A Step-By-Step Guide To Going On-Line
Step 1: Making the Investment Worthwhile
Going online can be absurdly simple – some Internet service providers even insert disks with the software you need into business or computer magazines. But to make the investment worthwhile, you must have a purpose in mind. Understanding the Internet, setting realistic goals for your enterprise, recognizing the commitment entailed, and maximizing your efforts are four key steps your small business must take to ensure your Internet venture will be successful.
Before you begin to make decisions or commit dollars to services you may not need or equipment you may not want, take some time to learn about the Internet. Read books, consult with experts, or talk to friends who are using the Internet for their business and ask them what they would recommend. Research the potential of common business applications such as e-mail, mailing lists, newsgroups, and World Wide Web pages.
After you have learned what the Internet can do in general, you need to determine what it can do for you specifically. Carefully examine your business and ask yourself how you might utilize this rapidly expanding resource.
Do you want to use the Internet just to give customers e-mail access to your company? Do you want to use the Internet to network with colleagues? Do you want to advertise and sell your products or services online? Make your goals specific: “Within six months, we aim at bringing in $500 a day in online sales” or “In 30 days, we will establish one industry contact a week through newsgroups.”
After going through this thought process, write down your plan and share it with your employees. Presenting your plan will help them in their training efforts as well as focus them on your particular Internet goals.
Next, you have to think about how much Internet you need. Will one connection and a single address for your entire company accommodate your needs, or does every employee require an individual log-on? Does everyone who will use the Internet have a computer with adequate speed, power, a modem, and a phone line? You might need to budget in some computer upgrades, and possibly some training for employees and yourself, and set aside enough time so everyone can learn how to make use of the new resources the Internet offers.
If your goal is to provide access to the Internet for research purposes, then providing the equipment, training and management plan might be sufficient for getting underway. If, however, your plan calls for creating a World Wide Web page to attain the sales goals you set, a lot more effort is required. Find in-house computer experts or hire a consultant who can set up your Web presence. Research your competitors’ efforts and determine what you need to do to be more effective. Once you are convinced that you have considered all aspects of this project in a reasoned way, you are ready to get started.
Bringing your company online is no different from any other business initiative; it requires careful research, focus, and execution. The rewards can be enormous, but make sure your first step onto the information superhighway is a deliberate one.
Step 2: Selecting the Right Onramp
The well-worn metaphor likening the Internet to a highway is most appropriate when discussing how you get on and get around. Your mobility depends on the modem (the rough equivalent of your car), the bandwidth (are you on a six-lane highway or a mountain road?), and how much other traffic exists.
Modems for personal computers typically come in two speeds: 14,400 bits per second and 28,800 bits per second. A 28,800 modem can go slower if your line or some portions of your service don’t run at top speed. Conversely, however, a 14,400 modem can’t speed up when conditions allow.
A phone line can carry only so much bandwidth – it’s comparable to the narrow, local road. Dedicated SLIP or PPP lines are much wider and faster. A full-access hookup is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day – it’s as rapid as you can possibly get.
The third consideration, traffic, is out of your control, but you can attempt to plan your route to avoid congestion. Try to find out how many customers can be accommodated by the services you are considering. A bargain service will bring you nothing but frustration if you can never connect to the Internet in the first place.
Step 3: The Basic Steps
A World Wide Web presence can be an effective way of promoting your company and its products or services to the online community. As with any marketing initiative undertaken, however, you need to think carefully about the purpose and make sure that the finished product fulfills your goals and meets the needs and expectations of your target audience.
The programming involved in putting together a Web page is relatively simple. Several how-to books on the subject are available, and certain software packages can help you set up some plain-vanilla designs relatively quickly. However, if you want to create a more sophisticated Web page, you should either develop your own computer skills more fully or hire a consultant to do the job. If no one on your staff is an Internet wizard, you might even be able to find a skilled and enthusiastic college student with the skills you need. Depending on the complexity desired, the costs can vary from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars.
