OPINION: E-Biz mulls various Web strategies

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There's something about the desert that takes you back to prehistoric times, and maybe that's why Arizona was the perfect place to figure out how the embryonic electronic commerce business will evolve.

At the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz., whose tagline is "Where time stands still," marketing executives from all kinds of industries met last week at the E-Biz conference to brainstorm about the future. The conference was organized by Interactive Marketing and sponsored by Advertising Age and Business Marketing.

HOW TO MAKE IT WORK

Under the blazing desert sun, surrounded by cacti and other exotic plant life, executives from companies such IBM Corp., Procter & Gamble Co., Coca-Cola Co. and others shared their vision about e-business and how to make it work.

In the few short years the Web has been in existence--and particularly in the last year as companies have jumped on the Web commerce bandwagon--there have been attempts to compare it to other transformational events in history. The development of the printing press. The industrial revolution. The advent of color TV.

INTERNET AS BLUE-GREEN ALGAE

But I heard a new one in Arizona. During a lively luncheon discussion (on a deck outside the Peace Pipe Room with New Age music playing in the background), one marketing executive said the Internet was like blue-green algae, from which all plant life on Earth sprung.

(A derivative of blue-green algae is now bottled and sold, and you can order some online at www.nutritionworld.com. I know this because I had to look up blue-green algae on the Internet).

TRANSFORMING BUSINESSES

The metaphor is not really so far-out, if you think about it. The Web is transforming business--every single kind of business, from mom-and-pop tackle shops to multibillion-dollar business-to-business operations.

Companies that don't adapt now will be hurt in the long run as their competitors and new entrants develop cyberspace business models that capture audience share and dollars.

But e-commerce is in such an early life stage that companies are swimming around like polliwogs trying to figure out who to mate with and how to develop, without growing extra limbs or exposing weaknesses.

At the E-Biz conference, marketers and experts offered some strategies for figuring out e-business models.

Josh Grotstein, VP-global Internet and e-commerce programs at Citibank, during the keynote address, said businesses will be "totally turned upside down" by e-commerce, and will need to reinvent themselves to keep up.

At Citibank, for example, rather than having the consumer come to its Web site, the company wants to go find users where they're transacting, whether that's in online communities or on merchants' sites. The bank is now developing digital wallet technology that will let users shop online using Citibank services.

RECIPE FOR SUCCESS

In another session, Nicole Vanderbilt, group director of commerce at Jupiter Communications, said companies should pursue four tactics to drive more business online: be utility driven, have a diverse marketing plan, be segmentation-savvy and have a customer database focus.

"You need a category killer Web site to attack a niche," she said.

And in case-study presentations, companies such as Impulse Buy Network, Cars.com, N2K Music Boulevard (now merged with CDnow) and Universal Studios Online shared new e-commerce strategies, from creating online auctions to providing point-of-purchase offers right when users are in the buying mode.

As we approach the new millennium, it's time to start thinking in new ways. The Internet will spawn new forms of business, and ultimately the strongest will survive.

Copyright November 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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