People have been talking up the value of Internet marketing for years. Unfortunately, its consistent failure to surpass the sliced bread benchmark, or even come anywhere near it, has generally proved an embarrassment for all concerned. At last, however, it looks as if things could be taking off. Companies are starting to put real money into the concept and, if they do it right, are getting real results. Success, though, seems to depend upon being able to exploit the unique functionality of the new medium and realising that it isn't just an online fly poster.
To this end, most Internet gurus identify three types of Web site:
1. At the Mini Metro end of the business is a basic, no-bells-or-whistles promotional site. It functions simply as an online brochure which gives essential product information, contact details for the company, and minimal branding.
2. The next step up is a content Web site. This contains material which has been designed especially for the Internet, such as hypertext links to other sites, searchable databases and things that squawk at you if you click on a particular button. The site is branded with the company logo.
3. The third is a transactional Web site, where business actually takes place. This is the sort of page where you key in your credit card details and order widgets online.
"But first of all, companies have got to work out in advance what their Web site is actually for," says Steve Bowbrick, founder of Web design company Webmedia (see interview page 31. "I know that sounds stupid, but you can go into many Web sites and find they've got no obvious function.
They're me-too sites which do nothing for the product or the company."
"Most are really a result of people trying to catch up," agrees Ryan Bernard, founder of Wordmark Associates, a Web consultancy in Houston.
"They wake up one morning and discover that their strongest rivals are up on the Internet. Then they make the mistake of trying to ape the competition rather than figuring out how they could do a better job."
Doing a better job can sometimes mean not going all out to promote yourself, according to Paul Ockenden of Cobbe Smith Terris, a combined IT and marketing company:
"Our opinion is that unless you're in the Levi's or Coca-Cola league, you have to face the fact that your brand possibly isn't strong enough to support a Web site by itself. A classic example is one of our clients, Allied Domecq, which has a blended Scotch called Ballantyne's. They came to us and said they'd like a Web site dedicated to it. But we asked them, who's going to go to a site that's just about a particular brand of Scotch?
Probably not many people.
"When this happens, you've got to take a look at the brand and see what else the company is doing. We found out that Ballantyne's sponsors snowboarding.
So we persuaded Allied Domecq to have a site all about snowboarding where, although their brand does feature fairly strongly, it's only secondary.
In this way, people are attracted to the site because we're giving them something interesting that will induce them to come back. And at the same time, they'll associate the idea of snowboarding with Ballantyne's."
Content is important, then, but what sort of content? "A Web site needs at least one of the three Rs - Reference, Recreation and Reward. If your site doesn't offer at least one of these, people aren't going to come to it. If it provides all three it's going to be very popular."
"The key thing the Web offers you is interactivity," says Carl Christensen of Web design company Domino Systems. "You should therefore make your site a rewarding experience for the visitor in this respect. A good example of a company that gets this right is Fidelity Investments, a big insurance company in the US. Its Web site has a wallpaper calculator where you type in the dimensions of your room and it works out how many rolls of wallpaper you'll need to cover it. It's got absolutely nothing to do with insurance, of course, but little features like that on your Web site are fun aspects that get you talked about."
But don't make it overly complicated. "People get really fed up with going into sites which say you need the latest version of Internet Explorer or Netscape just in order to use it properly," says Ockenden. "Is someone really going to go off and spend three hours downloading a new piece of software just so they can see your site?"
Long downloads are very off-putting, which is why Bowbrick cautions against being too graphics-dependent: "Collapsing the whole content of a site into GIFs is completely insensitive to the medium. It smacks of designer pique: 'Hey, I'm a designer. If I can't decide what typeface my pages are viewed in, I'll just damn well make each page up as a GIF!' But if I go to your home page and I find it's going to take all evening just for the graphics-rich contents list to assemble itself, I'm bored to death.
You've so pissed me off, there's no way I'm going to come back. You've therefore lost a potential customer.
"Fortunately, the generation of computer-savvy graphics designers now arriving on the Web have the right idea. They're developing a repertoire of techniques which allow them to make good, graphical Web sites without big images."
