ON the crest of a wave

The Internet may not seem an obvious marketing tool, but as interest grows in its potential to reach a worldwide audience marketers must get in on the act now.

SBHD: The Internet may not seem an obvious marketing tool, but as interest grows in its potential to reach a worldwide audience marketers must get in on the act now.

Despite the hype surrounding the Internet, there has been little coverage on its potential as a marketing tool.

Some 30 million people around the world use the Internet, and many of them are pros-pective customers you would not otherwise be able to reach.

What’s more, you don’t have to be a computer boffin to get out there. As Internet hysteria mounts, a growing number of Internet agencies and consultants are coming to the fore, claiming that with their help publishing marketing literature on the Internet is child’s play.

“Having spent more than half my lifetime in marketing, I have never come across an opportunity quite like the Net,” says Internet marketing consultant Alexa Robinson. “I missed the early days of television, but I can imagine it must have been similar – and we all know what that medium offers advertisers.

“Although the Internet is in the early, experimental stages, I would strongly advise companies to get aboard now before the cost of advertising matches the exposure.” (Currently many com-panies are advertising for free, or for the nominal costs of having someone design their pages or rent out “site” space.)

You only have to look at some of the high-profile names that are already on board in the UK to realise that this isn’t just some futuristic dream. The Daily Telegraph, for example, publishes an electronic version of its newspaper over the Internet – a daily digest of the news covered in its broadsheet. Grahame Davies, director of Internet connection provider Demon Internet, explains: “They are reaching a new audience – one which would perhaps not normally buy a paper. They have a simple registration scheme so they can get an idea of who reads what pages, and when, to help them in their marketing analysis. They will use this to attract advertisers.”

On January 11 this year, Barclaycard launched Netlink, an interactive magazine, providing information on Barclaycard services over the Internet, plus the facility to request an application form. Just two weeks later, the company reported a “staggering” response, with more than 15,000 Internet users having already accessed the service.

Meanwhile – proving that the Internet can be used for more than merely publishing text – UK record label Go Discs! uses the information highway to promote its clients to potential music customers. Go Disc’s Lorraine Dine says: “We are providing a variety of pictures, sounds, tour news, biographies and release dates and, in addition, a valuable feedback facility.” Similarly, in the US, the Rolling Stones have an Internet site (a permanent Internet address) called the Voodoo Lounge where fans can go to preview chunks of the latest Stones videos and recent photographs taken on tour, as well as order merchandise and concert tickets.

Incidentally, the fact that the Rolling Stones address is in the US is of no concern to UK consumers, since anyone who uses the Internet is only ever paying for a local telephone call – they access the information by connecting to their local Internet service provider.

The Internet itself is vast. It is really just the interconnection of disparate computer networks all over the world. Most advertising is done on the World Wide Web, a collection of Internet sites which are Hypertext linked and can be manageably navigated by the user. This means that the user doesn’t have to know you’re there and specifically choose to dial up your address. They could be cruising the Web generally and end up on your pages because they are related in content to something else they’ve been browsing.

“There is only one serious place for exploiting the Internet, and that’s the Web,” says Brad-ley Crooks of Internet consultancy Metaverse. “Other Internet marketing and sales opportunities pale into insignificance in comparison with the Web. A Web site is the perfect way to sell or promote products in a multimedia, interactive fashion.”

Large organisations may have their own dedicated Web sites; others may “rent” space on an agency’s server. Apollo Advertising rents out Internet space. The company’s founder and chief executive, Gordon Wilson, says: “Several people have expressed a desire to place marketing documents on-line without the effort and expense of setting up their own World Wide Web server. We provide an Internet address where people can store their information. This service is offered at extremely competitive rates.”

As well as getting help launching information on the Internet, there are plenty of tools around – and agencies to use them for you – for designing documents suitable for Internet publishing.

