Web Sm@rt – from Business week.

Here’s a link to a great article from Business Week.

Web Sm@rt

The hype may be long over, but for many entrepreneurs, excitement about the Internet — and the possibilities it holds for their businesses — is just beginning.

Some 58% of companies with fewer than 100 employees have a Web site, according to IDC, the Framingham (Mass.) researcher. But that’s not where the action is. Instead, entrepreneurs are discovering how much is to be gained by creatively using, and investing in, Web technology.

Lisa Kirschner started winning international clients for her Schaumburg (Ill.) graphic design firm, Flair Creative Services, after she began using Web conferencing. Anthony Sandberg saw revenues at his OCSC Sailing School in Berkeley, Calif., jump after he posted streaming video and an interactive nautical lesson on the school’s Web site. Arthur Phaneuf, owner of the New Hampshire Cremation Society in Manchester, found that selling cremations online is not so crazy after all.

These businesses have succeeded with what Peter DePietro, a professor of interactive communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., refers to as a “hyper-niche” Internet strategy. Rather than use the Net to try to become all things to all people, these entrepreneurs are taking what they do best and optimizing it via the Web.

Of course, this works only if you know what makes your customers tick. Kirschner knew her clients wanted to brainstorm with her, no matter where she was. Sandberg thought that video of a yacht under sail would get Web surfers onto the water. Phaneuf realized that some customers would prefer to deal with their mortality, or that of a loved one, in their own homes rather than in his office.

Embracing a one-of-a-kind Web strategy sometimes means that off-the-shelf hardware and software won’t cut it. Robert Tuchman, founder of TSE Sports & Entertainment, a sports marketing company that runs employee incentive programs, had to build his own systems and buy his own servers so that his company could create customized Web sites for its clients. The initial payout for hardware, software, and labor totaled about $65,000. But the return on that investment has been more than fifteenfold over three years — suggesting that TSE’s best days, and those of Internet enthusiasts, may still lie ahead.

About Blogging

Allison Gower was already running two companies, one a promotional packaging outfit and the other an advertising startup called qtags. So she had plenty of doubts when she sat down last spring with consultant and qtags investor John Wagner to ask if it made sense to add one more job — chief blogger — to her long list of duties.

blogger himself, Wagner said yes. The logic was clear. While many traditional businesses can afford to take a wait-and-see attitude toward blogs, it’s a different story for buzz-hungry startups in technology and marketing. The universe of self-published Web logs is the most active and fastest-growing part of the Net. The blogosphere brims with contacts, potential customers, and fresh ideas. Done right, blogging is like setting up a booth in the biggest trade show on earth — every single day. Qtags couldn’t sit it out. In April, Gower dutifully opened an account at blogging service Typepad.com (wordpress.org is another), and joined the rush of entrepreneurs into blogs.

Gower was well aware of the risks. It’s no secret that one easy way to win attention online is to post something foolish or embarrassing on a blog, or to have things go horribly wrong. Suddenly, as other bloggers gleefully link to your postings, your flop or faux-pas takes a high-profile tour of the world. Paul Purdue, the blogging chief executive of iFulfill.com, a mail-order fulfillment company in Maumee, Ohio, gained a mass audience for his blog only when his company was in its death throes in late July. The result? Blog readers saw scores of angry comments from frustrated customers.

Before starting a blog, business owners should set out guidelines to keep the blogs free of trade secrets, inside information, or libel. You should also monitor comments posted by others on the blog to make sure it stays free of spam, libel, and even porn.

Blogs are so new that liability in many of these areas has yet to be tested, but consultants urge caution. “Employees and executives who aren’t attorneys just don’t realize how they’re putting themselves at risk,” says Joshua Estrin, president of Concepts in Success, a consultancy in Plantation, Fla. Before beginning, it’s not a bad idea to get an expert to lay out the risks particular to your business. One place to start is with the non-profit group Pro-bloggers, at www.probloggers.org.

It’s easy for beginners to tune into the bloggers’ world safely, though. The easiest first step is to call up a blog search engine, such as Technorati.com, and type in the name of your company or product. There you can see which blogs are talking about your company and what they’re saying.

Gower took a cautious approach. In the early months, she laid low, getting a feel for blogs in qtags’ corner of the market, the intersection between mobile telephony and advertising. She posted a few items, but barely linked to other blogs. That made it tougher for other bloggers, using search engines or direct feeds, to see Gower, who was still learning the lingo and mores of the blog world. “We thought that until we got comfortable with it, we’d keep it close-knit,” she says.

In July she picked up the pace. She’s linking to other blogs. A few link to her. And her work is starting to pay off. The vague assurances she sometimes gets when calling an advertiser or an agency for a meeting often turn into solid appointments after the would-be client visits her blog. “We can see who’s Googling us, and we can see how they get there,” she says.

Perhaps equally important is what Gower is learning. Participating in the blog world pushes her to read other blogs. “I know now that I need to learn,” she says. “It’s opened me up to the world.” That might be the biggest payback for all her extra work.

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