Tell the world
Of course, once your Web site is up there, whatever flavour it is, you've then got to let the world at large in on the secret. What's the best way of doing this?
"Promoting a Web site means treating your URL in much the same way as your company logo," says Ockenden. "So anywhere you're going to put your company logo, your URL goes on the same piece of paper. Another good idea, where you've got a couple of clients who don't compete directly but who have a similar group of people buying their products, is to arrange collaboration between the companies. For example, one of your clients might produce pizzas, another videos, and a third one beer. Typically, people are going to send out for a pizza in the evening, watch a video and drink beer.
As the companies are pitching at a similar consumer group, propose Web site co-operation between them. Establish links from one site to the other."
And once you have your Web site set up, keep it up, advises Bowbridge: "If you don't, it's a bit like getting an 0800 number and then turning it off after a while because you think it's too expensive to maintain.
But the whole customer base still has that number in their address books.
They phone you up, get unobtainable and think you're out of business.
Similarly, if I show up at http://www.wherever and you're not there, not only will I be annoyed, I'll assume the receivers have been called in."
Another major failing along these lines is putting up a Web site too early. "Many companies launch with a Web site that isn't finished," explains Ockenden. "It's maybe two or three flimsy pages, full of Under Construction messages. People are going to come into this site for a look, reckon there's nothing there and never come back again. So never launch until you're ready."
But having said that, don't be too afraid of making mistakes. "It's better to experiment with a test site now, and make your mistakes while the medium is young and the audience still limited to a few million," says Jerry Lazar of WebFX Marketing. "A site can be established for a relatively small expenditure and then tweaked and cultivated as needed. And thanks to the interactive nature of the medium, you'll know quickly what is and isn't working."
But assuming your site is complete and pulling in the crowds, how soon before you see a return on your investment? After all, it can cost anything between #30,000 and #150,000 per year to maintain a Web site. You'd like to think, presumably, that it's money well spent.
"How long before you make a return depends entirely on the stated function of the Web site," says Bowbrick. "If the stated function is to sell widgets via a credit card ordering mechanism, then it's very easy to measure return.
But if your site has a marketing function only, calculating your return isn't so straightforward. It's like the marketing manager who said: 'I know half of my advertising budget is wasted but I don't know which half.'"
One thing to bear in mind is that as a marketing medium, the Internet is more cost-effective than producing printed brochures, which have to be redone expensively whenever you want to update the information in them.
Also, the Internet is a lot cheaper than advertising on television. So if you factor these considerations into the marketing equation, you should begin to see that the idea does indeed make economic sense. Then you can take advantage of the boom in Internet activity that industry analysts are telling us is due in the next six to nine months.
And maybe this time it won't be just hot air.
Ten tips for successful marketing on the Internet
1. Work out exactly what your site is for before you launch. Do you want to conduct online transactions or should it simply be an online brochure?
Do you want to build a customer database? How about soliciting customer feedback via email?
2. Remember: Content is King. If you haven't got anything interesting in your site, people simply won't bother coming to it.
3. Don't be afraid to change the purpose and direction of the site once you have it up and running. If, for example, you put up a Web marketing site but you're not getting anywhere near the response you expected, change its function.
4. Once your site is up, keep it up. Devote enough resources to it.
5. Publicise your Web site in your advertisements and on your company letterheads. Treat your URL as part of your company logo.
6. Look at using links to other sites as a marketing tool. Try to forge online alliances between companies aiming at a similar demographic. Look at the demographic of the sites you're linking to and see if there's any value in it.
7. Don't make your site too graphics-rich. You can easily irritate people by forcing them to download massive .GIF images, so much so that they may go away and never come back.
8. Make sure the Web page is designed by someone who knows what they're doing. In many cases the task is assigned to the IT department which, although it knows all about HTML, doesn't know a thing about marketing. Save money in the long run and subcontract your Web design work to the pros.
9. Check out what your competition is doing with its Web site. Don't try to clone it, better it.
10. Remember, the Internet is a global medium. It makes sense to consider a multilingual site.
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