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Internet Practices

Demystifying the Web Frenzy

By David Swanson

Demystifying the Web FrenzyFOR LAWYERS counseling companies large and small, it's essential to understand the elements that can make or break your clients' online efforts. Just having a catchy company name and a live Web site isn't enough to survive in today's marketplace.

Here are seven issues that companies sometimes fail to consider in today's "Get on the Web A.S.A.P." frenzy.

1. Globalization

The Internet spans city, state and country lines. Unless your client is targeting an audience only in a single country, considerations must be made for other cultures and norms. When building a Web venue, develop a site for each targeted culture. Hire translators from that country.

Plan carefully. In addition to cultural differences, be sure to account for technical limitations, such as bandwidth, for your audience. Have one central coordinating group from a single location to oversee the development of all of your Web sites.

2. Convergence

Did you ever think the day would come where there was little difference between the stereo and computer, or the cell phone and the browser? It's here, and some companies are having a difficult time positioning themselves to take advantage of these changes.

Advice? Follow open-ended standards by sticking with mainstream technology. A significant amount of the development work is being done around these standards, and when things evolve or change, your client's transitions will be less painful.

3. E-Commerce

The World Wide Web is one of the greatest research tools ever, because it makes comparison-shopping effortless. Online sites allow users to accomplish in hours what would take weeks of storefront shopping. However, it's unlikely that physical stores and malls will disappear, because people like to see, touch and feel.

Your Web site should complement your store front ­ not be a substitute for it. Don't rely on your Web site as your company's only revenue agent.

The Web is an anonymous experience, usually absent of human interaction. Provide as much information for the consumer as possible. Your site must answer all potential customer questions, creating a satisfying experience.

Don't fret about competition. When a company is the first dot-com of its kind, it may see its first competitor after about two months; and after four months, they may see competitors three and four and five.

It helps being first, but customer data is the biggest weapon that you can have -- because your best customers are your current customers. Build a database to store customer information, and their buying patterns. This will provide a data-mining tool for sales campaigns to target specific demographics.

4. Technology

Technology is the last thing to think about when starting a company. Too often, companies substitute a flashy Web site for a solid business plan. Your client's first step should be to create that business plan, and determine business processes and structure.

This is not to say that technology is unimportant -- but technology must be mapped to your company's goals and direction. Once your clients have these basics, then technology can enter the game. And company leaders must develop technical understanding, the sooner, the better. Stepping into this industry has been described as trying to board a train moving at 200 m.p.h.

5. Legal Issues

Each country has its own set of rules and regulations, and due to the nature of the Internet, lines will be crossed. However, there is a fine line between helpful and harmful legislation, because threats to innovation can stifle evolution. Lawmakers are conscious of this, knowing that the existing laws need to be amended.

As a representative of your clients, tread carefully because this is a fast changing environment. Sudden changes in laws can put your clients at risk. Stay informed. Consider hiring outside "specialty" counsel to complement your legal services to your client, and to advise you on cutting-edge Internet issues.

6. Distribution

With the advent of the Internet, some companies are changing distribution models, from relying on third parties to operating autonomously. In effect, this cuts out the "middleman" who historically has provided value and customer support. Make sure that your Internet efforts are synchronized with your distribution model and know your limits. Create a pilot program for distribution. A successful example of this is WebVan, an online grocer company that delivers to homes. The company inaugurated its service first in the San Francisco area, starting with one city and selecting an Web-savvy community.

7. Liabilities and Accountabilities

Be careful with the quality and content of your Web site.

Companies sometimes resist going online, fearful of giving away good ideas. However, your company's Web site designers hold the key to what you place on the Web site. You can be as general -- or as specific, as you choose. It need not be an "all or nothing" approach.

One other concern with Web sites is that they are, in essence, a reflection of the company. If a company creates a fabulous Web experience, this can help a company grow. But a poor site can wreck the company's image.

David Swanson is technology specialist with Microsoft Corp., based in Foster City, Calif. Adapted from How the Web Was Won, by Microsoft Corporation. Reproduced with permission of Microsoft Press. All rights reserved.

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