The World Wide Web has changed the face of many businesses and created entirely new ones that would not have been possible without the new medium.
People have developed astounding technologies for delivering audio and video instantly to almost anyone in the world.
Companies are interacting directly with thousands of customers, determining their buying patterns, discovering their likes and dislikes and changing product lines to meet the demand of an ever-changing public.
But if I'm not an amazon.com or an over-funded techno startup company, what can the Web do for me?
Basically stated, the Web is a 24/7 sales/marketing/service person. That is to say, whatever you want it to be.
However, before jumping into this panacea of possibilities, you must have a good understanding of (1) what your customers want from your Web offerings and (2) how the results from the Web will integrate with current business practices.
Information Access Road
In answering question number one it is important to understand the basis of all good websites –- information. No amount of attractive graphics, phenomenal layout and catchy phrases help your business if the visitor to your website cannot find your e-mail address or phone number.
The most effective way to start your website is to provide the same information that exists in other forms, such as brochures and Yellow Pages ads.
Once the groundwork is laid by converting your existing information to the Web then you can expand into areas only available to web surfers.
A website allows you to create an environment where the surfer can learn about you, your products and services, and the company at their own pace and in their own order.
On the backside, I can have my Web server tell me what parts of my site are being visited the most. Based on this information I can make intelligent decisions about the next series of changes to my website.
Integrating the results from your website into your business is one of the most attractive and cost-beneficial factors in adding a website presence.
By collecting information from your clientele and moving that information directly into your standard software you allow your customers to do much of your administrative work for you.
The following three scenarios demonstrate three different levels of technology integration, from basic to complete. Keep in mind that many organizations start from the basic end and continue more toward the complete end of the spectrum.
The basic end of the spectrum is often an on-line brochure that explains the who, what, where and why of your organization.
Typically, it is a mirror of your existing marketing information, except that it is designed for a Web audience. If you are considering a Web presence at all, always start here. It is better to have something available for people to find than to be developing the ultimate website but be losing customers because there isn't something for them to use. Think of this option as a world wide brochure stand that anyone can reach for.
A basic website should typically be created for under $1000 and hosted at an ISP for less than $50 per month.
For the ISP find a company that you would be comfortable forming a business partnership, not just the lowest bidder. Do they seem professional? Are they available?
Look out for ISPs that seem to never answer the phone, or return your phone calls. They hold quite a bit of responsibility in ensuring that your website is available.
Building on the basis of the basic website, a moderate site would include some interactivity with the user. This could be taking requests for information on-line, allowing people to make tentative on-line reservations or allowing a visitor to order products on-line.
The largest difference here is the interactivity with the visitor. This difference alone can set your website apart from some else who is just using a basic website.
People are much more likely to make return visits to a website in which they feel involved or connected as opposed to those that are just static information.
A moderate web site hosts at an ISP for about $99 per month. From the design aspect, there are quite a few Web page design programs. Two of the most popular for beginners are Microsoft FrontPage and Adobe Pagemill. Both afford the beginner templates from which to create their websites.
However, a template can be limiting to one's design vision. There's a slew of more advanced website programs, and most require that the user become familiar with the language of the Web, HTML.
The second aspect of website management has to do with the process of changing information, managing the physical file layout, and so on.
The user's choice for doing so depends some on the Web hosting company they choose as the hosting company determines, for different reasons, what administrative software they allow their customers to use.
At this level, you have really made the commitment to the technology. Your website is now taking orders and reservations for people, checking for availability and making the necessary requests to other hardware and software to complete the transaction.
The largest advantage in a complete solution is the absolute convenience to the client and to the company. After filling out a few blanks on a page, the visiting customer could have a new reservation in place and confirmed, their credit card has been charged, an e-mail confirmation has been sent to the customer and the required people in your organization have been notified as to what need to take place for this new customer.
Additionally, an entry has been made in your reservation system in accordance with the customer's preferences.
A complete website may cost any number of dollars depending of the level of interactivity and interoperability. The hosting charge, as well, may be higher.
As you can see the complete solution is the most attractive from a customer service and sales perspective. However, it is more important that you have something on your website as opposed to nothing at all.
In short, do something with the Internet. The entry cost is low and the possible rewards are innumerable. Even if it makes it easier for 10 percent of your clientele to purchase from you it is worthwhile.
Never discount the level of convenience people enjoy when they can sit in front of their computer and take care of all their personal business with companies that make it fast and easy to do so.
Sounds very much like the first ingredient in the mix for happy, repeat customers.
David Hahn is a technology consultant and the president of TechAngle Inc., a computer hardware, software, consulting and Internet company based in Aurora, Colorado. He has been in the computer industry since 1987 and on the Internet since 1984. He carries more certifications than he cares to think about and designed his first website in 1994. Self-described as a geek and a bit-head he enjoys anything having to do with technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.