Value-added sites Featured

9:53am EDT July 22, 2002

Bruner Cox’s Web site used to be just a bland compilation of corporate information. Once potential clients saw it, they had no reason to come back, says marketing manager Diana McGonigal.

“It was terrible,” McGonigal says. “We took whatever printed material we had and just put it on the Web. But when you do that, there’s no value to clients and potential clients, no reason for them to come back or call you.”

Now, after months of retooling, the regional accounting firm with offices in Akron and Canton uses the Internet more as a sales tool and less as a brochure, offering “quick bits of information” at its site.

Just a few years ago, company Web sites were still unusual. As firms began jumping into the game, many just wanted to post something, anything, to represent themselves on the Internet. For most, that’s no longer enough.

“The change has been from providing basic information about companies, material usually used in brochures and contact information, to more interactive types of information, where transactions can take place,” says Jeff Bryk of Digital Ideas/Internet Solutions in Akron. “I can say without much hesitation that just like every business requires a phone, every business will require an Internet site.”

Summervilles’, an office furniture and supplies store based in Akron, with retail stores in Canton and Hartville, has had a Web site for years, but it didn’t do much, owner Skip Summerville says. On June 1, the company went online with www.theofficeplace.com, designed by Knight Ridder and advertised on the company’s newspaper sites nationally.

The older site, www.summervilles.com could take orders, but not many were coming in.

“The market is just becoming ready. People didn’t want it two years ago,” Summerville says.

The older site has become more business-to-business oriented. The new site is “strictly sales oriented,” Summerville says, with the company’s entire inventory of more than 20,000 items online.

“There’s no corporate information. People really aren’t interested in that,” he says. “They just want to know what the price is and they want to get it quickly.”

When buying over the Internet became possible, customers were hesitant about putting credit card information out into cyberspace. But as more people turn to the convenience of the Web to buy products and services, consumer reluctance has decreased, says Pamela Pierce, owner of Empowering You!, a full-service Web design firm in Akron.

“People should feel comfortable,” Pierce says. “We tell people they’re more likely to get their credit card stolen by giving it to their server (in a restaurant) than they are if they put it on the Web.”

Summerville agrees the reluctance is fading. While a few customers e-mail to ask someone to call them about an order, most do the entire transaction online, and, in fact, prefer to communicate via e-mail, he says.

To make buying online more attractive, companies are offering Web-only promotions or discounts. Summerville terms his company’s online pricing “very aggressive,” adding, “It’s a benefit to the buyer to buy over the Internet because of lower overhead.”

Theofficeplace.com offers e-mail specials to registered users, an inexpensive and effective way to keep in touch with customers, Pierce says.

“People are willing to give basic information in order to get information more targeted to their interests,” she says.

Contests can also drive traffic and generate excitement. Through mid-August, theofficeplace.com is accepting Web entries for the giveaway of a computer.

“That gives us a list of potential customers,” he says. In addition, “People talk about it and send it to their friends.”

Bruner Cox also wants people talking about its site, and offers a quiz to test browsers’ accounting knowledge. “Contestants” receive scoring, and, the firm hopes, pass the information along.

“Maybe people will tell their friends, ‘I found these questions. You ought to try it,’” McGonigal says.

Michael Murray, president of Convey.com in Garfield Heights, which designed the Bruner Cox site, says his client was looking for something to add value, to offer people in exchange for the personal information needed to gain a password.

“The more you ask from people, the more you have to give them,” Murray says. “That doesn’t necessarily have to be a gift certificate or a free booklet, but you have to give them value for their time.”

Items such as the quiz, or tax tips updated weekly, cost the company little, but make the site worth coming back to.

While many firms are using the Internet to add to their existing business, some entrepreneurs are using it as a starting point.

“Some businesses use their site as a full business,” says Pierce. “I believe in the next couple of years, more businesses will have their full business on line and decide to close their store fronts.”

Bryk agrees, saying the cost of doing business on the Internet is much less than doing it the traditional way.

“You can be one person in your basement running the business. You don’t need someone to answer the phone. It can work for you 24 hours a day at no cost,” Bryk says. “There’s been an explosion. That’s the only way to describe it. People are trying to capitalize on the Internet. If you’re in Akron, instead of just selling in Akron, you’re increasing your potential market dramatically.”

That levels the playing field.

“On the Internet, it’s not the size of the company. If you’re capable of producing the product, backing up the product, offer it at a competitive price, there’s no reason you can’t compete again the bigger companies,” Bryk says. How to reach: Summervilles’, (330) 535-3163, www. summervilles.com, www.theofficeplace.com; Bruner Cox, Canton, (330) 497-2000, Akron, (330) 376-0100, www.brunercox.com; Digital Ideas/Internet Solutions, (330) 733-9730, www.digitalideas.com; Empowering You!, (330) 375-0060; Convey.com, (216) 982-7617, www.convey.com