By Ralph Hershberger
It's hard to imagine a time without the Internet.
From its beginnings as a government-funded program in the 1960s to its commercialization in the early 1990s, it is estimated that 2.4 billion people, a third of the world's population, have used the Internet.
The Internet is a network of networks that consists of millions of private, public, academic, business and government networks. Its popularity can be explained by its vast scope and ease of use.
The primary reason that retail consumers use the Internet is that it empowers them - it enables them to learn about products, perform their own competitive analyses, price shop and order with incredible speed, all within the comfort of their home and on their own schedule. Businesses have found it to be an indispensible tool to tap into new markets and generate fresh sales from existing ones.
All businesses should have an Internet presence (website), but not all businesses need the same type of website. Some businesses need only an informational site because their product or service must be experienced on site, for example, a doctor or dentist.
Interactive sites convey information resulting in a call to action - an order or a reservation. These sites require constant monitoring. It is a two-edge sword - instant access creates an expectation of instant gratification.
When developing a website, think about the overall content and message that you want it to convey. Look at your competitors' sites and see what works and what doesn't.
Ease of use is critical as well as the overall visual impact. Once these issues are resolved, hire a consultant to develop the design, write code, and to secure the proper Internet Protocol address and domain name. Like any technology the Internet has its own semantics and protocols that are best left to professionals.
The Internet is another tactical marketing tool, so the content must be consistent with the rest of your marketing message. Track your customers' response to the website relative to your other marketing efforts such as advertising, print media, and direct sales effort and adjust your budgets as needed.
One final note - despite the popularity of the Internet, print catalogs and advertising are still extremely relevant. Many customers prefer to learn about products this way and then order via the Internet. As with most things in consumer marketing, one size does not fit all.
Ralph Hershberger is president of SCORE Southern Arizona, a nonprofit group that offers free small-business counseling and mentoring by appointment at several locations. For more information, go to www.southernarizona.score.org, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 505-3636.