Archive for the ‘Internet Tutorials’ Category

On the Web!

Sunday, March 1st, 1998

(This column first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Dive Report)

My last several columns have gone to great lengths to explain how to get on and use the Internet as a power user. With this column, I’ll start taking you through the process of getting your very own Web site on-line, so you can join the thousands of businesses using this great marketing vehicle.

In order to get your Web site up and running we should take a look at the typical goals of having a Web site:

  • Providing current, up to date information about your business
  • A means for potential customers to contact you (or at least find your contact information)
  • A way for potential customers to quickly locate specific information about what you offer
  • Potentially, a method of taking on-line orders or requests

If we condense these goals into simple themes, first and foremost, a Web site is a marketing tool. Secondly, it’s a sales tool. Third, it’s a potential revenue tool. Companies which assume that having a Web site will drastically increase sales are almost always very disappointed with the results, while companies which use Web sites as a way to promote their products and services, as an adjunct to existing paper-based marketing materials are usually the most satisfied with the results. The biggest reason for this is that people use the Web primarily as a resource and research tool.

Remote or Local?
In order to meet this need of having on-line marketing material, via a Web site, you need to figure out where to put the Web site. Web sites sit on Web servers, and a Web server is a computer which “serves” Web pages to any computer that requests them, such as that of a potential customer. For those of you tracking computer terms, such a requesting computer is called a “client”, which is how the term “client/server” comes into play.

Since a public Web site needs to sit on the Internet, it turns out that it doesn’t matter where your Web server is, as long as it’s reasonably accessible by the broadest segment of your potential customer base. For example, even though I’m on Bonaire in the technological boonies of the Caribbean, all my Web sites, and those of companies I’ve helped get on-line, are remotely hosted on Web servers located in New Hampshire. In my case (and most cases, no matter where you are located), remote hosting of Web sites is very cost efficient, especially compared to local hosting of Web sites.

To locally host a Web site, that is host it at your company, you need a dedicated computer, a high-speed (real 56K bits per second, bare minimum), 24 hour a day Internet connection, and someone available to monitor and maintain the system, never mind the Web site. The Internet connection alone runs several hundred dollars per month, if not more. The computer will cost at least a couple of thousand dollars. And, the specialist will cost you quite a bit in hourly fees. So, unless you happen to already have all these components in place at your company, or have a very real need to have your Web server located on-site (and I honestly can’t think of any), you should look at remote hosting.

Remote Web hosting for companies generally runs between as little as $20 and $100 per month, with higher fees to be expected for large Web sites with lots of traffic and with special features, like secure credit card processing. There’s usually also a one-time set-up fee involved, ranging from $20 to $300. There’s no set formula as to the exact magnitude of the set-up and monthly fees, but generally, those companies charging very little provide very little in the way of assistance in getting people up and running with their own Web sites, while those charging more tend to provide more support. Note that these prices are for having your very own Web site composed of a practically unlimited number of pages, with your own domain name (see The Richter Scale, July/August 1997 issue of Dive Report).

I should mention that you may be solicited by companies which have an “umbrella” Web site that covers a specific theme like a region (Southern California, for example) or activity (like diving) on which to host your company’s Web site. Unless you have only a single page to post, and the match between your needs and that of the “umbrella” Web site is really good, you should look at getting your own Web site, as it will be more cost effective in the long run. Also, your own Web site and domain provide your company with its own distinct image, so you won’t get lost in the noise of an umbrella site.

In terms of finding a good remote Web hosting company, you might not need to look any further than the ISP (see The Richter Scale, May/June 1997 issue of Dive Report) you should already be using for your Internet access. Virtually all ISPs also provide Web hosting services, and if you have a good relationship with your ISP, you’re likely to be happy with their Web hosting too.

Putting stuff on your Web site is straightforward. If your Web site is locally hosted, you generally just need to copy the files that make up your Web site from a floppy onto the server. With a remotely hosted Web site, you update your Web site via an Internet connection instead. This is most often done with a program that handles “FTP” – File Transfer Protocol, a standard way of sending and receiving files to and from a remote server. Each Web site has its own special user name and password which have to be used in order to update the site with new files. So, unless you’re careless with this access information, no one else can update the information on your Web site without your permission.

