Establishing a Web site for your business is just the first step down a long and winding road. Once entrepreneurs have Web sites, how do they use them? And how do the sites help business? These are just a few of the questions that the Michigan Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), whose headquarters are in Detroit, have set out to answer.
Last November, the Michigan SBDCs began a one-year study examining the trials and tribulations of 14 small businesses with a presence on the Internet. Each business established a Web site with help from the SBDCs. Then the companies, which include a battery disposal service, a landscape design firm and a producer of chili and hot sauces, were let loose in the wild electronic jungle to learn how to use the Internet to grow their businesses.
So far, most notable to the business owners is the hefty time commitment required for Web site upkeep, says Dawn Dayton of the Michigan SBDCs administrative office. Taking time to talk up their businesses in chat rooms, answer e-mail from Web site visitors, send out press releases announcing their Web sites, and develop new and useful content has drained productivity somewhat.
"Many [study participants] thought they'd just put up a Web page and establish a relationship with an [Internet presence provider], and it would bring in business," says Dayton. "It takes a lot of marketing support. If you put up a site and nobody knows [about it], it's not going to do you any good."
Gail Klein, co-owner of Comfortably Yours Inc., a mastectomy boutique in Grosse Point Woods, Michigan, found out there's also a significant learning curve involved. While sending out press releases and adding the Web site address to her business cards and print advertising were easy, she and partner Artie Gutzman, 54, needed to take a beginning computer class to put the Internet to better use. "It's been a challenge because neither of us are terribly computer literate," admits Klein, 59.
Problems aside, study participants preliminarily report the Internet has proved to be an effective medium for getting sales leads, disseminating marketing information and generating sales. Klein, for one, has received several product orders from customers calling the toll-free number posted on her site, and the site has also helped in expanding her business into international markets. Presently, participants are hard at work experimenting with different advertising techniques and payment methods, unique ways to deliver services over the Internet and more, Dayton says.
The survey's results should be available by the end of October. Visit (http://bizserve.com/sbdc/) to access the report.