The standard spin doctor pitch is that electronic commerce is really taking off. Where radio took 38 years to win some 50 million listeners and TV nearly 20 years, the internet has achieved the same results in a mere four years. Harness this huge new channel to market, we are told.
But before you buy into that story, it's important to work out how effective your site is. Many companies still count up the number of hits per site or per page. This is not the best way to measure the impact of your site.
It is more useful to know who is visiting it and what they are doing than simply adding up the numbers of visitors. Instead, ask yourself, who are these internet users? How can I differentiate between individual users?
How can I differentiate their experience of my company from that of my competitors?
The internet is not a mass marketing tool. To capture customers, you need to understand and apply the principles of high street retailing.
Don't try to appeal to the entire web community. You have to sell to different subsets of it. Personalise the experience. Mine your web data, profile your visitors, remember details about their previous visits to your web site and how they interacted with it. What are they buying? Or not buying?
What are their buying patterns? Then follow up their visits with customised special offers and promotions.
In business-to-business e-commerce, you should be taking this one step further. Identify your preferred web customers so that the most valuable are offered exacting service guarantees. It has been difficult to prioritise interactions with these valued customers in the past. Take the example of the US stock market crash last year. Five million Americans wanted to sell shares electronically. Everyone got the busy signal - because all the web computers were maxed out. There was no way of distinguishing the broker selling millions from the individual selling only 10 shares.
While the internet generally works on a 'first come, first served' basis - a commercial nonsense - there are tools available today that guarantee preferred customers are placed at the front of the queue. Although they are in their relative infancy, it's worth taking a look at these products.
Contact your e-commerce solutions provider for more details.
Joe Edwards is a general manager with Hewlett-Packard. 01344 360000.