How Small Business Agents Can Survive on the Internet
Writing Workshop II
Professor Julia Keefer
April 27, 2000
The Internet, and more precisely the World Wide Web (WWW), has changed the way that consumers make decisions and purchases. Terms such as "e-commerce" and "e-marketplace" are now part of the vocabulary of business and its associated transactions. While the WWW offers opportunities to all businesses, large corporations have been able to stake a claim on the ënet because of their financial status and marketing power. Each day, however, small businesses are emerging on the ënet to claim their share of the market. The competition is strong and some small businesses may not be able to achieve success on the ënet. The large corporation may believe that a site that is based solely on functionality, where the surfer can visit, obtain what they need, and leave, is sufficient for ënet survival, but for the small business this is not the case. To ensure their survival on the ënet, small business agents must not only have a web site that is original, distinctive, informative and easy to navigate, but they must also develop and appeal to a particular community to hold the surfers' interest and retain their business. To facilitate in our exploration we will be looking specifically at the small travel agency and its role in both meatspace and cyberspace. We will also explore the concepts of e-commerce and e-marketing, and what is necessary for the agent to develop a presence on the ënet and to ensure customer stickiness and retention. To facilitate our exploration, a web site has been created for a small travel agency that markets to a specific niche, the cruise traveler.
To understand what the small business agent must do to survive on the web, we need to understand how business is conducted on it (e-commerce) and in what forum (e-marketplace). Leebaert described the marketplace as "a space in which to meet and argue and bargain over things, a place of freedom and newness offering reprocities not thought of until encountered. It used to be that the right to open a marketplace was once a jealously guarded sovereign privilege (6)." Stefik describes how in traditional towns, producers will bring their things to a central place on market day (180). Most town markets focus on agricultural goods and other locally produced goods, although some traders sell things from around the world. Eventually these individuals would reach a bigger consumer base and companies would grow to support the increase. Ultimately, some companies would become large corporations and the balance of power would shift to those corporations. The introduction of the Internet leveled that playing field somewhat, since it is easy to join the electronic marketplace (e-marketplace) as long as one can provide either capital, technology or the ingenuity to establish a presence on the web.
Within this e-marketplace and the businesses utilizing it, electronic commerce takes place. Fellenstein and Wood defined e-commerce as "the transaction, pre-transaction, and post-transaction set of activities that are performed by buyers and sellers throughout the Internet where there is a clear intent to buy and sell (1)." In most businesses, it is feasible to handle all business transactions electronically, which permits the use of e-commerce as the sole contact between merchant and consumer. Every day consumers are conducting more and more business via e-commerce than ever before. According to Fellenstein and Wood, in 1996 e-commerce transactions resulted in $707 Million in revenue which increased to an impressive $2.6 Billion in 1997 and to an astounding $5 Billion in 1998 (9). The convenience of shopping from home is why more and more people are choosing do business via e-commerce (9). When polled, consumers who actively use the ënet rated convenience as the number one reason they prefer to shop online (9). When you take into account that the Internet has the fastest addition rate of any new electronic medium, the possibilities of marketing and commerce are endless since it has taken less than 5 years to get 50 million people connected. In contrast, it took radio 38 years, television 13 years and cable 10 years to reach an audience of 50 million (11 - 12).
Because of the enormous size of the Internet however, smaller businesses will have to strategically plan their marketing for it to be effective. Traditional methods of marketing are generally used by the larger corporations because of their larger budgets. Ad space for instance, on popular websites can be quite expensive and out of reach for small businesses. "Free" advertising is plentiful on the internet with such resources as: banner exchanges in which you allow banner content advertising to be displayed on your site in exchange for the promise of another site displaying your content, e-mail broadcasts in which an advertising message is broadcast via email to members on a rented list, and search engine listings in which the address of your site is listed in a directory on the internet. With so many companies utilizing these "free" ads, it is easy for your companyís visibility to get lost in the vast sea of information. There is also no easy way to track and target consumers to your site or for consumers to find your site by these methods, unless you opt to purchase advertising to get your site optimal view. Small businesses will find that they will have to be unique in their industry and find a niche to stand out in the crowd. Once accomplished, the benefit is great since the interactive marketplace is a highly personalized one. Every consumerís experience can be unique due to this one-on-one marketplace. Therefore, it is essential that the design and maintenance of the business site not only be informative and comprehensive, but uniquely attractive in its field, which will ultimately lead to customer retention. We will explore this necessity later in the paper, but first we need to understand our industry of choice, the travel industry, and the role of the travel agent.
