Of course, Jordan meant the World Wide Web and specifically, MelaNet's African Marketplace, an online mall specializing in goods and services provided by African Americans. An online mall is a conglomeration of different vendors arranged in a single Web site. Each vendor has its own Web site within the African Markeplace, where they provide products and/or services. MelaNet is a service of New Perspective Technologies, based in Norfolk.
The Internet, notes Jordan, "provides African American companies with the opportunity to expand our reach beyond the traditional geographical confines of our communities."
With some prodding by Jordan, Carlos A. Howard's Funeral Home was online by April 1994. The results were immediate: casket sales increased by 25% within a year, and over 200 caskets were sold throughout the U.S. and the world--including Canada and Finland--via the Net. "There's no way I could have been able to reach such a wide market without the Internet," says Howard.
In a few short years, the Internet has been transformed from an online military and scientific information database to a commercial juggernaut moving at warp speed. Low barriers to entry and the potential to reach millions of consumers throughout the world has small and large businesses flocking to cyberspace. For small businesses especially, the Internet has the potential to drastically increase market share and foster competition with large, well-financed corporations in a way that was previously impossible. In the world of the Web, company size is nearly irrelevant.
In fact, Howard employs only five staff members yet business has been booming, causing concern among funeral service providers across the country. Selling via the Net lowers Howard's overhead, allowing him to sell his caskets slightly above wholesale cost--thus drawing the ire of competitors. His arrangements with suppliers lets him point, click and ship caskets directly to customers, bypassing the showroom and drastically reducing shipping costs.
MelaNet's African Marketplace is home to 12 businesses, with products ranging from books to wedding services. To generate traffic to the mall and value for his virtual tenants, Jordan provides links to other related sites, joins newsgroups and mailing lists and distributes printed literature on his clients' services.
Jordan also sets up chat sessions in which one or more vendors from the marketplace have a live, online question-and-answer session with interested cybernauts. New Perspective Technologies also provides technical support, including Web site design and maintenance. "It's not enough to have people rent space in the marketplace and not promote their services," contends Jordan. "They might as well not be on the Web."
Daniel Janal, author of Online Marketing Handbook (Van Nostrand Reinhold; $24.95), offers some important things to consider when selecting an Internet mall:
* Make sure the mall has high-quality connectivity to the Internet, which means a T1 line or better. If a mall doesn't offer fast access, consumers could get turned off by the long wait to connect.
* The mall must have an address (URL) that is both easy to type and easy to remember.
* It should have an attractive and easy user interface.
* The company that runs the mall should have experience in publicizing and promoting the site.
Not all online malls are as successful as Jordan's. In fact, some analysts believe that the only ones that will thrive are specifically targeted online malls, like the African Marketplace.
A single location for a wide variety of goods and services--the premise of physical malls--just doesn't translate into the virtual world, says Hal Logan, CEO of Vicinity Corp., an online content development firm in Sunnyvale, California. "The exceptions will be malls that have a particular focus or theme," notes Logan, a former technology consultant.
BEFORE YOU SPIN THE WEB
Online malls are only one way to market and promote your business on the Web. A well-managed Web site can be just as beneficial to your business. But online success means more than merely building a site. "If you build it, they will come" doesn't hold true for this vast new medium.
Many companies have built Web sites only to shut them down in frustration because they didn't devise a clear online marketing strategy. Taking the time to learn and understand the medium, and following some basic online marketing tactics, will help you make the most of your virtual venture. And planning is key to the process.
Whether for sales, public relations or customer service, it's important to determine one or more clearly attainable reasons for being online, asserts Janal. "One of the biggest misconceptions about the Web is that it's just for selling. Right now, it's primarily a marketing tool."
The Web can be used any number of ways to boost your business, not the least of which is sales. But companies primarily concerned with sales may serve themselves better by waiting until the standards for secure electronic commerce are solidified.
Certainly not every company needs to be online today, but companies staking a claim now will have an advantage over the latecomers. The criteria for each company is different, and a cost/benefit analysis is paramount to your success. Determine what you expect from your Web site, and what you are willing to pay for those results. The cost of building a Web site can range anywhere from $1,000 to $1 million--not to mention the costs associated with maintaining it--so give it some serious thought.
"For instance, if you plan to have a portion of your Web site where consumers can ask questions and address concerns about your company's products or services via e-mail, you must budget the proper amount of time to answer those queries in a timely manner," says Logan. Corresponding with consumers will help to build long-lasting one-on-one relationships. However, ignoring their questions, or taking eons to respond, will only hamper your efforts to market on the Web. Automatic e-mail responders or "mailbots" immediately send out a common reply via e-mail until you can properly respond to consumer queries. In some cases, you may have to devote an employee to answering online questions and comments--consider it part of your cost analysis.
