Air Products pushes industry frontier

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In the global multibillion-dollar chemical and gases industry, part of staying competitive is cultivating a cutting-edge marketing approach aimed at your high-tech customers.

For fourth-largest global chemical and gases company Air Products, a key weapon in its battle for market share is staying out front in electronic marketing.

To achieve that, Air Products is moving to become the first company in its industry to offer electronic commerce on its Web site, which was also the first site in its industry when it launched in January 1996.

Annual investments

The company spent $100,000 to build the site and is planning to pump slightly more than that into it every year for maintenance and upgrades. It would not release specific figures for competitive reasons.

However, the $4 billion, Allentown, Pa.-based company thinks its multifeatured site, replete with online product catalog, interactive ordering features and its soon-to-be-launched virtual reality tours of its plants, sets it apart from its competitors.

Compared with Air Products' other marketing tools, the Web site is also a relative bargain. "It costs about the same as a four-day trade show, and it runs 365 days a year," says Steven Cameron, manager of communications programs in Air Products' public affairs department.

Better than trade shows

The company's Web site gets about 550 users per day and about 250 inquiries monthly

"If we get 550 visitors to our trade show in a day, it is extremely well-attended," Mr. Cameron says.

The payoff is also expected to be significant. "We expect that electronic commerce will provide at least 10% of our projected $500 million in specialty gas sales by the year 2000," he says. "Our current Web ordering system is just the first step toward reaching that goal."

Air Products operates in 30 countries, exports to about 100 others, and does 40% of its business outside the U.S. to the aerospace, electronics, medical, paper, rubber and plastics industries, plus universities, government laboratories and research and development firms.

"We have embraced this technology in our corporation, and our ever-growing customer base has embraced this more than we thought," says Brian Sullivan, manager-marketing communications in the company's gases and equipment division.

Messrs. Cameron and Sullivan say when Air Products planned the site it implemented a three-phase approach to the site:

  • January 1996: Launch a Web site to disseminate basic information that is available through other means: Print, direct mail, trade shows, etc.

  • Fall 1996: Provide more product-specific information, redesign the Web site to include the first online industrial gases catalog.

  • July 1997: Launch the electronic commerce phase, marking the first time the industry has undertaken a Web-based product ordering system.

    To use the order system, customers on the Web are linked simultaneously to Air Products' customer service through another phone. The customer enters his or her phone number and clicks "call me now."

    This connects the customer to a representative who will know which Web page the customer is viewing and can send other appropriate Web pages to the customer's computer.

    "Interactive technology has paid off in terms of sales, differentiating ourselves from our competitors in the ability to do Web sales and as a global company," Mr. Sullivan says. "It's another media stream, it's a channel that never closes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We feel we're farther out in front from our competitors."

    Messrs. Sullivan and Cameron attribute a lot of this competitive edge to a new breed of marketing professionals who understand the power and potential of interactive technology.

    Staying on top of trends

    They work with Godfrey Advertising in Lancaster, Pa., a business-to-business agency with annual billings exceeding $42 million, to stay on top of the technological trends in marketing.

    "Air Products is unquestionably the most digitally driven client we serve. Our role is to help them stay on the leading edge of interactive communications technology in a way that is germane to their markets and the needs of their customers. It's an exciting partnership," says Denny Miller, VP-interactive for Godfrey.

    Salespeople distribute CDs with a product catalog or a virtual reality tour of the processing plants. The tour, using QuickTime VR, is being added to the Web site this month, Mr. Cameron says.

    Next on its high-tech agenda is implementing extranet capability, where customers will be able to tap into portions of the company's firewall-protected intranet.

    Messrs. Sullivan and Cameron see the extranet development as the wave of the future in marketing. The extranet will offer customized ordering systems, the ability to find the status of orders and product test results.

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