by Bill Ringle
Articles and reports have saturated our collective consciousness with how the Internet is revolutionizing business, I’m told by participants at our “How to Grow Your Business Using the Internet” seminars. But perhaps what you’ve read up to this point has been lacking in specific details that would allow you to gauge the depth of your company’s website for creating the best conditions for doing business. You’re not alone.
On the way to the tips, let’s first shatter two fundamental misconceptions that commonly distort the perception of doing business on the Internet.
The first fundamental myth is that any company can make big bucks selling over the Internet. It is true that some companies such as Amazon.com, Compaq, and Lands End are making millions of dollars via e-commerce. Hard to find items, computer software and hardware, and high-quality/low-risk items have done very well for a select few companies.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of thousands of companies are using the Internet to save money on operational costs and to strengthen relationships with their customers. That’s the easier path to follow and the recommended course of action.
For example, look to how Tucker-Anthony (www.tucker-anthony.com) creates an environment for educating their clients about timely investment issues. Nowhere on the web site do they offer or suggest making an online transaction (though they do offer account statement info via a secure logon). Instead, they set a tone and develop an atmosphere for their clients to learn more about investment information and industry trends. You’ll even find a lighter-level Wall Street trivia area.
If a monthly newsletter costs $30,000 per issue to produce and mail to a client base and you can reduce that to a quarterly newsletter that supplements daily updates to a web site, you’ve improved customer contact (with a rising percentage of your audience) while positively impacting the budget.
Key points to remember: Look first to save money on the Internet before you look to make money from transactions. Your Internet presence can show a healthy return to the bottom line simply by reducing costs from other areas.
The second fundamental myth is that doing business online is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you’ve got a company web site or you don’t. Those that do, win, those that don’t lose.
This oversimplification of the issue can cause damage to your company’s reputation on three fronts: failure to improve the content, failure to take advantage of new technologies, and/or failure to address the culture changes within your organization.
On the Internet, content is king; however, nowhere else is its reign so short! In my presentations, I challenge participants to think in terms of information “freshness”, “expiration dates”, and “half-lives” when submitting articles for their webmasters/content teams to post. Without this dimension, a site that upon its launch seemed vibrant and cutting edge soon becomes another “cobweb” site with a diminishing audience.
Keep abreast of technologies and adopt the ones that support your mission and goals. If a server-side Java applet allows you to add an amortization calculator to your site and that fits with your goals, great. However, avoid the trap of becoming technology-driven rather than outcome driven. Technology is a wonderful servant, but a horrible master, in spite of what the IT journals claim.
Having a “checklist mentality” about your company web site misses an important force for transforming your business internally, which is developing new processes for improving collaboration, productivity, and learning. In my experience with corporations, it takes groups anywhere from 3 to 12 months to adopt a new system and take their corporate consciousness thinking to the next level.
Key points to remember: Business web site development is a constant, iterative process. You must be vigilant to stay on top of new information in your industry as well as new technologies that will serve your purposes. Always look at your Internet/intranet offerings from the perspective of your target audience, whether they are external or internal.
Now that you’ve sidestepped the two biggest potholes on the business lane of the Information Superhighway, let’s discuss four measures of success for a company web site.
1) Information rich. Remember King Content? Well, here is where you build the palace. Your visitors want information that is timely, accurate, well-written, and substantial. Look at Dean Witter’s section on news and commentary (www.deanwitter.com/news/index.html) for a positive example. Remember that your well-informed opinions are a key differentiator: online prospects and clients want both the basis and conclusions of your analysis to compare against their own judgments. Whether you are a partner with a full-service house or run a specialty firm, you want visitors to your site to leave with the insight that you offer information that can be found nowhere else.
2) Interactive content. Static web pages are text-based and they do not change from one view to another. Interactive content takes advantage of special HTML codes on the server software to display different sets of information under different conditions. A simple example is to have a countdown timer to a special event. (Hint: the number of days until Y2K slightly less popular than the visitor counter, but just as boring. Better: the number of consecutive days that the Dow has closed up, or the number of days left to apply for a special tax deadline.) When sites become information rich, a keyword search engine becomes a necessity for navigation. Even better interactive content really endeavors to involve the visitor, such as the interactive quiz at Prudential on your investment personality (www.prusec.com/quiz.htm). In addition to being well-designed and implemented, it provides useful feedback that builds the user’s confidence in the company.
3) Individualized experiences. Internet software provides the ability to remember each individual who visits a web site, remember their preferences, interests, and goals, and offer the most relevant news, products, and services upon each return visit. Are you taking advantage of that yet? It’s taking the interactive ability to look up stock quotes to the next level where a user profile is stored so that upon each visit the current share values as well as overall portfolio value is automatically calculated. Visit the Excite web site and create a personal page for a quick sample (www.excite.com). Individualized experiences are one of the fastest ways to build brand loyalty online.
4) Integration with the business. By now you’ve realized that a web site cannot succeed at the highest levels if it is isolated within a company, but you’d be surprised at how many people I come in contact with through my seminars and consulting projects that are still grappling with this point. It is critical that a company web site have ongoing input and interaction from all departments, from front-line sales to senior management. Your IT group may be responsible for managing and maintaining the site, but educating the rest of the company on the opportunities and capabilities is a larger responsibility that can leverage your technology investment.