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Tampa Electric targets high-tech sales leads

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Email from Net Marketing reader For Tampa Electric Co., a utility with a strong technology-based infrastructure, launching a customer-oriented Web site was fairly simple. But figuring out the best way to use it -- and how to measure its effectiveness -- remains a puzzle.

The site, at http://www.teco.net, includes many familiar corporate features, such as access to 10K forms, quarterly dividends and other financial information; press releases for the local media; and various information for consumers and business customers.

However, the site also works to generate sales leads for technology equipment sold by TECO. This includes a display of street lights and other lighting equipment that builders and developers buy and install in their projects, as well as information on bulk power sales.

AN AMBITIOUS PROJECT

The most ambitious project involves TECO's Electric Technology Resource Center. In the real world, the Center exists at the University of South Florida in Tampa. But potential buyers of such high-tech exotica as infra-red dryers and FlashBake ovens ("cooks a 6-inch pizza in 60 seconds!") can preview these wares at TECO's Web site.

"The Web site allows customers to do a quick survey of what's available," said TECO spokesman Michael Mahoney, "and it's working."

However, Mr. Mahoney said he couldn't quantify that success, noting only that Resource Center sales were up and TECO attributed at least part of that to the Web site.

NOT SURE HOW TO EVALUATE RESULTS

Officials with TECO, the parent company of the utility that provides power to much of west-central Florida, admit they have yet to figure out how to evaluate their Web presence, which was introduced only in March.

"But we do know it didn't cost much, and it's getting an increasing numbers of hits," said Mr. Mahoney. "We know it's providing convenience. We'll figure out what else when it's a year old."

Operating expenses are running around $1,500 a month, Mr. Mahoney said. One employee currently devotes most of his work time to the site, and several other employees contribute as needed. Mr. Mahoney said a primary job is keeping the content current.

"That's crucial," he said. "Press releases, quarterly financial information, customer brochures and other relevant documents must be available for review and downloading."

So far, Mr. Mahoney said, the numbers -- or at least the trend lines -- look good. In May, for example, the Web site attracted 2,580 hits. That number jumped to 4,823 in June -- an increase of 87%. Mr. Mahoney said the number of pages being downloaded is increasing at an even higher rate.

He concedes the numbers are relatively small, and said TECO doesn't distinguish between visitors from inside and outside the company. But the increase indicates something is working, he said.

60 UTILITIES WITH WEB SITES

The problem of assessing the marketing value of a Web site is not unique to TECO Energy. Companies of all sizes and types are struggling with ways to evaluate the return on their investment.

That includes utilities, which, like many industries, are rushing onto the Internet while still not exactly sure what they hope to gain, or what would even constitute success.

At least 60 utilities in the U.S. currently have Web sites, said John Castagna, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the Washington-based trade association for the power industry.

"Frankly, everyone's still trying to discover how best to use them," Mr. Castagna said. "It's still in its early stages."

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