Home Advisor X E-Business Never Was: Why Relationship Marketing Rules on the Web

E-Business Never Was: Why Relationship Marketing Rules on the Web

By Ian Lurie, Portent Interactive
Remember when having the word ‘E-Business’ in your mission statement meant Aeron chairs for everyone? Now, people say ‘E-Business is dead.’

Try this on for size: E-Business never existed. There’s only business. You know, where you provide a service, or a product, and try to make more money than you spend? Like the “New Economy”, E-Business was a trendy fiction created to generate hype and lure investment.

The truth is that business hasn’t changed. The way to sell yourself, on the web or off of it, is Relationship Marketing.

Relationship Marketing means keeping in touch with potential and existing customers and clients by providing useful information, thereby increasing the chance that they’ll buy from you again later. You provide value and maintain customer awareness at the same time. It’s one of the most established ways to market, and it’s the most reliable by far.

And next to a firm handshake, the Internet is the most powerful relationship marketing tool you’ll find. With a very small investment, you can interact with potential customers through a web site, e-mail or e-commerce, and build a continuing relationship with them.

How? With the Big Three:

• A web site
• E-Mail
• E-commerce

A Web Site
Sometimes the oldest method is the best. Even without any interactive features, a simple web site that delivers timely, useful content to your customers can do a lot to build a relationship with your customers. Add something as simple as an e-mail link and newsletter signup, and you provide the means for a direct conversation with your customers, with no fancy gadgets.

Just look out for the cheese factor – if you build a standard site, keep it professional, cleanly designed and fast-loading. And keep your site up to date.

And measure results – even the cheapest hosting package will provide you with basic web site traffic statistics. Those stats are a gold mine of information about what peaks your audience’s interest.

You can build a standard site for anything from a few hundred dollars to great gobs of cash. Just remember to keep your expectations within your budget – if you have $1000, keep your site simple and elegant, and you’ll get a lot more response from customers than if you overextend and go for more features at cut-rate prices.

E-mail gets a bad rap these days, mostly because ‘spammers’ flood our mailboxes with deceptive junk. But used right, e-mail is an incredibly effective tool that your customers will look forward to receiving.

A regular e-mail newsletter or other message is even cheaper to manage than a web site. It lets you bring customers back to your web site or your store with timely information that’s ‘pushed’ to them – if you have a big announcement, e-mail means you don’t have to wait for someone to happen by your web site to see the news.

If you deal with your customers on a daily basis, just ask them if they’d like to receive an e-mail newsletter regularly. If you have a web site, let them sign up there. As long as you’re honest, verify that they really want to receive the newsletter, and provide an easy way to ‘opt out’, you won’t offend anyone.

And keep your messages simple and short – no more than a few paragraphs.

E-commerce means a lot of things: Selling products to retail consumers, selling to distributors, or auctioning off overstock items are all forms of online commerce. You can process credit cards in real-time and ship automatically, ala Amazon.com, or accept orders manually, verify credit cards by hand and ship one-at-a-time. Regardless, e-commerce can help you sell when your customers are far away, your product is unusual, or you just want to provide another purchasing option.

Done right, e-commerce can make selling cheaper, make life easier for your customers, and help you sell more. Done wrong, it can suck the money out of your company faster than a black hole, make your distributors angry, and have your customers calling at three AM.

How do you do it right? First, don’t just jump into it. E-commerce is not software you install. It’s a business process that requires a good web site and database back end, founded on a solid strategy. It should always be the last thing you do, after a standard web site and e-mail.

When you’re planning, make sure that you’ve considered:

* Your customers: Will they really buy online?
* Projected volume: If you’re not going to move thousands of units a month, a simple e-commerce system will do fine. If you’re going to be the Walmart of online sales, get ready to spend some serious cash on consulting and software.
* Your distributors: If you’re a manufacturer, remember that an online store makes your retailers feel like they’re about to be squashed. Set up your online store to help them – sell products your retailers don’t carry, or let retailers link to your store and give them a percentage. No matter what anyone says, there will always be more people who buy in person than online – retailers are your bread and butter.

Don’t forget the purpose of your site, either: You’re still trying to build a relationship. If you sell products online, that’s great, but be sure that you give customers something more. If you’re whole sales strategy focuses on selling to every customer who happens by your site the first time they see it, you’ll fail.

Finally, if you don’t have your own web programmers, don’t do it alone. E-commerce is very complex, and requires careful attention to programming, security and strategy – if the only person you can afford to pay is your cousin’s brother’s friend’s son, you’re better off waiting a while. That being said, you can set up an online store for as little as $2500, so e-commerce is never out of reach.

Repeat After Me
E-Business isn’t dead. It never existed. If you refocus your Internet efforts on building relationships with your audience, you’ll find that the Internet is a great investment.

Ian Lurie sits wistfully at his desk, waiting for your questions. If you want to discuss this article, or any other Internet-related topics, you can e-mail him at ian@Portentinteractive.com. Or, click here to talk to him in his discussion forum.

Who is Ian Lurie?

In 1995, Ian Lurie started Portent Interactive as a full-service web consultancy, aimed at helping companies build customer relationships using the Internet. With over 7 years experience as an Internet consultant, developer and designer, Ian works with Portent Interactive clients to help them develop the best strategies for their organizations. He holds a law degree from the University of California at Los Angeles. Portent is now 9 people and growing, with clients across the US, and in Italy, France and Canada.

If you want to receive his missives on a regular basis, go to www.portentinteractive.com and sign up for Portent’s e-mail newsletter