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Put your practice on the Net

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The on-line population is huge - by the end of this year it will be between 150 and 200 million world-wide: probably 10 million in the UK and 15 million in the rest of Europe. Electronic commerce is booming, particularly in business-to-business transactions. What was previously the domain of the 'techies' is very much moving into the mainstream.

It really is time that you got your practice on-line. The approach that you take depends on your company and the level of risk you are comfortable with. Here are three possible strategies:

Just sign up for a dial-up account and observe in a purposeful way what's going on.

Dip your toe in the water by putting up an experimental site. People normally do this by putting their existing brochures, reports or catalogues on the web site. This approach does have some real limitations but it also has some advantages.

Really go for it. This involves taking a long-term strategic view and developing your business specifically to take advantage of the world-wide market that is available through the Internet.

The choice is yours. I shall look briefly at each of these three options.

The dial-up account

This costs £10-£15 per month plus your phone charges. With this you'll get access to all the facilities available on the Internet - search engines, web sites, publications etc. You'll get e-mail facilities but you won't actually have a presence or a 'shop front' on the Internet. My view is that now every architectural practice should have this as an absolute minimum.

Dipping your toe in the water

This is usually the first step for most companies and organisations. In a flush of enthusiasm, they put brochures, annual reports, technical reports, press releases and feedback forms up on the web. Then sit back and wait for the world to respond . . . and wait . . . and wait . . .

That is the problem with this type of approach - it is not very likely to generate large numbers of visitors. Such a site will usually attract existing customers, competitors and colleagues, and it can be used as a useful back-up to presentations or pitches.

The advantages of this type of site include:

it is the first obvious thing to do on the web and is easy to sell to a management team or to other partners

it is relatively inexpensive. Because material already exists, design costs can be kept to a minimum

the process of getting information together and deciding how to organise the site makes the company start thinking about what it wants to achieve with its web presence.

Disadvantages include:

it doesn't take advantage of the unique features of the Internet

response rates and traffic to the site will be low

the experience may block further development of an Internet strategy.

Despite its limitations, this is a useful start and can lead the way to a more strategic use of the Internet. Typical costs might be £2000- £3000.

Going for it

This is the visionary approach, and as the Internet continues to grow will become increasingly attractive. The approach takes full advantage of the capabilities of the web. Businesses that follow this route take a global perspective, recognise the world-wide potential and design their products and services to meet that potential. They are essentially creating businesses for the web.

Here are some examples:

cdnow (www.cdnow.com) was conceived from day one as a low-overhead, virtual business selling music cds in cyberspace. In its first year of business - 1995 - cdnow turned over $2 million. By the end of 1996 turnover was on target for over $20 million - the equivalent level of sales for 10 retail outlets.

The Amazon Bookstore (www.amazon.com) has quickly become one of the best known and largest businesses on the web. A printed catalogue of what Amazon offers would be the size of 14 New York City phone books - with over two million titles.

Architects considering this route should expect to invest at least £5000 initially, together with ongoing management and maintenance costs.

These examples are inspirational and every day on the web more examples arrive.

However, some words of caution. The Internet is still far from perfect and things don't always work. It can be very frustrating - connections can break, computers can crash, the whole thing can be very slow.

So when you sit down to plan your web site, think of your potential clients who have overcome all these barriers to reach your site. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. And that means your web site should offer them something useful and of immediate benefit.

Ken McGaffin can be contacted at Active Multimedia, tel 0181 802 2203, email Ken@connectionking.prestel.co.uk, web site www.activemultimedia.co.uk

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