On the Web again: Moving forward with the NM 200

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If you're not actually paying attention, you probably wouldn't notice. After all, changes on the Web occur gradually -- well, at least in terms of Web time. A site tweak here, a redesign there, throw in some new technology, and life goes on.

But take time out once a year to critically study hundreds of business-to-business Web sites, and the changes are amazing. That's what we've been doing since November 1997, when we launched the NetMarketing 200, our ranking of the country's 200 best business-to-business Web sites. We start by compiling a list of hundreds of sites, and then sit down to judge each and every one. This year, under the guidance of Senior Editor Julie Cantwell, we honed our criteria and developed a more exacting rating system to come up with the 1999 winners.

After a while, you start to see some trends emerge. Overall, sites are a lot stronger than they were even last year, and much more so than when we did our first survey.

For one thing, sites are becoming much more user friendly, in design and in functionality. Gone, for the most part, are the gratuitous graphics that bog down loading time and interfere with the marketing message. The glaring colors and the hodgepodge layouts are disappearing, too.

Instead, an increasing number of sites are now using simple color palettes, easy-to-follow layouts -- and a lot more functionality. From offering small pop-up screens featuring upsells to installing buttons that promise an instant callback from customer service, business-to-business marketers are starting to take advantage of the Internet and its unique advantages in reaching customers.

Yes, overall, Web sites are moving to a whole new level of sophistication. The learning curve so far has been steep, but companies of all sizes are catching on fast. One sure sign of this: Of the Top 10 on our NetMarketing 200 ranking, only No. 1 Cisco has been on this elite list before, starting at No. 3 in the first ranking, moving to second last year. The other nine are newcomers to the Top 10, and two of them weren't even in the ranking last year.

Cisco, of course, has long been among the front-runners in Web development, adopting a site in 1994. Today, it credits that site for generating 80% of its $10 billion in annual sales. More than that, Cisco says the site handles about 70% of its technical support contacts and 50% of its initial marketing contactsand these represent significant cost savings in manpower.

Obviously, Cisco is spending big money on its site -- enough to daunt the many Web marketers still trying to figure out how to convince their CEOs to create a separate Web budget that doesn't drain marketing funds. Cisco spends $20 million to $30 million a year on developing new site content and applications, and an additional $7 million on bandwidth and support equipment.

But this is the Web, and it's savvy, not size, that matters most. You don't have to be a huge company with deep pockets to be among the best.

Take iPrint, our No. 10 site. While it declined to discuss its Web budget, its gross revenue for last year was more than $1 million, so it's probably a safe bet that its spending isn't in the same league as Cisco's. But it doesn't have to be. The site is cleanly designed, easy to follow and quick to loadand clearly demonstrates that it's possible to achieve excellence without tens of millions of dollars at stake.

So what does it take to create a really good business-to-business Web site? More than anything else, it requires time and attention and careful planning. Details are critical, and someone in marketing needs to be focused on the online initiative to make sure it keeps growing in the right direction and remains aligned with the company's overall goals.

Unlike other areas of marketing, where the simple mechanics of printing or planning can keep materials and plans from going haywire, the Web allows for almost-instant access and changes. Just one or two changes here and there can quickly snowball into a disaster online.

There's still a long way to go, of course, and the path keeps changing. Marketers are struggling with financial models and return-on-investment issues when it comes to the Internet. Outside the truly big Web efforts, many b-to-b marketers are still trying to quantify site costs vs. income and savings. They're struggling with branding strategies and how to tie their online and off-line efforts. At smaller companies, they're still working to justify having a site and where to budget the costs associated with it.

The Web has come a long way in just two short years since our first NetMarketing 200 ranking. The changes are significant, and the opportunities are looking better than ever. But it's still up to you, the b-to-b marketers, to keep it all moving forward.

Send comments and questions to Karen Egolf at [email protected].

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