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    Linking the Internet to Your Marketing Strategy


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 1/1999

    To reach global markets through Internet, businesses need to adopt a sound business strategy, coupled with flexibility to question traditional practices. This is the real challenge for businesses using the Internet, no matter where they are located.

    Many entrepreneurs and trade support institutions in developing countries understand the opportunities of Internet, but face day-to-day limitations in expanding their business. Yet even with slow Internet access, it is perfectly feasible to be present on the Net with a small investment, such as a US$ 50 modem (9.8 kilobytes), an analog telephone line and a 486 (old) personal computer. Even poor telecommunication lines can be overcome by direct satellite communication at very reasonable cost. But once the Internet is installed, what should you do?

    Professional presence, not Internet tourism

    During business information training seminars, sessions with business executives and trade promotion officers and "cybercafés" linked to international conferences, ITC has found repeatedly that non-specialist managers confuse home and business use of the Internet. "Surfing" the Net is the approach of a tourist, especially when one has not organized "bookmarks" or does not make good use of search engines. To attract visitors and create regular Internet contacts, one needs to analyze strengths and opportunities and communicate them effectively on the web, both for business partners and clients. This implies a professional approach.

    A business plan will help determine the total cost of getting a professional presence on Internet, including the technical, financial and personnel resources required. One also needs to select a good Internet Service Provider. Their number is growing rapidly, enabling even the most remote areas of Laos or Zimbabwe to have full Internet connections (see pages 23 and 29 for tips about Internet Service Providers).

    Once entrepreneurs are connected, they may fear that a lack of technology will keep them from creating their own web page, or effectively retrieving information. This is not true: many technical and management tools are freely accessible on the Internet, including free operating systems (LINUX) and server languages (APACHE).

    Successful marketing

    Most important, however, is to have a competitive product or service to promote. One must also be ready to build a relevant, global trade promotion strategy adapted to this new communication medium. The key is to construct a sound, well-designed and well-marketed site. The site should project a good image of the organization, and encourage trust between partners. Building an Internet presence is part of an overall business strategy, not a one-time exercise of getting a consultant to design a set of web pages.

    In other words, the basic "4Ps" marketing rule of success applies to the Internet. The Product (or service) must be competitive in quality and originality, with proper protection against piracy. The Price must be competitive. Promotion translates as good visibility on Internet, inspired by other good sites, with effective promotion on search engines, using advertising banners. Place: for goods, one needs a parallel delivery system through freight forwarders and express mail services; for services, one needs to have secure downloading processes.

    Looking ahead

    Internet traffic is roughly doubling every year. Companies which haven't yet used the Internet should consider investing now. One should keep in mind that when using the Internet, as with any other medium, nothing replaces a professional approach to grow a business. Reliability, trust and continuity are not Internet issues. The communication medium has changed, making distance between people and culture closer than ever, and setting new rules for the game, but the rules don't change people's needs.

    Developing countries have a comparative advantage, as they are not bound by existing rules. ITC recently met with national handicraft representatives at a local rural development project in a least developed country. Although the representatives expressed concern over social and economic barriers, and needed simple tools to build web sites and promotion channels, they unanimously said: "When can we start?"

    Michel Borgeon is ITC's Senior Trade Information Officer. E-mail: borgeon@intracen.org

    Promoting Handicrafts

    ITC's Virtual Exhibition Centre for Artisanal Products (www.artisanet.org) began in 1996 as a way to test how small and medium-sized firms in the handicraft sector could promote their products. Working with UNESCO and the International Centre for the Promotion of Crafts, ITC developed a site that allowed 200 companies or cooperatives in 30 countries to exhibit their products. Growing requests for information led ITC to open an "Artisanet Discussion Forum", where business partners exchange messages that go beyond providing a providing a product catalogue.

    Some results of the site: straw hats produced by a rural cooperatives network in Ecuador found new buyers in North America and model boat exporters from Mauritius improved their sales (one company said there was a 20% jump in one year). Recently, a US wholesale buyer asked for the complete list of artisans on the site, in order to undertake a market survey of suppliers.

    DOs and DON'Ts

    Lessons learned from ITC's experience in developing this web site may be useful to companies and trade support institutions.

    • DO feature new products regularly. It encourages repeat visits.

    • DO invite feedback, and follow-up with those who contact the site by e-mail.

    • DO select your products to speak culturally to your target markets.

    • DO build an easy navigation system on your web pages.

    • DO present your web shop with the best possible attractive and professional look.

    • DON'T be afraid to show that you are small. It can actually encourage attention.

    • DON'T rely on "one-shot" outside expertise to build your site.

    Developing and Marketing a Local Site

    "We are already in a position to develop our own sites which showcase our products," says Pierre Genillon, a founder of AfricaDev, a regional mega-site promoting African music, theatre and dance.

    "Our marketing strategy is targeted to cultural events producers in developed countries. We have compiled links to theatre and dance troupes by country, and are marketing a collection of CDs of African music. (One lesson we have learned is not to post the music directly, because piracy is an issue.)

    We feel our strategy is beginning to bear fruit, takes advantage of the Internet as it exists today, and positions us well as the Internet continues to develop."