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Success in online commerce requires more than low price

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As the Internet quickly changed from a place to post documents and discussions to a domain for commerce and transactions, some worried that cherished business relationships would devolve, leaving in their place a cutthroat electronic wilderness in which the only value--dynamically changing at the speed of light--was price.

This has not come to pass. Rather, buyers and sellers alike have come to appreciate values above and beyond "low price''. This is good news for marketers, who demonstrate again and again in the pages of BtoB that the disciplines of branding, channel management, advertising and customer care continue to thrive and pursue innovations.

Nevertheless, the Internet is offering additional mechanisms for efficiently connecting buyer and seller. Take our Page 1 story on "trust brokers," services that handle the due diligence that must occur before trading partners make a deal. As this new class of intermediary services underscores, physically connecting buyer and seller at an e-marketplace is not a final destination, just a starting point.

In fact, it's generally useful to think of the Internet not in terms of final destinations but as interconnections. That's the point of affiliate marketing, the topic of this issue's NetMarketing section. (See Page 26.) The affiliate approach is huge and growing, accounting for a whopping 13% of online sales today, and forecast to grow to 21% by 2003, according to a Forrester Research Inc. report last year. Check the package of stories in NetMarketing for a primer on the costs and benefits of affiliate marketing, examples of successful campaigns and tips on how to squeeze more performance from your current programs.

Distinct from affiliate programs but showing real value in b-to-b are the business advertising networks that target very specialized sites, including low-traffic locations that you might not expect. Read our Page 1 story about the value of these vertical networks, according to those who have used them, such as PrintNation.com and ToolSource.com.

How does any company decide if affiliate marketing or a b-to-b advertising network is right for it? Increasingly, these recommendations come from the interactive agency, a large and expanding group of firms providing Web design, strategy and media services. Check out BtoB's Special Report on i-agencies in this issue, starting on Page 35, which includes a list of dozens of firms, culled from the recommendations of our staff and outside experts. Not only do these shops offer interactive skills, they explicitly do b-to-b work, and have reference clients to prove it. (Each firm on our list was asked to provide five top b-to-b clients.) Our Special Report also profiles five of the top b-to-b i-agencies, attempting to tease out what makes each strong and distinct. We hope many of you will use the i-agency list, and many other parts of BtoB, as part of your survival kit in the electronic wilderness.

Ellis Booker is editor of BtoB. He can be reached at ebooker@crain.com.

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