By Melissa Campanelli
Several new programs have recently been introduced by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to reach the SOHO market. For example, in March, the USPS began beta-testing the Information-Based Indicia program for small businesses, designed to let you buy stamps online and to make postage fraud easier to detect.
Here's how the system works: A small-business owner buys or rents a USPS-approved manufacturer's hardware or software product. While the systems vary, the hardware usually attaches to a PC's serial port to allow users to automatically add postage to their meters when they're connected to that manufacturer's Web site. Users select the amount of postage desired, their credit card is charged, and the postage is downloaded and stored in a security device. As each electronic stamp is printed on an envelope, the software deducts the postage from the security device.
The only company currently approved by the USPS to offer this system is E-Stamp Corp. (http://www.estamp.com) in Palo Alto, California. It began beta-testing its product in Washington, DC, and trials are expected shortly in the San Francisco area and Tampa, Florida.
Other mail equipment suppliers, including Pitney Bowes Inc. (http://www.pitneybowes.com/soho) in Stamford, Connecticut, and Neopost (http://www.neopost.com) in Hayward, California, are seeking approval for their technologies as well. Neopost has also just introduced PostagePlus, an Internet-based postage imprinting system that doesn't use hardware; users can download electronic stamps from the Internet. The company is waiting for approval from the USPS for this technology.
Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition version 2.0 includes Direct Mail Manager, designed to provide small businesses with the tools needed to create, print, mail and manage direct mailings. Users can match addresses and verify mailings through an online connection to the USPS' national ZIP+4 address database, which lets businesses check their mailing lists for correct addresses, postal codes and duplicates. The software also includes an Internet-based "mailroom" that allows users to design, print, address and mail documents such as fliers, brochures, postcards and letters. Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition version 2.0 costs $249 for current Office users and $499 for new users. For more information, visit http://www.microsoft.com
John W. Verity is a writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered the computer industry for 21 years. Send your computer questions to John at firstname.lastname@example.org
Host With The Most
Finding a host for your company's Web site just got considerably easier. Simple Network Communications Inc. in San Diego has come out with what amounts to a hosting-service-in-a-box. Priced at just $79.99, it's available at retail computer stores such as Fry's and CompUSA. Many ISPs have been charging $150 just to set up a site, so SimpleNet's offer looks very competitive.
The initial fee covers the first month of the hosting service, two e-mail accounts, a guide to designing Web pages, a library of clip art and registration of your own Web site name. From then on, you'll pay $25 per month for the service--about average, these days.
Unlike most other hosting services, though, SimpleNet provides unlimited storage space and places no limit on the number of hits, or Web pages, it serves to your site's visitors each month. Its computers can provide you with regular reports on the traffic your site pulls in, and it supports a menu of advanced features including password protection of files and streaming audio to give your pages recorded sound bites. For more information, take a look at http://www.activate.simplenet.com
What A Card
A handy service that allows you to design your own business cards, letterhead, rubber stamps and other items has shown up on the Web. It's called iPrint, and it's at http://www.iprint.com
Say you need some business cards printed up. First, you choose one of several dozen layouts. You can select from a broad menu of graphics, too. You can change the size and design of the type fonts, or reposition any line of type or graphic to your heart's content--and as often as you want. After you make each change, iPrint's computer redraws your card and shows you on its Web page exactly how your card will look in finished form. Once you're done designing, the service asks how many cards you want, takes your credit card information, and ships the cards by UPS within a few days. The company's rates are quite competitive, even with mailing charges included, but the see-before-you-buy feature is what really hooked us.
Q: How can I make the most of e-mail?
A: With the Web getting so much attention these days, it's easy to overlook the great power of e-mail: It's universal, there are no stamps to lick, and with a little care, it can become one of your most effective marketing and communications tools.
But don't start "spamming" the Internet with junk e-mail. That's a waste of everybody's time. Consider this: By adding an e-mail hot link or fill-in-the-blank message form to your business's Web page, you can maintain contact and build relationships with many potential customers. "People spend so much time and effort to get surfers to visit their Web sites, and then they never see them again," says Larry Chase, a New York City Web marketing consultant (http://www.larrychase.com) and author of Essential Business Tactics for the Net (John Wiley & Sons).
Once you've collected some names, consider starting an e-mail newsletter, Chase says. Short but sweet is fine, perhaps simply reminding readers of your products or services. It will be easy for them to pass the newsletter along to others. In fact, pass-alongs have allowed Chase's own marketing newsletter to reach about 33,000 people, who now generate 60 percent of his business. Buying bulk e-mail address lists is not worth the money, he figures; people generally toss unsolicited e-mail without reading it.
Try one of the better e-mail software products, and you'll never go back to the simplistic one your Internet company is likely to have provided. These professional products can sort incoming messages in sophisticated ways and smoothly handle attached files. Netscape Communications and Microsoft each give away fairly sturdy e-mail packages with their Web browsers. Or you can pay $30 to $40 for Eudora Pro 4.0 or Claris E-mailer 2.0, among others.
Finally, make the most of your e-mail signature--those few lines of text that can be attached to the bottom of every outgoing message. Besides your address and phone number, you may want to add a promotional offer or holiday greeting.
Larry Chase, http://www.chaseonline.com