Web Wise: The secrets of winning sites

You don't need to book an expensive extranet to give site visitors rooms of their own

For many, the words extranet and E-commerce conjure visions of highly paid Java programmers melding complex enterprisewide systems with state-of-the-art, gazillion-page Web sites. That's the sort of project you try to avoid if you don't have an IT department the size of a small country.

Does that mean small companies should steer clear of anything that smacks of back-office integration? Absolutely not. Web technology is ideal for any organization that wants to improve communications with business partners but lacks the resources for a full-blown marriage between its network and customer-relationship-management systems. Those with shallowish pockets can take this as consolation: sometimes technological sophistication has more to do with appearance than with application.

Consider extranets, a relatively straightforward customer-management concept that has become freighted with the jargon of intranets and virtual private networks. If building an extranet sounds too involved, think instead of creating Web pages that only specified parties can see. Such pages may not even require password protection. I am the head of a very small company (consisting of me, myself, and the recently hired I) with a Web site that acts as a marketing vehicle for my consulting services. My site also contains a discrete page with photos of my dog Puck, a schipperke, that my wife and I wanted to share with members of a discussion list for dog lovers. Is it password protected? No. Private? Sure.

The Puck page is private in the same sense that an unlisted telephone number is private. It is known to, and therefore used by, only a designated few. Puck's photos are not linked to any other page anywhere. Family, friends, and the dog fanciers on my discussion list know how to find it because we've E-mailed them the specific address. That level of security suffices to protect Puck's privacy, and it's enough for many of my clients as well.

I also use private pages for business-related purposes. I use them, for example, as a means of making my PowerPoint presentations available to conference hosts who wish to hand out the material to attendees. Printing and shipping the presentations is a pain, and I've had consistently bad luck sending 2MB or 3MB files as E-mail attachments. So I create private pages on my site that people can download instead. I send the conference producers the URLs of the pages; they can then click and capture the files without worrying about viruses, gateways, or E-mail in-box limitations. Again, the information on those pages isn't something that everyone who visits my site needs to see, but if it gets out, it's not going to do any damage.

Of course, much information needs ironclad security. I discuss Internet strategies, potential markets, products, services, and business models with my clients. For that kind of information, an unpublished address isn't good enough. It calls for both private pages and passwords. Creating a password-protected page isn't done at a trivial cost, but it's not a budget buster either. Password-protection routines are described in most on-line HTML tutorials. (The company hosting your site will have to handle the server-side software. If it doesn't know how to do that, then stop reading this article and start looking for another provider.) Once the technology is in place, your employees can exploit password-protected pages in ways your customers will love. Sales representatives at National Semiconductor Corp. create and maintain private Web pages for each customer, for example. When a customer calls and asks about a product, the rep can add the requested information to that customer's page. Or the rep can create a new page for things like customized pricing quotes, specials, or specifics on whatever configuration of the product in question works with the customer's system. The sales reps can do all of the above in a number of ways, including authoring new material, cutting and pasting information from other Web pages, or simply adding links. Whatever the mechanism, the result is far more helpful than telling the customer "Oh, I'm pretty sure you can find that on our Web site." (If your sales force is unwilling or unable to assume that kind of responsibility, consider having your Web master do it for important customers.)

The Tenagra Corp., a 20-plus-employee Internet-marketing agency in Houston, used private Web pages to beat out some of the largest players in the industry in a bid to design and build the top-level Web pages at Unisys Corp. Cliff Kurtzman, Tenagra's president, had his team build a password-protected area on Tenagra's own Web site that contained a clear, concise description of how the vendor planned to handle the Unisys contract. Instead of handing out reports 200 pages in length on 24-pound letterhead bond, Tenagra simply gave a URL and a password to Unisys committee members. The members thus gained access to the protected site and checked out firsthand the quality they could expect from the company. The proposal was also easy for members to discuss by E-mail: instead of quoting vast tracts from a paper document or having to cite page and paragraph numbers, they just forwarded the URLs of specific passages, which the recipient then called up for review.

Building customer-specific pages or protected areas works well for companies that serve only a small number of clients. If you're in the consumer market, however, you may need the kinds of personalization afforded by tools like GuestTrack and BroadVision, which can track thousands of individual customers. Such tools serve up customized Web pages on the fly based on database-driven customer profiles or profiles created as site visitors click on some links and not on others. Unfortunately, such applications can be pricey, ranging from $5,000 for GuestTrack to $350,000 to $1 million-plus for BroadVision.

What is true for extranets is also true for E-commerce: a lack of sophisticated data integration needn't keep you from taking orders over the Web. Yes, in the ideal world, on-line purchasing information would be sucked into your back-office order-processing system, which would check it for accuracy and validate the credit card; the system would then print out a label in your warehouse for use in packing and shipping. But scratch the surface of all but the most Web-centric companies and you'll find that they are only putting a good face on their E-commerce capabilities. The information collected by those wonderful on-line order forms is merely E-mailed to someone for data entry.

Of course, you can save a bundle on order processing and fulfillment if you automate everything. But first you'll have to spend a bundle: anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million or more, depending on how hard it is to take and process orders in your line of work. Such an investment may be pointless if you don't expect a significant number of on-line orders. If your projections for Web commerce are modest, focus your energy instead on your site's look and feel: how it appears to the customer. Put up that order form, by all means. Just make sure your visitors can't see the man behind the curtain who's printing out the E-mail orders, hand-entering them into a 1978 Commodore PET, and sending out confirmation E-mails one by one.

As long as you can keep up with the flow of orders, it doesn't matter how you get the job done. All that matters is that customers have a positive experience, get the information they need when they need it, and feel confident that the system is working. The Web can do all that, even if your budget barely covers kite string and duct tape.

Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing, in Santa Barbara, Calif., is a speaker, consultant, and author of the books World Wide Web Marketing and Customer Service on the Internet (John Wiley & Sons).