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Even Non-Tech Companies Need Interactive Web Sites

 by James C. Pintsak (jamespintsak@wwwiz.com)

 The goal of every company, large and small, is to have a strong corporate brand--an image of quality, value and integrity, which shines though in every aspect of the business.

From company brochures, to signage, to letterhead and business cards, a company's outward image reflects the quality of a company's products and its commitment to service. Small- to medium-sized businesses commonly endeavor to spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars developing strong corporate identities. However, there is one thing that too often falls by the wayside­–the company Web site.

The value of projecting a positive image is one that is familiar to everyone. It is the reason people spend huge sums of money on luxury automobiles and Italian suits. If you look good, you feel good, and that confidence is apparent.

Unfortunately, numerous companies have yet to realize that this effect holds true even in the case of a corporate Web site. You've spent the money to develop a corporate identity, which is seen by a select few, perhaps some current and potential clients. But you have skimped on your Web site, which has the potential to be viewed all your customers, stockholders, potential investors and future employees.  If you haven't invested in a site that truly represents your brand, you are, in effect, sending your top spokesman out in a tattered T-shirt and jeans to represent your company.

Many think that only dot-coms need an interactive Web site. Not true. The features offered by interactive sites are ideal for facilitating business processes and offering improved customer service for nearly all varieties of business-to-business industries.

Whether you're a manufacturing, engineering or a medical firm, a high-end interactive business-to-business site works to increase profits, adding significant value to your business.

 What Is It?

 But what exactly does a high-end interactive Web site entail? The easiest way to define one is by comparing its features to that of a low-end static site; for example, one built using an ``all-in-one" application, such as Microsoft FrontPage or Netscape Composer.

The utilization of an interactive site allows a company to easily tailor content on a daily basis, draw information stored from a database and implement dynamic feeds from external sites, enhancing and benefiting the end-user experience. FrontPage 2000 and Netscape Composer-built sites lack these features, and their users usually lack the technical knowledge to link to existing databases behind a firewall. Interactive sites also have the ability to gather and store user information, provide e-commerce and facilitate Intranet & Extranet components to promote cost savings and extend the usefulness to the company and customer.

In addition, employing the talent of a seasoned creative team assures that the finished product will be both attractive and easy to use.

 What Are the Benefits?

 The next logical question a company should ask is ``how can my non-technology based business benefit from the use of a high-end interactive site?"

The benefits are wide ranging. A visually clean site, with easy navigation and professional design will make the online experience for your visitors more productive. Even if your site is merely a marketing tool, a clean look and feel conveys a positive corporate image and builds confidence and trust among your visitors. 

Next, the addition of dynamic content (continuously changing information) will engage visitors and give them a reason to return frequently to your site.

Tools such as press releases keep visitors up to date on the success of your company and news feeds give them the latest industry-related information. For publicly held companies, this usually includes investor/stock information and financial reports. Additionally, links to complementary sites and resources turn your site into a portal, or a start page for customers and associates in your industry. A portal style site can develop a sense of community on your site, and leads to customer loyalty and brand name recognition. 

The trend towards portal-style Web sites has increased sharply in recent months due to their ability to engage the visitor and encourage participation, leading to longer site visit length times.  One popular way to create a portal is to include a discussion forum.  These forums, for example, allow doctors, patients, engineers and salespeople to exchange thoughts and ideas or questions and answers with your company and each other.  In the end, you benefit from the sharing of information and the increased exposure to your company and site.

 What Else Can It Do?

 Not only does an interactive Web site possess the ability to improve customer service, it can also benefit a company by automating many of the day-to-day business processes.  The Web can be used for daily tasks as simple as appointment scheduling or, for companies that manufacture specialized products, the Web site can be integrated with a database to monitor production processes.  Authorized clients and staff can have up-to-the-minute reports on order or repair status, part availability and shipping and routing information.  The Internet's ability to offer supply chain support and integration makes it ideal for manufacturers who desire real-time status information on their production processes.

The Internet, however, is not just a tool for outsiders. Employees within your own company can benefit from the use of an intranet or extranet.

An intranet is a secure browser-based tool that allows employees access to different company files, documents and information without having to give them all direct, unmonitored, risky access to the company's internal servers.  This can also include the ability to track client activities, internal processes and even automate the more basic daily tasks handled by existing staff members.

An extranet is like an intranet only it is remotely accessed. Companies that have a national sales force or have salespeople who spend a lot of time on the road commonly use this type of component. The extranet allows authorized people access to various files or documents that a company specifies from a remote location using any Internet connection and browser securely.  This will ensure that these people have the latest, most up-to-the-minute documents and company literature.

An extranet is also effective at allowing select clients to have direct access to information relating to them and their company. This can be especially effective in manufacturing or order fulfillment, where a process passes through a number of stages and the client would be interested in knowing the current status.

            Finally, having a high-end interactive Web site shows that your company understands the growing economy and embraces new technologies to remain on the cutting edge of the industry.  It demonstrates that your business is customer service oriented and cares about the quality of its appearance and its work.

  Will It Translate Into Profits?

 There is no doubt that an interactive company Web site can greatly increase productivity and usage by prospects, clients and employees.  But will this added convenience and exposure really lead to increased profits?  Absolutely. The expanded features of an interactive site encourage longer and more frequent stays by visitors.  These eyes are not only valuable to your company's brand, but also open the door for paid advertisements by partners and providers of complementary products and services. The more eyes that see your site, the more effective it is as a sales and marketing tool for your products and services.  Additionally, the ability to engage your current clients or shareholders and provide them with current and useful information builds brand loyalty and contributes to an increased client retention rate.  Furthermore, a well-developed site can improve your company's bottom line by automating many time-consuming processes usually handled by staff.

Some exceptional interactive sites:

www.ocregister.com/–The Orange County Register's Web site. 

www.processpoint.com–Phoenix-based process manufacturer's portal

www.stemcellselection.com–Portal designed to support cancer patients

 James Pintsak is an Internet solutions account executive at Schraff Group, a fully integrated e-business agency with a successful 22-year history.  The firm leverages its expertise in advertising, public relations, Internet application development and Internet business consulting to offer its clients truly integrated business and marketing support.  Schraff Group is Orange County's leading firm for hot ramp Internet start-ups, as well as established companies with e-business initiatives.  Additional information can be accessed at www.schraff.com.

               

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