Who Does What?
I’ve covered where your Web site sits and how to put stuff on it in broad terms, but a key part that’s missing is what that stuff is. In other words, where does the content of your Web site come from?

You have two simple choices: you do it yourself, or someone you pay creates the contents of your Web site. The least expensive route is to develop the Web site yourself. However, that’s not always the best way to produce a professional looking Web site. You may remember when desktop publishing first became a new application of computers – people went crazy with fonts, formatting, layouts, and as a result, produced some pretty ghastly things, solely because they could (and because they didn’t know better). Creating and publishing Web sites is just the next evolutionary step in desktop publishing, if you think about it. That means that it’s really easy to produce pages with great information about your company and its products, but not so easy to make those pages look polished and visually balanced and therefore attractive to passersby.

The most expensive route is that you hire a large firm that specializes in advertising or creating marketing materials. They know how to make things look good, but probably don’t have a great understanding of your business or products. You pay these people by the hour, most likely, and it can be a steep hourly fee at that. As someone who consults on Web development, and occasionally does Web site design for pay, I’m sure I’m somewhat biased in saying that I think that the best approach to implementing a Web site is to get just enough outside help to get you over the rough spots,  and then figure out how to best allocate your time and resources to complete the project. I’ve found that this way, companies who want to get on the Web end up with a Web site that they are happy with, and they have learned something about layout, design, and Web pages in the process. If this approach interests you, chances are that your ISP can recommend someone locally that their other customers have had success in working with.

How Do I?…

If you’re developing your own Web site, or working in conjunction with another person or company to do so, it’s important that you use the same Web design tools to get your job done. Web tools can be as simple as your word processing software (most packages these days offer the ability to create Web pages from documents), or as complex as high-end publishing packages. At the end of this article, I’ve listed a number of tools I’ve worked with, with prices ranging from $79 to $295.Of these packages, there are a few noteworthy ones. If you’re looking at site design as a whole, and are familiar with desktop publishing software, I can definitely recommend NetObject’s Fusion. This software makes it really simple to build a multi-page site very quickly. Instead of the page by page approach most of the other software I’ve listed uses, Fusion has you start designing the complete site layout and style first, and then lets you insert pages as you see the need. Fusion automatically  updates all the links from each page to all the others as you modify things, and also comes with a healthy set of Web site templates you can model your site after. A “lite” version of Fusion is packaged in as part of Netscape’s Publishing Suite.

To some extent, SoftQuad’s HoTMetaL Pro and Microsoft’s FrontPage do the same thing, but using different approaches. HoTMetaL Pro has you working on pages and then helps you combine them into a site, and FrontPage does much the same, except that it also offers additional features that require you to have extra software installed on your Web server, which I find to be annoying. FrontPage also make certain assumptions about how you want to do things in terms of creating Web sites and running the software, which in my case were very far off base. That’s a shame, because the Web page editor portion of FrontPage is actually quite nice.

In terms of the most complete package, Corel’s Webmaster Suite can’t be beat. It comes with a plethora of excellent graphics tools, page editing software, site management software, and lots of Web specific clipart. If you want something simple to work with, on a page by page basis, then Symantec’s Visual Page, Claris HomePage, and Adobe PageMill all offer good page editing capabilities. I should also mention that most of these packages are available in 30-day trial versions off the respective companies’ Web sites.

Pitfalls
Now you have your Web publishing tools, your Web host, and probably a consultant or a company to help you create a Web site. Great! Well, you need something else, namely a plan.

In my experience, first time Web site owners have grand ideas about all the zillions of things they will put on their Web site, and how wonderful it’s going to be. In fact, I had the same grand ideas years ago when I first started working with the Web. Well, the reality is that unless you have unlimited human and financial resources, you need to plan your Web site deployment in stages.

The beauty of the Web is that it’s very dynamic. If you want to change something, it can be done very quickly. Taking this concept one step further, it’s perfectly acceptable to start with a small, one to five page Web site, and as you get more comfortable with the medium, expand the site to include more and more information and features. If you don’t follow this approach, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and end up with a Web site that’s tough to use and of questionable value.

