How to build an online presence

E-commerce is a compelling opportunity for companies to grow their business and level the playing field.
Written by Julia Phillpot, Contributor

E-commerce is a compelling opportunity for small and medium-size businesses in Asia to capture new customers locally and globally. They can sell products 24 hours a day, as well as increase customer interaction.

There are five key elements to consider when building an online presence:

  • Online store: This is required to build a commerce-enabled Web site where company offerings can be presented and described to a customer, and then selected and bought.
  • Payment processing: This provides the ability to accept credit card and other payment options.
  • Order fulfillment and shipping: This determines how goods are to be delivered, especially if orders could be coming from all over the world.
  • Customer service: Set up a procedure for pre- and post-sales customer service. Quick and responsive customer service will encourage customers to use your company’s products and services again.
  • Promotion: Use marketing activities to promote the online business. Even the most wonderful Web site is useless if customers don’t know about it!
Before you begin, you should make an honest assessment of your company’s products and determine their salability on the Internet.

Should you go online?
Before you begin, you should make an honest assessment of your company’s products and determine their salability on the Internet. Some businesses are more "e-commerce ready" than others. For example, products sold through catalogs and other direct channels usually do well on the Web. Books, CDs and IT products (hardware and software) are well-established Internet staples, while services such as travel and online trading are also suitable to an online business.

Be aware of competitors on the Internet. Seeing them online can be a positive sign that your products and services are a good fit for e-commerce.

Think about customers’ buying habits as well. One important consideration is whether your target customers already purchase products and services online. Serving a tech savvy customer base is a good way to start.

Building the Web site
An e-commerce Web site can be as simple as an online product sheet with an e-mail link that says "e-mail for a price quotation".

A company can also create a professional-looking Web site quickly in four steps using programs such as Microsoft Office Publisher 2003.

When planning the layout and design, ensure that the proposed Web site is easy to navigate. The challenge is to make the Web site stand out, and this can be done by adding more information and detailed product specifications.

Keep it simple. A graphics heavy Web site could take a long time to download. A Web site must also be efficient. Check that every link works and test the site before it goes "live".

Furthermore, a company must be able to monitor and track the traffic going through its Web site. Software such as Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003 allows you to design your Web site and offers the capability of delivering usage analysis reports that show how many hits (visitors) a Web site gets on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Monitoring Web site traffic gives a company valuable marketing and customer information.

Counting the cost
Software such as Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 Premium Edition includes Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003 which you can use to design your Web site. It also offers the capability to host a Web site with the built-in Internet Information Server (Web Server), and also allows you to capture, manage and store transactions and data by utilizing the SQL Server 2000 component. Alternatively, a company can have its site hosted by an Internet service provider (ISP). Some ISPs offer around 20MB of free Web space.

Signing up a domain name (name that identifies the location of a Web site on the Internet) is very affordable. It could cost a company as little as US$36 for an initial two years. Prices vary, so shop around. Recent rule changes also mean that a company can now register a domain name for 10 years.

Commit to your Web site
As with any new distribution channel, a company needs to commit resources to e-commerce in order to provide the appropriate levels of service and support.

A company doing business on the Internet needs to handle sales coming over the Web, as well as tasks associated with keeping its site operating smoothly. These include: managing outgoing customer communications, handling customer inquiries, updating site inventory, arranging shipping logistics, conducting regular site maintenance, and establishing and maintaining the site's security.

Once an online presence is developed, it is important to market and publicize the Web site. Put the site address in all marketing and communications materials being used by the company. Drive traffic to the Web site by offering incentives for logging on or registering.

People visiting a Web site are often ready to buy. Therefore, the site must be interesting, attractive and relevant. It has to load quickly, be simple to navigate, offer a good selection of payment options, and provide a first class shopping basket.

A company should make its Web site a key business and communications tool. It will take key management commitment to build and maintain a site, but in the long run, reaching out to and building relationships with new and established customers will make the effort worthwhile. Having a Web site allows new customers to find and reach you, simplifies processes, speeds up transactions, improves your cash flow, and creates sales opportunities with relatively low investment.

Julia Phillpot is the manager for small business at Microsoft Asia Pacific.

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