The travel agent has always been an integral part of the travel industry and to explore what the small business agent will need to do to survive on the web, we must understand what a travel agent is. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines "travel" as (1b) a journey especially to a distant or unfamiliar place and an "agent" as (4) one who is authorized to act for or in the place of another as c) a business representative. It defines "travel agent" as a person engaged in selling and arranging transportation, tours, or trips for travelers. Basically, a travel agent will act as a representative for travel suppliers and operators such as airlines, cruise lines, and vacation package wholesalers.
As demand for travel grew and needs changed, travel agents became more than just product representatives, but a source of knowledge and advice for the traveler. Customers will look to the agent for suggestions and information to help plan their trips. The agent possessing extensive knowledge in products and destinations and is able to qualify their clients for appropriate vacations can provide a valuable service for the consumer who does not possess these skills. Many different types of agents and agencies exist. The traditional agency type is the "full service" storefront agency, but lately, more agents are establishing home based, cruise oriented agencies for practical reasons. The main reasons being that when establishing a full service agency that deals with all travel components, including selling and printing of airline tickets, an Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC) appointment is necessary. ARC is the company that governs all domestic (and international in conjunction with IATA (International Air Transport Association)) ticket selling, printing and compensation for the airlines. For an agency to be appointed with ARC, requirements must be met (www.arccorp.com):
These requirements can make it difficult for some small agencies to engage in full service transactions and will move them to pursue alternative agency structures. Such alternatives are cruise-oriented agencies, home-based agencies, or both. The requirements for these agencies are much less stringent:
Many cruise oriented agencies will choose to be affiliated with the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an organization devoted to promoting cruises, cruise lines and vacations. An agency affiliation with CLIA is recognized by their member cruise lines and some vacation suppliers as the ability to sell their product, since CLIA requires the above conditions be met (www.cruising.org). The home based agent can easily sell cruise and vacation product and forego the air product, which may be justified since airlines have cut commissions drastically and not much money is to be made by the small agency from them.
To establish a good foundation, the small agency may decide to turn to organizations that will provide support and programs that only a large agency can obtain or afford. One such organization is the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA) which has levels of membership so that large and small agencies can benefit. ARTA not only offers programs and services to assist with day-to-day operations, they also have a presence in Washington to support and act as an advocate of the travel agent. Another organization, the National Association of Cruise-Oriented Agencies (NACOA) was designed to accommodate the smaller agencies that opted not to sell air travel and focus mainly on cruise sales. They support their members by offering education, discount programs and seminars to inform the agents of the latest information and trends. While membership in either organization is not obligatory, it does provide the resources that may not have been obtainable without the creation of a large agency and lends the agency more credibility. To further our exploration an agency has been created named "Just Go Away!" This agency will be a small home-based, cruise-oriented agency that will be affiliated with CLIA, ARTA and NACOA.
After the creation of the agency you will need to find people to do business with and advertising is the most direct way to accomplish this. The small agency might have less capital to advertise with, so they will have to find ways to stand out from the rest. One way this can be accomplished is to join a consortium, which is a group that is formed so that it's members can receive benefits that might be only available to larger organizations. Advertising programs and lead referrals are some of the types of programs that consortiums may offer members as well as higher commission structures from contracted suppliers. An example of a travel consortium is the Marketing Alliance for Retail Travel (MART) which offers advertising programs, membership discounts and higher commission structures to the members that pay their annual dues.
