Setting up shop on the Internet is more than building a fancy Web site and hoping people will come and buy. It takes a strong storefront design and navigation designed to make it easy for the customer to buy, as well as back-end processes that will help you manage the business you gain from the Internet.
Before you begin, though, you need to answer two simple questions about whether your products will sell over the Web. The first is whether they can be drop-shipped (i.e. sent via UPS), and secondly, whether they appeal to companies or consumers regardless of geographical location. If the answer to both is "yes," proceed without concern.
For various reasons, some products and services can only be delivered to specific regions. Service offerings might make best sense when the delivery point is within a certain driving distance from your office; federal law restricts some products from being exported; and state laws prohibit sales of certain product types. If your products are restricted to a particular region, you can go forward, but with the understanding that your Web site should clearly state your products or services are only available to customers within a certain geographic region. Otherwise you risk increased operational costs related to requests outside your business area.
The structure of your Web site
When you build your Web site and associated commerce procedures, you'll use one of two structures-static or dynamic. A static Web site is one in which every page of the site is programmed individually by the developer, tying the client to the developer when it comes to changing the site or adding information. To update, you must provide your Web site developer each piece of information or additional collateral so he can program the changes.
The more progressive form of Web site development is "dynamic," in which a database engine drives the site. With this method, an entire catalog of products can be put online via the database, enabling full search capabilities for the potential customer.
One advantage to using a database is that you have full control over adding, deleting and editing all product information-even if an external company has developed the site for you. Updates can be done locally or remotely through browser-based administration screens.
Another advantage is the ability to add to or grow the number of items in the database indefinitely. Each page of your Web site is built "on-the-fly" from the database, making your site "dynamic." You can change the products you want to feature or place on sale with simple on/off toggles in the database.
Dynamic sites are exciting because they provide more than "just a presence" on the Web. A dynamic site will always be a reflection of your current product assortment and allows you to change your presentation to take advantage of changing trends.
Your Web development professional can help you determine which of these structures best fits your business model, product set and budget. He'll also help you factor in other issues, such as page design, how transactions are processed and how much traffic your Web site can handle.
Both static and dynamic Web sites allow for the sale to be transacted securely via credit card or account number. Depending on the technology used to implement the so-called "shopping cart," there may or may not be limitations on the number of transactions or traffic that can be handled.
And don't forget the back end
You and your Web developer now need to determine how to supply and service this new customer base. Established companies may be able to use existing techniques or they may need to tweak their techniques. New Web-only "virtual businesses," however, will need to develop strong, risk-free back-end processes.
Do you have the inventory or can you or your suppliers ramp up quickly to expand your inventory if your Web business takes off? You will need to be prepared to potentially handle an increase in business. Make sure you make a careful estimate of any additional staff and resource requirements.
Set yourself up with a "merchant account number" at your bank so you can accept credit cards. If you can't find a bank that will accept credit cards for Web-only businesses, have your Web developer introduce you to companies that will. Once this account is in place, have your developer enable your site to process and authorize credit card transactions before you actually receive the order. This will decrease your costs of transacting sales.
Open a "Third Party Billing" account with daily pickup service with a shipper. Develop vendor directions on billing procedures for using your account. You also will have to establish shipping rates and a shipping charge chart for purchases.
Keep in mind that the top 25 catalog retailers in the U.S. set their prices according to value of purchase-not according to weight or destination. In fact, shipping fees often will serve as small profit sources.
Customer service also is a major issue with an e-commerce Web site. Most importantly, the site should encourage users to submit questions via e-mail, but you must be prepared to retrieve and answer e-mail promptly. If you are willing to accept inquiries via telephone, be sure to have sufficient staff. Indicate the hours they will be available, because your audience is global, and be sure the customer service employees are both knowledgeable about the products and the functioning of the Web site.
Finding the prospects
Now for the biggest issue: marketing. You can develop the greatest Web site ever, but how do you get people to visit? There are inexpensive and expensive forms of promoting your Web site. As an organization, you need to decide how much of a marketing budget you're willing to commit. Some of the obvious and less-expensive forms of marketing include listing your Web site address on all printed materials, such as letterheads, business cards and invoices. Likewise, be sure to include the Web address in all existing advertising you run in print form.
Have your site registered with available search engines. A number of companies will register your site with up to 500 engines for a small fee. If your site and customer service are good, many free opportunities exist to have other sites and indexes promote your site. For example, the credit card companies are doing a lot of promotion these days to push e-commerce (i.e. www.ezspree.com), and if your site is of good quality and service, you can be included in these promotions for free.
If you have marketing budgets to promote your site, consider online advertising in the form of banner ads running in search engines or industry-specific Web sites. Banner ads are usually sold at a rate of X dollars per 1,000 impressions. You usually can run your campaign as a "Run of Site," buy keywords or advertise in specific sections of a site.
In the end, while the e-commerce situation may seem a lot to worry about, remember: Having an e-commerce-enabled Web site makes your products and services available to a global audience. What price would you ultimately have to pay using any other medium for this kind of exposure?
Steven H. Bass is a co-founder of Compuvisions, Inc., a North Side-based designer and developer of informational and e-commerce Web sites, as well as multimedia CD-ROM applications.
