(This column first appeared in the September/October 1997 issue of Dive Report)
In order to use the Internet to your best advantage for marketing your services and products, you need to know about its basic communication tools. Pretty much any Internet user has access to e-mail, newsgroups, and the World Wide Web. Advanced methods, like chat rooms and Net audio and video phones, tend be used more for personal communication – in many cases very, very personal and intimate communications, if you catch my drift. In this column, we’ll focus on why you might want to use e-mail and newsgroups.
E-Mail Offers Advantages
E-mail is perhaps the single most important communications feature of the Internet, because it provides a means for people to exchange information across boundaries of time and space.
You can send e-mail to anyone, anytime. You don’t have to worry about waking someone up when you e-mail him at 3 a.m., unlike making a phone call. You can take time to compose a message that conveys exactly what you want it to, instead of being put on the spot by voice-mail or an answering machine. On the flip side, e-mail is also a time saver in that you can send the same message to any number of people at once, as well as cut back on the 90 percent of a phone call’s content that wasted by chit-chat. Chit-chat has its place, but probably not on every call.
In terms of reach, e-mail is truly global. I can send e-mail to anyone in the world, usually for a fraction of the cost of a phone call or fax. This one feature alone makes e-mail a must for anyone doing business internationally. For example, I live on Bonaire. A phone call to the US, at best, is around 60 cents a minute. The minimum length of such a phone call is at least three or four minutes (because a call from Bonaire always begs the question “How’s the weather down there?”). In the same amount of time, I can compose a detailed e-mail message, send it, and send my e-mail at a cost of about five cents. In the US it would be basically sub-penny.
Also, when I travel, I can get and send e-mail wherever I am, as long as I have access to a phone so I can call a number for one of my ISPs. (MCI is nationwide in the US; IBM, CompuServe and AOL are worldwide, for example.) If I need to send a contract, article, invoice, purchase order, etc., I can attach the file to an e-mail message, and the people I’m sending the message to will get the file as well.
Reaching The Masses
The next step up from regular e-mail are newsgroups and e-mail discussion groups. A newsgroup is a place where people can send messages to a public forum read by anyone who subscribes to the newsgroup, who in turn can respond to messages. More than 40,000 newsgroups on the Internet range from discussions of the music of the musician formerly known as Prince to current events, religion, politics, recreation, technical matters, and, of course, scuba diving. The purpose of the newsgroups is to provide a place where lots of people can share information, ask questions, and get answers.
Sending a message to a newsgroup is much like sending someone an e-mail, except that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will see your message. This makes newsgroups a powerful way to market, but only if Netiquette is observed. Don’t post advertisements or blatantly self-promotional messages. Instead, use your expertise to help other newsgroup members with responses. The most popular scuba newsgroups are: rec.scuba, rec.scuba.equipment, and rec.scuba.locations.
E-mail discussion groups are conceptually just like newsgroups. In terms of implementation, the big difference is that discussion groups are handled entirely through e-mail, meaning that messages sent to the discussion group are rebroadcast via e-mail to all members of the group. For busy e-mail groups, this can mean 30, 50, or hundreds of e-mail messages a day. All these groups also offer the alternative of digests, where a day’s messages are sent in one long e-mail messages.
The most popular scuba-related e-mail discussion group is the one dealing with underwater photography. You can find information on how to join this group on the Web at http://www.repost.com/uw-photo/ – you can also find archives of all past discussions here to see if the group is of interest.
Either way, these two forms of group discourse are both captivating and a good means for getting to know people (hopefully potential customers), but only as long as you’re not seen as blatant self-promoter. If you’re not sure where the line between good and bad is, I’d recommend you “lurk”–which is to say, join the groups you’re interested in, and just observe how others interact before posting your initial messages.
Once you’ve been a lurker for a while (and there are countless thousands or millions of them), it_s time to use some of the tools to build a successful, interactive presence via these public fora. In the dive industry, a couple people come to mind as having been successful in building such a presence.
The first is Ike Brigham of Ikelite, whose regular comments and contributions in the Underwater Photo e-mail list are excellent examples of how to take care of one’s customers and get new ones in the process. Brigham is always vigilant and always responsive when someone brings up a question or problem with his company’s products. He will go to great pains to make someone understand how to resolve the situation, even to the point of offering to take care of a problem by having people send things in to him to take a look at. Ike’s built quite a loyal following on-line, with unsolicited plugs from other participants for his excellent service commonly seen.
Another is Bruce Bowker, owner and operator of the Carib Inn on Bonaire. Bowker is active in the rec.scuba family of newsgroups, providing useful information on what’s happening on Bonaire with respect to activities, Klein Bonaire (he’s president of the Save Klein Bonaire Foundation), and other goings on, such as a public forum on crime. By doing this, Bowker has made himself a valuable resource to the on-line scuba community, and you can safely bet that he’s managed to gain some new customers from the on-line exposure he has and the goodwill information he provides.
Cyber Self Defense
In addition to marketing oneself, another critical business reason to get involved with on-line groups in your market is self-defense. Newsgroups are places where people complain about vendors, local services, and whatever they can. Unless someone defends the attack (like a loyal customer or the vendors themselves), a bad reputation can form, even if the attack was unwarranted and misplaced. For example, a dive resort operator on Bonaire was attacked recently. Fortunately, the resort owner happens to be on-line savvy and successfully rebutted the attacker’s complaints and negative comments. Since these exchanges are being made in a public forum, it’s always vital to make sure that your responses make you appear to be the injured, caring party that does what it can to take care of customers. This requires some finesse in one’s writing skills, but can be an excellent promotional tool, since if you are sincere and responsive on-line, you must be great to deal with in person.
I should close by pointing out that you don’t have to cater to national or international customers to benefit from an on-line presence. If you run a dive shop, keep in mind that countless questions are asked on-line about diving in Florida, California, Alaska, New England, and pretty much anywhere else there’s water (like the place where your shop happens to be). Keep an eye out for such questions, and help out when you can, pointing people to local dive sites, restaurants, services, and occasionally a even a competitor who might be able to deal with a particular matter far better than you would.
NEXT ISSUE: The tools you need to take advantage of on-line communication.