Another way the small agency can stand out would be niche marketing. Traditionally, agents marketed their business by advertising (print or otherwise), direct mailing and word of mouth, but as more agencies were established, a need for uniqueness was becoming apparent. Niche Marketing, which is targeting a specialized group, is very important for small agencies since the ability to provide a product that is not sold by any or many other agencies will ensure that business from that particular market will come to the agency. An example of an agency that found their niche market is A.R.C. Travel (www.arctvl.com) in Arlington, MA. The offer adventure travel packages, such as hiking, safari, biking, rafting, ballooning and diving trips, for consumers that are looking specifically for these types of trips. Another niche agency is All About Destinations (www.aadintl.com) that found its market in the Gay and Lesbian community. They are certified alternative travel specialists with knowledge in destinations and travel for gays. Since we would like our agency to be afforded the benefits of promotion and advertising, and to stand out from the rest, it will be affiliated with the MART consortium and will be niche marketing to the cruise community.
Now that we have created our agency and decided what type of agency and what the market will be, we will need to develop a web presence. The small business agent must develop a web site that is original, distinctive, informative, and easy to navigate to survive on the ënet. Web design is very crucial, since it can make or break that presence.
If the agent has created a business that markets to a particular niche, creating an original web site should be fairly easy as long as it is designed with the particular audience in mind. The style and content of the site will reflect the aspects of the market and would render the site distinctive amongst others within the industry. The web site will not be as useful unless it can provide enough content to be informative to the user and must be easy to navigate (user-friendly) to ensure there is no confusion for the user. The design of the web site should encompass all of the mentioned aspects to warrant traffic.
Carol Rich breaks down the planning and creation process into eleven steps in her book Creating Online Media (197 - 206):
Defining your mission is simply determining what you are trying to accomplish on your site. In our case we are trying to sell cruises to consumers while providing some information and entertainment. We have already identified our audience as consumers looking to book travel, preferably on cruise ships. To develop a business plan we must consider factors such as how will we advertise and what costs will be involved with creating and maintaining our site? These factors will be determined by the choices that will be made after we decide on the design of the site. When planning the content it is helpful to brainstorm, list the criteria for your site, outline the content, plan the links within the site and what purpose they will serve, plan interactive elements, and consider maintenance of the site. Creating a storyboard is actually creating a flowchart of how each link will flow throughout the site and adding the timeline will allow for realistic guidelines and completion dates of the site. Now we can start planning the content of the home page and all of the internal pages to decide how we want the site to look, start designing the page, testing it with users and revise as necessary. Since the design process is very crucial to the success of the web site, we will focus on this step.
The way a web site is designed can make or break a company's success on the ënet. One important factor to consider when designing a site is color. The colors that are used will not only be dictated by other aspects of the site such as text and graphics, but will also affect the viewer of the site as well. Gorst explains that color only exists in our minds. "It is a sensation based on a reaction to variations in light wavelengths. We have an emotional response to those wavelengths."(1) This emotional response is caused by different reasons such as symbolism and psychology. There is symbolism for color because practically every culture on earth has assigned meaning to color and it is so ingrained in society, color can have a powerful influence on human feeling as shown in the expressions "feeling blue" and "it's a black day." Psychology is closely tied to symbolism. From a psychological standpoint, color can convey warmth and weight. An example might be a site that is advertising hot air balloons would probably not want to use black or navy blue since those are heavy colors and implying that the balloons are heavy is probably not a good idea. Lighter colors such as yellow and sky blue would work better. Black however, advises that the three colors a site should use are white for background, black for text and red for accent (33), with white being the brightest color on the video screen, black the best contrast against white, and red reading well against black. His contention is that since these colors sell newspapers it would work well for the ënet. Our site will need to convey a cool, airy sea feeling and we will be using sky blue contrasted with powder blue.
Graphics can be very important for a web site, but the use of too many may make the site appear too cluttered. The graphic files should be kept small to reduce the time taken for loading onto the page. Animated pictures and blinking text may distract or annoy the viewer and should be used conservatively. Since our site will be informative, we will be placing mostly text, but using some graphics to create a sensual atmosphere to entice the viewer into desiring a cruise vacation. A moving ship or a leaping dolphin can incite this desire as well as a photo of a couple lounging on a ship's deck enjoying the sun and happily looking into the distance at something that one can conclude must be exciting. Images such as these can provoke the viewer into the mood necessary to stay on the site, which is referred to stickiness, a concept we will explore later in this paper.