You finally did it! You got yourself a Web site. You have your own domain name. You spent a fair amount of money with a professional development firm to design and program your site.
It has graphics and good functionality that should result in customers and prospects wanting to visit and keep coming back for fresh information. Maybe you are even selling your product or service through this Web site. OK, here we go bring on the business.
Thirty days later, the dialogue between the Web site developer and the business owner often goes something like this:
Business Owner: Hey Mr. Web Developer, why do we have only 100 hits to our home page, with half of them coming from us and the other half coming from customers who were told that we have a new Web site? How are we supposed to get a return on our investment at this rate?
Mr. Web Developer: Well, thats your problem. I never said that if you build a Web site, people would magically show up on your doorstep.
Thats your problem. This exchange is common. Many businesses believe theres something magical about the way people find a Web site. Wont people find me in the search engines, visit my site, and want my products or services? they ask. Not exactly.
Just as you do with your brick and mortar business, you have to take the time and money to market and promote your Web site if you want anyone to visit.
Indeed, you must dedicate a portion of your marketing budget specifically to promotion of your Web site.
After you have gotten past the point of spending the time and money to build a professionally designed and functioning site, your biggest challenge lies ahead. The World Wide Web is full of clutter like no other medium before it.
As a user, you have more choices than ever. You decide what to see and where to go. So even if users somehow become aware you have a Web site, they still have to make the decision to visit. That means youd better devise a creative, stand-out strategy to get them there.
Let me take you through a recent site launch and the promotion planned around it to drive traffic to the site. On Feb. 1, 1999, the Canned Food Alliance launched a Web site (www.mealtime.org) in honor of National Canned Food Month. (Yes, February was, in fact, National Canned Food Month, the same month we celebrate Black History, Groundhog Day, Valentines Day, Presidents Day, and the Chinese New Year.)
The initial plan was to drive immediate traffic to the Web site throughout February and design it in such a way that people would return over long periods of time. The two things to consider were getting people to the site for the first time and giving them a reason to return. You cant think of these two things independently, because some items that may get them to the site in the first place may also result in users returning.
For this Web site, Ketchum Public Relations in Pittsburgh provided traditional forms of promotion, public relations and advertising. However, I will only address the online marketing portion of this campaign.
Lets work backwards. What will bring visitors back after their initial visit? Beyond informative and educational content, several ideas were incorporated into the site, giving it a more interactive nature.
- A recipe database This is interactive, searchable and frequently updated. Not a bad idea. Users will never get through all the recipes in one or even two sittings and will keep coming back, even if just to get a recipe for dinner.
- An e-mail newsletter, Recipe CANnection Users can subscribe and receive monthly recipes and information about site enhancements via e-mail. Consumers found this attractive; nearly 450 people signed up the first month.
- An Ask the Expert area on the Web site Guest experts answer consumers questions.
- A good, old-fashioned bulletin board Users can share information and post comments.
For a Web site that was predominantly informational, this proved an attractive package which users should enjoy, and, of course, result in repeat visits.
But this package needed to be promoted. The following steps were taken for the online portion of the campaign:
- Key words were registered with search engines. The site was registered with more than 730 search engines. But theres one caveat: It takes the engines eight to 10 weeks to index a site, which means that, unless youre going purchase targeted key word advertising, search engines arent going to work as the primary way to drive high levels of traffic to your site.
- An e-mail list was purchased. This was a demographically targeted list of 50,000 e-mail addresses of people who subscribe to sites that promote recipes or grocery coupons. Since these people have shown an interest in this subject matter, we helped them out a little bit and exposed them to the information on www.mealtime.org through an e-mail.
- News about the Web site was posted in appropriate newsgroup sites throughout the duration of the campaign. A powerful hook was needed to attract interest in those newsgroups. Among the most successful is to give something away. A contest was developed in which users submitted their best canned food recipes. The winning entry would receive a $250 grocery shopping spree.
Giveaways are always a sure bet to get people to your site. But even giveaways or contests have to be promoted if you want participation. In this case, the contest was mentioned in the mass e-mail and the newsgroup postings, and postings were made at sweepstakes/contest sites. The result was more than 560 contest entries in one month.
The contest was taken one step further. Why just give away any grocery shopping spree? Why not give away one to a major online grocer? While were at it, lets not just go to its site and buy a gift certificate; lets get some reciprocal promotion out of that grocer.
Several online grocers were approached, and one of the largest, www.netgrocer.com, agreed to participate. In exchange for mentioning the grocery site in the contest promotion, that company also provided banner advertising on its site in the canned food aisle promoting the www.mealtime.org Web site and the contest.
As a whole, this strategy netted tremendous results. For a modest budget, traffic to the new site increased by 34,000 percent to nearly 27,000 visitors over monthly traffic to the previously existing site.
Build the best Web site you can, but dont expect it to produce for you if youre not going to support it as you do your existing business and products.
Steven H. Bass is a co-founder of Compuvisions Inc., a North Side based designer and developer of informational and e-commerce Web sites and online marketing and Web promotional services. Reach him by phone at (412) 322-4494 or by e-mail at email@example.com.