It’s always important to maintain control over the Web site. Outside of the zillion page syndrome, a Web site can get out of control if too many people work on it at the same time without close coordination, or when you pass the effort entirely off to an outside company. In this latter case, the problem arises if there isn’t some sort of agreement that once the outside company finishes the implementation you agreed to and paid for, you own all the pages they developed for you. Part of the agreement should also state that you have the sole right to continue the maintenance of the site yourself or via someone else, not necessarily the original company that developed the site for you. To emphasize this control problem with outside companies, several years ago here in the Caribbean, some companies came in, signed up a bunch of tourist-oriented businesses for Web page design and page hosting at high rates because that was the only way to go at the time. Now, as creating and maintaining one’s own Web pages has become a common and well understood effort, these same hosting companies are claiming copyright ownership of all the material they created for  their customers, which forces their erstwhile customers to have to start completely from scratch for their own Web sites or continue to be held hostage.

Finally, another major set of pitfalls await in the design of Web sites, but I’ll have to let that discussion wait until my next column, where I’ll help you figure out what your Web site should look like, and explain what some common Web site design mistakes are and how to easily avoid them.


Product Company URL Estimated Retail Price
Adobe PageMill* http://www.adobe.com $99
Claris HomePage* http://www.claris.com $99
Corel WebMaster Suite http://www.corel.ca $149
Microsoft FrontPage http://www.microsoft.com $129
NetObjects Fusion* http://www.netobjects.com $295
Netscape Publishing Suite* http://home.netscape.com $149
SoftQuad HoTMetaL Pro http://www.softquad.com $129
Symantec VisualPage http://www.symantec.com $79
* = Also available for Macintosh computers

Popular Web editing software packages

Strands of the Web

Thursday, January 1st, 1998

(This column first appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Dive Report)

My last several columns have guided you from an empty desktop to being able to send e-mail and make a good impression on people when you do so. Now I’ll cover what you’ve all been waiting for: The World Wide Web.

When you think of a web, you probably think of the thing that spiders weave to catch their meals. Each part of the spider’s web is connected, in some way, to the rest of the web. Picture one  particular strand of such a Web. To get to another part of the Web, you just need to navigate through one or more nodes where multiple strands meet, until you get to where you want. The Internet’s World Wide Web, also known as just the “Web”, was named because it’s conceptually similar to a spider’s web – each part of the Internet’s Web connects in some way to another part, and you can navigate from one Web site to another via one or more interconnecting nodes. The only things that are different is that the Web is more convoluted than any horde of spiders could actually weave, and some of the terminology is different.

The Web is divided into hundreds of thousands or even millions of Web sites. A Web site is a collection of individual Web pages, with the main page on a site usually referred to as a “home page”. When you surf the Web, you look at one Web page at a time. Any part of the text or a graphic on a Web page can be a “link”. As you move your cursor across a link, you’ll get some indication that you can click your mouse on it to make something happen. In particular, clicking on a link will almost always cause you to go to another Web page. Some links, however, may send you to a different part  of the same Web page you’re on, while others may allow you to send someone e-mail.

A Web page may have no links on it whatsoever or hundreds or thousands of links (both of these types of pages reflect poor design practices). Normal, well designed pages, will have links to other key pages on a Web site to allow a site to be easily navigated, and may possibly have links to pages on other sites as well, if appropriate.

The Web differs from other Internet communications means I’ve presented in that it allows for the blending of text, graphics, and even animation and sound, which is a lot more visually pleasing than a boring old e-mail message, plus it can convey a lot more information in less space. Remember the adage: a picture is worth a thousand words? It definitely applies to the Web. The Web is the 1990s form of communicating ideas and concepts, just as desktop publishing was the revolutionary communications breakthrough of the 1980s.

Companies and individuals routinely use the Web to promote products, services, and ideas. For companies, the Web acts as an on-line brochure for what they are offering, which has the added benefit of being dynamic. That means that if there’s a typo, the company can just fix the Web page and be done with it instead of having to reprint thousands of flyers. Similarly, if new products or services become available, a Web page can be quickly modified. A growing number of companies are also successfully using the Web to sell products and services directly, so that Web surfers can  just enter their personal information, like address,  credit card numbers, etc., on a Web page and order these products and services on-line. Companies with well designed and implemented on-line  strategies tie their Web sites together with regular e-mail news bulletins about what’s new at the company and on the company’s Web site, thereby keeping people interested and informed.