Layout of the site will dictate where the most important information should go, mainly near the top, since this will be the first information that the viewer will see. This layout is true for newspapers as well, which is a good way to think of the design of a site. Content should be placed on every page, so that clicking through layers of pages to obtain information is minimized since every further click may lessen your viewer's interest and move them to leave your site. Our site will be like a magazine layout with large masthead, 3 columns containing graphics that are either decorative or linking buttons to other pages and text boxes of headlines that link to subsequent pages.
When creating the structure of the site an important issue to address is clicking vs. scrolling for web pages. Black contends that pages with images should be designed that won't require scrolling. "Just as 75 percent of people will only read the top half of a folded newspaper, most browsers will never scroll. People are more likely to click a button and keep going. (54)" Layering of articles will provide readers with a headline, and an abstract that they can click to launch to a larger block of text (Rich 206). Our web site will provide headline blocks that are bordered and containing headline links and abstracts to entice the viewer to click and view the entire text on another page. We will be limiting the amount on each page so that there will limited or no scrolling. At this point our design process is mostly finished and just some modifications to the storyboard will be necessary, and after testing and revisions we can begin the creation of the site.
Creating a web site can be as simple as learning the languages needed for creation. The most widely used programming language for the web is HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) in which the majority of web pages is created in. It uses simple text with "tags", which are commands in brackets, to format the text, audio, video and hyperlink content on a web page. An example of HTML code would be: <S> Bold Text</S>, would read on a web page as "Bold Text". HTML is fairly easy to learn and can be created immediately, but like many other source code programming languages you will have to run the code to debug, which is the process of troubleshooting a programís code. This type of programming can be very time consuming for the novice. To alleviate this, a designer can create pages in by utilizing software programs that allow you to design with user friendly interfaces that will automatically create the language source code. These interfaces are usually called "What You See Is What You Get" or WSIWYG. The price of the program can more than make up for itself in time saved, and they usually offer more than just HTML programming, such as scripts that allow a function or action to run after the code is downloaded to the user's browser so it can run repeatedly even when offline.
While designing your own web site may ensure the site is very personalized and cost effective, many site owners opt to contract a company to design a web site for them. This option can be useful, especially for large companies that can afford accomplished designers. Although there may be a large expense, small companies may find this service beneficial, since it will put them in league with the larger companies by providing professional looking content. The downside to hiring a designer would be a slight loss of the personalization of the site and personality being very important to the small business agent when developing a sense of brand, so when people see your name or logo, they know who you are and what you are selling. For our site creation weíve decided to go with a program called "vacation desktop" which is an online application from a company called Online Agency. The program allows you to create a home page, linked web pages, add graphics and a logo, maintains a searchable database of cruise lines, ships, itineraries and maintains promotions from the suppliers. Its interface is user friendly and updating the site is easy. A domain called www.justgoaway.com has been requested and weíve created our web presence on Online Agency. Now that we've created the site, we need to get surfers to visit and advertising and marketing of the site will accomplish this.
The small business agent, after creating a site that is original, distinctive, informative and user-friendly, must attract surfers to the site, keep them on the site and ensure that they will return to the site. Advertising is very important to the small business agent to draw surfers to their site. The method of advertising chosen will depend on not only practicality, but affordability as well. There are many different methods such as "banner exchanges" where the site owner agrees to display a graphic advertisement which will link surfers to that company's site, or banner, on their site with the promise of their banner to be displayed on another site, and "buttons" in which a web site will sell a company a button that will link to their site. While both of these are good, there are some drawbacks. While your banner displayed on another site can lead a surfer to yours, the banner that is displayed on your site can also lead a surfer away from it. As for buttons, the cost to purchase one could be quite high costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month. To accommodate a small business user, we need to explore methods that will not lead surfers away from their site and keep them within their limited budgets.
