“Do you have a website?” It is a question – increasingly being askede. But in today’s technology-driven business world that’s a pretty feeble cop-out. Jane Barber addresses the catch-22. by customers and business partners – that makes many UK managers cringe with embarrassment. They either have a website which is so basic and trouble-ridden that they don’t want potential customers looking at it or, even worse, they have to admit that they aren’t on the Internet.
Anyone who has been asked the question will know the instinctive shame that comes from appearing old-fashioned in the modern technology-dependent business world. Perhaps your response is one of irritation because your company has a good reason for not getting on the net – it’s too expensive, it’s not secure, it’s too risky, the business benefits are not clear or it doesn’t complement your current business strategy.
True, the IT industry is full of fads which wax and wane – costing companies thousands of pounds along the way. Resistance to adopting the Internet for business purposes is understandable. Let’s face it, some of the associated jargon doesn’t exactly promote the Internet as a serious business tool.
But it is exactly that. A website is like a telephone: if you don’t have one your corporate image is out-of-date. The day is rapidly approaching when your current and potential customers and clients will be reluctant to do business with you if you are not “wired” to the information superhighway.
At present, UK consumers are spending around #5.3m a year on goods and services being sold over the Internet, according to research company Datamonitor.
However, this is forecast to grow to #421m by the year 2001. Predictably, it is US companies which are leading the way. During a recent visit to the US, I was struck by the extent to which web addresses are plastered everywhere – not only in the newspapers, but on adverts for everything from business travel to toilet paper. Some ads are just the web address, enticing people to log on to find out what it’s all about. People routinely turn to their computers to buy a car, find out which films are on at the cinema or look for a job.
Admittedly, there are more people in the US with Internet access than in the UK. This saturation indicates that Americans have combined an obsession for innovation with an acceptance of risk and change to evolve a culture which embraces the Internet as a way to do banking, shopping and research.
This cyberculture recognises that the Internet is not just about e-mail.
New developments such as “cookies” and “push technology” enable you to gather information about the people looking at your site and deliver personalised information directly to a user’s screen at designated times. Through the use of multimedia a site can be made a distribution mechanism for applications such as training.
This type of culture is embryonic in the UK, making it difficult for the FDs of conservative UK-based businesses to convince the board they should take a risk and get on the net. British executives must accept that as more consumers (regardless of where they are based) turn to the Internet for goods and services, UK companies of all sizes and industry sectors that want to stay in business will adopt on-line selling.
It is encouraging that the question among some UK business people is no longer “Should we be on the Internet?” but “How do we go about it?” However, many have gone about it in a half-hearted and haphazard manner.
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This is even more detrimental than having no site at all, because if a potential customer looks at the site and finds nothing of interest, he or she will probably not bother returning.
So the basic rules of websites are: make it attractive and interesting to the target audience; keep it simple; be creative but not gimmicky; for ideas, look at a variety of existing sites, not just those of your competitors; and remember that a mass of marketing jargon is likely to repel potential customers. But there’s more than that to running a successful site:
– Dedicate a budget, staff and a department for setting up and maintaining the site. Maintaining your site is likely to be a full-time job. You will need to appoint a webmaster, or administrator, to keep the information up-to-date on a weekly or daily basis.
– Don’t get bogged down in the mysteries of how to set up a website infrastructure, which is the least difficult part. You will need some expert advice, but use caution when selecting a webdesign company – it’s expensive and you should ensure your company is not cut out of the design process.
– Make certain you have a secure and reliable infrastructure. Remember that your website is your 24-hour shop, open seven days-a-week. There is nothing more irritating than trying to access a site and finding the server is down. You will most likely have to use an Internet service provider (ISP) for connection and, as their customer, you should demand guarantees of uptime with financial repercussions if it fails to meet contractual targets.
– Be prepared to adapt to the changes cyberbusiness will have on your industry. The Internet is already changing the world of finance. For example, a growing number of the 10 million private investors in the UK are using websites to buy and sell stocks directly, cutting the traditional stockbroker out of the loop.
As with any element of your company that is open to the public, websites are a risk. It is likely that you will see no immediate financial returns from the site. A website should be considered an expansion of your business and, as such, will challenge your management skills. Your organisation will have to learn to think globally and manage globally. You will also have to plan how to implement cyberbusiness in such a way that it complements, rather than threatens, your traditional business.
The unlimited potential of the Internet is its biggest attraction. It is making global businesses out of the most unlikely candidates. It is particularly well suited to small businesses that have limited resources, but can cope with global distribution of their products and services.
An effective website can reach a global customer base with minimal investment.
Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?