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Internet strategy or business strategy? (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Last week, as I paid for my lunch, the cashier asked me, “Didn’t you co-author a book on the Internet?”

Celebrity is where you find it. My cashier friend is in rarified company, since the marketing for Selling on the ‘Net (NTC, 1996) has been, shall we say, spotty.

Nonetheless, since I wrote a book I must be an expert, which means I’ve had occasion to talk to business and IT leaders about the Web. Although almost everyone has a Web presence by now, many tell me they “… need to develop an Internet strategy.”

Strategy is good. Substitute any other tool for “Internet,” though, and you’ll immediately spot the problem (“We need a circular saw strategy”). “We need a strategy” is a defensive statement. The last two words of this sentence – “I guess” – remain unvoiced, but they come through loud and clear.

Even though the World Wide Web has been visible to business for about five years — and has been the focus of an extraordinary outpouring of creative energy, not to mention some cash — business leaders still don’t understand how to think about it. And while few dispute the future success of Internet commerce, we have to survive until the future gets here.

Businesses succeed on the Internet the same way they succeed in any other area: By deciding to succeed and understanding what success means. It’s a matter of clear, realistic thinking and deliberate planning. And as with most aspects of business planning there’s no tensor calculus involved.

Creating a Web site has more in common with publishing than with any other mundane endeavor. Like any publication, successful Web sites start with a clear focus and purpose, because if you confuse visitors to your site they’ll leave. Creating clarity takes hard work.

You’ll be in the middle of this discussion, so be prepared to lead it if the conversation gets squishy. Here’s an approach you can use if you decide to take charge:

Step 1 – Establish your business model: A business model states a cause-and-effect relationship in specific terms. Right now, the most successful model is enhancing customer relationships by improving service. Another good model: Suggesting new uses for your products to increase consumption by current customers.

Step 2 – Profile your target audience: An audience profile describes who you want to attract and what they want when they visit. Reading Web demographics and figuring out how to attract “that kind of person” is a trap. You want prospects and customers, not visitors. If you sell office furniture, you may want to attract architects and facilities planners who want advice on office design – teenage surfers are a distraction. If you sell acne medicine, architects and facilities planners are the distraction, unless they have pimples.

Step 3 – Define measures of success: Good measures come from your business model. Although not every cause-and-effect relationship lends itself to direct measurement, avoid simply falling back on measuring what is convenient, such as hits. Measure what’s important, not what’s easy to measure. Anything that doesn’t test your business model is pointless.

Step 4 – Perform a reality check: Is your target audience really going to exhibit the behavior you need? This may come down to arguing or it may involve market research. Just watch out for the we’ve-reached-consensus-so-we-must-be-right fallacy. Automobile makers did this successfully, rejecting online purchasing and instead helping buyers research car purchases.

Now comes all the real work – these four steps are just the start, and don’t ensure success.

In a competitive marketplace, nothing can.