Are You Ready for the New Business Rules?

Cisco Systems’ television commercials feature multiethnic generation X-ers asking the audience if they are ready for the new world. That is, are you ready to do business by the new rules? There is almost a sense of panic among business owners and company presidents about e-business. Thanks to a regular pummeling by advertising, a great insecurity has descended upon boardrooms across the country.

Things are moving so fast we’re all already behind. If you’re not like Amazon.com, you’ll be like Barnes & Noble (kind of a drag to have become the Internet metaphor for a major gaffe). All the business rules are changing, and if you’re not doing business online by last week, you’ve failed.

So companies and organizations are trying to figure out how they’re going to do business online, lest they face the end of their business (and for CEOs, their jobs) as they know it.

Not so fast. The answer to the question “Are you ready?” may be “No.” And that’s OK.

Here’s how you can tell.

Integrated Marketing

Does your web site look like a totally different company from your offline bricks-and-mortar? Does your web site coincide with offline marketing and public relations efforts? Is the look and feel the same as that in your printed material? Have you added your URL to all printed materials?

Depending on how you answer these fundamental questions, it may be time to get back to basics and consider how you can improve your company’s use of the Internet as a communications strategy before you start implementing the Internet as an overall business strategy.

Audience Evaluation

Does your audience want to do business with you online? Don’t assume you know your audience until you do some real market research. Anecdotal and casual mentions do not count. And don’t just put a questionnaire on your site that audience is already skewed toward the Internet. Ask your catalog customers or your bricks-and-mortar customers.

You may be surprised to learn there may still be some anxiety among your customers over Internet security. Or your customers may like the personal touch of walking into your store. Don’t assume that all the Internet rage has hit your own customer base.

Information, Interactivity, THEN Transaction

Nearly everyone’s web site starts out as brochureware. That is, it’s a site with information about the company, its products or services. Web site snobs call these “online billboards” and tend to look down their collective nose at these first-stage sites. But information sites are perfectly legitimate efforts if they’re done well.

You can tell if an information site is done well if you can easily find the information you seek. The problem with most information sites is they’re designed for the company CEO, not the consumer. The site is organized around the company’s structure usually by department rather than how a consumer sees things, such as by product or service.

What many companies have also forgotten about information sites is the public relations opportunity to position the company as an expert in its field. In other words, how much information is on the site that is not directly about its products or services? For example, the Godiva Chocolate site lists dozens of chocolate recipes and none explicitly calls for Godiva products.

Once you have the information site nailed meaning you’re providing information to benefit consumers rather than to benefit yourself then you’re ready to move from crawling to walking. You’re ready to add interactivity. Customer service online forms. Opt-in newsletters. Searchable databases. Notice no money changes hands, yet you’re providing an added service on your site. You still don’t have to hassle with credit card security, taxes that vary by state, fulfillment, etc.

Not only should you consider these features in your second-stage web site, you should be great at responding to the customers’ needs. What good is it to have an opt-in newsletter when its development, delivery and utility are spotty and sporadic? Don’t even bother with customer service forms if they end up in the ether and leave your customers feeling ignored.

Now, when you’ve waded your way through these first two phases successfully and feel you’re doing them well, it’s time to consider a transaction web site. Here’s where you start to think about selling your products online. Not before. If you can’t do Phase One and Phase Two well, you will fail miserably at Phase Three, causing a lot of damage among your consumers.

Do You Have a Plan?

The most important omission in online efforts is a strategic business plan. Launching an e-commerce web site is like starting a new business altogether. Any successful entrepreneur knows you first need a business plan to provide guidance.

Besides requiring detailed technical and design specifications, you also need a thoughtful business plan. Remember that Barnes & Noble had the first web site but Amazon had the first business plan. So while there’s a lot of hype about being first-to-market, the key element is to be first to market with a strategic plan.

What are your goals and strategies? What are your target audiences? What are your plans for growth? The business plan is the most fundamental tool for an entrepreneur, yet you’d be amazed how many people think they can forego that with the Internet.

So quit trembling in your boots or waking up in a cold sweat if you aren’t doing business on the Internet. Before you rush into anything, make a commitment to yourself that whatever you do online, you will do well and you will serve your consumers before you serve your ego. Remember that it’s better to do nothing in the short term than to do something poorly in the long term.

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