Introduction Internet, once a preserve of the military, scientists and engineers is now being embraced by a lot of users and other professionals. It is gradually being widely accepted that the information technology revolution is impacting and will continue to impact on the conduct of business (both local and international) in this millennium. The Internet can no longer be regarded as a fad. The commercial uses of the internet have become the fastest growing part in the world of the World Wide Web. By the close of last year, 20 percent of all trade volume was handled via the net and by 2005; one billion people would be connected to the net. By the close of last year, Business Consulting Group predicted Business to Business (B2B) online commerce to be $ 3.3 trillion while Forrester Research estimated it to be $ 2.7 trillion. These estimates were even conservative compared to others made. Online customer acquisition and retention rates are improving and online marketing spending is becoming more efficient.
The Internet has been described as “a vast computer network interconnected globally”. To marketers, IT offers organisations inexpensive and sophisticated tools for advertising, taking their philosophies and communicating with their customers all over the world. With the number of users growing monthly at an estimated rate of 10 percent and an average of one million people, the Internet is the fastest growing global telecommunication network in the world. The number of connections to the Internet is expected to double in size every year. If the current expected growth rate persists, there will be more than 200 million networks connected to the Internet by the close of this year. The Internet for instance is providing a lot of countries with the broad and vast communication network that is driving the formulation of a huge global electronic marketplace. This marketplace created by the Internet is shared, real-time, global and open. A wide range of services are being embraced by marketers including e-mail, list servers, newsgroup, file transfer protocol and the World Wide Web which are providing results.
The Internet is now regarded as an important and perhaps a transformational marketing medium for business to business (B2B), business to consumer (B2C) and consumer to consumer markets (C2C). Consumers use the Internet for many different reasons ranging from only gathering information to purchasing products online. Online purchase is still a small percentage of Internet usage; however, most analysts expect it to increase dramatically once consumers feel safe about their purchases and protection of their privacy. Research has revealed that, users spend 10 hours per week surfing the web whilst 4.5 hours are spent reading newspapers. Considering this background, the purpose of this piece is therefore to reveal the startling set of merits the Internet has over the traditional marketing vehicles and how Ghanaian marketers can take advantage of this.
In any way that we see marketing, whether as “the conception, creation and sustenance of customers” or “a purposeful attempt of activities intended to promote the market exchange of goods and services”, the marketer’s first task is to communicate key messages to the full set of target prospects, customers and influencers. The web as medium has quickly achieved very broad reach and will soon pass broadcast and cable television as the medium with the broadest consistent reach.
Ability to Target
Every potent marketing medium should make room for the targeted prospects and customers to talk back easily- by identifying themselves, to declare their interest and readiness to purchase and to the extent of criticising or complaining about a product or service. Internet and e-mail offer a superb and outstanding terrain in this form of interactivity and feedback collection.
The traditional medium of marketing has been criticised to be only one or two steps of the Awareness-Interest-Desire-Action cycle (A.I.D.A).For instance, research has indicated that, advertising can just lead a consumer to be aware but cannot help him to consume. This then leads generally to a wasted marketing effort. The internet is offering a unique power to move consumers easily from initial awareness through purchase.
A better learning platform
The traditional marketing medium has relied on subjective assessment and sampling techniques to measure traditional advertising and public relations though very expensive and time consuming. On the other hand, the Internet has enabled us to capture site navigation information, information retrieval and purchase behaviour and others easily. This is making market research more reliable and easy.
Promptness and relevancy
It has been established in business realm that “time is money”. The internet is held to be superior to all other media in the capacity to deliver messages that are not only timely, but immediately relevant to the recently displayed interests or actions of the customer.
The Internet has a unique ability to function as a platform for a variety of marketing medium at a particular point in time. Using the Web and e-mail, we can run awareness advertising, send targeted mail, full collateral requests, conduct seminar, drive a public relations campaign and offer a premium for an immediate action. It can also provide unlimited information to seriously interested user. The end user can navigate through a web page of a company to more detailed information. This information will occupy many pages of a manual brochure and even it becomes difficult and expensive if one wants to up date it to suit current circumstances.
Hoteliers can therefore use this platform to market services internationally, manufacturing companies can use it to publish its corporate profiles and promote its individual divisions and products. The page can also have a hot-line for users to dial in queries and requests for updated company news releases. Internet users can send in applications for job vacancies and send their suggestions and comments through a feedback page. Similarly, the travel industry homepages can offer information on tour packages for potential visitors.
