Electronic Commerce (eCommerce)
The success of a business on the Web -- as a business at any other location -- is dependent upon bringing the right customers into the store. We must tell the prospective customer where the store is and what its enticements are to generate the critical initial visit. This is accomplished with a variety of sign posts -- both traditional and online -- positioned aggressively to point our customers to the store.
An increasing number of companies are first utilizing traditional positions for these sign posts. The URL (Uniform Resource Locator, viz., Web address) can be incorporated into letterheads, business cards, brochures, and catalogs. It is being included more routinely in advertising copy and on consumer packaging. Some companies have sent out formal announcements of their URL similar to the announcements of new store openings or new addresses. L.L. Bean’s ubiquitous catalogs include an attractive invitation on page 3: "Visit L.L. Bean -- On-Line ... Our Internet address: http://www.llbean.com" URLs are even appearing on banners and billboards. Often overlooked, these traditional sign posts can be important traffic generators.
Of course, the online sign posts are opening up a new world of business communications. The most prominent of these online sign posts -- all of which are interactive -- are the proliferating banners and plaques on the welcome pages (and other positions) of the consumer access services (e.g., America Online), the browsers (e.g., Netscape Navigator), and the search engines (e.g., AltaVista); a noteworthy newer player is the PointCast Network (PCN), a state-of-the-art news service totally supported by advertising. Each of these banners or plaques is "linked" to the advertiser’s own site; a click of the viewer’s cursor instantly presents the advertiser’s home page, i.e., the casual viewer is whisked into the store within a second.
There are several variants to these Main Street links. Many specialized domains are pleased to place banners or plaques on their site for complementary businesses at a modest cost. And there is a small network of businesses with reciprocal links to each other’s sites with no exchange of money because they believe this arrangement is mutually beneficial. Of course, the purpose of any sign post is to bring the right kind of customer into our store. Sign posts on carefully-selected specialized domains may be much more cost effective for many products and services than Main Street links on the popular consumer access services.
When placing advertising in print media or on radio/TV, audience verification by the Audit Bureau of Circulations or Nielsen Media Research determines the rate card with little variation; if circulation increases 10 percent, the cost per agate line increases 10 percent. While the same concept is being imposed on the Internet, the actual measurement of traffic is chaotic. (A.C. Nielsen is currently conducting the first rigorous survey of Internet users, to determine at least the age and gender of online customers.) But even the units of measurement are jumbled.
The most popular method of measuring traffic is by counting "hits" to a Web server. A "hit" represents the number of files that have been uploaded from the server to the client. The count of files sent, or "hits," is recorded into the log file of the server. A "hit" is entered by every request made to a Web server; it has little predictable relation to users, visitors or pages.
Another means of measuring traffic is to count user "visits" -- a sequence of hits made by a single viewer at a single time. However, every measure of Web usage and user counts is commonly distorted by "caching" -- the storing or buffering of data in a temporary location. When placing a Web link on the America Online home page, AOL guarantees its customer 8.5+ million "page-views" per month of the AOL home page; however, while this traffic is awesome, AOL offers no guarantee how many AOL viewers will actually "click-through" to visit the customer’s site.
Thus, the owner/manager of the smaller business has to be wary when confronted with today’s disarray on the ‘Net. A number of advertising services are emerging to help manage the placement, frequency, reach and cost of sign posts on the Web. Every effort is made that the sign posts (in the form of banners and links) are positioned on strategically selected sites visited by individuals with affinities to your target market.
The key to success for every business with a presence on the Web is market aggregation. While certain businesses and organizations may have supplementary ways of aggregating their market, the imaginative and energetic distribution of both traditional as well as online sign posts is the primary mode of market aggregation. And the method of measuring the traffic generated by these sign posts must be understood clearly; thus, the effectiveness of these efforts can then be continually re-evaluated and re-directed, as appropriate.
Online interactive communications and business development will be the continuing focus of subsequent columns.
Your comments and suggestions for these pages are most welcome!
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Revised: July 29, 1996 TAF
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