REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 7, 2000 — It’s no secret — e-commerce is transforming the way the business world operates. Whether it’s by streamlining business processes, providing access to new markets, or delivering better service to customers, the Internet is making companies of all sizes more efficient, more competitive and more profitable.
At least, that’s the promise of e-business. So far, however, most of the benefits have gone to large companies. While much of the hype has centered on the possibility that the Web will level the playing field, giving even the smallest businesses a chance to go head-to-head against largest corporations, the reality is that it is mostly big enterprises that are reaping the rewards.
The combination of complexity and cost involved in establishing a Web presence and conducting business online have been prohibitive for many small businesses. Creating a static Web site containing basic company and product information is not a huge undertaking, but launching a full-feature transactional Web site is expensive and time-consuming. Up until now, it has taken the kind of resources that only a large enterprise can muster to participate in the Internet revolution.
Microsoft’s bCentral Web site is changing all that. Launched in September, bCentral is a portal for small businesses created specifically to help small businesses take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Internet. bCentral features include free email, a banner exchange network, tools that help businesses get listed on search engines and a service that helps companies manage lists and keep in touch with customers. In just six months, bCentral has become one of the most widely visited business portals on the Internet, generating more than 3.5 million page views a month and attracting tens of thousands of small business owners who are finding that the Microsoft portal offers a great way to promote their products and manage their businesses online.
A new bCentral service is about to make life even easier for small business owners who want to establish a strong Web presence. Called Site Manager, it is designed to simplify the task of building, hosting and maintaining a Web site. For less than $40 a month, Site Manager offers a small business owner the rich set of tools they need to build a completely customized, transaction-ready Web site.
“Taking a business online can be intimidating for small businesses, but it can also present them with amazing opportunities to find new customers all over the world,”
says bCentral director of marketing Deborah Whitman.
“Site Manager makes it easy for them to seize this opportunity by providing them with simple templates to build their sites. A business can be up and running on the Web literally in minutes.”
Five Easy Steps to a Full-Feature Web Site
To create a Web site with Site Manager, users follow a simple, step-by-step procedure. Business owners are led through the process by Site Manager’s Site Building Guide, which begins by having them select the type of small business site they would like to create. Among the seven choices are retail operations, professional services, trade services and production operations. The Site Building Guide then makes a series of recommendations for adding features and services that are typically used by online businesses in the chosen category. For a retail operation, for example, the Site Building Guide will suggest adding Order Manager, which automatically adds transaction features, including a shopping cart and order processing capabilities that provide encryption to protect credit card information, a calculator that defines tax rates by state and a shipping methods screen that provides shipping information and costs. The guide would not suggest adding those features for lawyers, doctors, or other professionals who offer services rather than products.
Next, the Site Building Guide offers users a series of templates that helps users create a wide variety of pages, including a home page, product pages and news and information pages, along with pages for frequently asked questions, legal issues and contact information. The templates let users try a wide variety of layouts for each type of page, and then preview the results using actual content. Site Manager also offers a huge selection of professionally designed graphics and color schemes that can be easily applied to any Site Manager Web site.
“Site Manager has this really rich collection of templates that result in a sophisticated look and feel,”
says Jonathan Weinstein, group product manager for bCentral.
“It also offers an easy way to add the extra features that a company needs to conduct business on the Web, and then it automatically hosts the site as well. Basically, with five easy steps, it signs you up, creates the right Web presence, and then publishes the site for you. We think this will really help a lot of businesses take full advantage for the first time of the opportunities offered by the Web.”
Once a site is up and running, Site Manager helps business owners with maintaining it, as well. A feature called
helps users through the process of adding new pages to their Web site, making changes to existing pages, and moving pages around in the site. Site Manager’s start page includes a section called
“Edit Your Pages,”
which offers a summary of links to all the pages in a Web site, and a section called
“Preview Your Site,”
which lets users see what each page looks like as they make changes.
Site Manager was also designed to be extremely flexible and highly scalable, making it easy for businesses to expand their online presence as their needs grow. Tight integration with FrontPage 2000, Microsoft’s Web site and site management tool, allows business owners to build completely customized Web sites. According to Weinstein, they can do it themselves or bring in outside design help if they prefer.
“If you have a really small business, you’ll probably want to do all the work yourself, and Site Manager lets you create a site with the kind of richness you probably never thought possible,”
“Once your business gets to a certain size, you may want to outsource some of the work, and there are literally hundreds of thousands of Web developers who are certified to use FrontPage. But even if you do use outside help, you keep control over maintenance and minor changes. Through Site Manager you can change content, edit prices, and do all the other tasks that are needed to keep a site up-to-date, without calling up your developer. This will save a lot of time and money, and it’s unique in the industry.”
Expanded Reach Means Increased Sales
Beyond providing the best tools for building a robust, feature-rich Web site, Site Manager helps business owners take advantage of the wide range of valuable services already offered by bCentral. Services such as the bCentral Banner Exchange Network, ListBot, and Submit It are helping small businesses expand their reach, attract new customers and keep in touch with their existing customer base in new ways.
bCentral’s Banner Exchange Network, — the largest advertising network on the Web, reaching over 60 percent of Web users through its network of over 400,000 Web sites — has been an important source for getting new visitors. Equally important is a search engine submission feature called Submit It. The tool helps businesses make sure their sites are search-engine ready, and it automates the process of submitting a site, providing access to up to 400 search engines. Businesses can use the tool to check their placement on different search engines and fine tune their Web sites to make sure they show up as high as possible when searching on key words their potential customers are likely to use.
ListBot is another service that is driving sales for bCentral Web businesses. ListBot helps business owners create and manage lists of names and automates the process of sending email to customers. With ListBot, users can create multiple mailing lists and keep track of customers who are interested in specific types of products. It also ensures that business owners are targeting active customers by automatically removing outdated email addresses if a message bounces back.
One company that takes advantage of ListBot is Woodside Works, the US and European distributor for Platinum Pens, one of Japan’s largest manufacturers of fine writing instruments. When Woodside Works president Scott Woodside first launched his Web site, he collected email addresses manually from visitors who made purchases through his Web site because he knew it would be an effective way to target customers. The process was exceedingly time-consuming, and he wasn’t sure how to use the list effectively without offending potential buyers.
With ListBot, visitors to the site can sign up to be notified about future products or sales. Web site customers can also elect not to be included in his email list at all, which ensures that his list includes only qualified customers. The process of maintaining the list and sending out email is completely automatic, saving Woodside time and money.
The results have been dramatic. According to Woodside, 99 percent of his online subscribers visit the site after receiving a mailing. And sales consistently jump by at least 50 percent on the day following a ListBot announcement.
“Without ListBot, we’d be at a loss,”
“I don’t know how any business can afford to not have ListBot on their site.”
With the addition of Site Manager, it will be easier than ever for small businesses like Woodside Works to take advantage of the power of the Web.
“In the past, creating a Web site was pretty overwhelming for many small business owners,”
says Microsoft’s Jonathan Weinstein.
“But the Web has really become an indispensable way to target customers, build loyalty and streamline business operations. Site Manager is a terrific solution that can put any business on the Web in a matter of minutes.”