- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2001

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, "Consensus is the absence of principle and an abundance of expediency."
I say consensus is the lack of leadership. It's the consensus of experts that we should be wary of using the Web in our business; especially now after the current collapse of the dot-com industry. Instead, let's try to find a way to make money with a dot-com business.
It is probably true that if we deal in commodities (toothpaste, gasoline, food or anything similar) we have no business trying to sell these items on the Web. There are far too many others with the same or similar items, and they may have deeper pockets than do we. So we lose. The fact is, most people use their Web site for self-aggrandizement, and that's counterproductive.
But if we sell a unique product, we have a valid reason for going on the Web, and our primary challenge becomes to drive people to our site. But we must be businesslike in our approach. We can cut into our own store sales if we think we must sell at a deep discount on the Web to attract buyers. And the fraud, returns, shipping charges and similar costs can eat up any profit, and the entire endeavor can end up as a money hole.
But must this be true for the service and professional firm? Just for fun, let's type the generic name for what we do in any search engine and look at the hundreds of people doing the same thing. Do you think we can compete like this? We must not look at the Web in a vacuum. After all, "The Web is the answer" was the cry of the leaderless horde of the unemployed dot-comers.
Web business and advertising has to be complemented by other advertising to make it work for small businesses like ours. For example, we might use direct-mail marketing to advertise a product or service. We'll include all the things we are told to include in our mailing, but let's also include a special discount or an additional bonus item if the order is placed from the Web.
Once we have the person visit our Web site, we have to provide a reason for them to return. Again and again. Providing free advice (the real stuff folks, no fluff) works, but we'll have to change the subject weekly, and that's an expensive chore. And how will we know the advice we offer will cause one-time visitors to return?
Let's set up a hypothetical pet store with a Web presence. We will begin with a Web-based "Name The Baby" contest. Each month we could tell the story of another potential pet; listing size, color, food, place of origin, temperament and dozens of other facts. Each Web visitor would be able to enter a suggested name, and, during the last week, vote on the top suggestions. The winner would get the pet.
Of course, we would offer trinkets related to the pet, all at a profit. We'd also set up a section in our store for the Web pet of the month.
Now we bring in the other advertising. We'd probably get free public relations play for our Name the Baby contest from local radio, TV, cable, newspapers and other local outlets. As a supplement, we'd buy some advertising … all targeted towards the pet. We could hire a PR firm to help with this, but there are enough books, lists and suggestions out there (visit www.tulenko.com) to make this a simple do-it-ourselves project.
We'd send a direct marketing package to each person responding (they gave us their name and address when they voted), and follow up with goodies. Reply cards offering a free microbook or pamphlet on a specific pet-related subject such as: "How to find a great veterinarian" or "How to find a home for a no-longer-wanted pet" or a similar topic would be great package inclusion, and of course, we'd refer the reader to our Web site for more information, and more goodies. The result is a Web site that draws viewers back again and again. Our new outlook on Web use will lead us to new ways of using this tool to increase business.
Of course we have to do the Web site correctly, and in this we need help. All the same, our plan can be applied to the one-person home-based business, a business offering a service, a retail business, or a professional business such as physician, engineer, dentist, writer or psychologist.

* Paul Tulenko writes about small business for Scripps Howard News Service.

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