Networking On The Net

Count the multi-level marketing business — better known in the late 1990s as network marketing — as another industry being transformed by the Internet. And we’re not talking about relentless Spammers or get-rich-quick scams.

Contrary to the stereotypical hype of instant millionaires and schemers, the basic concept of network marketing is a proven business model selling your products or services through a network of independent distributors given various incentives to recruit and train additional sellers to form a “network” of distributors. It’s a home-based business anyone can start with a minimal investment and can be done from almost anywhere in the world.

Enter the World Wide Web

The problem of how to efficiently and effectively service, train and communicate with a diverse, far-flung and ever-growing distributor organization has been a constant challenge for network marketing firms. Up to now, the traditional channels for communicating with distributors have been a constant stream of print pieces, audio and video tapes, phone or video conferences, and meetings, meetings, meetings.

The result? It can take weeks for the message to filter down through the network marketing organization. It’s an uphill battle for distributor attention and interest — these people aren’t employees, they’re customers. And it’s all very expensive.

Enter the world wide web and its instant messaging, cost-cutting, time-saving extranet and intranet capabilities. This phenom turned out to be the best communications technology for network marketing since the telephone. And it just might prove better.

A Relationship Medium

Along with many early adopters, Shaklee had a public online presence since the summer of 1995. The decision to create a web extranet for its distributors was initially made to extend basic customer services around the clock. Since most network marketing distributors begin their entrepreneurial endeavors part-time, while continuing their current careers, the ability to take care of product orders and administrative chores during off hours was essential. So the mission of the extranet was to provide distributors with all the needed services on 24/7, at the time of convenience and need.

Development of the distributor extranet began in 1997. The first step was simply to determine if enough distributors had online access, and to survey the state of the hardware/software used on the average PC found in homes and small offices. We found that the extranet had to function at the lowest common denominator. At the time, this was AOL and the IE 3.0 browser.

The next step was implemented in summer of 1997, with the introduction of our Online Distributor Services, including a national distributor yellow pages. This search service allowed anyone visiting the corporate web site to find and email a distributor’s home page, hosted on the main site. It was immediately embraced by the web-savvy, and attracted many web newbies as well. True to the concept of network marketing, distributors could now have their own URL to promote business.

An Extranet For All Seasons

In spring of 1998, an additional service was added to let distributors check monthly sales totals, which quickly became one of the most popular pages on the network. And it was here that the power of the extranet became apparent.

It immediately added a new dimension to distributor relationships with instant communication and interactivity. The extranet provided a powerful new communications tool between the affiliates and the home office.

This new “distributor portal” page proved to be a catalyst for online support prior to new product launches. Beginning in June, three months before the official launch of a new skin care system, distributor information was made available in Acrobat Reader PDF file format for download. Over the summer months, thousands of distributors downloaded price sheets, action plans, product presentations and FAQ lists.

This online activity supported an overall marketing effort that saw an informed and motivated sales force go out en masse in August to shatter all previous sales records!

Putting It All Together

There’s an important twist in designing an online product-ordering site for a network marketing organization: Multiple pricing. No popular online store software applications had the flexibility to handle the four price tiers required, so with the help of Red Eye Digital Media of San Francisco, the ordering service was custom-built.

The problem of tracking which prices to display was solved with a server side CGI program that pulls the distributor’s profile and directs access throughout the site. Thus the appropriate product pricing, shipping address, A/R balances, and payment options are all automatically selected when a distributor logs into the distributor services web site.

Building a web front-end to the product order entry system proved quite a challenge, since it involved working with two different legacy applications. And the system had to integrate web orders with traditional fax and phone orders to stay plugged into the complex accounting and order tracking required by network marketing compensation plans. After many meetings and brainstorming sessions, a surprisingly simple method of connecting the latest web techniques with the mature enterprise systems was devised by the Red Eye and Shaklee IT staffs.

The summer of 1998 saw this important feature go online for the entire distributor group. And today, thousands of product orders submitted around the clock are being shipped each month.

Kinder, Gentler Cold Calls

New distributor services will be added next year, to allow distributors to subscribe to expanded “personal web sites.” This option acts as a customized, individual portal page into the corporate site — seamlessly tracking visitors’ e-commerce and membership activities, and feeding the information back to the distributor.

It’s a low-key, non threatening way to introduce new visitors to products and the network marketing business opportunity. After all, it takes time to master the art of cold-calling a business referral. But a friendly email or postcard with your URL attached is something that one can act on in seconds, without any pressure or obligation.

So the next time someone’s inviting you to be part of their network — you just might find yourself saying, “I could do this whole business on my laptop from a Maui beach front.” That’s exactly what’s in mind.

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