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by Malcolm Graham

Should your business use the Internet? What are the potential benefits of using the Internet for your business? Should you get on the Web? What tools should you use? Who should you use to get you on the Web? My answers to these questions are based on personal research and experience and are presented under the following topics:

Communicating and Marketing on the Web
No matter what your business, you must tell potential clients about your product or service and support them after theyíve become your customers. An excellent and cost-effective place to do this is over the Internet. You will have immediate and unconditional access to millions of potential customers anywhere in the world. Any business can use the Internet technology now for internal and external communication, marketing, and as an information repository. The main Internet technologies that will be of use to your business are electronic mail (email) and the World Wide Web.

Internet technology will not replace your existing communication, marketing, or information storage technologies; it will supplement and enhance them. For example, you will not replace your telephones or fax machines because youíve started using email; however, you will enhance your internal and external communication capabilities. The adoption of a Web site will provide you with an additional means for marketing and supporting your products and services both within and outside your company.

For additional information on Web marketing, see Wilson Internet Services.

Selling on the Web
Many companies are selling their products and services online; excellent examples are chapters.indigo.ca who sell books, music, videos, hardware, and software online and NetMechanic who sell Web-based services. Some reasons why your products and services may not sell online are:

  • your potential customers are not online
  • there is a widespread concern about the security of online transactions
  • old ways of doing business are difficult to change and new ones are slow to be adopted
  • some products and services are unsuitable for online distribution
  • consumers are not comfortable ordering unknown brands online from someone they donít know and havenít dealt with before

So why bother about Getting on the Web now? Why not wait a year or two? The advantages of improved communications and marketing alone are sufficient to justify the fairly minimal cost of getting your business online now. More importantly, you will be Establishing a Presence on the Web so that consumers will recognize you and will be more likely to order from you in the future.

Planning to Get on the Web
Starting any project with a plan yields tangible benefits usually by ensuring that the project delivers on time what you expect. Your plan doesnít need to be elaborate but it should include answers to the following questions.

How will you use Internet technology within your business?
Will you use Internet technology inside your business to establish an Intranet? Will you be using Internet technology only outside your business? Initially, Iíd suggest you use the email and Web hosting services of a local Internet Services Provider (ISP).
How soon will you establish an Internet presence?
Iíd recommend that you plan to establish a presence immediately! However, donít just run out today and get just anyone to get you on the Web. Think about how you will be using the Internet in the long term and ensure that your initial Web presence fits in with your long-term plan for using the Internet.
How is your industry using the Internet?
Are there any existing discussion groups? Are there any success stories? Can you associate yourself with other similar businesses? What are the trends within your industry? Do you see needs within your industry that you can meet?
What Internet expertise do you have within your organization?
Does anyone in your organization have HTML experience? Is anyone interested in gaining HTML training? Do you want Internet expertise within your organization? Have you considered using an HTML editor? I recommend Dreamweaver, FrontPage, or GoLive. Do you know of anyone with Internet experience? Do you have anyone with information design experience? Can you justify hiring someone with Internet experience? Would hiring a contract person meet your needs?
What are your business objectives for using the Internet?
Could you reduce your support costs? How many people contact you because of your Internet presence? How many people can you contact using the Internet? How do you plan to use the Internet over the next 12 months? What results do you expect to see?
What are the benefits of using the Internet for your business?
The benefits must be tangible, specific, and measurable. Can they be quantified? Can you now do something you couldnít do before? Can you save money, time, or other resources? Can you improve on something that you are currently doing?
Does your organization have a vision statement?
A vision statement succinctly defines the philosophy of your organization which guides and directs all organizational behaviours.
Will you be selling products online?
If you are, you will need to accept credit card payments. I suggest that you have someone else handle all your credit card payments. I recommend you consider PayPal first.
What Internet software do you plan to use?
Iíd recommend Netscape Navigator which includes integrated Web browser, email, and news reader programs. You should also consider Microsoft Explorer. I also recommend MailWasher to minimize the reception of unwanted emails.
Which hosting company should you use?
Typically you will use your own domain name, registered with InterNIC or CIRA by a registrar like domainsatcost.ca or mydomain.com, and your Web site will be accessed through a hosting company server. There are many hosting companies and selecting one that offers the features you need and is reliable and cost-effective is not an easy task. For my experiences, see webhosts. I recommend that you review my experiences, select a host that meets your needs, and then monitor your selection using the free NetMechanic, InternetSeer, Uptime, or Service Uptime monitoring service for a few days at different times to verify the server performance of the selected host. On an ongoing basis, as a minimum you should monitor that your web site is up-and-running; we recommend you try the free Uptime or Service Uptime services first. You may also find the Ping and Tracert commands useful (but note that for security reasons some web hosts block Ping and Tracert requests).
What type of Internet connection will you use?
Will you use a 56 KB, ISDN, cable modem, or ADSL dial-up or direct connections? Will you use modems or routers and which ones will you use? Your choice of equipment will depend largely on your choice of ISP; for the various types of connections, for one-stop shopping Iíd recommend you consider 3Com/U.S. Robotics products first.
What computer will you use?
You may have to upgrade your existing equipment. Iíd recommend a computer with at least: 3 GHz CPU, 1 GB of RAM, 256MB of VRAM, 200 GB hard drive, CD/DVD R/W player/burner, 17-inch color monitor, 56 KB modem, Ethernet card, and sound capability running either WindowsXP or MacOS X on a Pentium 4 or PowerPC computer.
What colors will you use?
I recommend that you use a white background, black text, and red, green and blue for highlight colors. For more guidelines, see Using Color on the Web.
Whatís your budget?
Define your budget in terms of money, people, and equipment. You will need time to develop and implement your Internet strategy. Who will implement each phase? What will each phase cost? How will each phase be funded? If you use an external ISP, what time will you need each month and what will it cost? For a small business, your initial budget should include $3500 for a new computer system; $30 to register your own domain name through Domainsatcost.ca or MyDomain.com; $50/month for a local high-speed Internet connection; $10/month for Web hosting through ixwebhosting.com or hostexcellence.com; $2000-$4000 to develop your initial Web presence pages.