You might be tempted to dismiss the whole subject of Internet marketing as little more than technological hoopla. But before you shrug your shoulders or silently conclude that the whole matter is irrelevant, consider three important facts:
First, three of every 10 consumers use computers (and the number is expected to double before the year 2000), as do the overwhelming majority of business firms. What's more, the sale of Internet access software, subscriptions to on-line services and on-line shopping are booming. The bottom line: Large numbers of people want to do business on-line and have the ability to do so.
Second, unlike traditional advertising media, the Internet offers myriad ways marketers -- including you -- can present your message and even interact with clients and customers.
Finally, the Internet is affordable -- in many cases, downright cheap. In fact, once you have a computer, modem and software you can pursue many of the marketing tips contained in this article for less each month than you pay for cable television.
Here, then, are 30 ways you can open the doors to business through the Internet. For handy reference, each suggestion is tagged with a cost guide: One star (*) means it's cheap, usually between $10 and $100 a month; two stars (**) indicate a cost of between $100 and $1,000 a month and perhaps an up-front investment of up to a few thousand dollars; and three stars (***) refer to high-priced options requiring an outlay of more than $1,000 a month and possible start-up costs of more than $5,000.
Tip 1: Answer questions from customers and prospects. In your promotional literature and advertisements offer to post answers within one business day of receiving questions or inquiries over the Internet. (*)
Tip 2: Maintain a library of technical or background information on your products. An easy-to-use menu can direct customers to the topics that interest them. (**)
Tip 3: Transfer product and service files to customers. If you can't develop a full-fledged on-line library, you still can transfer files, specifications, proposals and other information quickly and easily in electronic form. (*)
Tip 4: Sponsor other firms' Internet locations. Purchase advertising from on-line services and on-line periodicals such as Draperies & Window Coverings, or sponsor information messages on non-competing businesses. (***)
Tip 5: Set up an electronic news and feature service. This electronic communication service allows members to read and retrieve information, statistics and ideas related to your products or industry -- a great prestige-builder and a great way to target communications toward likely customers. (**)
Tip 6: Sponsor a bulletin board. Take the electronic news service a step further and set up an electronic bulletin board giving customers, prospects and interested members of the public an opportunity to post their own messages and participate in ongoing dialogue with each other. (***)
Tip 7: Provide advice on bulletin boards. Can't set up your own bulletin board? Then visit other boards and freely provide information and ideas to other board users. (*)
Tip 8: Conduct e-mail campaigns. E-mail is a cheap and efficient way to send new product announcements or special offers to confirmed customers. But beware: mass mailing junk mail via the Internet is considered offensive. (*)
Tip 9: Offer multi-media samples. Using the capabilities of the Internet, you're able to offer product and service demonstrations using text, color photographs, video, animation and sound -- all powerful selling tools. (***)
Tip 10: Launch a customer user group. Members of the group can exchange ideas on product use as well as consumer or business tips. Members of the group also can be listed as preferred customers entitled to early notification of new products, prices and offers. (***)
Tip 11: Issue new product advisories. Geared toward select customers, these electronic advance news bulletins can stimulate sales when new products or services are launched. (*)
Tip 12: Solicit advice. Ask customers for feedback on products or company strategies. (*)
Tip 13: Market to the media. Many print and broadcast media have an electronic presence on the Internet. Almost all will within the next several years. Most are willing to accept electronic news releases and bulletins. (*)
Tip 14: Direct your customers to sales locations. Post a listing of all retail and mail order outlets on the Internet. (*)
Tip 15: Conduct market research. On the Internet, you can conduct non-scientific electronic polls, compile survey data and identify customer likes and dislikes. (**)
Tip 16: Issue a newsletter. Electronic newsletters, in many instances, are less expensive than their print-based counterparts. And with modern technology, they can include photographs, video and sound. (**)
Tip 17: Use the classifieds. Many on-line services offer electronic classified advertisements grouped by the same subject categories you'd find elsewhere. Many are menu-driven, meaning customers who want what you have to offer will be quickly directed to your ad category. (*)
Tip 18: Remind customers. The Internet is a great tool for issuing appointment reminders, time-to-order messages and even making call backs on inquiries. (*)
Tip 19: Advertise special offers. Through conventional media, invite customers to visit your electronic site for special sales or discount information. You'll introduce customers to your electronic store as a result. (**)
Tip 20: Set up a training program. Offer lessons in product use, subjects related to your industry or even one-to-one electronic seminars. (**)
Tip 21: Offer a quote service. Invite prospects to compare competitors' prices and terms with yours. (*)
Tip 22: Set up a full-fledged store. Develop a commercial home page on the World Wide Web or rent space in one of the electronic malls. (***)
Tip 23: Stage open houses. During these on-line events, customers can visit with you electronically, obtain advice from you or sample your wares. (**)
Tip 24: Offer informational bulletins to established Internet outlets. Compile the names of list servers, bulletin boards and on-line news groups or discussion groups that might attract customers. Route timely, service-oriented information to these outlets. Again, be aware that overt sales messages may be considered unwanted. (*)
Tip 25: Compile lists. Besides inviting prospects to place their names on your mailing lists, you can identify prospective customers by perusing selected discussion groups. And don't forget: Some on-line services make the names, addresses and telephone numbers of every home and business listed in public telephone books available easily and inexpensively. (*)
Tip 26: Obtain census and demographic data. Most census data now are available at various locations through the Internet. Use it to build profiles of new geographical markets. (*)
Tip 27: Ask and answer questions. Post notices offering help on subjects of interest -- or asking for help -- and prospective customers may well be attracted to you. (*)
Tip 28: Make referrals. As you get to know the workings of the Internet, offer to refer prospective customers to specialized information sources and discussion groups. You'll quickly become the first point of access for many customers. (*)
Tip 29: Host events. On-line news conferences, receptions, lectures, flea markets and other events -- even surprise parties -- are all possibilities. (***)
Tip 30: Offer public service messages. These might be popular generic messages such as weather forecasts, quotes of the day or humor or brief, educational messages on product safety, for example, based on your own field. (**)
Richard G. Ensman Jr. is a syndicated freelance writer based in Rochester, NY.