One of the best features of the Internet is its ability to communicate rapidly. For example, a restaurant can post its menu, and change it daily. A hardware store can open up its inventory of certain items, saving customers the frustration of finding out that what they need is out of stock. A florist can display color photos of various arrangements and take orders online. An art gallery, assuming no copyright problems exist, can show off its latest works. Remember that your Web page must be both active and current. If you neglect it, so will your customers.
Decide what to put on your Web page in the context of your overall marketing and sales goals. Your Web presence must have a purpose, a good design that makes it easy and attractive to use, and timeliness that keeps people coming back to look at what new things you have to say. Having a Web page simply for the sake of having a Web page will do you no good.
You also should think about how a marketing vehicle seen around the world could change your business. For example, will you have to be shipping your products to new customers overseas? Do you have enough security built in to protect credit card orders? Do you stock sufficient inventory to be able to fulfill a jump in the quantity of purchases made?
Your Web page should be functional, logical and easy to use. To get ideas of what to do – and what to avoid – scout around the Web yourself. Visit different sites and note how some Web pages make getting the information you want easy while others turn it into a test of patience and perseverance. See what’s eye-catching and what’s dull. Notice whether a page pops quickly onto your screen or requires long lags before all the words and pictures are assembled.
Also look at what your competitors are already doing on the Internet. Think of what you can do better, and develop that angle. Notice how other Web pages in your industry look – what tone do they set, and what image do they convey? What works online for a retail store won’t be appropriate for a commercial bank. A competitive analysis is an important step in your planning – you don’t want to show up on-line wearing the wrong clothes.
Finally, remember that there are hundreds of thousands of Web pages. People can’t find you if they don’t know you exist. Register with Web “search engines” and promote your page in advertising, newsletters, mailings, and press releases.
Step 4: Promoting Your Home Page
Once you have undertaken the effort and expense of developing a World Wide Web presence, you want to be sure people know about it. You must promote the page, both online and off. Here’s what to do:
Get installed into search engines.
The Web is a disorganized, decentralized system. To help users navigate its choppy electronic seas, search engines keep track of the sites on the Web by category. Just about everyone who uses the Internet starts by asking a search engine to identify locations containing information of interest. It is therefore critical that you alert the search engines about yourself. In most cases, registration is free and almost immediate. Your service provider and your own Web navigating software will be able to give you a good list of search engines.
Register at “What’s New” sites.
Managing the entire Internet is impossible. Keeping track of what’s new within it is only slightly easier. “What’s New” pages list new arrivals by category, country of origin and other means – even just alphabetically. Listing is usually free. Some good general places to start include Mosaic/GNN What’s New Page, Special Internet Connections and the Netscape What’s New Page. Some valuable business pages include The Internet Mall, the Open Market’s Commercial Site Index, Apollo Advertising, BizWeb, and Product.Com.
Be active, both online and off.
Word of mouth is still an excellent way to advertise your Web page. Include your site address in all of your documents, advertisements and other materials. Mention your home page when you visit with friends or customers. Mail out postcards to your customers announcing new services or references as you initiate them. When you are exploring the Web and find a page that complements yours, send its owners a message offering to establish a link from your page to theirs if they will reciprocate.
The rule of thumb for going online is that bigger and faster computers are always better. To travel online without annoying delays, you should have a relatively new computer (IBMs with 486 or Pentium processors do well), a speedy modem (14,400 or 28,800 bits per second), and at least 10 to 20 megabytes of free hard disc space to store the data that you subsequently collect in cyberspace.
If you are buying a new computer, remember that memory doesn’t cost much: hard discs with 500 megabytes to more than one gigabyte of storage are widely available at modest prices.
If you are using an old computer, you might wish to upgrade the random-access memory (RAM) from four megabytes to eight or 16. This, in effect, widens the door that data passes through and makes the system run more smoothly.
