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How can communicators make the most of what Andreas Whittam Smith, co-founder of The Independent, describes as “The Third Screen” – the successor to cinema and television?

The first step should be to understand what the Internet is and what it is not: and this is best done by using it.

Marketers should be familiar with the concept of networking – building relationships around common interests.

The World Wide Web is the part of the Internet which is likely to be of particular interest to marketers, because it brings together sound, vision, text and direct communication with individuals – in other words multimedia.

It may not be the biggest part of the Internet – e-mail accounts for 80 per cent of Internet traffic – but the potential of the Web has not been lost on the marketing community, and at least 100,000 companies around the world have launched Web sites during the past year.

To get onto the Web, companies can design and run a Web site themselves or employ someone else to execute their planning.

One Internet service provider is so fed up with calls from business people demanding instant “vanity sites” and e-mail addresses it is selling an economy ten-page Web site for 275. However, businesses serious about creating a useful Web site will have to spend rather more than that to make their Internet dream a reality.

Expenditure on a UK-based site varies from a few thousand pounds up to about 80,000. The big spenders include companies with international brand properties, such as drinks manufacturers, who are realising that the Web is a cost-effective global communications tool.

Other companies are also committed to making the most of the Web. Rank Xerox’s site has already generated sales worth $300,000 (187,000), according to Stephen Flint, the business team manager, who championed its development.

Flint explains why his division chose to go online. “We provide colour laser printers and multifunctional faxes – which means we need to target early adopters. Our research showed these are exactly the sort of people likely to be interested in and plugged into the Internet.”

Flint’s comments illustrate the primary rules of creating a Web site. Understand your product. Understand its users. Understand the Internet.

“Strategy should be king, not content. Before you start building a Web site you need to be clear what purpose it is intended to serve”, says James Tarin of Oxford advertising agency Chilcott Lefevre. Tarin worked with Flint on the creation of the Rank Xerox site and also planned the recently launched Glaxo Wellcome site.

Tarin highlights one of the primary faults of many sites – they try to be all things to all people. Many Web site launches make much of the fact that a company’s information is being presented to 20 or 30 million people worldwide, as if it were some sort of global television broadcast.

Tarin explains: “Marketing on the Web is different from conventional forms of advertising such as television and press. The Internet is narrowcasting in that the audience is self-selecting – they choose to visit the site and once in, they choose what information they want to look at.”

Interacting with the consumer is the goal of any Web site. So, having spent time planning a targeted site, how can marketers persuade consumers to visit and spend time there?

The first trick is to let consumers know you are present on the Web. Subscribing to the Field of Dreams philosophy – “If you build it, they will come” – will mean that all the labour spent on constructing a site is in vain.

As a partner in London-based agency CHBi, Mark Curtis has created the Planet Patrol site for Allied Domecq and the Yell Internet directory site for Yellow Pages. He believes the now traditional use of PR to publicise a new Web site is becoming less effective. “It’s no longer a story that Brand ‘Y’ cola is on the Internet,” he says.

Curtis points to promotions as a less well-used route to prominence. For the launch of Yell he forged links with a magazine, a modem manufacturer and a radio station.

And do not be afraid to publicise the Internet address. On Vauxhall marketing material the Web address for the Vectra and Frontera sites is now given the same prominence as the freephone number.

The Internet itself should also be used to promote a site. The popular search engines have self-registration forms that allow an address and a short description to be registered. Software such as Net Creation’s PostMaster can be used to automate this process.

Advertising on a search engine site is also a possibility. Certain key words can be sponsored. For example, when a user starts a search for travel sites, a banner will appear on the results page advertising a link to a travel insurance site.

However, do not rely on just the search engines to publicise a site’s existence. Take time to visit related sites and to consider linking up. Visit the Internet’s user groups and the discussion forums run on the online services. If a company’s product or sector is under discussion, point the way to the Web site which will provide more information.

However, there is no mileage in encouraging visits to a site if the visitor is disappointed by the experience. “Myopic thinking” currently characterises the Web, says Ajaz Ahmed, managing director of AKQA, the agency that developed the BMW site in the UK. He believes: “Ultimately it is in the perfectly competitive market place where intelligence and creativity win.”

Relevant and entertaining content, which may not be directly related to the product, is extremely useful in establishing and reinforcing a brand’s values online.

The recently-launched Vaseline site does not feature the annual report of Elida Gibbs, its owner, or the ingredients of the product. Instead, it makes the most of the brand’s sponsorship of the British University Sports Association – by providing a home for university sports results and news.

However, the number of visitors who return to a site is limited. Paul Syrysko, managing director of Stream, the Web developer and media consultancy which developed the Vaseline site, gives this advice. “Make sure the brand values are obtained in one short visit and all key elements are accessible from the home page. Do offer regular small helpings of new content and don’t offer a huge site at once.”

Design considerations should also take account of the time it takes to download information from a site. A fancy graphic image may impress the designer but a J Walter Thompson study found that while downloading images, if nothing starts to appear, there is a 12-to-15 second window before visitors start to wander elsewhere.

