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What Makes the Internet So Powerful?

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Robin Miller explains the basic power of the Internet and how businesses can use it to achieve their goals.
This chapter is from the book

The Internet is the lowest cost system ever developed to communicate with a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Even locally, the cost of a simple Web site is usually less than the cost of a modest ad in a business telephone directory. A Web site can also give more information than a telephone directory ad, including color photos, detailed descriptions of products and services, and price information that can be changed at any moment, for any reason, instead of waiting for a printed directory's next publication cycle.

As a news medium, the Internet is faster and more flexible than a newspaper or magazine. A story can be added to a Web site instantly at any time of the day or night. There are no deadlines (except self-imposed ones) for Internet news. The "printing press" is always on, you might say. Even television news, aside from a few 24-hour news channels, must usually wait for scheduled news broadcast times instead of breaking into entertainment programming whenever a new story comes along. Television is also constrained by its necessarily linear information delivery format. It must tell a story, then another story, then take a break for advertising, then tell another story, and so on, in sequence. A viewer cannot choose to view only a few stories that he or she finds interesting, which may occupy only five minutes out of a 30-minute newscast. On the Internet, a reader is free not only to choose to view just those stories in which he or she is most interested, but also gets to choose the order in which he or she sees them. If sports scores are the highest item on today's agenda, click and there's the sports section, as easy as turning a newspaper page. Another click and there's the score from the game that just ended, possibly with video highlights only one more click away.

Corrections, changes, and updates to a story published on the Internet can be made as fast as they come in without waiting for a printing press to roll. Breaking news alerts can be sent instantly by email to subscribers who request this service, and a reader can instantly communicate with an online publication's editors via email or, if the publication has this facility, post his or her comments on a "message board" for other readers to see right away, without waiting for a fax or mail to get through and an editor to look the message over and perhaps include it in the "letters to the editor" section several days after the original story ran.

An online publication can also offer an advertiser something that is not available in any other medium: ads that link directly, with one click, to a Web page full of compelling reasons to buy the advertised product or service. Even if only a fraction of one percent of all people who see a Web ad click on it, that is still an infinitely higher percentage than can click on a magazine ad or TV spot for additional information—or even to buy a product directly from the advertiser right now. Even if few readers click on an individual online ad and buy right now, a Web ad still has the same branding and general "get the name out" effect as advertising in other media. If the cost of an online ad is similar to the cost of one in another medium, it represents a better value because of the ability it gives an advertiser to give an interested person an entire Web site full of information right away, only one click removed from the online publication in which that ad is running.

But the most direct way to make money online, no matter how a merchant gets traffic to his or her Web site, is to sell over the Internet. Ecommerce has had its ups and downs, but the overall trend is upward, and it is likely to stay that way for many years to come. Putting up a "catalog" Web site is far less expensive than printing and mailing paper catalogs, and the Web site can have "instant" ordering and credit card acceptance built right into it, whereas a paper catalog can generate only phone orders that require a horde of (expensive) live operators to process or mail-in order forms that a customer must fill out, fold, place in an envelope, and mail instead of going click right now and spending a few seconds typing in an address and credit card information, then going click once again to buy, right now, without having to look for a stamp.

An online catalog, just like an online news source, has the advantage over its paper counterpart of instant update capability. If a supplier's price changes, the price to customers can change nearly immediately. A blurb for an overstocked item can be placed on a Web site's front page to boost sales today, and email can alert valued customers to special values or sales faster and cheaper than postal mail or any kind of mass media advertising.

Even a business that doesn't sell directly online can use the Internet as an advertising medium. A restaurant, for example, can post its entire menu on its Web site, right down to daily specials, at less cost than any other method of putting detailed information about the establishment into prospective customers' hands. A local business such as a restaurant may be "wasting" the international potential of the Internet; there may be only a few thousand Internet users within a reasonable distance of that establishment. But that localization factor doesn't really matter. If a reasonable percentage of nearby Internet users see the restaurant's site and come in to eat, the site will more than pay for itself. As a bonus for a local business, a Web site will draw trade from out-of-towners because of its international reach. Consider this scenario: You are in Seoul, Korea, and you're traveling to Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. You need to find a hotel and places to eat. You almost certainly don't have a Charlottesville telephone directory handy, but if you have an Internet connection, it takes only a few minutes to use a search engine such as Google (www.google.com/) to find a restaurant that suits your taste, either directly through Google or through one of the many localized directories that will show up on your screen if you use the words "Restaurant" and "Charlottesville" as your key search words. So, hypothetical traveler from Korea, you have found a place to eat in Charlottesville, and probably a place to stay and even a nearby store or two, all through the Internet. From a merchant's point of view, you represent a business which he or she would never have gotten without the Internet (and a well-designed Web site). The question for even the smallest local business owner isn't, "Can I afford a Web site?" but, "How can I make an effective Web site without spending too much money?"

Actually, companies of all sizes should be asking themselves, "How can I make the most effective use of the Internet without spending too much money?"

Let's start answering that question by focusing on what the Internet can and cannot do for your business.

There are only three kinds of commercial Internet activity. That's all. Three. You can use the Internet to provide news or information, to sell goods or services directly online, or as a promotional device for an offline business. You can't use the Internet to ship physical goods, cook food, or build a house, but you can certainly use it as an advertising medium, and possibly as a direct sales channel, for a business that does one of these things. You could use a Web site designed to promote the sale of new homes to provide news about the neighborhood where the development is located, and many Web sites that are promotional brochures at heart do this sort of thing, but I don't believe this is a good idea. Trying to make a Web page or any other advertising message too broad takes away from its focus and detracts from its main message. It is almost always better to do one thing well than to try to do many things and do all of them poorly.

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