Does the Internet add up as a new market?

Can you really do business on the Internet? Lots of people have been asking that question lately -- even the Economist has recently mooted the issues surrounding the commercial expansion on the heretofore government and academic-led Internet.

Few outside the Internet community realise that business and the Internet aren’t new acquaintances. I have been doing business on the Internet for the last three or four years. From personal experience, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’, the Internet is a place for business. Service providers report that their impressive growth over the last few months have been driven by large scale commercial users that want access to Internet email, UseNet newsgroups and World Wide Web information.

Journalists and news organisations have been using the net for business purposes for years. A large and rapidly growing number of electronic publications are appearing on the Internet, often to supplement paper-based newsletters and magazines. Others, like the ClariNet news service, publish on a subscription basis and do good business solely on the Internet, thank you very much. However, providing information on the Net, sometimes for free, is still some way away from demonstrated profitability from omnibus Internet-based sales or services. Anyone considering a big push on the Net needs to understand the (often archaic) acceptable use policies that govern access to some parts of the Internet. And even if you are on a commercial segment of the Net, reaching out for commercial concerns also connected via a commercial Internet supplier, you still need to acknowledge the Internet culture that often times is hostile to blatant commercialism.

There’s always some loophole or exception that you can employ if you are selling information via the Internet. The big exception that enables many Net cruisers access to all corners of the Internet governs sales to academic or government customers. These sales are always construed to be to the advantage of the academics or government body. All you need is that first educational or governmental customer, then, if you are peddling data for pay.

However, if you are selling bits and bobs, hackles can be raised in the old school Internet community that finds advertising objectionable. Yes, it’s true, the same bunch responsible for Internet Coke machines (which was perhaps one of the first demonstration of the commercial possibilities for commercial Internet users) cry foul if you try to unabashedly flog your wares over Their Internet.

This may seem like a ridiculous reaction, but recently there have been some very ham-fisted commercial exploiters stomping over the Internet’s highways and by-ways in a way that perhaps any sensitive businessperson would cringe at.

A law firm (the name withheld to avoid and protect the guilty) broadcast a message to all UseNet newsgroups attempting to stir up fears about US Immigration laws and proposing that their legal eagles could provide an edge in getting so-called Green Cards.

Perhaps their immigration and naturalisation practice does know all the ins and outs but the way they touted for business across every one of the 7000-odd newsgroups raised more than a few hackles. True, they did reach a significant portion of the 25 million-plus Internet population. But it offended many Net Surfers that pay for their Internet bandwidth personally and take such transgressions badly.

It takes only a few hairy Net radicals sending a few megabytes of files each to an offender for them to get the message that their solicitation for business is unwelcome.

Very few Net denizens objected to trolling for customers on the Internet. In the UseNet newsgroup called comp.benchmark, for computer performance measurement-related news, a company called AIM regularly publishes its prospectus. Nobody gives them a hard time because their advert is appropriate to the audience. If they indiscriminately blasted it across all the comp newsgroups they would probably loose more business than they would gain (and get mail bombed into the bargain).

InfoWorld, the quality US computer weekly, has an Internet presence with a World Wide Web server that can access the treasure trove of their past issues but will also sell you the latest software if you require. You get the information ‘free,’ including reviews of the software package of interest, but a simple fax form puts their fulfilment service together with your charge card number.

Closer to home, CityScape Internet Services is a UK company that boasts the busiest commercial World Wide Web service in Europe. They are only too willing to help businesses, small or large, get onto the Internet with a service that provides consultancy, software development and Web publishing.

It’s never too early to start. While it may be early days for pizza delivery in Hertfordshire, the Internet is heading, at a great rate of knots, for any businesses touching the publishing and computer worlds. Growing the way it is, soon the Internet will provide a low cost way to reach anyone with a computer with any marketing message. After a while, that will undoubtedly change to just plain ‘anyone’ that is a commercial prospect.

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