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Going beyond the basics of e-marketing

As veterans of brick-and-mortar retail explore a wide variety of online business models, key questions about making money in cyberspace arise. One of the most important topics to consider is the relationship between e-marketing and e-commerce.

By definition, e-commerce comprises any business transaction that is brought online via the Internet or an intranet. Prior to coming online, e-commerce transactions could have been completed on paper, through fax transmittals, or over the phone. For its part, e-marketing helps position online transactions for optimum strategic and tactical value. The payoff comes with taking everyday tasks and noting how much more faster, reliable and manageable they become when brought online. The new online operational benchmark then becomes something to promote to customers and prospects.

An e-marketing initiative applies to e-businesses designed from the start with the Internet in mind, organizations looking to prospect in new ground and establish better interaction with customers, or for businesses just getting started with e-commerce. Large and small, all kinds of business models need to engage in e-marketing.

Far from requiring the most expensive leading-edge technology, e-marketing boils down to realistic investments in technology and marketing communications. Assuming that your technological house is in order, how does e-marketing become part of everyday operations? To initiate and maintain a powerful e-marketing program, seven areas of marketing and technology operation require attention.

1. First point of contract There's no need to drown in focus-group and survey data to realize that business-to-business and business-to-consumer contacts are often first made online. Professionals check websites in due diligence to ascertain whether the sponsoring organization has the depth of product and technology offerings promised by its advertising or sales representative. Prospective vendors are quickly weeded out if their sites suggest they can't deliver the goods. Consumers may follow the same course to check specifications or price. From their initial visit to the website, prospects decide if a follow-up phone call or face-to-face meeting is required.

Every business must face up to the very real possibility of a website making the all-important first impression with customers and prospects. How deeply will customers be permitted to peer into your organization simply by making a website visit? The website will allow all visitors to get a feel for what you sell and how you operate. The business can also track and evaluate customer activities through the number and types of online transactions.

2. Dialogue setting Going beyond the simple monitoring of customer activity and transactions, a website encourages the testing, introduction and maintenance of business issues that have the most meaning to customers and prospects. Online interaction means you aren't talking at anyone; you're talking with them. When issues originate from the customer side of the fence, it's good to know that there is always the opportunity for an appropriate response and a continuation of the dialogue. Savvy marketers won't allow this advantage to slip.

3. Dialogue in real time Issues discussed online don't need to be postmarked, picked-up, carried or otherwise simmered and aged. Real-time communication means you can expect nearly instantaneous feedback. Customer and market feedback of this kind is a good example of how online transactions cause what is usually considered to have strategic value to have enormous tactical value as well.

Instantaneous feedback is an easy fit into everyday marketing operations because it occurs in a natural everyday rhythm. If "turn-on-a-dime" response is the norm for businesses conducting online transactions, professional marketers need to be asking how that valuable capability is being used to promote and grow the business.

4. Integration of information Online information emanates from disparate sources and follows what can seem to be random streams. Sources and streams can be found and followed inside your organization and from anywhere in the outside environment. That means the boundaries of your organization are probably a great deal more porous than just a few years ago.

And that's good. Once again, the online environment provides more data, more knowledge and more ideas to apply to the way your organization interacts with prospects and customers. The goal here is to work with customers and prospects in a way that demonstrates you are integrating and presenting information in their best interests. Considering the richness of online information, customer expectations for the quality and quantity of information are now much higher.

5. Integration of technologies The online environment can disperse technologies almost as easily as information. Some of the most complicated software products can be downloaded from Internet sites. The same holds for product fixes. Online transactions of this type are not limited to business-to-business contexts. There are popular consumer products that are capable of performing a full range of diagnostics for home PCs online. Still, the technology has more to deliver than simple conveniences.

The integration of different technologies is what really steals the attention. Already in use are revolutionary warehouse management systems with powerful inventory control mechanisms and automated GPS tracking. A management system of this type benefits suppliers and customers because it allows access to nearly every phase of the transaction. Data can be accessed from order entry and inventory control to customer delivery, and through countless steps along the way. Customer order information can be entered and accessed via your own intranet and Internet sites. The resulting extraordinarily high level of service is a marketable commodity itself.

Online technology urges professional marketers to evaluate how the service levels of their own organization are promoted. Here again, technology has raised the bar considerably on levels of expectations.

6. Transaction efficiency The entire argument for e-commerce begins with efficiency. What was once written and printed and required many phone calls and faxes to complete is now a short series of online transactions. Customers who expect the information they need to be available from websites for easy access and downloading are not making unreasonable demands at all.

Many technical sites encourage customers to custom specify and price jobs online. The customers' orders can then be checked and quickly returned. Competitive quotes go out faster and decisions are made faster. In addition, quality checks can be built into the system so that when information is released to the customer, it's much more likely to be accurate. A great deal of second guessing and wasted time is eliminated.

7. Global Operation Online technology allows marketing activities to extend throughout your own organization to those of your customers and throughout the world. That means dialogue with prospects, strategic information, innovative use of technology and new levels of efficiency all become just a click away from worldwide distribution through e-marketing. The move from traditional marketing to global e-marketing allows multilevel and affiliative approaches that might otherwise be too distracting from core business activities to be tried on for size.

The seven areas of marketing and technology operation outlined in this article shouldn't come as a complete surprise. As a group, they represent a starting point for sustained and successful e-marketing initiatives. Taken separately, each is a potentially sensitive area in the building, promotion and maintenance of product, service and organizational brand.

Many organizations will seek partnerships to develop a comfortable level of technical and marketing expertise. However your organization decides to move forward, the opportunity to develop a better understanding of how the benefits of e-marketing can be communicated to your customers holds tremendous promise.

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