It’s taken several years of testing and refinement, but the Fortune 500 have demonstrated that conducting business successfully online requires the blending of Internet specific planning, creative skills, and a complementary technology foundation. Visit the websites of some of the largest companies - WalMart, General Motors, Citibank - and you’ll experience a seamless experience between offline and online activities. And they’re continuing to make online investments with predictable and reliable ROI. Small and mid-sized businesses are getting better at ebusiness as well. Here are the key components to consider when formulating an effective Internet strategy.
Integrated, Top-Down Planning
Successful online strategies require, at the very least, some form of buy-in from top management. Direct involvement is preferable, but resources must be made available, which includes a significant role in strategic planning discussions. When the Internet first made a splash, online operations were often addressed in a vacuum, but that’s no longer the case.
Given the Internet’s flexibility, it should be considered in all aspects of the organization and evaluated as a potential tool to support the organization’s underlying goals: increased sales, reduced costs, improved customer retention, etc.
The Website as a Foundation
It should come as no surprise that for most of our clients, an effective online strategy starts with a solid website. A professionally developed website can support a variety of organizational efforts, including:
- Brand building
- Clearly differentiating an organization and communicating its marketing strategy
- Establishing and reinforcing market leadership
- Conducting customer transactions
- Delivering customer service
- Collecting, organizing, and warehousing customer data
- Optimizing customer retention
- Streamlining operations, such as supply chain management
A well-built website is the first step in pursuing an Internet strategy, but shouldn’t end there. It would be like constructing the most inviting and customer-friendly retail store in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Sure, it may work great if any customers happen to stumble upon it, but that’s highly unlikely.
Which is where interactive marketing comes in. For SMBs especially, online marketing can play a significant role in reaching new customers and broadening organizational reach. Using techniques like search engine marketing, affiliate marketing, online advertising, and email marketing, SMBs can use the Internet to acquire new customers, leverage partners, and improve customer retention.
It’s a foregone conclusion that a significant percentage of customers want to do business with their vendors of choice over the Internet. Depending on which research you reference and what industry sector, it can be as much as 40% of customers.
In the B2C sector, it’s a straightforward proposition: customers want to shop and buy online, so companies need to make sure their products are effectively presented on the Web and can be easily purchased. In the B2B world, the issues are fuzzier, but websites need to effectively support the entire sales process, from upfront research to client extranets and online billing.
Electronic data interchange (EDI) technology has been around for decades, and much of this activity has transitioned over to the Internet. It has also allowed smaller businesses that couldn’t afford expensive EDI infrastructures to take advantage of online B2B commerce, which manifests in several ways:
- Project management
- Supply chain management
- Human resources
- Sales force automation
Making the Pieces Work Together
Big companies took a shotgun approach to Internet-enabling their organizations during 1997 – 2001 in response to the dotcom frenzy, investing billions into online initiatives without necessarily much thought or planning. A recession and tighter budgets mandated that recent investments require more planning and demonstrable ROI. Since many SMBs watched the online revolution from the sidelines, they are in a prime position to borrow lessons learned from the big guys and apply only the most relevant online techniques to their businesses.
But Internet strategies still require a careful balancing act. The essence of “strategic planning” is figuring out how to allocate scarce (read: finite) resources. Developing an effective Internet strategy requires understanding the available techniques, specific customer requirements, the competitive landscape, and the organization’s wherewithal for change. As with most challenging business processes, it’s as much art form as it is science.