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Web Impact: Extranets emerge as next challenge for marketers

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Are you ready for the Internet's third wave?

We've already passed through the first two: The emergence of the public Internet and Web sites, followed by the movement of Web technologies into corporations via so-called intranets.

Now, none other than Netscape's Marc Andreessen has pronounced we are ready for a new era: The emergence of the extranet, or extended intranet, connecting companies with their suppliers and customers via secure Web links. Netscape, among others, has begun to place big bets that extranets will be the Next Big Thing, starting this year.

If you are an online marketer, chances are you are already deeply steeped in the culture and business models of the public Web. You've helped launch your company's site, bought or sold Web ads, and thought about how to turn your marketing-oriented site into something that has greater impact on the corporate bottom line.

But you should be playing a major role as your company develops intranets and extranets as well.

THE INTRANET EVOLUTION

First, a bit of background. Intranets, as many of you already know, represent the use of Web technologies within a corporation. Typically, intranets begin as information-sharing networks, enabling employees to use the same browser they use to surf the Web to access company data. Now they are quickly evolving to support real-business applications as well.

What Netscape and others are seeing as the next great leap forward is the opening of these private intranets to key business partners. For instance, companies can track supplies, conduct transactions, and do all sorts of business with their suppliers and customers via interconnected intranets.

For extranets to work, better security technologies need to be developed so companies can more safely traverse each other's intranets. There also need to be better ways to write applications that span companies using different brands of Web products.

While you can leave those challenges to the IT department, online marketers not only can, but must, play a role in intranets and extranets if they are to be truly successful.

The fact is that most first-rate intranet projects today are developed in much the same way as public Web sites, with extensive before-the-fact project planning and internal audits, design reviews with Web development firms, and strict deadlines for the creation, rollout and maintenance of the intranet. Web marketers can use their skills to play an invaluable role in intranet project management.

BOOSTING INTERNAL TRAFFIC

But you can do more. Smart marketers I've talked to are applying the skills they've learned to increase traffic on their public sites to their intranet as well. A few ideas: Run contests and scavenger hunts; give away prizes; send e-mail alerts or even use "ad" banners to publicize new or interesting portions of the intranet; pay close attention to user feedback. In short, be creative. An intranet -- like a Web site -- is only successful if it is used.

Even more interesting opportunities will arise on extranets. At first, companies will likely use extranets much like they use EDI, or Electronic Data Interchange, today. They'll pass strings of data anonymously between accounting or other applications. But I'm willing to bet that extranets will soon grow to be a key business-to-business marketing vehicle.

Whether such sites evolve to include out-and-out marketing elements remains to be seen. It's not difficult to imagine a supplier delivering customer-specific, non-public product information, pricing and more to a customer via a secure extranet link. In other words, classic business-to-business marketing.

It may also be possible that companies prefer to simply do transactions over these links, and leave marketing and advertising efforts to more traditional avenues.

Regardless, don't let yourself be intimidated or shunted aside because IT says intranets and extranets are their ball game. Your company will be missing out if online marketers limit their skills to the public Web.

Richard Karpinski is editor at large for NetGuide Magazine and author of "Beyond HTML" from publisher Osborne/McGraw Hill.

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