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by Bob Brooke

There has never been a better time to launch a business web site than right now. The Internet is exploding, as more people have begun to use it regularly.

According to Jim Daniels, editor of the Bizweb E-Gazette, new Internet sites have been popping up at the rate of one per minute. As it expands at this pace, it's clear that the Internet’s entanglement of words, pictures, sound, and motion is becoming more than just the most important new communication medium since television.

Many of the businesses now piling onto the Internet may totally misunderstand this new medium. They may end up losing millions of dollars and eventually decide it’s not living up to its hype. Other businesses may totally ignore the Internet. Their competitors, meanwhile, will use it as a tool to literally steal their customers away.

As business communication medium, a web site has the capacity to encompass the functions of marketing, advertising, research and providing corporate information. Initially, a business should focus on one or two of these key areas to determine how to establish its presence on the Internet.

For successful communication on the Internet, businesspeople should have customers come to them; customers come back to them; and an information exchange that leads to increased revenue. The Information Age has created new trends including 24-hour business days and economical access to businesses in over 130 countries populated by 20-30 million people. And, that market is growing at a rate of 30 percent per quarter for commercial use and at a rate of 25 percent a year for individual use. As a result of new technology, employees, customers and suppliers are beginning to expect improvements in quality, convenience, timeliness, variety and customization.

The first thing an entrepreneur should do to be successful on the Internet is target who will buy his product. He needs to find where these people go when they’re online? What do they do? What do they read? Can he reach them regularly and at a low cost?

There’s no point in trying to sell to a particular market if an entrepreneur can't easily identify them and reaching them is a costly endeavor. If his market is so specific that in order to reach just one customer he has to advertise to thousands of people who would never buy what he’s selling, then the Internet may not be the way to go.

But for those who do want to use the Internet, they must not forget who their audience is or what they’re seeking when building their web site. Give them what they want and more. Add value and linkage to other useful information on the Web. And by all means, never offend potential customers by giving them only what they need, as opposed to what they want.

One of the most successful uses of the Web is to give away information before competitors do. This use strengthens any presence on the Internet and will help attract new clients. Adding value to a web site with information that provides a broader understanding of the business, and is over and above what customers expect, endears them to the site and eventually to that business. And, it encourages them to come back.

Creating and mounting a professional-looking site takes some doing. Experience has shown that the design of a web site isn’t as important as the words used. After all, it's the words, not the graphics that sell products! The words download almost instantly, while graphics take longer. The entire home page should be on a customer’s computer screen in less than 20 seconds.

The key to using the Internet successfully is attracting people. If a site isn’t user friendly, people won’t visit it, despite all the high-tech software used to design it. A successful web site should be capable of being updated immediately while incurring marginal costs, have a multimedia combination of presentation technologies; and encourage and promote cross marketing.

The Internet use of "hyper-text"–a direct link to another web site–encourages formalizing cross marketing opportunities and strategic alliances. The Internet's technology encourages businesses to become linked electronically. By linking with other web sites, businesses gain access to even more people who are on-line.

It also allows and demands interaction between people and business. Interactivity, at some level, is essential to the success of a business web site. A business must solicit and respond to those potential customers who are looking for interactive communication. At a minimum, a web site should provide E-mail for customers and others to contact it. Guest books, monthly surveys, registration for free items, request for more information about the business and its products, requests for samples, files transfers of documents, and accepting orders are other ways interaction may be accomplished.

A web site must not become stale, or people won’t want to keep visiting. People will return to a site if they know they’ll receive fresh information.

The technology of the Internet and the need for fresh information encourage development of an open system and design for a web site. The first screen should load quickly and provide a concise guide to the functional areas of the site. Use of an open architecture allows additions, deletions and changes to be made without extensive rewriting and reprogramming.

Above all, a business should avoid a print mentality and not simply post its printed material on its web site. If it offers no more than what customers can obtain in print, its site will fail.

Lastly, a business’ domain name can be as important as its business name. The name should be easy to remember so customers can go directly to its web site. If a company conducts business using a registered trademark, it should be able to obtain that name for use as a domain name, although there are no guarantees that it’s not already in use by a different type of business.

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