It's been three years since the Internet has really been "in the face" of most business owners.
Even for the traditional, nondot-com company, this has been a time of great highs and lows. Hopes and budgets have been raised and lost as firms have learned whether or not the Internet can help grow their businesses.
Looking back, what have we learned?
Sell what sells
Buyers buy products and services they already know. If your domain name, your company and your product are all the same, existing buyers will buy from your Web site.
Consumer and business sites like Dell, Staples and Schwab all enjoy brisk sales from existing customers who are comfortable buying the same products in a more convenient matter. If your buyers know your products or services well, then sell them online.
But don't expect your Web site to create brand awareness on its own.
Sell real things from real companies
A channel is not a business. If an Internet business is only a storefront for another company's products and services, it may not be a business.
Just as offline distributors are struggling to add value, so are Internet intermediaries. Any middleman must offer favorable packaging, service, value, warranty or terms. Otherwise, consumers will go to the source to buy. It just seems safer.
This helps explain the downturn of e-toys.com, and even, potentially, Amazon.com.
Don't expect sales from strangers
If you build it, they will not come. Few business owners can create an online market for their products and services. Without millions of dollars, your business will not become the next Ameritrade.
Web sites are not billboards along a highway; they are mailboxes on cul-de-sacs. Not many people will find your site without first knowing about your company.
Search engines return 10,000 or more responses to a query. How likely is it that your business will get random calls from interested parties? It probably won't happen often enough to cover the investment in a great Web site.
Sell your differences or sell to everyone
Provide information that makes your company invaluably unique. Look at www.gettyone.com/en-us/home/home.asp. It provides an easy way to buy stock photos.
How can you combine your company's products, services and expertise to really stand out? If you succeed, others cannot copy you. This is critical, because on the Internet, your competitors can and will copy your site overnight.
Sell it now or fuggedaboutit!
Set six-month goals for your firm's online sales and costs. Define how your site will help your company grow today. Will it increase your sales, leads, fulfillment or image?
Assume you will redo your site every six months. This will focus your organization to make your Web site pay off as soon as possible. The reality is that a Web site is like a child. Bringing it into the world is only a fraction of what it will cost to raise it into maturity.
Plan for recurring maintenance, complete overhauls and one big mistake along the way.
If you can't sell, serve
If it is clear you cannot profitably sell your product or service online, don't try. Instead, make your Web site a must-visit site for your prospects and buyers
Provide value, knowledge, service and other expertise and experience that will help your marketplace be successful. Link into a community if you cannot attract enough traffic to cost-justify more than a small Web presence. And sell, trade or donate your company's expertise to other Internet locations that can showcase your value.
Register with all the communities and content providers you can. Write, chat, join and deliver all you can to as many people in your target market as you can. Andy Birol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of PACER Associates Inc., a Solon-based firm that provides expert advice to owners and leaders who need to grow their businesses. He can be reached at (440) 349-1970.