Tips for Offline Firms Moving Online

Working for an Internet start-up can be tough, but doing business online for a company that traditionally deals with customers offline also holds challenges.

Follow these guidelines, however, and you should be able to move your company online more easily.

If you don't have expertise online, partner with a company that does. Reinventing the wheel is unnecessary. If your company is like many traditional offline companies, it lacks the infrastructure or systems to handle e-mail deployment, back-end analysis or other tasks.

Using experts who have built their businesses around these specialized areas is a great step in creating a solid foundation for your online division. By partnering with a knowledgeable company, you can learn the ins and outs of the online business and possibly use that knowledge in the long run to bring the work inhouse. Why risk making all of the mistakes by going it alone? Work with a company that has answers to most of your questions and has climbed the mountain beforehand.

Transfer offline customers online — now. As any good Internet marketer would do, aggressively acquire permission-based e-mail addresses and transfer offline customers online. Acquire e-mails at every customer point of contact — at your stores, in fulfillment, on the phone and while they're on your site.

It always has been expensive to communicate with customers via telephone or direct mail. You now can communicate with customers for pennies. Implementing sweepstakes or using pass-along e-newsletters are some of the ways you can begin moving customers online. Spending time and energy upfront to acquire e-mail addresses will assist greatly in achieving online success.

Get your own resources for design and copy. While sharing company resources within divisions is common, a dedicated online staff is worthwhile. Obtaining designers, copywriters and content managers with online experience will keep you a step ahead of companies that transfer their offline talent to online. That is not to say offline talent cannot transfer adequately to the online division, but adding talent with Internet experience can save months on your road to profitability.

Test, test, test. As with almost any marketing channel, you need to find a control unit and test to find a better price point, creative unit or offer, to name a few. Online, new variables emerge, such as open and click-through rates. No one ever knew what percentage of recipients actually received and opened the envelope from a direct mail solicitation. But you can find out how many people opened your e-mail (except text messages) and how many people were interested enough to click through for further information. Subject lines have become the outside envelope teaser of the new century.

Create effective campaign reporting. Just when you think you've finalized the perfect reporting system for your offline activity, here comes the Internet. With statistics like click-throughs, impressions and opt-outs, the Internet demands separate reporting to manage your business. Establish your goals and solidify the most important information, then research all possible scenarios, making sure you have the information covered.

Educate the sales force and customer reps on this new way of doing business. To grow your business, your sales force needs to be Internet-savvy. To manage it, customer service needs to be aware of Internet lingo and processes. Look at the most popular providers of e-mail addresses, such as Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL and Earthlink. Discuss the many ways to build partnerships online such as banner exchanges, affiliate networks, pop-ups, pop-unders and contextual advertising.

Be patient as you try to change the corporate culture. Whether you are a young Internet guru or an experienced manager with online expertise, you will need to educate and inform senior management about what is involved in conducting business online. With the dot-com implosion, the attitude toward anything Internet-related might be one of conservatism. Citing examples of the Internet as being a core channel next to catalogs, direct mail and DRTV may not be enough. As with most businesses, a history of revenue and profit speaks volumes in your quest for acceptance.

Have a clear understanding of the technical side. Whether hiring an Internet division staff or looking to move online, direct marketing experience is first and foremost. But a clear understanding of the technical side of online business and a general knowledge of common computer languages such as HTML are extremely valuable.

Though you may know what you're looking for, putting that down on paper to request from the IT group could prove difficult. E-commerce opens new ways to create campaigns and reach past, present and future customers. Take a class on HTML or Web design. You'll find it to be one of your best investments.

Choose your partners wisely. Though you may feel confident that your company will be around over the next year or so, you cannot assume your online partners will be. Many dot-coms have closed, and only the very few elite will get by without being burned at least once by a failed partnership.

Research your potential partner's financial situation extensively. Don't be afraid to ask for financials or speak to its venture capitalist. Don't be alarmed if once you receive the financials, there is no profit. Many companies are still not showing a profit. Ask when they expect to be profitable and how much time they have until cash runs out and additional funding is needed.

It's not a race anymore. Take time to set a strategy. Many companies whose priority was speed to market are no longer around. Though this always will be an important component, the priority should be to create a sound business plan and strategy.

Many traditional marketing strategies, such as targeting a specific audience with the right product at the right time, still work online. In addition, developing processes and systems for all aspects of your online business is important in the early stages.

Lastly, ensure that all departments, including customer service, are on board.

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