Using your desktop computer and an inexpensive modem, you dial a local phone number to connect to a host computer. The host provides you access to the various services that the Internet has to offer.
Some dial-up services, such as Delphi, take you directly to the Internet. Others such as Compuserve, America Online, Prodigy, and GEnie are actually networks of their own, with their own array of services in addition to access to the wider Internet. These more commercial services tend to be more expensive. However, they also may offer some services unavailable on the Internet and can be much easier to use.
- Inexpensive, typically around $10 per month.
- Sometimes free through city governments and universities.
- Comparatively easy to use.
- Is the slow lane on the information superhighway.
- Might not provide access to all parts of the Internet.
- Cannot be used for your own World Wide Web page running on your own computer. However, your service provider might make space available on its computer for your Web page for a monthly fee.
These connections between your desk and a service provider use faster modems and high-capacity phone lines to make your visits to the Internet more productive. Connections known as SLIPs or PPPs are not expensive (roughly $30 per month).
- Two to three times faster than online service.
- On-line searches are faster.
- Powerful enough to serve as your office’s network.
- Although it is possible to offer a World Wide Web page through this kind of connection, it may not be practical.
- Fairly expensive.
- Need the fastest commercially available modem to take full advantage of this service.
- Is not well-suited to being a host for a Web page. You would be better off asking your service provider to carry your Web page on its computer.
This type of connection is wired directly into an Internet computer without using a phone and allows fast access to Internet services. Such a connection can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month, but one line can provide service to literally thousands of users at a time.
- Is not simply access to the Internet, it is the Internet.
- Ideal for World Wide Web pages.
- Able to modify your WWW page at any time.
- With such a line, you can be a service provider to others, charging them monthly fees for the use of your connection.
- Expect monthly fee and one-time investments in bridges, routers, and gateways.
- Offers more service than an average small business would need unless it is involved in intensive amounts of data processing and communications.
Creating Your Own Web Page
TO: GEORGE SMITH, BUSINESS OWNER, BOSTON
FROM: BONNIE BAIR, FLINTRIDGE CONSULTING, PASADENA
RE: MY EXPERIENCE GOING ON-LINE N
No doubt you would recognize a Robert Beswick. He’s your basic computer guy: accustomed to all-nighters at the keyboard, attired quite independently of Esquire magazine’s sartorial recommendations, more inclined to be reading about databases than about baseball.
While you may not socialize much with a Robert Beswick, you probably know one. And when it’s time to build a World Wide Web page, you will be glad you do.
Robert Beswick built Flintridge Consulting’s Web page in little more than an afternoon. Our company, which provides editorial, marketing, and research services has been intrigued by the business possibilities of the Internet for some time, and our assignment to explore the subject for Small Business Success magazine was the catalyst for finally going online.
There are consulting companies that specialize in developing eye-popping World Wide Web pages at sometimes eye-popping fees. Software is available at your local computer store that will help you build a basic Web page. Bookstores are filled with handy-dandy guides for the do-it-yourselfer. And then there are the Robert Beswicks of the world for firms such as ours, with neither large budgets nor extraordinary patience when it comes to computers.
Robert scanned advertising in computer magazines, read some articles, and prowled around on the Internet for a while before deciding that Primenet should be our service provider. The company has been around for several years, making it an old-timer in Internet genealogy, and has an access phone number that is a local call from our office. (I don’t use e-mail while traveling, so having local access from many different cities wasn’t important to us. For others, however, it might be essential.)
Our account also provides us with a World Wide Web page, which we can change as often as we like, unlimited electronic mail and 150 hours per month of online time for work and play. The monthly cost is in the middle two figures; it’s possible to spend more on a room-service dinner at a Hyatt hotel.
