think about site size, complexity and cost. Web sites can cost from $200 to $200,000 depending on the features of the site.

Because capital is always an issue for business, a full blown Web site with e-commerce may not be your first step on the information superhighway. If this is the case, consider building your online presence in several phases with planned timelines, budgets and expectations for results. Phase I could include company information, product and service information, helpful articles and tips with links to additional relevant information. Phase II would take the concept to the next level. For some it will include online transactions, the incorporation of databases, store locators and other features.

Web Conclusions
Simply having a Web site is not the answer. Having a Web site that is a core business strategy with a clearly defined purpose and skillful implementation-now that's a winner. It requires strong commitment. For this reason, most businesses will want to contract with outside help for all but the most basic Web sites. The bottom line is that when your Web decision is a strategic business decision, it can be a powerful tool to leverage your business toward success.

The following resources are good places to start to help you get up to speed and stay up to speed on this rapidly developing medium:

  • Webreference.com—particularly the section on advertising and e-commerce  

  • Web Marketing Today—links to hundreds of online articles about effective Web marketing  

  • Cyber Atlas—online marketing, demographic and advertising trends  

  • One Business Place Interenet/Web Design Ask An Expert—email a specific Internet-related question to an expert for a response within 24 hours

This article provided by Steven B. Sage an Internet Specialist for One Business Place, a comprehensive support system designed to help small business owners succeed. He can be reached by email at s.sage@obp.com or visit the Web site www.obp.com.