The World On Your Desktop:
International Exposure and The Internet
by Marie Hawkins
Ms. Hawkins writes on business issues for a variety of publications and clients.
The world is shrinking. And from Malaysia to Marietta, the global village has undergone tremendous economic and cultural upheaval. No one could have predicted the transformations wrought by the evolution of mass media. Certainly no one predicted the Internet.
It may be coincidence that the Internet emerged on the heels of the consolidation of world trading blocs such as the European Economic Community and NAFTA and concurrent with rising public awareness of major political and social events caught live on CNN. History will evaluate the significance of what now appear to be random and diverse trends. But the big picture is clear: fueled by the Internet, globalization is proceding at an ever more rapid pace.
The Internet exploded from its origins as an obscure U.S. Department of Defense R&D tool into a vast electronic resource available to millions of people. Its recent spawning of the World Wide Web (WWW) has made it popular with the general public. A Georgia Tech study published earlier this year confirmed that 40 million people around the world are now using the Internet, and 70% of them are browsing the WWW daily.
The WWW is formed by organizations and individuals posting information about themselves at an electronic location, or web site, which connects with others. Users gain access to a particular site through the Internet by keying in the site's web address or by using a search engine such as Yahoo or Webcrawler to locate it.
A Company That Climbed Aboard Early
Those who climbed on board early - say, the fall of 1994 - call themselves old-timers, and speak of their involvement on the web in terms of "net years." This is Year Two for one such firm: Southwire Company of Carrollton, Ga. With annual sales of US$1.9 billion, Southwire is America's largest cablemaker, distributing its technologies and copper and aluminum rod products to dozens of countries.
For Southwire, the opportunity to establish an international presence on the Internet through the WWW was irresistible.
"Our web site was online and operational in October of '94," says Southwire's telecommunications director Martin Smith. "Those were the good old days, when you could make your mistakes while no one was looking." Smith was introduced to the Internet and the WWW in early '94. Within a month he'd assembled a prototype site and presented it to a group of executives at Southwire, who informed the president, Roy Richards, Jr. of the development.
"It was a top-down decision," says the company's marketing communications manager Selina Hembree. "Mr. Richards is a progressive leader, and very aware of how technology can be used to enhance a business. He immediately saw the potential for international exposure through the Internet."
Smith and Hembree became part of the Southwire web site development team that included engineer Dave Mercier and others with various interests and areas of expertise. After three months online, the team announced their site to the public in January '95.
Web Quickly Became Highly Effective Global Ambassador
"We decided to be out there waiting for customers, rather than have customers out there waiting for us," Smith remarks. "It was surprising how fast they found us. We expected it to take six months, but by early March we were getting hits every day."
In one year the number of hits to the Southwire site increased from 200 to 2000. Today, between 5% and 10% come from international locations. "We're seeing hits from Canada, Mexico, The Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, France and Great Britain," says Smith. "Our web site is our global ambassador."
Hembree agrees. "It enables us to communicate directly with our customers around the world, provide them with current information and technical support, gather their feedback and improve our service to them."
Smith notes yet another advantage in conducting international business. "So many of our overseas connections are on the other side of the planet. With our presence on the Internet, when the other half of the world is awake and doing business, we're there."
An Extremely Valuable Research Tool
Internet applications vary widely. Its first use: the distribution of research papers, is, perhaps, still among its most important uses, as engineers around the world capitalize on this particular application.
"It's not just the amount of available data that's so stunning," says Dave Mercier, it's having unlimited access to sources like MIT or NASA. A researcher in Vladivostok can put his paper on the Internet and the next morning, I'm reading it over my coffee. And he's reading about our work on superconductivity. We can only benefit from this free exchange of ideas."
