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Getting Ready for E-Commerce

Is your company prepared for its e-commerce opportunity? Countless companies jumped in without proper planning and are spending up to five times their original investment on the redesign of an ineffective Web site.

The following steps have been designed to prepare companies for their e-commerce opportunity. These steps should serve as a guide for establishing a comprehensive strategy that will allow for full integration of a company’s e-commerce Web site into its overall business plan.

Customer facing. Before you begin creating the site, you must design on paper all the functions the site needs to have to address the needs of the consumer. To establish the customer-facing strategy, the company must examine:

• The objectives of the online presence.

• Online benchmarks and return on investment metrics.

• Levels of interactivity demanded by customers.

• Ways to make the site more efficient and easy to use.

Customer facing forces companies to make the initial decisions about what they want their e-commerce site to accomplish. This forethought will prevent having a site that does not service its customers.

Internet marketing. The new online channel, with its interactive, consumer-centric features, requires different approaches from traditional marketing. Essentially, Internet marketing continues in the same vein as customer facing by continuing to focus on the customers who will be the key to a successful Internet venture.

Many sites have taken an interest or information need and used it to attract the desired audience. These companies weaved their message through this initial informational need. Once a company has used this method to attract visitors to a site, it must keep them coming back by:

• Providing quality content around the specific area of interest that fulfills social and commercial needs.

• Providing unique and personalized online experiences.

• Soliciting and featuring user-generated content.

As users return to the site, detailed information about their preferences, demographics and lifestyle can be collected. This type of one-to-one marketing can build loyalty with each consumer on an individual basis.

Companies must answer these questions to craft an effective Internet marketing strategy:

• Who are your online/prospective consumers?

• Which customers are profitable?

• What are visitors seeking from your site?

• How is your competition attracting them?

• What is your unique and defensible online positioning?

• How could you extend the brand online?

• How will you build your community and customer loyalty?

• What information will you collect from visitors and customers? How will it be used?

• What is your stated privacy policy?

Web site promotion. Consumers must consider your site a place to satisfy their information need. Web promotion activities must be coordinated with other corporate marketing efforts. Devising a comprehensive promotion strategy is the key to getting consumers to the site so you can begin your Internet marketing campaign.

To attract the right audience online, you must:

• Understand what newspapers and periodicals your target audience members read, along with which TV shows they watch and Web sites they visit.

• Develop an appropriate media mix to reach your most valuable customers and prospects online and offline.

• Devise advanced search engine submission strategies to move your URL up the list.

Customer care. A strategy must be established to determine what information and answers will be available to customers and how Web customer care will interact with the telephone-based call center. To ensure your customer care strategy will create a positive difference, address these issues:

• What information will customers have access to on the Web?

• How much can they do for themselves?

• At what point does a person need to communicate with the consumer?

At some point, customers will need to talk to a “live” service representative. When they do, ensure that the representative has all the information on the customer, including order history and profitability ranking. The representative also must have access to the information needed to resolve the problem and be empowered to make decisions a strong and integrated customer service center online and offline is vital in e-commerce.

Information technology backbone. E-commerce needs will drive the other two major components of the Internet economy: IT infrastructure and applications. Large databases and systems infrastructure will be needed to handle the growing capacity for front- and back-office operations. Further, these large databases will be needed to enable new levels of data mining, data visualization and advanced analytics.

Successful online companies have fully integrated e-commerce into their front- and back-office systems. They have invested in the right solutions, including scalable databases, applications servers, data warehouse platforms, business intelligence tools, storefront technologies and extended supply-chain management technologies.

Your e-commerce business plan needs to address these

• Evaluate existing IT infrastructure capabilities.

• Overall technology road map – planning and definition of network support requirements, scalability, security and data quality.

• Evaluate the needs for assemble-to-order and make-to-stock systems with interfaces to manufacturing and distribution center operations and systems.

• Data management, including administration, development, quality, integration, implications of database marketing, staffing and synergies with other distribution systems.

• Best solutions/applications.

• Effects of technology convergence.

• Effects of mobile and personal digital technologies.

• Synergies with home/pantry replenishment solutions.

• Synergies with existing distribution channels.

• IT vendor evaluation and recommendation.

Supply chain. E-commerce provides the opportunity for optimizing the supply chain, streamlining distribution processes, improving product delivery and reducing inventory costs.

Two key issues for consumer business-to-business e-commerce are:

• Using new business processes and technologies to drive greater efficiencies for moving product and information throughout the existing supply chain.

• Adopting a make-to-order supply-chain operation initiated by a customer order over the Internet.

Companies must identify where their best e-commerce opportunities may be across the supply chain so they can develop a plan for adopting e-commerce into a supply chain by answering questions:

• What are the implications/opportunities with current channel partners?

• What are your potential alliances/Internet merchandising programs with Web purveyors?

• How can you optimize distribution and service models?

• Where are the best opportunities for connectivity and self-service with current suppliers?

• What are your best options for fulfilling orders using e-commerce?

Business process. A business needs to evaluate and adjust its processes. An effective e-commerce model extends the traditional internal focus by integrating and connecting other business partners. It is important to summarize the business process changes needed to deliver within this extended business plan.

Almost all operational aspects of the business must be included and coordinated planning and executing e-commerce capabilities. E-commerce is here to stay and will affect every type of business, but questions remain. Where are your opportunities to leverage e-commerce? How can you adopt e-commerce to make the most immediate impact? The answers will be different for every company, and every organization must devise an integrated business plan that encompasses its new e-commerce division, so that it will not jump headlong into designing an ineffective e-commerce Web site. n

• Bob Smithers is vice president/general manager of MossWarner Communications, Mission Viejo, CA.

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