Even the smallest of businesses can cruise the information superhighway into the global marketplace. Ask Ann Giard-Chase, owner of Joan & Annie's Brownies in Williston, Vermont, who began selling brownies in 1988 from a pushcart at fairs and festivals and then entered the wholesale market in 1990.
In 1994, trying to regain the customer intimacy lost while using wholesale distributors as middlemen, Giard-Chase created a mail order catalog and a Web site ( http://mmink.com/mmink/dossiers/jaa/brownies.html ). Now her mailing list consists of over 3,000 names, and orders for her brownies come via mail and the Internet. And relations with customers have never been better. "At the carts, when the customers got the brownies, you could see the smiles on their faces," she says. Now she sees their "smiles" through their enthusiastic e-mail responses.
With an estimated 30 million users, the Internet provides a cost-effective marketing tool--especially for businesses that construct their own sites. A site on the Web serves a multitude of purposes: It fosters better communication with your customers; it increases your business's visibility; it offers your goods and services to a global market--and it can do all this quickly. "A Web site can relay information in a way that's faster, more timely and more accurate than any other medium today," says Don Middleberg, CEO of Middleberg & Associates, a New York City-based public relations agency that specializes in Internet communication.
What is the Internet?
The Internet began 25 years ago as a research project for the U.S. Department of Defense and later gained popularity at universities. The World Wide Web contains the multimedia portion of the Internet, where businesses can build their Web sites. As Jill H. and Matthew V. Ellsworth explain in their book, The New Internet Business Book (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95, http://www.wiley.com or 800-JWILEY-NET), "The Web is made up of documents on computers throughout the world. These documents have special codes written into them that provide links to other documents on the Internet and dictate how the documents are to be displayed. Computers holding these Web documents use software called Web servers to communicate via the Internet with client programs that are called browsers."
Browsers, which are software packages, act as a link between the Internet, the Web server and your computer (via its modem) so you can access Internet information. For more information about browsers, consult the HotWired site (http://www.hotwired.com/).
Building Your Web Site
Web sites on the Internet are constructed of virtual pages of information, which can include multimedia such as photos, video, sounds, animation or graphics. You have two main choices when constructing a Web site: do it yourself, or hire an expert. Opting for the do-it-yourself method will entail wearing many hats. You must design your page, write your copy, select and scan the photography and graphics into a computer, or convert computer-generated graphics.
If you want to create a really basic Web page with text and stationary graphics you can use a program called an HTML Editor to create the page. You will not need to learn Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) if you are using an HTML Editor, most of which you can download right off of the Internet. Some are free and some must be purchased.
If, however, you want your Web page to have animation, tables or frames, you will need to learn HTML, a set of commands that instructs the Web server how to display your material.
Before constructing your own Web site, observe other sites. Ask yourself what works, advises Jill Ellsworth. What, to you, seems visually pleasing? Which sites would you visit again? Is the site easily navigable? Can you communicate with the site through e-mail? What would you emulate? What would you avoid?
The Whole Internet Catalog at Global Network Navigator (http://gnn.com/wic/wics/index.html) offers links (a link, or "hot button," refers you from one Web page to another) to sites throughout the Web with their "Best of the Net Page," "50 Most-Accessed Links" and "New Sites" sections.
Once created, your pages will be made visible to users on the Internet via an Internet service provider (ISP). The ISP puts your Web pages on their server, which has a live, 24-hour-a-day connection to the Internet. Basically, your pages sit on your ISP's Web server until another computer asks for them. The requested information then travels from your ISP's server over the Internet to the seeker's computer. If you're currently online, check the features of your Internet provider; some ISPs offer packages that include server space along with access.
Setting up your own page is not impossible. Nowadays, colleges offer continuing education classes in HTML, and there are a plethora of books available. Amazon (http://www.Ama zon.com--or call 800-201-7575) offers a selection of over one million book titles, many at a discounted price, including such books on HTML as Creating Cool Web Pages by Dave Taylor (IDG Books Worldwide, $19.99) and Using HTML by Tom Savola (Que Corp., $39.99).
Hiring someone to do all this makes setting up easier, but more expensive. Some Internet service providers offer full set-up services. Or you may want to hire a Web consultant or graphics firm to design the site, and obtain the domain name, or Internet address, and a service provider yourself. If you do hire someone to design your Web site, be sure you own the copyright to the work, so you can alter the site in any way you want--and have complete control over it without paying any future fees to the designer.
A domain name is any name that represents an address on the Internet. Inter-Networking Information Center (InterNIC) (http://www. Internic.net) tracks and assigns domain names within the United States. (Every country has its own tracking center.) The names are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis and cost $50 a year. According to The Internet Business Center (http://home.tig.com/cgi-bin/genobject/ibc), as of May, 1996, over 325,000 domain names have been registered at InterNIC.
Your Web Site and Your ISP
Consider your ISP a business partner--a partner you choose according to your best interests. To determine which ISP is best, ask the following questions:
- How much disk space--the space your files take up on the server--are they giving you? "On the server, this is where you put your Web pages," says Jill Ellsworth. "Most companies have set pricing: x amount for five meg (MB), x amount for ten meg (MB). That's good for a certain amount of traffic, but if you're getting half a million "hits" (the number of users who access a site) a month, they're going to want to charge you more because you're taking up more computer resources." Some ISPs also charge for the amount of KB downloaded by users, which taxes the host's server.
- Know what services your ISP provides. Besides a monthly service charge, most providers will bill you for "extras," like a surplus of people visiting your site, or if you decide to add pages. You need to find out exactly what is included in your monthly cost--and be aware of what additional charges might occur. Find out, also, what services your ISP offers. Is there a technical support line? Will they give monthly reports on the number of hits the site had? Will they analyze the data they send you?
- Finally, does the server encrypt information, like charge card numbers? If you're taking orders online, this is something you--and your customers--might desire.
Design Dos and Donts
Before you do anything, ask yourself the following: What message do you want to communicate? How many pages will that take? How often will you update them? How much original material must you generate, or can you use pre-existing information like press releases, brochures or menus? How much interactivity (e-mail, registration, an ordering page, a guest book) do you desire? What about graphics? Will you use pictures, icons, art, animation, sounds, multimedia? "If graphics are too large, it takes several minutes to load your page. And if people get impatient, they'll click off your page," advises Dr. Anthony D. Mercando, president of Amadeus Multimedia Technologies Ltd., an electronic publishing company and Web site provider in Irvington, New York.
Consider what kinds of fonts you'll use. You want your Web pages to be readable, so don't overdo the bold and italics. Patrick Converso of Sovereign Marketing ONLINE in Schaumburg, Illinois, suggests creating as much contrast on the page as you can, yet still being judicious. So use graphics, bold type and different fonts--just don't crowd too many techniques into one page. Also, make sure that your address, telephone number and e-mail are easy to locate.
Your site should be updated every two to four weeks. "We're not talking about redoing or reinventing the wheel, but we are talking about adding some new features, and updating older material," Middleberg says. "It's like having a restaurant; the trick in a restaurant is having people come back constantly. The same is true for Web sites: you want people to come back to the site--and you want them to come back frequently. And the way to do that is to always keep it interesting, attractive and current."