A Way To Greatly Reduce The Cost Of Communications
Another powerful use of the Internet is for transmitting electronic mail (e-mail). Often, it is e-mail which introduces businesses and individuals to the Internet and the WWW. Its appeal is how it reduces the cost of long-distance connections and the use of regular "snail" mail. For many companies, the Internet has also reduced the cost of electronic data interchange (EDI), transmitting over less expensive public rather than private lines, while maintaining security with private encryption.
The Internet As A Marketing Tool
Businesses also use the Internet for marketing and sales promotion, product information and catalogue distribution, public relations, corporate communications, and customer support and feedback. And by seeking out and examining a web site, customer prospects "self-qualify." However, the potential for electronic commerce remains unexplored for most companies, including Southwire. "We use our site for marketing," says Hembree. "The great advantage is that we can see who's looking at us."
Current web site software programs can track user hits by their "domain names" - that part of the web address that follows http://www. - to provide some demographic information about users. For example, most domain names in the U.S. end with the suffixes .com or .edu, indicating commercial or educational users. International domain name suffixes indicate the county of origin. Programs also track what users are looking at within a web site - and what they're avoiding. This type of feedback lets Southwire know what's working and what's not.
"We frequently update our site," Hembree comments. "It's very important to keep it current." Smith agrees. "This is a dynamic medium. Fresh content draws fresh interest. And if they've visited your site before, you have to give them reasons to come back."
But consistency is also important. A good web site walks a fine line between changing enough to keep things interesting and remaining stable enough that repeat users are not confused by a new look. Experts advise new webbers to decide on a document hierarchy - what leads where - and on icons, and keep it that way.
Designing An Effective Web Site
In planning a web site, a company must first define its strategic and tactical objectives. What do you want to do with the site? What do you want it to do for you and for your customers? Remove the guesswork by surveying your customers to find out what they need from a web site.
Work with a professional design company that can help you define the "look" of your site. Educate them about your particular industry, markets and customers. Make certain the designers understand that although they may have won awards for magazine covers, a web site on a computer screen requires a different approach.
The text and graphics on a computer screen should run horizontally - for 640 by 480 lines of resolution - rather than vertically, as they would on an 8 1/2" by 11" page. All material on the home page of a web site should be visible without having to "scroll" down. Graphics should be relatively simple to enable even those with the slowest bandwidth to download in a few seconds. Navigating the site should be intuitive; users should not have to worry about getting lost, or whether they are "doing it right." It should be readily apparent through the clarity and simplicity of the icons and text instructions.
And remember that connecting your system to the Internet makes it susceptible to all manner of globally-transmitted viruses that can be downloaded from the Internet through web site access and e-mail attachments (although not from e-mail itself). Make sure your company installs anti-viral software.
Outlook For The Future
Many of the benefits of Internet exposure are not yet apparent. "I consider the Internet to be the next great frontier," says Hembree. "It's like the Wild West, and we are the early settlers. Much of what is to come, we cannot see."
Yet some things can already be seen. The hot new programming language, Java, was designed specifically for the Internet and will enable browsers around the world to download small application programs - "applets" - to perform specific tasks as required. This will allow web site managers to control access to certain kinds of information or transactions on the site, and eliminate access by removing the applet that facilitates the transaction.
Ubiquitous service functions such as checking on product inventory, booking a flight, locating a UPS package or buying tickets to a ballgame will increase the appeal of the Internet, as will something called an "intelligent agent" - a super-search engine that will allow users to set many search parameters. The agent will synthesize the information and give you precisely what you're looking for, making it the world's greatest librarian.
The next big challenge is determining how to measure and quantify the impact of a web site on a company's performance. "For now, the biggest value is awareness," says Hembree. "To have the Southwire name in front of thousands of people each month provides us with tremendous international exposure we would not otherwise have, and at a fraction of the cost of printing material and distributing catalogues."
Martin Smith sums it up. "Southwire is a global company. Establishing a profile on the Internet with a web site is consistent with, and enhances, our global marketing strategy. And now that the world is watching, we wouldn't do it any other way."