Most small companies establishing a presence on the ënet will think that they can drive many surfers to their sites for free by listing with search engines, but this might not generate enough traffic (if any) and must ultimately take their marketing strategy much more seriously. There are many great marketing techniques that small businesses can use that are cost effective and are more targeted than the search engines. One of these is exchanging links with another site, which draws people to your site from another. Care should be taken when selecting a web site to link with, since you donít want people leaving your site to a competitorís. Another is to create a listing in an industry specific portal or database, which in our case would be travel. Once such database is Travel Hub (www.travelhub.com) which is a search engine that searches a database of travel specialists, that can identify agencies based on their specialization and location. It also allows agencies to post their current specials for greater visibility. The free service includes a short agency listing under the heading of a single specialization, but companies can opt to pay fees for larger and better listings and inclusion under multiple headings if they desire. When a consumer looking for travel on the web utilizes Travel Hub there is a better chance for an agencyís site to be visited than via the search engines.
Another new and popular marketing method is "reverse marketing", where consumers market their desires for companies dealing with that product or service to view and respond to. One such site is iWant.com (www.iwant.com) which offers consumers an opportunity to post a "want", which is an item or service they are seeking, for free to be viewed by thousands of registered sellers. If a seller can fulfill the clients want, they can contact the anonymous buyer via the iwant messaging service. This website is becoming very popular and cruises are one of the top categories that over 4000 registered travel agents can search. At this time the service is free for all registered sellers, but after the 1st quarter of 2000 only limited use will be available at no cost. If a seller wants to use it full capacity and receive more features, they will pay a nominal commission for each successful sale. The feature that makes this site so attractive to consumers is that they always feel like they are in total control of each transaction and can make educated decisions, since sellers must provide all of their information and have a web site for consumers to explore. The buyers remain anonymous until they choose otherwise and can end a conversation with the seller at any time. This marketing technique allows small businesses to take full advantage of the Internetís vast base of potential customers. Of course, free advertising is available for the agent that is probably never thought of - include your site address wherever people can see it. Include the address on letterhead, email signatures, business cards, and anything that comes into contact with the public.
Now that we have consumers drawn to our site, we have to make sure theyíll stay and explore. Seybold indicates that there are seven critical success factors that are essential to foster stickiness and customer retention: (65)
Well look at the importance of each and how our website will address them.
Many small companies with a web presence may not realize that they could be targeting the wrong customers. A web site must appeal to the company's targeted market or visitors will not find what they are seeking and ultimately leave to go to a competitorís site. Our site's targeting has mostly been achieved in our marketing and advertising efforts. We must ensure that our website is geared towards the cruise customer and this is accomplished by clearly packaging the website with text, graphics and features that will appeal to them. One such feature is to provide customers with different ways to search for products and information. Customers visiting our site can search for vacations using several criteria: vacation type, destination, supplier, month, and year, and any combination of these, either by promotional fares and/or all listings. We are ensuring that the right customer is looking for the right product at any given time.
Owning the customer's total experience ensures the customer visits the site and stays to obtain everything that they require for their wants. The most important factor would be delivering a consistent, branded experience. Seybold advises that "A brand name doesn't just evoke a product; it also invokes a set of feelings in the customer. (106)" The web site must bring something to the surfer that they probably wouldn't get from another. We've already discussed how the color of the site will affect the surfer. We must also consider the descriptive text, graphic images and sounds and how they will impact on the surfer. The site must also save the customer time and irritation, which can be accomplished by eliminating every step that wastes their time. After a visitor searches for a particular cruise on our site, to request a quote or more information is as simple as clicking a single button instead of trying to send a lengthy email on their own and if they registered previously, most of their information will be filled in. The customer ultimately gains full control over all aspects of their visit and they obtain a positive experience because of this.
When streamlining business processes that impact the customer, we must focus first on the end customer for our product to ensure we get our priorities straight. We can then streamline the process from that end customer's point of view. Since our customer is the cruise traveler, we need to make sure all processes are geared towards them. One way we've achieved this is by including necessary information on the quote request form, to eliminate multiple communications. With that one form we know how many passengers traveling, their names and ages, if they are repeat cruisers, type of stateroom desired, air gateway, special occasion celebrating, and much more. We can obtain a quote and make a booking without a single voice conversation with the customer. To further streamline, we must provide a 360-degree view of the relationship with our customer and providing one-stop shopping ensures this with our clients.