Thanks to numerous individuals, universities, and companies, the Web is also becoming an amazing repository of both useful and questionable material. There are Web sites dealing with sharks, Japanese animation, dive clubs, squid recipes, Greek philosophy… you name it and it’s probably on the Web somewhere.

Getting on the Web
Of course, you can’t take advantage of the Web without a couple of key items. To surf the Web, you need access to the Internet (which you should have by now), and a Web browser – a piece of software that can translate the language of the Web, known as HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), into the visual representations the Web page authors intended.

If you use Windows 95, chances are that your system already has Microsoft’s Internet Explorer installed on it (see Figure 1). Internet Explorer is Microsoft’s Web browser offering, and it’s free. In my opinion, however, you get what you pay for, and Internet Explorer also has some real potential for letting hackers into your system while you’re on-line Web surfing. I prefer Netscape’s Navigator Web browser (see Figure 2), which is also free (at http://home.netscape.com).


Figure 1. View of Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 browsing the PADI site. The PADI site has a separate menu of clickable buttons on the left to link you to other parts of their Web site. The underlined, colored text at right is also clickable and brings you to pages which discuss the selected item in greater detail. When I brought up the Web site, the song “A Merry Little Christmas” started playing in the background, all as part of PADI’s Christmas theme on their Web site – a nice touch.


Figure 2. View of Netscape Navigator browsing the InfoBonaire site. The InfoBonaire site (which my wife and I designed) uses a simplified front end. Menu buttons are still present on the left and the text at right is in just a single column with explanatory text and only a few links.

To look at a specific Web page with your browser, you need to know that page’s address on the Web, much as you need the phone number of a person if you’re going to try and call them. A Web address is specified as a URL (pronounced “your-ull” ), which stands for Uniform Resource Locator.

A URL has three parts, the protocol specifier, the actual name or number used to refer to the Web server where Web page you want is located, and a page location on that server, as in the following:

http://www.richterscale.org/InternetTutorial/DiveReport_97MayJun.html

or

http://www.infobonaire.com

The “http://” is the protocol specifier (it stands for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol), and tells the Web browser that you’re looking at Web pages. The “www.richterscale.org” and “www.infobonaire.com” are the names of the Web servers we’re looking at. The “www.” prefix is a formality – many sites can be accessed just by specifying the Internet domain names without the “www.” in front, as in  http://cnn.com, which gets you to CNN’s home page. Other domains may even use something other than “www.” to specify access to their Web servers. Finally, in the first example above, “/InternetTutorial/DiveReport_97MayJun.html” refers to a specific Web page, one that happens to contain the text of my May/June 1997 column for Dive Report. The page name is optional, and if omitted, as in the second example, will cause the home page to be browsed. Because the Web consists of countless millions of pages, with thousands being added daily, it’s rather difficult to know exactly where to look for a page with specific information on the topic you’re interested in. It’s one thing to be getting the latest world news from CNN’s Web site, but quite another to find the Web page (if it even exists) for a dive resort you’re interested in visiting or a dive shop near you.

This complexity of the Web has resulted in need for something called a Web search engine. A Web search engine is a Web site you go to where you can enter a series of keywords and get a list of Web pages which contain the words you entered. These search engines accomplish this by creating huge databases where they catalog the Web on a constant basis, crawling along all the links they find to other links and so on and so on. The top search engines (see Figure 3) have databases containing the text of tens if not hundreds of millions of Web pages. You’ll find out as you use any search engine, not every search result is actually applicable, but with time and experience, you’ll learn to determine which search engines perform the best for you, and which results to ignore. Because search engines are such a key part to locating specific information on the Web, it’s critical that companies wanting to reach the tens of millions of Web surfers have a good Web site and have done a good job registering their Web sites with the various search engines.

In my next column, I’ll discuss how you can create your own Web site and Web pages, including an overview of some of the software you can use to make this process go smoothly. In the meantime, enjoy your Web surfing.