The other side of the coin
However, the Internet has some weak points that need to be considered. Customer service is possibly one of the major challenges faced by consumers and online companies marketing their products. There is no one to ask a question, no one to chat with and no one to bargain down prices. Many industry analysts and e-commerce firms indicate that from 50 to 75% of customers abandon their shopping carts without any purchase. They attribute the reason to poor customer service. To this, some companies have customer service and keyword or product search areas (search engines on their websites where customers can make enquiries). Though most frequently asked questions(FAQ) sections work fine, the automated responses including automated e-mails often result in providing inaccurate information or general information that are not so useful to customers. A solution to this issue is provided to some extent by Aptex Software Inc. This company supplies artificial intelligence tools to understand questions without human interventions, and even get the tone of the e-mail whether angry, sarcastic or humorous. Other developments include online one-to one typed dialogue with customer representative (see wiredempire.com), the use of Voice over the Internet (see Quintus eContact) and streaming video over the Internet (see Liveperson.com).
Also, with the traditional system of marketing, it has been realised that the prospect could be led through a progressive process of information disclosure and purchase commitment. On the web, this is an illusion-the customer is in control. He/she can decide to dig deep or jump to a competitor’s site by a click of a button.
It sometimes takes a lot of efforts to convince a prospect that you are offering a superior product or service on the net. This may need some graphics, motion and sound. The weakness in our personal computers in Ghana as a multimedia vehicle coupled with inadequate access bandwidth mean that what we can achieve in web marketing may be insignificant. We hope broad band access being introduced by some Internet Service Providers in Ghana will go a long way to mitigate this problem.
Another issue is privacy of consumers. Online firms request names, addresses, e-mail addresses and other personal information from customers. The data collectors promise that this information is confidential, but they do not always keep to their promises. Therefore consumers are weary and sceptical in providing information. Security wise, there have been advances in this direction. Currently, most sites that accept credit cards use encrypting software in receiving the credit card and instantly verify the availability of funds to make purchases and authenticate and authorise purchases. MasterCard’s MC Online, Visa Card’s Capital One and American Express’s Private payments are attempts to go round this problem of credit card fraud.
Issues worth considering
It can clearly be identified that the strength of the Internet far outweighs the negatives. Ghanaian companies especially those exploring a niche and export oriented ones which are grappling with the issue of whether to market via the Internet are already lagging behind and must therefore rethink.
On the other hand, companies who are attempting to build a coherent Internet marketing strategy must begin to develop the confidence that the Web is likely to be the centre of their marketing future, not simply acting as a window for presenting the history and activities of the company. It should be noted that the design of a website needs to be viewed primarily as a business task, should be marketing-oriented and needs to be edited or updated as often.
To Ghanaian companies which have developed usable websites, they should strive to register the websites on the main search engines like Google, AltaVista, Lycos, Yahoo, MetaCrawler, Excite or Search.com in order for the global pro-active players to find them easily.
Moreover, online companies should also work towards the achievement of the “third Internet level” i.e. the use of internet for dialogue, personalization and e-commerce. I definitely know that Corporate Ghana is not yet there with regards to online payment and other online transactions which are the hallmarks of e-commerce. With the seemingly seriousness we are trying to push ICT in Ghana, companies have to prepare and be proactive so that they will not be caught hands down.
Too small companies within the same industry or commodity chain can pull their resources together in the establishment of a common website. They can therefore create this website with links to smaller company sub-sites and links to other most visited sites of the country like the official homepage of Ghana, ghanaweb.com, Ghana Investment or export councils.
The e-mail culture between and among staff and the general public should also be encouraged. Research has shown that face to face interaction is deeply rooted in the Ghanaian business culture and practices. At least an e-mail sent will prevent for example an enquirer from walking all the way to the company’s premises. This will go a long way to reduce traffic on our roads; saves time for both corporate staff and enquirer, save telephone cost and promote productivity.
It should also be noted that the issue is not what merchandise you sell on the Internet but how to delight customers to purchase the merchandise online and to repeat purchase. Jeff Bezos of Amazon .com has revealed that the success of Amazon (especially the book division) is due to excellent management that knows how to satisfy customers. Unfortunately, most Ghanaian companies have no idea about how to delight or satisfy their customers. Our customer relations or support departments are nothing to write home about. I am afraid if we do not change this negative attitude, it will definitely be carried onto to the web and the consequences would be drastic.
To end it all, Ghanaian firms must understand that they cannot succeed without mixing the traditional way of marketing with that of Internet. Mixing the “clicks and bricks/mortar” strategy (blending the traditional way of marketing with Internet marketing) has been identified to be the future of marketing especially in our part of the world where business is conducted on trust. Internet marketing should not in anyway be pursued or developed at the expense of the traditional one. They complement each other. Robert Ankomah Opoku Division of Industrial Marketing & e-Commerce Luleå University of Technology, Luleå, Sweden http://www.geocities.com/opokurob/mypage.html Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.