There's a right way and a wrong way to hype your wares on-line. Book publisher RIS has developed an effective cyberspace appeal

Visions of a world of customers waiting behind the keyboard tempt many small businesses to try on-line marketing. But logging on to send colorful direct-mail messages and advertising copy won't impress anybody. Your prospects are likely to reply with "flaming" hate mail and then tell all their friends how rude your company is.

Russian Information Services (RIS), a publisher and distributor of books about traveling in Russia, has figured out the right approach. The $1-million company began using CompuServe last July, and in six it months earned $2,000 in sales directly -- an average sale is two or three books at around $20 apiece -- by working leads on the on-line service's Travel and International Trade forums. And it added more than 100 highly qualified names to its 48,000-name mailing list. RIS's CompuServe costs are tiny -- less than 1% of its marketing budget.

On-line forums ("newsgroups" on the Internet, "message boards" on the commercial service America Online) are directories of electronic-mail "postings" that everyone can read. As people respond to one another's postings, they create "threads," or series of messages on certain topics. For example, one posting (think of it as a memo) may ask about renting cars in Italy. Answers may recommend rental services or scenic routes.

RIS founder Paul Richardson saw potential in those threads last year. The company had been using CompuServe as a backup E-mail system between its Montpelier, Vt., home office and its Moscow branch office. "At first I was interested in the business forums," Richardson says. But he learned he could pinpoint his market more successfully in CompuServe's Travel Forum -- and target customers on-line much more successfully than he could with direct mail.

Early on, Richardson made the mistake of posting an on-line catalog listing his books and their prices. But the Travel Forum's system operator, or sysop, pulled the message before anyone saw it. It was too much like an ad, the sysop said. Richardson had to remove the order form and list the publishers so people could contact them directly. His recommendation? "It's better to ask first, and the sysop will tell you what's allowed." On the Internet or America Online, lists of frequently asked questions, or FAQs, give guidelines about what's allowed and what's likely to get flamed.

RIS learned that in general, selling on-line is like working a cocktail party. You must suppress the urge to whip every conversation into a sales pitch. Instead, answer questions, chat people up, and hand out business cards if you must, but don't talk shop until someone else brings it up.

"People pay to be on-line," Richardson says. "They want to feel that they're getting information, not being solicited." Richardson focuses primarily on answering questions, slipping in an ad only if it fits the situation. "If there's value in your response, then recommending a useful resource is an easy transition."

That approach complements rather than replaces Richardson's direct-mail efforts. With direct mail, he's trying to get his customers just to open the envelope. With E-mail postings, he already knows his messages will get read. They build product awareness with an audience he wouldn't reach with direct mail.

Richardson checks the forums every day, spending about 15 minutes reading and replying to messages. His monthly bill runs about $100; two-thirds of that is the cost of daily E-mail between Montpelier and Moscow, so only a small fraction of the bill is a marketing expense.

Like many small-business owners, Richardson prefers mainstream on-line services to the Internet. His experience with the Net: "It's overrated. You've got to be pretty computer literate to navigate it." Although there are really no rules against marketing on the Internet, companies will find it will get even harsher reactions from users there.

You can view the Good Form as it appeared in Inc. magazine right on your computer. Goto Good Forms in Inc. Online's Virtual Consultant.

Sample Message:


Sb: Travel to Russia

From: John Doe

To: All

I am interested in information on the Kosmos Hotel, in Moscow. Specifics on safety, bathrooms, service, food, etc. will be appreciated. I leave next month.


Sb: Travel to Russia

From: Paul E. Richardson, 71740,1473

To: John Doe

I lived in the Kosmos for 9 months, back in 1989-90, and not much has changed since then, except that the food is worse, the service is surlier, and it has gone private. Widely known as a major Mafia and prostitute hangout, it is seedy but mainly clean and safe if you are discreet. A bit far out (20 minutes-plus metro ride to the Kremlin, after the ride down the deep escalators).

For further preparation, you might want to pick up a copy of our Russia Survival Guide: Business and Travel (5th ed). To order call 555-5555.

Paul Richardson

RIS Publications

Montpelier, VT

Paul Richardson describes the dos and don'ts of selling in cyberspace . . .

Check in frequently.
I don't let these things sit there. I'm on-line every day, so I turn messages around in 24 hours. If a week or so goes by without a reply, the person who posted the message will figure nobody can help, or will even forget about it. E-mail is a quick-response thing; you really need to get back to people in a day or two.

Put up the right billboard.
Since some people search these postings by key word, I keep the subject fairly general. Something like "Russia Travel" will ensure that these users turn up our postings.

Look for the right lead.
I don't imagine there are too many people in the world who've lived in the Kosmos Hotel for nine months, as I did. This was a clear case of my having something germane to add.

Let others eavesdrop.
John Doe's name is in the "To" slot, but I post these responses to the whole forum. That's because we get responses all the time from people who see a message we posted to someone else. People "listen in" all the time.

Keep it brief.
I could have told more stories, but he doesn't want to hear them because they won't apply to him. The medium dictates being direct and to the point. Before I started posting I listened in for a month to get the tone, and I learned there's not a lot of gab, as in some forums.

Tailor the pitch.
Your pitch depends on the query. If he'd been most concerned about security, I'd have mentioned another title. Part of the trick is keeping messages personal and addressing needs directly. You figure that someone else who reads the message may think, "Hey, if they have information on that, maybe they have information on what I'm interested in," and will contact you.

Drop a business card.
It's important to have a "signature file" like this, because sometimes it's not appropriate to make a pitch in a message. But you want to dangle something out there. This isn't a standard signature file like the ones some businesses use, with a blurb about the company at the end of the message. I like to be more low-key. Putting something like "We're your #1 supplier!" at the end of our E-mail would be too much chutzpah for this medium. Blatant ads are really a turnoff.

. . . and how the story ends.
This customer sent back E-mail thanking me for my help and said he would pass along the information to everyone traveling with his delegation. He bought the book four days later.

Bad Form:

Sb: Tax-Deduct Your Travel!

To: All

I would like to introduce you to a business that helps you reduce your taxes, with some exciting elements:

It has great income potential.

Lots of great tax-saving ideas.

It does not take much of an

investment to get started. . . .

E-mail me for a video of free information.

Don't scattershoot.
The best address is that of a specific individual.

Don't 'billboard.'
You might as well say, "This is an ad."

Don't be a tease.
This message promises only a barrage of marketing materials, not specific information of immediate use.