Planning, organising and creating a site is only half the battle facing marketers. The other half is maintaining the site so it continues to play its part in the marketing mix. This may seem obvious but it can be difficult to achieve because of the rapid speed with which information is produced and consumed on the Internet.

James Thompson of Clear Cut, an Edinburgh-based new media agency, created and maintains the Glenmorangie malt whisky Web site. He believes that the revision cycle should take place every two to three months, in addition to the daily response to e-mail.

Running a site is time consuming if it is to be done properly and it is imperative to keep information up to date. Virgin Atlantic fell foul of a US court for failing to update its fare information.

If a Web site has been properly executed and maintained it should be a valuable source of marketing information. Software used to manage the site can also record visitors’ behaviour and their locations. Asking visitors to register is another useful data-capture method.

While the Internet provides answers to many questions, there is still confusion as to whether or not it can be used to make money. There are really two parts to this question. Does the Internet improve the efficiency of marketing? And, is direct selling online possible?

The answer to the first question is yes. “We have gained a competitive advantage,” says Alex Nicol, marketing director for MacDonald Martin Distilleries, the brand owner of Glenmorangie malt whisky. In particular the Web has allowed the company to raise the brand’s profile in South-east Asia and Japan.

Selling products and services across the Internet is possible, and it can be done securely. However, it will take time for consumers to realise that their credit card details are actually more difficult to steal than if they give the number over the phone.

Companies that are successfully selling on the Internet have a number of things in common: their product or service is world class; it can be easily distributed; its benefits are appreciated around the world; and it is culturally accessible around the world.

A company may not intend to sell to a Japanese connoisseur of its product but, if an order is placed it had better be able to deliver and to do so with a high standard of service.

Being small is no disadvantage on the Web. In fact, it may allow greater agility when responding to the challenges generated from running a Web site.

Phil Dwyer, editor of industry magazine New Media Age, sums up the challenge: “New media gives newcomers the opportunity to enter the market and carve out their own niche. If, in so doing, they are addressing online the same market which you have traditionally addressed through other media, they could eventually undermine your business.”

GLOSSARY

INTERNET

The Internet works because of certain rules and common standards which allow computers to talk with each other and to share information. Connections are not always direct – messages may be sent through router computers, which bundle them together for more efficient use of bandwidth. Estimates of its size vary. While some reports claim it has 60 million users world wide, 26 million is a more realistic figure, with the majority in the US.

IP/TCP

The Internet Protocol (IP) is the standard used to describe the location and address of each computer and the Transmission Communication Protocol (TCP) is the set of road rules that stop the information going astray as it is transmitted. The relatively simple nature of IP/TCP, and the low cost of implementation, has led to a rapid growth of computers that are linked to the Internet.

WORLD WIDE WEB

A part of the Internet. Makes use of HTML computer language to allow documents containing text, images, sound and even video to be sent across the Internet. First developed in the Eighties, its recent popularity has been fuelled by the free availability of small programmes called browsers, which display the information held on the World Wide Web. Sometimes called the WWW or 3W.

SERVER

A computer that is linked to the Internet and which hosts, or holds, information. Responds to commands sent from a user’s browser and sends the requested documents. Simple Web sites can be hosted on modest personal computers, but larger sites or sites that are requested by thousands of people need computers with larger memories and higher processing speeds. Specialised software allows servers to be linked to databases or to ordering systems.

MODEM

A telecommunications device that converts data sent by a computer from digital form into analogue so it can be sent across ordinary telephone lines. Conversely when receiving such information it converts it back into a digital signal. A modem can send information at a rate of up to 28,800 bits per second. Cable modems and ISDN make use of fibre optic telephone lines that have a bigger capacity (bandwidth) so work faster.

BANDWIDTH

The capacity of a telephone line to send data. Ordinary copper telephone lines can only cope with low amounts of data. Bandwidth can be increased by using fibre-optic cable. Bandwidth can also be improved by compressing the data being sent using complicated algorithms. A compression ratio of 20:1 is good, a ratio of 100:1 is very good.

INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS

Companies that specialise in providing connections between computers using the Internet. They are the wholesalers of Internet access, offering connections to individuals and companies. Will also operate server computers which host Web sites.

ONLINE SERVICES

Individual networks which, although connected to the Internet by gateways, have their own distinct way of operating. Usually making use of their own proprietary software, they provide access to content held on their own computers. Because they maintain their own dedicated networks and operate their own computers, they can offer better security than the Internet. Another benefit is that the interface is often easier to use. They make their money by charging a subscription fee and by negotiating wholesale subscription to content provided by others. Increasingly the distinction between them and Internet Service Providers is becoming blurred.

E-MAIL

Electronic mail. Simple text-only messages that are sent across the Internet.

USER GROUPS

Internet discussion forums that focus on particular interests. Some are moderated and have a set of behavioural rules. Others are free-for-alls. Similar groups are run on the online services, although they are subject to greater moderation and stricter behavioural rules.

CONTENT

The information people put on to computers linked to the Internet. Ranges from statistical data held on university databases, through personal information on a Web site, to multimedia productions delivered using dedicated high-speed networks. Because it is held in digital form it can be readily adapted from one medium to another.

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