MUMBAI (December 11): One of the better kept secrets of the Indian corporate world: more than 100 of them are on the Web. With little publicity surrounding the presence of most Indian companies on the Web, it is little surprise that only a handful of these sites attract a reasonable level of traffic. The first steps taken by Indian companies on the Net have been slow, and silent. This is bound to change in the next year as the domestic audience on the Net grows, and the Internet emerges as a more mainstream medium.
There are three types of web sites: those on the Internet, directed at marketing, external communications and down the line, electronic commerce; those on the Intranets, aimed at the audience within the organisation; and those on Extranets, which seek to connect an organisation with its suppliers and customers. The first category is the most common, but real business applications start happening with Extranets.
A 7-point checklist for setting up Web sites is presented here. Ensure that when you think about creating web sites, you give it as much importance as you would to setting up a new office or a new business. Creating a successful online presence is as challenging as making sure that a business is profitable, and equally important.
You need to clearly identify the objectives of the web presence. Some questions you need to answer: who is the target audience, what products and services are you going to offer the visitors, can you sell to the visitors, which departments will be involved in setting up the web site, who is going to handle the responses that come in, what is the update plan. Too many companies get into creating the web site just because it seems a good idea, or because “everyone else seems to be doing it”. That will not go far on the web.
Some tips: get an Internet TCP/IP connection and spend time browsing on the web before you decide, have the Marketing and Corporate Communications (and not Engineering and Finance) handle the project — the web site is not a technology statement, remember that the main audience as of now is outside India, get top management involved in the process, and look for a 6-12 month timeframe for returns.
You need to identify an Internet Services Provider as a partner in your Web project. The Internet site is likely to be hosted from the US: hosting from India is not yet economical, but this is likely to change soon. Anyway, on the Internet, geography is irrelevant. Examine carefully the capabilities of the ISP from the point of view of the computers and communications resources that it has, the level of support it will be able to provide you in the exercise, and the understanding that it has of the Net and how it can help your business.
It is a good idea to get your domain registered: if the site is hosted from abroad, you will get a .com domain; if it is hosted from India, you will get a .co.in domain (this is for commercial organisations). The .com domains are registered with InterNIC (check http://www.internic.net). Ensure that the domain is in your name. Internic charges USD 100 for the first two years, and USD 50 each year thereafter. You can register the domain yourself — it is an entirely automated process. The .co.in domains are currently provided by NCST (you can apply through VSNL for these). There are two requirements: that you have a company in the name that you are applying for, and that you have a server in India. There is no charge as of now for domain registration in India.
Content is king on the web. It is the primary reason people will keep visiting your site. The goal is to get the visitor to “bookmark” you site so that he keeps coming back — the challenge lies in not just getting the first visit, but ensuring that a person comes back for the second time. And the third time.
Tips: Do not take content straight out of the corporate brochure: the Net is an interactive medium, and this should be made use of. Present a mix of text and multimedia (images, animation, audio, video — depending upon the objectives of the site). Have a “What’s New” section so that a regular visitor can easily identify what has changed since the last visit. Look at having a section which talks about the industry your company is involved in: it helps broaden the profile of the visitors and can serve as a good attractor. Think about conducting occasional Question-and-Answer sessions with top management on the Web. Be careful about offering hyperlinks to other web sites: you do not want to lead a person out of your electronic shop!
Your site needs to be attractive. It is important to understand the limitations of the Web as a publishing medium, besides knowing its strengths. You do not have the same control over the way information is displayed as you have over the print medium. A reader can change the size of the browser window and even the font, thus dramatically altering the look of the page.
There is a trade-off between visual grandeur and the downloading time: as a rough thumbrule, on a 14.4 Kbps dial-up link (the slowest possible link for most people), about 60 KB can be downloaded in a minute. Use multimedia judiciously: audio and video will take a fair amount of time to download, and not everyone will have the patience. Either way, mention the file type and size for audio and video files so that the user can gauge the download time. For images, by using the HEIGHT and WIDTH tags in the HTML source, you can ensure that the page is streamed (the text comes up rapidly, so that the visitor has something to read while the images show up). Interactive forms should be used to present information dynamically.
There are a number of design packages which can assist in the creation of HTML pages: Adobe’s PageMill, Softquad’s HoTMetaL Pro, Netscape’s Navigator Gold and Microsoft’s FrontPage are among the best.
A very small percentage of sites on the Web are updated regularly. This is ironical considering the ease of the update process. The problem in most cases is that there is no update plan which has been thought out. You need to ensure that there is a reason for people to come back into your shop: they will not necessarily do business with you the first time they come in. Also, you do not see the visitors as they come in, but for them, your site is a mirror of your organisation. Prepare an update plan before you launch the site.
Aim for adding something new to your web site on daily. Some examples of the periodic updates that can be done: press releases, stock prices, company news, press clippings about your company, an industry-specific newsletter, industry reports and surveys, speeches, financials, commodity prices. Think about building an email-list of the visitors: ask them to give their email address, so that you can send out a periodic email informing them about the changes on the web site, and keeping them posted about the new developments in your company.
The Net is emerging as a critical medium for business. The Web is not just a one-way broadcast medium: its interactive nature means that is the only medium which supports the complete transaction cycle. Transactions on the Web are more secure than most other media. In India, the absence of electronic payment systems means you still cannot pay by credit card over the web. This will, hopefully, change in the next few months. Many companies are also working on digital cash systems to support microtransactions.
Think about moving bytes rather than atoms. If you do need to sell atoms, the courier company will serve as your distributor for the global market. Best-sellers on the Web in the US include books (check Amazon books at http://www.amazon.com, for an excellent example of how a community has been built), music CDs, airline tickets, and computer products. Business on the Web is expected to grow to USD 6.6 billion by the year 2000, from about USD 500 million in 1996. The future of the Web lies in electronic commerce: the content is an attractor, but money is made only when transactions are done.
Do not launch an incomplete site. Do not put a “Site under construction” page. If the site is not ready, it should not be accessible to anyone. When you are ready for launching it, make sure you publicise it well: send out press releases in India and internationally, let all your staff and clients know that you are now on the Web, advertise your site on the web and off the web (business cards, letterheads, brochures, print/TV ads). Go ahead and get the free listings in the various electronic directories and search engines. Also browse other sites and encourage potential business partners to visit your web site. Look at spending an equivalent amount of what you have spent on the site creation on advertising on the Web in the first 6 months: if you can ensure that the content and design can pull in the repeat traffic, you will probably not need to spend a lot after that. Also, ensure that you keep track of the access statistics so that you know the impact of the specific promotions that you do.