Primenet provided the software for building the Web page as part of our start-up package, but it took a call to the technical support line and a great deal of fiddling with settings before things were working as they should. “It took several hours of hassle and configuration, but once set up properly, the software proved to be reliable and easy to use,” Robert says. The text and pictures were the easy part. We thought about the points we wanted to make and how our page should be organized. We wrote the text, trying to be interesting and engaging yet not too wild to frighten our banking and law clients. For graphics, we used a color drawing from a recent publication. Want to take a look? Punch up http://www.primenet.com/~flintrd/.
It’s doubtful that our Web page will bring hordes of computer-savvy customers to our door – and frankly, after seeing how easy it is to start one up, we are less than excited about advertising this as a service we can provide. (If you can do it yourself relatively well and relatively painlessly, why would you pay us to do it for you?) We have been online for several weeks as these words are being written, and nobody has sent us any e-mail yet (firstname.lastname@example.org, if you’re lonely, too).
Still, it’s a good investment to be online. We can e-mail documents to clients and to ourselves (mitigating the conflict between working at home on a PC and at the office on a Macintosh). We can include electronic publishing as one of the services available to our clients; some of our recent bids have included this as a major selling point. And now we can chat electronically about fashion or baseball with people all over the world if we’re so inclined. After all, Robert Beswick isn’t a great conversationalist on these subjects.
Unusual Bookstore Provides a Glimpse of the Future of Publishing
Anyone interested in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography can get a copy free at the Online Bookstore (OBS), but the company’s president, Laura Fillmore, doesn’t really expect even the most avid reader to hunker down and peruse 400 pages online.
What customers of the Rockport, Massachusetts-based store can do, however, is flip to current news about South Africa, maps of the region and related materials available online as they read Mandela’s words. “We create something that’s a complement to the printed book,” Fillmore explains.
Fillmore has worked for traditional publishing companies in the past, but since 1992 has been making books available via the Internet. Readers can browse her store’s electronic aisles (http://www.obs-us.com), order up a title with a credit card, and receive the book via electronic mail. And because some publishers are paying Online BookStore to help them figure out what the electronic future of the book will be, several titles are available free for the downloading.
Fillmore says free access to titles and the interactive links that make it possible for the reader to learn more about a subject at the click of a mouse generate interest that translates into additional sales of printed books. But there’s more to her business than helping publishers build best-sellers.
“I originally thought I was in the business of selling files,” Fillmore concludes. “Actually, it’s access to ideas.”
Key Considerations When Going On-Line
When you buy a car for your business, you already know the importance of asking specific questions about such considerations as fuel economy, performance, and reliability. In a similar vein, when you get ready to go online, be prepared to ask about Unix systems, mirrored disks, and bandwidth. Here are some key factors to consider:
Does Using a Service Provider Make Sense?
Is a single phone connection adequate for your company, or do you need to wire every employee into the Internet? Ask your service provider how many individual names can be registered under your single account. If all employees must have their own accounts, the cost and financial management entailed if using a service provider can be unwieldy.
Subscribing to someone else’s service can cost less than $100 a month. If your Web page is being stored on someone else’s server, however, you must be sure the provider has a large enough system to handle the volume of calls coming in for both your Web page and for those stored by other clients the service provider has. If the system can’t handle a large number of calls at once, people trying to get to your page will obtain the Internet equivalent of a busy signal, a frustrating message saying that you can’t be reached at the moment.
Depending on the extent of your company’s needs, you may decide not to use a service provider at all – perhaps it makes more sense to purchase your own server and operate your Internet site in-house.
Buying the equipment necessary to connect your entire company to the Internet and run a Web page costs $4,000 to $20,000, in addition to whatever expenses apply to the personnel who operate and maintain the system.
Building Your Web Page.
This cost can range from very little, if done in-house, to more than $25,000 if you use top-dollar design and programming consultants. A simple home page containing graphics and text can be built relatively inexpensively. Costs increase as you add links to more and more pages of information, establish transaction services, set up layers of security, and take advantage of other features.