By Len Monheit |
This month we celebrate the fifth anniversary of NPIcenter as an on-line business resource for the natural and nutritional products industry. Perhaps it’s an appropriate time to reflect on what has been a continuous evolution of the role of the Internet in business in general, and in this industry specifically.
Five years ago, companies had begun promoting the Internet as the medium of the future, capable of altering business processes, replacing paper-based systems with immediate round the world communications capabilities. You would buy, you would sell, you would source, you would decide, you would meet, you would facilitate, you would publish, you would approve – all in a matter of moments. Paper and print costs would be driven down, the pace of business would accelerate, profitability would magically appear and those that completely embraced ‘technology’ would have in place the fundamental element for business success.
As we fast-forward five years (yes, only five years) we see a changed business landscape yet the basic principles that define success have not changed one iota. The technology boom and bust sequence which created such an investor ride have reaffirmed the lesson that if it sounds too good to be true – it probably is. And, as we know from numerous other business experiences, no program can offer everything to everyone. There are certain critical aspects which can add value and these need to be carefully selected and integrated into a company’s overall operation. Nowhere is this more true than in the embracing of the Internet and ‘technology’ as business enablers.
While I’ll conclude with a comment about NPIcenter’s evolution over the course of the past five years, I'd first like to comment on some of the business-important applications of the Internet and technology we have observed in the natural and nutritional products industries.
Nowhere in business is there a more classic love-hate relationship. At the same time as executives and small business operators moan about spam, viruses, inability to avoid messages and higher customer expectations driven by e-mail capabilities, they understand that, when used wisely, e-mail is an effective communications tool that can shorten time to offer, buy, sell, negotiate, inform and serve. In numerous cases it has replaced fax, telex, mail and phone, facilitated international communications especially, while at the same time created nightmares and headaches for policy administrators and forced a change in business relationship management.
With spam and unsolicited marketing concerns rising, the future role of e-mail in marketing has yet to be established. Solutions to designate and separate ‘permitted’ mail are being developed and filtering technology, always one step behind, is trying to catch up. As with any technology, abuse will prevent full value from being realized, but the fact remains that some relationships and processes are best supported using e-mail. What is apparent is that the need for policies and standards is clear and these must be part of a continued re-evaluation process.
First generation websites were reproductions of corporate brochures - on-line. Unfortunately, many organizations have not evolved past this point to use their website as a customer interaction point and the trigger for new business relationships and expansion of existing ones. They also have failed to realize that the company, product or ‘whatever’ site is a dynamic entity that needs to evolve and can never be considered complete.
Some organizations have gone through a defined process in website evolution including considering target audience, desired interaction and process for all viewer groups etc, while others have not. Many have realized that increasingly, potential and existing clients include a company’s website as a tool to determine which companies to interact with and how to interact and the website must facilitate this decision. If it doesn’t, viewers will go elsewhere and so potentially will the relationship.
In the future, we predict that the site will become even more of the launch platform for client interaction across the company. Site zones will gather information to allow better relationship management, new client development, existing client communication, project management and collaboration, buying/selling etc. Site lifecycles will be better defined and pieces of sites will be developed that can be easily and quickly updated by ‘zone managers’ to reflect specials, news and important announcements. Permission-based electronic mailings will be added more frequently to the ways companies maintain contact with existing and potential clients and to make field sales representatives more productive.
The concept of an on-line community is essentially the background of NPIcenter, but in the general business environment, it can be described as an on-line destination with a series of gathered resources for a particular, defined audience. This can be a summary of category resources and links, a destination created specifically for all of your clients, a site built around a brand etc.
We are seeing more of these destinations, and as the Internet proliferates and in fact, becomes more confusing, we believe the benefits of information aggregation and organization will make these destinations more valuable. They can be used to collect intelligence and feedback, disseminate information and to support other fundamental business processes such as relationship management.
Subsets of this approach include both Intranets and Extranets. An Intranet is an on-line destination used within the company for collaboration and information sharing while an Extranet involves use outside of the company (could involve remote employees) possibly including selected clients, suppliers or collaborators using the Internet as a platform to access and exchange large amounts of information, records, files, etc.
Several years ago, the organization of Internet information by search engines was in its infancy. Now these ‘businesses’ represent some of the highest value in the technology world using complex algorithms to decide on rankings. They have evolved their business models to include paid placements and other privileges, have licensed their technologies to other search providers and the ‘space’ has consolidated from fifteen or so dominant engines into about four or five primary groups. The concept of a search engine has become so mainstream that ‘to google’ is often now considered a verb. The concept of organized search has become so important that if your site has more than 10 pages, it’s almost a necessity to have a site search function.
If your objective is to obtain new business on-line, then search engine strategy must be a part of your web-planning. And considering how quickly this aspect is changing, your organization must be extremely flexible.
Using technology as a business enabler is a path with many pitfalls. Which should you purchase and when should you buy? These decisions impact whether you’ve got a short or long term solution? Whether to develop in house or to outsource is a classic dilemma and if you’ve already got an internal IT (Information Technology) group they probably can handle most of the issues – at least from the technical side. Unfortunately, there’s more than just the technical aspect that determines delivered value. Client expectations and behaviors too are changing and this is probably the most pressing driver for any company and must be factored into the planning process.
As NPIcenter celebrates its fifth anniversary, we recognize that our audience has evolved, and its needs and desires are similarly changing. We have tried to anticipate and you will certainly find that the NPIcenter of today is quite different from ‘Version 1’ five years ago. Similarly, our next version and the resources and tools it contains will also be altered. What has not changed is the objective of the site and its primary intent to be an aggregation of information that is useful and important to the natural and nutritional products industries.
Most of our registration processes are monitored. If you were to sign up for one of our offerings with a comment that required feedback – you’d get it quickly. We carefully watch user patterns, not on an individual basis, but on a more macro scale. We know that on average, viewers from about 140 countries around the world use NPIcenter each month. We know that over the past three months, almost 2 million NPIcenter pages have been viewed by a quarter of a million viewers.
Initially, the company database and a series of useful links drove site value. Now, these features, coupled with daily and weekly e-newsletter programs, a Career Center, product showcase, International content, articles, searchable database of news, releases and announcements as well as products and categories attempt to meet the needs of a much wider audience.
It’s a work in progress, one that appreciates your support and feedback and looks forward to expanding our relationships by delivering increasing value to viewers, clients and the industry.
Thanks for your support these past five years!