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BUSINESS Internet Destination: Unknown

Everyone’s rushing to that Klondike in cyberspace. Before your company commits to the Internet, be sure you know where you’re going and why.
By DOUGLAS TOUSSAINT |

The Internet was the biggest story of 1995. So far, it’s the neatest, shiniest, tallest tale of the ’90s, period. The consensus in the media-from Newsweek to The Dallas Morning News-is clear, If you’re not on the Net, you’re dog food.

Every business in town seems to be feeling the Net pressure. From industry giants like JCPenney and American Airlines to small firms like Museum Arts (a cutting-edge interactive museum design firm), hordes of companies have either jumped onto the Net or are headed that way. Jason Kidd of Key Financial Ltd. snorts, “Everybody I calk to is yelling, ’I’m getting on the Net! Aren’t you on the Net? Gotta get on the Net! Why aren’t you on the Net?’ It’s a stampede, and I keep asking ’what’s it got to do with me?’ “

Eric Lenington, head of Intelemedia, a Dallas-based communications company, remarks, “I’ve never really seen a situation like this, where seasoned executives come to me and say, ’Put me on the Net!’ and I ask, ’Why. what’s your goal?’ and they reply, ’To be on the Net ! ’ It’s a little crazy, “

With research almost utterly lacking, the advantages and disadvantages of being on the Net are largely unknown at this point. No matter. The Internet is this decade’s bandwagon phenomenon, and climbing aboard as it passes is the whole point. Ordinary goals of business-like making money-often seem to be forgotten. Sometimes cagey executives realize this, and lower their expectations accordingly. Hank Sword, electronic publishing manager for retailing giant Pier 1 Imports, says, “The message came down from on high to just get something out there, that we needed a Net presence. But thankfully we didn’t have upper management screaming at us to start increasing sales dramatically through the Net. Because in this business, we just can’t do that yet-nobody really knows how.”

That thought is echoed by Lisa Dawson, agency director tor the famed Kim Dawson modeling agency. “People come up to me practically every day, asking me to get us onto the Net. But, I’m sorry, in our business there just isn’t good reason for it yet. The fashion business is a print media business-people want headbooks (of photographs) to look at, to carry with them, to flip open and scan instantly. They won’t want a promotional tool locked up in a computer that they have to access and download. “

Why be Netside, after all ? What’s the goal ? Does the Joe Boxer Company-cheery underwear-peddlers to Neiman’s and Stanley Korshak-have hard data on the viability of Net-shown knickers? Does locally advertised Datemaker Voice Personals have solid market research listing sizable online demand for non-smoking SWF who likes long walks in the rain? Polite inquiries suggest the companies don’t know yet if they’re generating any business or just blowing bucks online, but they certainly don’t want to miss out on anything hot.

“It’s all happening so fast!” a local merchandiser whined off the record. “We don’t want the future to pass us by…I know the future isn’t here, but I still don’t want to be left behind!”

Facing reality like a good marketer, the question for any sensible business professional has to be: What is the practical good of this thing called the Net-right here, right now? Why do we have to be tangled up in it immediately, before midnight tonight?

What’s the big rush?

The numbers do look tempting. The host figure of Internet-worked computers has risen from about 200 in 1981 to somewhere between 3.2 million and 5,000 million computers today, depending on who you read and believe. Any businessperson with something to sell might look with desire on all those warm bodies peering at their screens.

But, at least for now, the companies making large cash from the Net are Net-related firms themselves, from big access servers such as CompuServe to the “hot link” advertising services like Webcrawler. Net pressure oozes from these companies, who have much to gain as they crouch atop the Net. America Online, another popular access service, seeds text like this into its welcoming message: “From small, one-person, entrepreneurial efforts to the largest of corporations, more and more professional people are discovering that the only way to be successful in the ’90s and beyond is to realize that technology is advancing at a breakneck pace, and they must somehow keep up! “

But not so fast, AOL. Reading on in the very same document we find this: “You have at your fingertips the ability to talk in ’real time’ with someone in Japan” (of course it’s 2 a.m. tomorrow there), “send a 2,000-word short story to a group of people who will critique it for sheer pleasure” (yikes!),and “see if a Macintosh sitting in a lab in Canada is turned on…all inside of 30 minutes.”

Dallas computer software designer and consultant Todd Hinton says that the majority of surfers on the Web today are apt to hit on a web site and leave nothing behind-a “drive-by” in computer parlance, Drive-bys gain businesses no business and no exchange of information. They leave nothing except the vague hope that some surfer will remember a brand name next time he’s in the mall.

“We talk to business people every day who’ve spent thousands to create an Internet presence, only to be disappointed,” says consultant Lenington. “Most businesses have been led to believe that the Net is a superhighway and their web site a lighted billboard on that highway. But the Internet is really a long, dark tunnel, and a web site is a cave off that tunnel. If someone doesn’t already want to get to your cave and know how to find it-or if you don’t know how to help them do so-then they’re probably going to miss you in the dark.”



What’s the real key to success on the Net? Don’t rush in. Don’t look for panaceas in the ether. Those old B-school admonitions about a well-crafted marketing strategy haven’t been deleted. Nor has the oldest question in the annals of business: Who wants what we’re selling? Joe Crawley, senior administrator of online services for AMR (parent corporation of American Airlines and its related companies), admits that without the company’s built-in audience-millions of American Advantage frequent flyers-the expense involved in setting up AMR’s elaborate 450-page web site (supported by 15 employees) would be hard to justify. “We’re lucky to have our audience in hand first, and be able to communicate our presence on the Net directly to them through the mail and regular advertising,” Crawley says. “Because of that, we’re successfully communicating the information we want to on the Net to the people who really care.”

Once you’re sure that your plan-and your audience-require the Net, the next steps will be dictated by your size. If you’re in the weight class of AMR and JCPenney, you may want to design and operate your Net presence in-house. But if a firm doesn’t have the extra staff hours or expertise available internally, help is available from local firms like Dallas Internet or Onramp Technologies, which can provide everything from fully integrated, graphically designed web sites to a simple e-mail address. There are even shortcuts: For example, if a firm wants to seem like a Dallas player without investing in a full-fledged independent site, for a thousand bucks it can have a provider like Dallas Internet do a ’domain hack.’ This supplies the company with an address just like a World Wide Web domain site--without a service or provider’s name parked in front. Surfers (and competitors) will be impressed, and nobody has to mortgage the farm.

Remember, it’s okay to go slowly. In the future, the Net will become a safe and profitable place for merchandise and money to flow around the world like so much milk and honey. But at least for the next decade or so the real value of the Net will be for the exchange of information, For example, Lenington says that small and medium-sized businesses can use the Net as a large, cheap, semi-private data network without the expense of setting up a big, internal computer network, like the one EDS uses.

“They can use the Internet as a transport mechanism-kind of an ’Intranet’-for their internal communications without letting anybody really know they’re there,” he says. “It’s perfect for exchanging secure data.” At American Airlines, they’re now posting frequent flyer mileage, flight schedules, and fare information on the Net. “Eventually, when we can get to a form of ticketless booking in the future, we’ll have it so travelers can choose their flights and just show up and step on board without needing to do anything but check their luggage,” says Crawley.

But the future is not now-not just yet. So, don’t feel like you have to drop everything and rush off to that Klondike in cyberspace. Take it from Bill Gates, in his new book The Road Ahead. He should know:

“Today’s Internet is not the information highway I imagine, although you can think of it as the beginning. An analogy is the Oregon Trail…300,000 hardy souls rode the wagon trains west to find their fortunes…and more than 20,000 succumbed to marauders, cholera, starvation, and exposure.”

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