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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

February 2, 1998

Setting in stone the Ten Commandments of I-commerce

With a column name like Net Prophet, you almost have to get up on a chair and make some proclamations from time to time. After studying the Internet-commerce world for the past year, I would like to think I have got a pretty good picture of how it works.

So, I am going to proclaim some basic ground rules for Internet commerce. This is not rocket science, and many of these rules are just common sense. But ignore them at your peril.

Call them the Ten Commandments of I-Commerce (with no pretensions of any kind to divine origin).

I. Thou shalt offer customers information, speed, and convenience. Customers turn to the Web for rich product data, the capability to search through thousands of products at once, and the opportunity to purchase things on a whim without leaving their desks. You need to satisfy those desires. Your online store needs to contain more information than its physical-world analogues, and finding that information must be easy and quick.

II. Thou shalt use a secure server. For your own protection and your customers', use a secure Web server to process transactions. For processing credit-card transactions on a consumer site, Secure Sockets Layer is probably sufficient, but you may need heavy-duty encryption and authentication for business-to-business commerce. And don't forget to secure your site, installing -- and carefully configuring -- a firewall, and then ensuring that critical information, such as customer lists and credit-card numbers, are stored behind it.

III. Thou shalt provide customers with real-time access to inventory, account, and shipping databases. Let your customers help themselves: Give them real-time access to the information they seek, right from your site. If they can't check on the availability of a product or the status of their orders, they may not buy -- or, worse yet, they may flood your customer-service phone lines with time-consuming inquiries.

IV. Thou shalt accept a variety of payment methods. By far the most popular way to purchase things online is by using a credit card. You should accept a variety of them -- and display their logos on your home page, just as restaurants do on their front doors, so potential customers know what to expect. For small payments, use a micropayment or digital-cash system. Put its logo on the home page, too. And always offer users the option to phone, fax, or mail in their payments.

V. Thou shalt foster customer communities where appropriate. Not every product is conducive to community formation. But many are -- and an online community, carefully managed and encouraged to grow, is a powerful stimulus to your business. If you start a community, be sure to commit enough time and money to make it work. Then get out of the way and watch your site -- and your customers' loyalty -- grow.

VI. Thou shalt promote thy site. There is no walk-in traffic on the Web -- people will come to your site only if invited. Promote your site by registering it with search engines, using targeted e-mail campaigns, by purchasing ads in a variety of media, and by forming partnerships with other sites.

VII. Thou shalt use customer information to improve service. One of the richest possibilities that I-commerce opens for the online retailer is the capability to collect unprecedented amounts of information about customers and their browsing and buying habits. Don't let this information slip away. Use it to improve the way you do business, giving each customer just what he or she wants. Some people like to call this "one-to-one marketing." Where I grew up in Ohio, we just called it good service.

VIII. Thou shalt not give away or sell customer information without the customers' consent. With all that information comes responsibility. Respect your customers' privacy -- don't sell or give away their information without their permission.

IX. Thou shalt not spam. E-mail is a powerful weapon -- use it wisely. In moderation, it can be a great way to encourage repeat visits, alert customers to special deals, disseminate information, and confirm orders. But don't abuse it. And always give recipients an easy way to remove themselves -- permanently -- from your mailing list if they want.

X. Thou shalt not ignore global markets. The Internet may have been born in America, but it long since has become an international citizen. When you open up a storefront on the Web, you're open for business from Albania to Zambia. You'll need to take others' languages, and sensibilities, into account if you want them to be customers. You'll need to be open 24 hours per day, seven days per week. And you should be aware of the export laws that may govern your business with other nations.

Did I drop any tablets? Tell me what commerce commandments are missing at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney edits InfoWorld's Focus on I-Commerce section.

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