BT is to launch a social networking and marketing facility for small businesses "in a few weeks".
The service, BT Tradespace, has been in beta-testing since 7 February, but now looks set for full release, according to Ivan Croxford, head of market development for BT Retail. "What we're trying to do with BT Tradespace is solve a major problem for small businesses — how to promote themselves effectively online and turn the internet into a sales and marketing channel," said Croxford on Friday.
The move is the latest in BT's foray into the world of online services, which has been chiefly geared towards small and medium-sized businesses.
Croxford suggested that many small businesses still face problems with adopting the basic features of the internet, let alone the more interactive "Web 2.0", and he cited a lack of technical and design skills as a reason for this.
BT Tradespace provides SMEs with a range of templates so they can set up an online presence "literally in minutes". Tools are provided for search engine optimisation to aid promotion of the site. Beyond that, BT's approach is very Web 2.0, with the addition of blogging and video functionality in the package.
"If you take away the technology, what you effectively have is a communications mechanism and a way of getting a personalised and conversational marketing message out to your customers," said Croxford, describing the potential results as "a lot more powerful than static marketing copy or brochureware".
Apart from providing an easy way to set up websites, BT Tradespace enables the linking up of SMEs through social networking. According to Croxford, BT will be "bringing buyers and sellers together through community channels" which are either category-driven or geographically based, resulting in increased exposure for the user's site via several channels.
Croxford said BT was not yet charging for the service, but he would not rule out the possibility of a charge further down the line. He also claimed that, while the post-beta version of the service — which is "about to begin in a few weeks" — would provide more scope for customisation of sites, BT would be keeping this feature limited.
"I don't think customisation of design creates a differentiated message," suggested Croxford. "What creates that is the content you put on your site. What we've found from people is that they actually quite like structure — member ratings and contact details will be in the same places [whatever the site], and so on. From a business perspective, one of the big bugbears is that, if you provide too many options under the hood in terms of design, it just creates problems for SMEs."