The Internet offers small companies an invaluable opportunity to provide customers and prospects with information and to generate income. But successfully establishing a Web identity requires careful, strategic planning.

Today, a small business without a Web identity is like a salesperson without a cell phone or a doctor without a pager — almost unimaginable. The Internet and e-mail provide a better marketing and customer service opportunity for many small businesses than the telephone or fax machine. Although a phone or fax line can handle only one call at a time, an unattended Web site and e-mail service can accept and respond to high-volume traffic with a richer response than an answering or fax-back service. But having a Web identity means more than just putting up a business home page and providing an e-mail address as an alternative to snail mail. Building and maintaining a Web identity is a strategic activity, even for a small business. Establishing the right Web presence and ensuring that a site delivers a return on investment (ROI) takes a lot of effort.

A small business can use its Web identity to inform customers and prospects about various aspects of its business and to generate income. First, a company must develop a Web site that explains its business. The company can maintain its Web identity by contacting prospects and customers via e-mail to remind them about its products and services. After a company has established its online presence, it can generate income from its Web site through online catalogs and affiliations with other companies.

Few small businesses can afford to build a Web identity from the ground up by acquiring the necessary hardware and software and training employees to use them. Companies can outsource the creation of a home page to external service providers at minimal cost, but the low initial cost of Web site design is only one part of the equation. Keeping a Web site current and interesting can require significant effort. A site is unlikely to succeed if its maintenance becomes a supplementary task that employees work on only when they get an hour to spare. Companies need a dedicated Web-identity maintenance resource to gain any significant ROI, even if this resource is nothing more than an intern who updates the site weekly.

Web "Identikits"

To inform people about a business, a Web site must tell prospects and customers everything they need to know about the business and its employees, products and services.

Most small businesses connect to the Internet via an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Every ISP offers Internet connectivity, disk space to host customers’ Web content and e-mail accounts to manage electronic messages. Many ISPs also offer templates for home pages so that customers can create their Web sites quickly. However, these templates are now being superseded by more comprehensive Web "identikits," such as Netscape Communications Corp.’s Netscape Virtual Office.

Netscape Virtual Office provides a fast way to get the core content of a Web site up and running. It lets companies select from dozens of identikit packages created to suit many common types of small business. Each package has a different look and feel and includes business-specific graphics and links to other Web sites. In addition, Netscape Virtual Office includes useful applets such as online calendars, product catalogs, conferencing pages and file downloading. Netscape supports Netscape Virtual Office through telephone help lines and a Web console for self-service management of each Web site. Netscape Virtual Office currently costs $19.95 per month for Web sites that use the Netscape Virtual Office domain name (i.e., their Web addresses are www.nvo.com/companyname) or the same monthly charge plus a setup fee for sites that use unique domain names (e.g., www.companyname.com).

Netscape Virtual Office is just one example of a Web identikit that takes care of much of the informational aspect of a company’s Web identity for a cost that practically every small business can afford. Another Web identikit is IBM Corp.’s recently announced Startup 2 for e-business, which includes site hosting and a package of tools for publishing Web content and taking credit card orders. Startup 2 costs $30 plus a monthly hosting fee.

Sites created through these packages are easily affordable, but remember that a Web site without promotion is like one hand clapping. Driving prospects and customers to a site requires a well-thought-out promotion strategy.

Web Promotion

Businesses have many options for encouraging prospects and customers to visit and return to their Web sites. One of the best promotional tools for small businesses with limited time and money is e-mail. Companies can boost traffic to their Web sites by

  • sending a regular informational e-mail newsletter
  • notifying visitors of special offers and new products
  • supplying recipients with unique content, such as articles, from time to time
  • sending site visitors weekly e-mails for a specified length of time after their visit

These activities keep up the visibility of a business and encourage people to revisit the business’s Web site, especially when the messages include live hyperlinks for readers to follow.

A company must capture the e-mail addresses of visitors to its Web site and obtain their permission to send them messages before the company can undertake e-mail-based promotions. Getting e-mail addresses is worth offering a free gift in the mail, a free download or a coupon, because once a company has an address, it has a destination for much promotional activity.

