Let's all play The Internet Game

Thrice in the past month, friends have approached me with passionate arguments along the lines of "Surely we can get in on this Net business thingy. Let's make lots of money!"

The pitch is essentially to build an e-commerce site, ride with the Net cowboys, lasso those IPO dollars, and then retire to the Lazy Web Ranch to count stock options on the porch.

The spectre of e-commerce has got perfectly ordinary wage earners thinking about launching businesses and making money in a way I'm sure they have never thought of before. It's as though the Internet was money itself.

If you believe that, here's how to play The Internet Game.

Get a bunch of your friends together, supply them with alcohol (optional), and get them talking about how there is a bunch of pimply young geeks out there making millions of dollars from the Net, so why can't they do it, too.

This where you'll discover whether there are still truly innovative ways to make money from the Net, or whether all the good ideas have been snapped up. And let's be honest, the idea is to make money - no one's ever approached me with a plan to serve humanity via the Web.

The more viable ideas you gather, the more points (IPO dollars) you get. Here are some broad tactics for playing.

Look for retail opportunities where you don't have to touch to buy. We're human - we like to touch things, to kick tyres. It's called a sensory nervous system. Whether it's squeezing rockmelons or fluffing up towels, it's retail culture and e-tailers have to meet the challenge. There are just some things that people won't buy unless they can hold them before paying for them.

Minus points for trying to sell kittens and puppies online.

But it's not as simple as that. You would battle to get a first-time buyer for a $2000 suit online, because there's no way to see the colour and feel the weight of the weave, but what about a woman who has been using the same brand of skin moisturiser for 10 years?

She knows what the packaging looks like and how much it costs; at the right price, this is an easy sell, and what is called a "replenishing purchaser".

Extra points and a BMW for knowing the difference.

Then you must do battle with the "retail experience". For some people, shopping for clothes is almost a religious experience. The same goes for books, where bricks-and-mortar bookshops allow you to browse the shelves, pick up titles at random, and probably buy something you never intended to.

In this scenario, the Internet doesn't do well with the passive shopper - the "window shopper" or browser - because it's an active medium. You'll do better with the shopper focused on what they want and with an idea of what it should cost.

Now that you've followed all the rules, break them.

People do browse and buy on the Web because something catches their eye. People do buy rockmelons over the Internet because not everyone wants to squeeze them, and I only have to mention "Amazon" to prove that people do buy books over the Net.

The trick is to divide the potential market for your product into different categories and be realistic about the appeal of e-tailing to each. Some shoppers will essentially trade their retail experience for a greatly reduced price.

Price, service and convenience make for a good retail experience. Let's assume the Internet takes care of the convenience factor, then you have to convince shoppers on price and service.

If you can deliver the said rockmelon, perfect in its freshness, to the door of a customer for a price that matches or even betters the local greengrocer's, then you have an e-business well worth marketing.

Bonus points and a week in the Bahamas if you can exceed your customer's expectations.

Ian Yates wrote wisely in this magazine two months ago: "You don't have to intend to conquer the world in order to get Web-enabled."

Sage advice, but playing The Internet Game is most definitely about world domination. Yee ha.

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MARK STAFFORD

PC World
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