Some 9.5 million Americans currently use the Internet, according to the 1995 American Internet User Survey, conducted by Find/SVP, a worldwide research and consulting firm in New York City.
Increased interest in the Internet doesn't necessitate that every business establish a Web site. Then again, no business owner can afford to ignore the Internet entirely; you can still tap into its resources without your own site. "The Internet is basically another communications medium available to serve your business objectives," say Brian Hurley and Peter Birkwood, authors of A Small Business Guide to Doing Big Business on the Internet (Self-Counsel Press Inc., $14.95, 800-663-3007). "It should be viewed as an evolutionary step for businesses, which can lead to increased market share and customer satisfaction."
E-mail--an electronic mailbox where you can send and receive messages--can reduce mailing costs, improve customer relations, and do much more. According to the Find/SVP survey, e-mail is the Internet application used most universally, with 41 percent of all Internet users reporting daily e-mail usage.
"E-mail gives you the ability to communicate in non-real time--unlike the telephone, I don't have to be at my desk when you call," says Jim Sterne, author of World Wide Web Marketing: Integrating the Internet Into Your Marketing Strategy (John Wiley & Sons Inc., $24.95, 800-225-5945). "As a customer or a vendor, I can ask the questions whenever they occur to me--whether it's 11 p.m. or five in the morning." This is also an efficient way to answer questions--if the recipient can't answer the question, they can forward it to the appropriate person.
E-mail is easily attainable through an Internet Service Provider (ISP). If you have a Web site with a domain name, a registered name that represents an address on the Internet, you can route your e-mail through your host's mail server.
Usenet newsgroups--an application on the Internet where individuals post messages for public viewing--can be used to do market research or to promote your business. Usenet, which started in the '80s, has over 13,000 different newsgroups today, organized by topic. To use news-groups you need special news-reader software. (Some online providers automatically provide this for their subscribers.) "Usenet is the framework, the hierarchy where newsgroups officially live," says Mary J. Cronin, editor of The Internet Strategy Handbook: Lessons from the New Frontier of Business (Harvard Business School Press, $29.95, 800-545-7685). "You can look at these groups and answer questions. It's a good way to get a sense of what people are talking about."
As a business owner, you must be careful how you use newsgroups, which use a distinct "netiquette" (an unwritten code of behavioral expectations) that discourages "spamming"--the posting of overt advertisements or inappropriate information.
Before using a newsgroup, consult their FAQ (frequently asked questions) section for information. Also, monitor the newsgroup before you participate; observe what people post and how others respond, so that you can enter discussions or post information in an appropriate manner. Sterne suggests "waiting for a question you can answer." For instance, if you sell bicycles, and someone asks about an upcoming regional bike race, you can write to the group with an answer and add a short comment such as: "By the way, we have a Web site where you can find all sorts of biking information."
Survey lists of newsgroups to determine which ones suit you best.
"Once you have identified target newsgroups, you should prepare a short note containing specific and concisely written facts about your product or service, and post it to the newsgroup which may benefit from knowledge about your product or service," say Birkwood and Hurley.
Even shopping malls have gone online. These "virtual" marketplaces consist of individual Web sites linked under a general site--the "cybermall," which is run much like the mall in your neighborhood. Basically, there are two types of cybermalls: vertical, which consists of "cyber-stores" selling the same type of product (for example, some malls have sites that sell only arts-and-crafts products), and horizontal, where the bookstore might be next to the jewelry store. Mall owners charge the "store" rent--usually a flat fee, though some malls take a percentage of the stores' sales. Rent varies from mall to mall, depending on the services provided and, occasionally, on the amount of traffic the mall generates. While some malls welcome the neophyte and will design a Web site for you, others require that you build your own, or that you already have one in existence.
How does a cybermall work? Shoppers enter Mallpark (http://www.mallpark.com), a cybermall containing 54 separate malls, via a welcoming home page. Using a link, an icon or text which sends you to a new URL (unique resource locator--an address for a specific page on the Internet), the home page refers the shoppers to a mall directory, which is divided by topics such as "Art & Music" or "Books & Magazines." Shoppers then click on the "stores" they'd like to visit--such as the Glass Artistry Studio (http://members.aol.com/gjbow/StainedGlass.html) based in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, where Chris Barber sells stained-glass boxes constructed with antique glass jewelry. Via e-mail (barber@ecr knox.com), Internet surfers may purchase several types of boxes, ranging in price from $28 to $44, or request Barber's catalog.
To start a business in The Branch Mall http://branch.com/ for instance, interested parties either e-mail (email@example.com), fax (313-995-1931), or call the organization (800-349-1747). A mall representative will discuss with the potential virtual-store owner what their Internet goals will be, ideas they may have about the Web site, and the options and services that are offered. Basic pricing for The Branch Mall costs about $960 for one page for one year. (A page is measured by the amount of text that will fit on an 81/2 by 11 page, using a 12-point or larger font.) The Branch Mall gives clients with their own Web pages a discount.
Marketing a Virtual Store
Listing your virtual store's URL in different directories or search engines may increase your traffic. All Web sites can register in these directories; maintained by various sponsors, these groups sort Web sites into topics, then refer them according to individual information requests. Registration is needed for inclusion on such sites. Most directories or search engines post registration information on their individual site. Typically, it takes two or more weeks to list your address.
Linking your site to other sites (known as a "hot link") can also increase user traffic. Debbie Levitt of As Was http://www.aswas.com generates business for her Web-design-and-development company by putting her name, logo and a hot link on every home page she creates, so that anyone who likes her work can always find her.
Getting linked to others' pages involves doing research, finding the appropriate links and asking those individuals for permission to set up links.
For a fee, you can advertise on participating Web sites; they will place a link somewhere on their pages with a brief statement about your company. Interested individuals can then click on the link for more information. Costs and set-up situations vary. IPA (Interactive Publishing Alert) Online Advertising Index http://www.netcreations.com/ipa/adindex/index.html seeks out sites offering advertising space for sale and tracks their prices.
From selling merchandise online to using e-mail to enhance your day-to-day operations, the Internet has boundless possibilities. Now is the time to consider getting in on the "ground level."
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