Our next concern is letting customers help themselves, which fosters a sense of control to create a positive web experience. With a comprehensive web site a user can help himself to information and perform transactions whenever desired. Our site allows not only for searching a particular cruise ship, but different itineraries and dates as well. Visitors are never pressured into traveling on specific dates, they select what they desire. The experience is furthered by giving the customer different media options for communication. On our site they can request information by completing a form, sending email or snail mail, or by telephone. All methods are made available to the visitor and are treated equally. We further this experience by delivering personalized service to the customer. By developing a warm, personal relationship with each customer, a feeling of specialized service is achieved. The customer is more likely to stay on your site and spend money. When a visitor registers at our web site with basic information they are advised that they will be receiving a complementary bi-weekly cruise promotion email sent to them, but they probably don't realize at that time that our email is able to alert the customer of specials only available to residents of their state or area. The registration also keeps a part of them on our site since it recognizes them whenever they come back and welcomes them and will fill in necessary information on any entry form. The visitor now has a connection to our site and the site treats them as an individual instead as one of many anonymous surfers.
The final factor, and probably the most important, is to foster community within the site. By creating a sense of community the visitor has reason to keep returning. The community shares a common interest and the web site can promote a forum to interact within this interest. Since we have already targeted a niche, we have created a community for cruise travelers. We then have to seduce them into the fold, which can be accomplished by creating areas within the site that can provide interaction amongst them. This interaction will introduce the visitors to others with their similar interests and ultimately they can "strut their stuff" to one another. We have started to create our community environment by creating areas such as a "cruise reviews" forum which allows visitors to share their shipboard experience with others and offer advice for the novice. There is also question and answer section and travel photo gallery, both showcasing members which earns them an incentive. As time goes on, we will create new and interesting ways of interaction for the community members so they will always have the need to return to our site and hopefully purchase our product.
While exploring the critical success factors necessary for stickiness and retention I evaluated different web sites to determine how they may be or not be utilizing them.
One site I came across is the Go Away Cruises site (www.goawaycruises.com). While the site is colorful, it lacks information that might be useful to the prospect such as: cruise line information, ship information, sailing information, itinerary maps, deck plans, and request for information forms. The prospect may stay for one or two pages, and then leave for a site that would be more comprehensive. The generic feel of the site leaves no sense of brand identity for the consumer to make it stand out from the rest. Another site found was Moments Notice Travel (www.moments-notice.com). It combines simple, yet effective use of color, graphics and navigation, plus the concept of a members-only discount club. This company has created a unique identity and fostered community will have consumers visit and revisit their website.
A web site for a company called BBM Travel (www.bbmtravel.com) shows us how not to own a customerís experience and was one that I would not visit again since it repelled me instead of attracted. It consisted of a black background, gray lettering, few graphics and low information and I felt uncomfortable because of the color selection and couldnít wait to leave. A good site should have soothing, inviting colors (such as blue for a cruise agency site to evoke the calm seas), good use of language to entice the consumer to want the product (descriptive words that play on a cruise shoppers needs to make them feel like they are missing something from their life), use of good audio or video (the faint sound of the ships horn), all of which are just some components that pull the consumer in. With some experimentation and thinking like a surfer, a good site design can be achieved and used to motivate the customer. All of these factors are important to the creation of a web site that will retain customers for a very long time and hopefully become a profitable business.
Our exploration has shown that the small business agent must create a web site that is original, distinctive, informative and easy to navigate, but they must also develop and appeal to a particular community to hold the surfers' interest and retain their business to survive on the ënet. Our site encompasses all of these aspects and will be revised based upon customer feedback. Every day the web gets more sophisticated and as time goes on, a web site must add or change existing features to remain fresh and interesting to visitors and clients. We can expect that, in the future of the internet, sites will allow further personalization for the surfer so that each will have an experience at the site that is unlike any other visitorís. Artificial intelligence may even be incorporated into a site to allow a greater level of interaction for the customer as if they were dealing with a real agent instead of a virtual one. Until these features are realized we will continue to use our existing features to their best advantage and sharpen our skills to ensure that the site will be the one that none will forget.
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