Internet strategies are tricky to develop because the Web has become an important piece of so many areas across a company’s operations: marketing, sales, HR, finance, etc. As a result, crafting an online business plan requires a unique approach and input from an unusually large group of contributors from throughout the company.

Most successful small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) conduct formal business planning at least once a year, often times in the form of an offsite meeting with key executives in attendance. These meetings provide the platform for the creation of a variety of business plans: corporate strategy, budgetary, marketing, sales, human resources, IT, etc. These types of plans are common documents that most businesspeople readily understand. Internet planning, while a relatively new activity, is something we’re seeing more and more of at SMBs. (Who should be responsible for an organization’s Internet operations is another discussion altogether. For our perspective Who Should Own The Company Website?)

Internet plans serve the same purpose and take the same form and structure as any other planning document. The intent is to map out how the organization will be applying the Internet to improve business operations and stay competitive. The plan sets companywide expectations, establishes budgeting needs, and provides a benchmark for measuring success or failure over a specified period of time.

There are, however, unique elements to Internet planning that require special attention and techniques. Pixel Bridge employs the following steps when helping clients develop Internet strategies. We’ve found the approach efficient and effective for many reasons, including the knowledge gained throughout the planning activities; the outcome (the plan); and the role the process plays in selling initiatives to key executives within the organization.

Stakeholder Interviews

Meet with key stakeholders inside the organization—every functional executive and their important direct reports—to determine their needs and the Internet-related projects that are underway within their areas. Consider using a standardized survey to facilitate information-gathering and generate quality data for consistent reporting.

Customer Interviews

Talk with your best customers to determine their Web-related expectations from your company, e.g., ability to make purchases online, pay bills electronically, submit customer service inquiries through the website, etc. Try to identify initiatives that would increase their loyalty to your organization and make it easier for them to do business with you.

Site Analysis

Analyze the company website using a structured approach, and roll the findings up into a report for critical review.

Competitor & Best Practice Review

Select three competitors and two best-practice organizations (for example, if you are in the consumer goods business, look at Procter & Gamble) and scrutinize their online operations. Note any leading-edge techniques they are using and consider their applicability to your organization.

The Document

After you have the key building blocks in place—interviews, analysis, and competitive research—it’s time to develop the document. Some organizations refer to this as a “vision document” that includes an accompanying roadmap outlining key deliverables, timelines, etc. Whatever the eventual format, it should address a basic set of deliverables:

– Using a “state of the union” approach, explain the current state of Internet adoption at the organization, existing online assets, and how the company compares to the competition.

– Present short-term (tactical) recommendations for Internet adoption in the form of a 6-12 month plan. Define a longer-term strategic vision to set expectations for future initiatives.

– Provide associated costs and expected ROI, whether it be in the form of actual dollars or improving the organization’s ability to compete.

There is Value in the Process

Dwight Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Anyone who has worked at a company for more than six months knows that even the best-laid plans are subject to radical change at a moment’s notice. But the process of planning is invaluable. The discussions, research, and prioritization of initiatives help companies create their future. Using the Internet appropriately can be a daunting task given its wide-ranging application, but intelligent planning will improve the likelihood of success.