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Elecronic Marketing Comes of Age

More than 30 million people currently use the Internet, a burgeoning global network that connects 5 million computer systems in …

More than 30 million people currently use the Internet, a burgeoning global network that connects 5 million computer systems in 75 countries. Although notorious for its “hacker” culture and security breaches, the Internet fast is becoming the backbone of electronic commerce. By mid-summer, a number of secure, encrypted credit-card services will be working on it.

While marketing products and services in a multimedia environment, some companies also are completing electronic surveys and assembling critical information on target customer groups, often for less than the cost of a direct-mail campaign. Many find their efforts to be remarkably cost-effective-after all, anyone who pops into your electronic storefront will already be seeking you, not the other way around.

In setting up shop, you likely will take advantage of the World Wide Web, the fastest growing interactive electronic network of information services, product catalogs, and electronic storefronts. Initially developed by researchers at the Center for European Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland, the Web is an Internet-based technology that allows you to create multimedia information services promoting your company and products. Today, tens of thousands of Web “server” computers house information services and products on the Internet, with at least one new Web site coming up daily. It costs less than $15,000 to $20,000 to establish your business’ presence on the Internet, put up a Web server, and post your own “home page”-your electronic shingle for luring prospects to your company’s products and services.

The Internet combined with the World Wide Web provides the most cost-effective means of doing market research available today. New York-based Fidelity Investments; Inc. magazine in Boston; New Jersey’s Burlington Coat Factory; and Great West Life Assurance in Englewood, CO, are just a few of the hundreds of name-brand companies that have set up Web servers with detailed surveys to profile customers and measure interest in specific products and services. With a well-designed Web page, you can tell how many people have found your information and which products and services they looked at. By adding a survey with a seductive prize (a chance to win a CD-player or a coupon),you can assemble a targeted mailing list and gain very specific customer-profile information. All this valuable direct-response information is available to you for a minimal investment-much less than the cost of a typical direct-mail test. In its first two-and-a-half months, Burlington Coat Factory received 6,000 “electronic visits,” and handed out 2,000 $5-off coupons in exchange for prospects’ profiles.

The most dramatic results to date in actual product sales using Web-based catalogs come from companies whose products appeal to a specific customer niche. For example, Henri-Lloyd, the British outfitter of foul weather gear for sailors, has a color, direct-order catalog available on the Web. This enables the company to reach a targeted clientel and order fulfillment. East Coast Brewing Supply in Staten Island, NY, and Five Star Cookies in Boston are smaller companies that already have reaped large profits from their electronic catalogs. In addition, niche middlemen are setting up electronic malls. The Disability Mall features products and services for the disabled.

Customers locate these specialty storefronts by typing in a search word or two. “Wine”gives you direct access to dozens of vintners. You can visit vineries online and order a superb vintage in minutes from the Rhebokskloof Estate in the Paarl Valley in South Africa. By typing in “golf,” you can buy a set of custom-made golf clubs from Newcomb’s Golf Equipment Co. in Lubbock, TX, or sign up to play on a Donald Ross original design golf course at the Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club in Southern Pines,

NC. Cyber-shopping may not be as fast as ordering by phone from a  catalog you already have, but it’s great way to find and procure goods or services you need without leaving your desk.

To use the Internet and the World Wide Web for market-research purposes, turn an Internet-savvy person in your organization loose on the project. With a small investment, you’ll be up and running within a few weeks. If you plan to sell products or services on the Web, you should partner with one of the hundreds of companies that specialize in the design of commercial services on the Web, such as Open Market. They design catalogs that work in this new electronic medium, ensuring secure credit-card transactions and registering your server with the various Internet indexing services. It’s time to set up your roadside attraction on the Information Highway. Your competitors already may be doing so.

Patricia B. Seybold is president and chief executive of the Patricia Seybold Group, a Boston-based information-services firm.

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