Consistent updating of information is another cost of having a Web site. Unless you can code your own Web pages, expect to pay for content changes. The life cycle of information will vary, depending on your particular industry, but you must keep your site reasonably fresh if you intend to have repeat customers.
WHAT'S IN A WEB SITE
Web site content should not be taken lightly. "Provide reams of information, not persuasion," states Janal. "Online consumers are information seekers, and are persuaded by facts and logic." Intense graphics and appeals to emotion are lost on many cybernauts. Though sites should have graphics, the focus is on the delivery of complete and detailed information about your services.
For example, many computer company Web sites provide information in as much detail as is necessary--including technical support, upgrades and new product information--thus cutting down on mailings and toll-free calls. Remember, space is practically unlimited. Therefore, you can provide information that is as in-depth as necessary for each consumer. In the case of computer firms, their sites generally contain basic product information for nontechnical would-be consumers, while another page will have more detailed technical analysis and performance reviews for technophiles.
If you're planning to sell a product or service on your site, then visitors should be able to make a purchase or at least have additional information sent to them by filling out the necessary details on a mailing form. You can target those consumers who are most likely to want your product or service and satisfy their need for action.
PUBLICIZING YOUR SITE
Even the best developed and most informative Web site can't guarantee visitors. Registering with general-interest search engines and directories, such as Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) and Alta Vista (www.altavista.digital.com), and targeted directories, like the Universal Black Pages (www.gatech.edu/bgsa/blackpages.html), is a fast, free way to publicize your Web site.
There are dozens of directories and search engines to help cybernauts find the kind of site that they are looking for. Registering generally consists of no more than typing in your Web site's URL in the appropriate space and providing a brief description of your site. Sites such as Announce-it (www.hilconet.com/ ~ announce/urls.html) will guide you through registering your site with numerous search engines and directories.
You can also increase traffic to your Web site by allying with other sites that offer complementary services or products. For instance, a site that sells suits would logically link to one that sells shirts and ties. Generally, you will provide a hypertext link (a line of text that will send the user directly to a specified page) to their site anywhere on the home page and they will do the same.
BEYOND THE WEB
Joining newsgroups and mailing lists relevant to your particular industry are other ways to publicize your presence on the Internet. A query to most search engines will give you a listing of mailing lists, newsgroups and their topics. They consist of text messages that can be responded to by any other member of the group. "Joining newsgroups is an important way of establishing your expertise and familiarizing people with your services," says Marty Fox, president of Future Communications Systems, an Internet marketing consulting firm in Syosset, New York.
Fox also warns businesses not to post commercial messages or advertisements to newsgroups or mailing lists. Janal agrees: "Posting ads on newsgroups or mailing lists is not illegal, but it is definitely counterproductive and recipients will either flame [send angry messages] or ignore you." Indiscriminately sending hundreds of unsolicited advertising messages [or "spamming," in Webspeak] will likely achieve similar results.
The proper way to publicize your site is to answer posted questions or comments in your areas of expertise. Each response you post to a newsgroup contains your signature file. It can contain information about the products and services you offer, your e-mail address and URL. Members who find your information useful will take the initiative to visit your site. Most Internet service providers can aid you in starting your own newsgroup or mailing list. This will give you greater latitude in promoting your services, but it does not give you carte blanche to turn them into advertising vehicles.
Business owners who venture onto the Web must make the Internet an integral part of their marketing. It should not be viewed as an aside or an extravagance. Your URL should be on all of your business correspondence and marketing materials. That also holds true for any ads you may run in traditional media.
There are magazines, such as Internet World, that focus entirely on Internet issues. Make sure your site finds its way into some of them. General interest and even some business publications like BLACK ENTERPRISE have sections that highlight new and useful Web sites for their readers. Take advantage of all avenues to make your virtual venture worthwhile. Properly promoting your site is not an impossible task. But time and effort are by far the most important resources you can use to ensure that it's a success.
Resources for Online Marketing
* Innovative Solutions www.netxpert.com/webwork.html
* The online resource for network marketers www.he.net/~image/nwm/imincat/list_online.html
* Guerilla Marketing Online www.gmarketing.com
* 10 Keys to online marketing success www.thielenonline.com/tenkeys.htm
* Smart business supersite //smartbiz.com
* FAQ: How to announce your new Web site //ep.com/faq/webannounce.html
* Internet marketing and communications www.cam.org/~delphig/marketing.htm
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|Title Annotation:||BE Spotlight on Startups: Technology; using a Web site for profitable business: includes resources for online marketing|
|Author:||Muhammad, Tariq K.|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1996|
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