A lot of businesses are setting up shop on the World Wide Web, but many critics find the majority of sites ineffective in tapping the commercial potential of the Web.
Webmasters should worry less about the technology of the Web and concentrate on giving surfers reasons to buy and reasons to return to a site, observers say.
"It takes less than two hands now to count the really great business Web sites," says Stan Goldberg, director of software strategy service at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And yet Goldberg says he is "very keen on the Internet as a business medium". The emphasis lately has been on quality graphic design, animation and streaming audio and video not on sales.
"People using the Web don't give a damn about technology. They care about value and solutions," says Phillippe Bouissou, director of Internet commerce and services at Apple Computer, at a recent Interactive Multimedia Association Expo.
How does a business create a Web site useful to customers? The key to a good site -- such as Federal Express (http://www.fedex.com) and Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com) sites -- is to recognise the customer's need for a satisfying visit to the site, says Rick Smolan, a photojournalist who recently created 24 Hours in Cyberspace, a book and CD-ROM that include generous examples of business uses of the Web.
"Smart companies are figuring out that the Web changes the whole relationship with customers," Smolan says. "Audiences want to know what your product will do for them."
Amazon, for example, offers information about 1 million book titles and lets users order any of them by electronic mail at a discount. Users can register a preference for an author or topic, and they will be notified by email when a relevant new title arrives.
The FedEx site helps users fill out and print a shipping tag and request pickup automatically.
It isn't enough to post a catalogue or a Web discussion forum, Goldberg says. When somebody registers at your site, you need to send an acknowledgement to show that you're listening and perhaps follow up with a notification of a new product in which they would be interested.
A company also has to answer email promptly. "The beauty of the Web is that it's interactive, and if you're not going to interact, it won't be effective," Goldberg says. Most companies have ignored that opportunity. A recent study by Matrixx Marketing in Cincinnati shows that nearly half of 100 Fortune 500 companies with Web sites polled by Matrixx had no email response capability. Of those 100, only 17 responded to an email inquiry.
One way of giving something to Web customers borrows from the newspaper world.
City Sports (http://www.citysports.com), a sporting goods chain in Boston, has drummed up business by posting coupons on its site that Web visitors can print out and bring to its stores to save on athletic gear purchases. Shayne Gilbert, president of Silverweave in Boston, which created City Sports' Web page, says the coupons bring in regular business. "It amazes me that every retailer is not doing it," he says.