What Small Business Can Get From the Net. Part 2

To do my own tracking, I’ve been using the “Stanford Netnews Filter” for the last few months (you can find it on the Web at http://woodstock.stanford.edu:2000 or can access it via e-mail by sending a message to netnews@db.stanford.edu). It took me only minutes to set up my ‘tracking profile.’ Now, each day, I receive an e-mail message containing excerpts from the electronic discussions about the topics I am inte rested in, no matter where they are occurring in USENET. I can easily, with a few commands, retrieve the full text of any of these discussions. It’s been an invaluable business tool.

In order to become a little more sophisticated, I’m about to sign up with the Infoseek service (http://www.infoseek.com ) which will do the same thing but a bit more — it will let me electronically track topics within various newswires and press release wires, as well as access other information sources. Infoseek will actually cost me money (the Sanford service is free), but the investment seems worth it based on what I’ve heard.

Small business should also recognize that the Internet is an extremely effective and low cost customer support tool. Establishing an e-mail support mailbox (i.e. support@xyz.com) is one method by which customers can request help, and establishing a World Wide Web Web site on-line loaded with customer support information is another method — and is quite inexpensive, since many Internet providers will establish a Web site for a small business for fees of $150 a month or less. Load the site can with technic al support documents, put up an interactive form by which the customer can seek answers to questions, provide pointers to other related information resources, and begin to publish the details in your marketing literature. Over time, you’ll find that you’v e taken steps towards solidifying the relationship with your customer base, as more and more of them begin to use the Internet, and learn to access your site for support information.

Finally, keep in mind that there are opportunities for small business to market services and products through the Internet — your World Wide Web site can become, in effect, your electronic brochure and catalog. Yet, be realistic about your expectations – – as we write in our new book about business on the Internet The Canadian Internet Advantage “we are still a society of consumers learning about electronic shopping, in a world of suppliers still learning how to sell elec tronically.” Marketing on the Internet, and establishing new business opportunities through the network, is a subtle and evolving art. You shouldn’t expect sudden and dramatic success to your bottom line, but if done right, you will slowly discover new bu siness opportunities coming your way.

Today, there are a lot of people who complain that the Internet isn’t easy to use, that it is full of too much information, and that it is too difficult for a small business to learn how to use — and that it is overhyped. In many ways this is true. Yet, the Internet isn’t going to go away, and for those small business organizations willing to invest in it, the Internet is a valuable and potent business tool.

In the same way that you don’t get a college education in two or three hours, you won’t master the Internet in just a short time. You’ve got to approach it with an understanding that the Internet is more of a skill than a technology — and recognize that you want to invest the time to master it is as a skill. By doing so, I believe that you will open your small business up to new and significant opportunities through the next decade.

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