Software developer Interleaf offers one such product. European product marketing manager Philip Randall claims: “Cyberleaf is a product that lets companies take text and graphics documents and process them into a format that is viewable on the Internet. Marketing on the Internet is just like marketing anywhere else. You have to have professional-looking information, and it must be kept up to date. Cyberleaf makes this easy.

“It will also link related documents together, so if a company like Argos wanted to publish its catalogue, it could link the pages on, say, irons to the pages showing ironing boards. Cyberleaf is an important tool for marketing organisations. Companies don’t want to have to understand the language of the Internet to be able to take advantage of it.”

So why aren’t more com-panies exploiting the oppor-tunity? John Michell, founder and managing director of Millennium Facilities, another Internet consultancy, says: “Corporates are very cautious about the Net – it is a totally alien culture to them. Having said that, I have been holding weekly seminars on the subject since last summer. The companies that come along to them are convinced that, even though they don’t understand it fully, the Internet represents the future.”

As yet, consumers cannot actually shop over the Internet. They can fill in application forms and return these to companies by e-mail, but they still have to send a cheque in the post or telephone with their credit card details. Organisations are aware that consumers would be nervous about giving their credit card details over the Net, given reports about problems with information security. Yet, despite these hurdles, consultants claim that home shopping over the Internet is only just around the corner.

Metaverse’s Crooks insists: “Home shopping has al-ready reared its head via a number of shopping malls on the Web, and secure credit card transactions and electronic cash are almost a reality. I must admit, I am sceptical about the electronic cash part of it but I’m told on good authority it isn’t that far off.”

If this is true, companies should ask themselves whether they can afford to wait much longer before they begin exploring the Internet. There is a learning curve – working out which is the best type of information to publish, and how to keep it current – so to wait until you are absolutely sure of the opportunity may be unwise.

“There is a lot of kudos in being among the first to use this new medium,” says Apollo’s Wilson. “People talk a lot on the Internet and it is surprising how far your name will spread.”

For those who remain sceptical, it may be worth becoming an Internet user, if only to see what all the fuss is about. Some service providers charge just ú10 a month for a connection and for that you can dial up your competitors’ Web sites to see what they are up to. Internet ad-dresses are listed in the Internet Golden Directory, which can be obtained from any Internet connection company.

But how can you find out who your potential audience is? Some organisations are put off advertising on the Internet because they imagine it to be crawling with techies or university students with no money to spend. Simon Lucy of Internet consultancy Objective Software comments: “The one point to bear in mind is that the Internet is global and there is no way, apart from where you advertise your presence, to control the target audience. The majority of users are still American. If the advertising is too parochial, the percentage of accesses that get converted to sales is obviously a lot lower.”

Interestingly, Barclaycard found that 98 per cent of the people who responded to its publicity in the first couple of weeks were men. Surprisingly though, in addition to students, many respondents turned out to be professional people, including doctors and university professors.

It was this lack of audience control that prompted the foundation of a new, alternative on-line service, UK Online. Director of sales and marketing Jennifer Perry says: “Whereas the Internet is worldwide and not focused on any particular market sector, UK Online is closed and controlled. We are the first on-line information service for the home user. For ú10 to ú15 a month, four members of a family can sign up. Each has their own e-mail address and each can join their own magazines or clubs.”

While the service gets off the ground, UK Online will not be charging its advertisers. “Until we reach a critical mass on subscriptions, we won’t be charging our advertisers and sponsors, anything other than a nominal fee if they require us to prepare the information for them,” says Perry. “We want to attract some big names. We are talking to Great Universal Stores, which plans to put its Kays catalogue on-line, and to WH Smith. Sutton Seeds will be sponsoring our on-line gardening magazine.

“We’re not necessarily trying to compete with the Internet – lots of companies who are investigating on-line marketing are trying out more than one medium. Our advantage is that we can demonstrate who our audience is. We’ll be producing audits for our advertisers of who goes on-line, how long for, and what they have looked at during that time.”

Sue Norris is features editor at The VAR magazine.

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