Some Resources for Building a Web Identity
VendorProductWeb Site
AWeber SystemsAWeber Follow Up Autoresponderwww.aweber.com
IBM Corp.Startup 2 for e-businesswww.ibm.com
iCatiCat Web Storewww.icat.com/products
Netscape Communications Corp.Netscape Virtual Officenetopia.netscape.com
Onelist Inc.Onelistwww.onelist.com
Yahoo! Inc.Yahoo! Storestore.yahoo.com

Businesses can manage promotional e-mails through an external service provider such as Onelist Inc. Onelist lets companies build and manage mailing lists using technology that is managed by Onelist. The service is free for customers that let Onelist add an advertisement to each e-mail sent to their lists; it costs $4.95 per month without Onelist advertising. Onelist has a Web site that helps businesses set up and manage an e-mail subscriber database and send subscribers regular e-mails. Visitors to the Onelist site can subscribe to or remove their names from Onelist customers’ lists. Clearly, companies that use Onelist lose a little control over their e-mailing lists, but in return, they get a relatively easy-to-manage service for sending newsletters, notifications and special content attachments on a regular basis to prospects and customers. Businesses can achieve a similar result using auto-responder products, such as AWeber Systems’ AWeber Follow Up Autoresponder.

Generating Income

Small-business Web initiatives are inexpensive, considering a Web site’s potential effect on a company’s visibility, and businesses can offset a site’s costs by generating income through electronic storefronts and affiliates’ marketing-referral fees.

For a few hundred dollars, a small business can buy do-it-yourself storefront-building software that builds relatively sophisticated online catalogs. The resulting storefront is not integrated with a specific accounting system, but it can process payments electronically as part of the online ordering process or pass order data to the business for off-line manual processing.

Once a company has built a storefront, it can upload the storefront to its ISP and link to the storefront from its Web site. Apart from a company’s periodic need to change prices and add or remove products, storefronts with online ordering and off-line processing are low-maintenance after the initial effort of learning to use the storefront software.

Companies that don’t have time to learn to use storefront-creation software will appreciate the simplicity of the storefront packages available on the Web from portals such as Yahoo! Inc. or specialist storefront vendors such as iCat. For a small monthly service fee, which often depends on the number of items for sale from the customer’s online catalog, these vendors have Web sites that

  • walk a business through the process of creating a storefront
  • let a business upload its own content, such as the electronic file for a picture of an item
  • host and, in some cases, promote the storefront
  • provide a Web console for managing a site remotely via the Internet

Small businesses are unlikely to generate significant Web income overnight, but giving prospects and customers the option to buy over the Internet is bound to have an impact over time.

Some accounting software vendors are working to integrate their products with storefront applications. In the small-business accounting sector, Peachtree Software Inc. led the way with an early-to-market storefront that passes orders to the Peachtree Complete Accounting suite using technology hosted by Harbinger Corp., an electronic data interchange (EDI) service provider. Few small-business accounting software vendors offer an integrated storefront module, but more midtier accounting vendors, such as Great Plains Software Inc., Navision Software and RealWorld Corp., offer this functionality.

A business can earn affiliate income by driving traffic to other Web sites in return for a referral fee. For example, a company’s Web site can include information about books that complement the company’s Web identity and a link to an online bookseller that carries those books.

Such a display can achieve two objectives: Visitors to the site receive useful information, and the company earns a referral fee whenever a visitor orders a book from the online bookseller. Some Web-commerce pioneers, such as Amazon.com, have used sophisticated affiliate-marketing programs for some time.

Another obvious online affiliate-marketing opportunity involves displaying banner ads that link to advertisers’ Web sites. However, this strategy can de-emphasize a company’s Web identity to the benefit of the advertiser and can irritate site visitors, which may be counterproductive in the end.

Small businesses have many options for taking advantage of Web services to establish a unique Web identity that provides site visitors with important information and generates online income.