This article is part of the "Net Results for Business" series, a syndicated column by Al Bredenberg.
Copyright 1996, Alfred R. Bredenberg
All rights reserved.
Contact: Send e-mail to Al Bredenberg
Can you really sell to 45 million people on the Internet? Is advertising allowed? Is anybody making any sales? Can customers find you if you set up a World-Wide Web site?
Media reports on Internet commerce are conflicting and often confusing. Myths abound. Many business people have suffered disappointment after investing money, time, and high hopes based on over-hyped legends of riches to be made in cyberspace. Others hold back from getting involved in Internet marketing because of the dark warnings of the doomsayers and their mythology.
If you're in any kind of business, then you're also in the business of selling. You don't want to miss out on an opportunity that could make you money. But you don't have money to throw away either. So you stand to benefit from cutting through the mythology and getting at the facts.
I wrote my first "Internet myths" story back in May 1995. As I was sitting down to put the story in final form, I received a badly done direct mail package proclaiming: "ADVERTISE TO 90 MILLION+ FOR JUST $20 PER MONTH." That's just one of many wild claims I've read about how many people you can reach on the Net.
Nobody really knows how many users there are because there's no central authority over the Internet. No one owns it. It's a massive interconnection of computer networks, communication lines, and switching equipment.
In October 1994, Matrix Information and Directory Services and Texas Internet Consulting carried out an extensive survey, which estimated that the "Consumer Internet" at that time numbered 13.5 million users of 3.5 million computers. This refers to users who could access the Internet's interactive services, such as the World-Wide Web.
However, the Internet has been growing at 100 percent a year since 1988, so the numbers change fast. By October of 1995, the Consumer Internet described by the survey should have reached about 27 million. So what do you think? 50 or 55 million by October 1996? Think of it that way, if you like.
Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that you will reach millions of Internet users with your marketing message. Nor should you try to. The Internet is not a mass market. Don't try to send out mass unsolicited messages to Internet users, whether through e-mail, mailing lists, or newsgroups. People will be very annoyed and will let you know. There's nothing to be gained, and you'll do much better by targeting your audience and making use of the Internet's interactive capabilities.
There's no proof you're going to miss out on anything if you take the time to do some research, get to know the Internet, participate in the online community, and work out a strategic plan.
I'll admit, I think the low cost and the high possibilities of online marketing make it worthwhile to get involved now. By being an "early adopter" you may get better public relations value or stronger positioning. Maybe you'll even get rich.
But don't rush to set up an online presence just for the sake of being there or just for the sake of beating the crowd. You may find yourself sitting by one of the thousands of "billboards in the desert." Even if you have to hire a consultant or an Internet "presence provider," go into cyberspace with a plan and with your eyes open.
The Internet is really a mosaic of many smaller virtual communities, each with its own history, culture, standards, rules, and values. In some of those communities, the words "advertising" and "marketing" have taken on meanings different than in the mainstream business world. To people in some areas of cyberspace, the word "advertising" is a four-letter word, but "marketing" is perfectly acceptable.
I would offer this statement: Certain methods of advertising are not tolerated on the Internet.
I say "tolerated," because there's no central authority to allow or disallow anything. However, some Internet communities will not tolerate unsolicited advertising messages. They'll respond vehemently if you try. In some moderated newsgroups or discussion groups, the moderator will filter out promotional messages.
One of the best Internet marketing approaches is the "soft sell." Depending on your business, you might try:
No, you won't. Not if you do it right -- by respecting the Internet culture, participating in the online community, advertising appropriately, and being a real resource for others.
Don't buy anything from anyone who tells you this. In any business effort, making money requires planning, strategic marketing, a good product and offer, good customer service, considerable shrewdness -- and much hard work. Maybe you will make a pile of money on the Internet. But you won't do it by buying into a get-rich-quick scheme.
Many Internet entrepreneurs won't say how they're doing financially. Often, that's because they're doing quite well and they don't want to tip off the competition.
I've seen reports by business people complaining that they have 'tried the Internet and it didn't work.' Maybe they bought into some of these myths. Maybe they failed to apply sound marketing principles in establishing an Internet presence. There are principles of marketing in cyberspace, but to learn them takes research, participation, and time.
Will your company benefit from marketing on the Internet or the World-Wide Web? No one can guarantee that. It's too early, and the medium is changing too fast to make predictions. The Tenagra Corporation, an Internet presence provider, feels that a product should meet at least one of these criteria to be a good candidate for direct sales over the Internet now:
Tenagra is referring to direct sales. Many companies will also benefit by using the Internet for communications, customer support, sales support, soft-selling, and other purposes.
The Internet is big. The World-Wide Web, dominated by commercial companies, is growing fast. To a beginner, the Internet can seem huge, scary, and labyrinthine.
But the Internet is becoming easier for beginners to navigate. The World-Wide Web (WWW) has made a lot of difference. As long as you have the URL (Uniform Resource Locator, or World-Wide Web address) of a site, all you do is enter the URL and your software will connect you to the site instantly. Once you find a site you like, you can easily add it to the "hotlist" or "bookmark" list in your software. This way you can call it up anytime without having to re- type it. So you can very quickly become your own expert navigator.
Now to the next step: Many WWW site owners have set up directories, indexes, search tools, and resource pages with instant links to useful sites. Some of these "teleportation sites" provide general listings with many subject categories and entries. Examples are:
Enter these "top-end" sites in your own hotlist, and you immediately gain all of their capability. These directory sites and search tools will continue to get better and easier to use, so that even new users will quickly become crack navigators.
My point is that you can find your way around on the Internet -- and people can find you -- if you set things up right.
To help people find your business site on the World-Wide Web, set up plenty of "pointers." Negotiate links with other sites. Make sure you're in the directories and navigation lists, many of which are free. You can figure out how to make the announcements, postings, and listings yourself, or you can have an Internet presence provider do it.
And be sure to promote your Internet presence through conventional offline channels -- ads, mailings, brochures, press releases, company stationery, business cards, and packaging.
More how-to guidance for Net marketing is available in The Small Business Guide to Internet Marketing -- an electronic book you can order from Al Bredenberg Business Reports.
Al Bredenberg is a writer and creative consultant. He is the author of "The Small Business Guide to Internet Marketing," an electronic book. To get in touch, send e-mail to Al Bredenberg or visit his World-Wide Web site at http://www.copywriter.com.
This article and others in the "Net Results" series are available for republishing in print or online media. For rates and permissions, contact Al Bredenberg.
Copyright 1996, Alfred R. Bredenberg
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