Search Engine URL
Altavista http://altavista.digital.com
Excite http://www.excite.com
HotBot http://www.hotbot.com
Infoseek http://www.infoseek.com
Lycos http://www.lycos.com
MetaCrawler http://www.metacrawler.com
NetFind http://netfind.aol.com
WebCrawler http://www.webcrawler.com
Yahoo http://www.yahoo.com

Figure 3. List of the top Web search engines

Tips & Tools For Communicating On-Line

Monday, December 1st, 1997

(This column first appeared in the November/December 1997 issue of Dive Report)

In the last issue of Dive Report, I discussed some of the ways that dive-related businesses can use e-mail, newsgroups and e-mail discussion groups to market themselves to their best advantage. In this column, I’ll pick up that thread and fill you in on some of the software tools that you’ll need to get and send e-mail and subscribe to newsgroups.

Electronic Mail Delivery
On-line services such as CompuServe and America On-Line include e-mail capabilities with their front-end software. If you don’t subscribe to such as service, let me recommend a few software packages that you can use to send and receive e-mail. My personal favorite is Eudora Pro, which is part of the most popular e-mail software family in the world (the other member being Eudora Lite), and is available on both the PC and the Mac. Eudora is a standalone e-mail package that lets you organize your e-mail into folders, work on your e-mail off-line, and queue your messages to be sent whenever you log onto the Internet. The Lite version is available free of charge from the Eudora Web site; the Pro version (which offers a bunch of additional power-user features) is well under $100 from most software and computer stores.

Netscape Navigator, available on PC, Mac, and even UNIX systems, combines a Web browser with e-mail and newsgroup capability all in a single, powerful package. You can get Netscape Navigator Version 3.0 at almost any store that sells software, and it frequently comes bundled with some good introductory books about the Internet as well as a user manual.

If you have Windows 95, you can use Microsoft Mail and Microsoft Exchange, which come free with Windows 95 (see the Help feature in Windows 95 for more details on setting these programs up).

Forming New Habits
Once you start using e-mail, you have to be good about checking for new messages regularly and replying to them in a timely fashion. If you’re not, there’s not much sense in having e-mail. It’s also important to keep in mind that an e-mail address is like a phone number. If you want to send someone e-mail, you need his or her e-mail address. Make sure to add an e-mail address contact field to your customer databases and start collecting e-mail addresses.

Why go through this administrative change? There is no such thing as a global address book for e-mail addresses, because no central agency issues e-mail addresses. Any Internet service provider (ISP) or controller of a domain name can issue them at will. So, keep track of the e-mail addresses of people you do business with.

In terms of sending e-mail, you should be aware that unsolicited mass e-mailings (i.e. to lots of people with whom you’ve had no prior contact) are frowned upon, and have become known on the Internet as “spamming”. Yes, some people on the Net sell mailing lists with millions of e-mail addresses to be used for spamming, but it’s still not a good thing, and may even cause your ISP to kick you off the Net.

Netiquette (etiquette on the Net) requires that you only send mass e-mails to people who have, in one way or another, given you permission to do so, perhaps by supplying an e-mail address on a postcard or survey or registration. This, of course, adds further significance to collecting e-mail addresses from people you do business with, and printing your own e-mail address on every piece of material that you give or send out, including ads, business cards, brochures and letterhead.

Reading The Newsgroups
In order to participate in a newsgroup, you need a piece of software called a “news reader”. One comes free with the latest version of Windows 95 and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (another Web browser), and there’s one also built into Netscape Navigator (making it the most useful, multi-purpose piece of Internet software around for both the Mac and the PC). I’ve also been happy with a product call Agent, from Forte Inc., which costs a little ($40 or so), but offers really nice add-on functions, like message filtering.

If you’re using a proprietary service with its own access software, such as CompuServe or America On-Line, then those services include news reader capability in their access software or via their on-line services, so a separate piece of news reader software is not required.

The specific steps to subscribe to a newsgroup vary greatly among the various news reader software packages. The general approach seems to be to configure your newsgroup software to talk to your access provider’s news server (a system which stores a local copy of the newsgroups), then to direct the news reader software to update its list of available groups. This will usually take a few minutes, as this information needs to be downloaded (brought into your computer) from the news server. Note that you may not get all of the 40,000-plus newsgroups, because your access provider has chosen not to offer some groups (some access providers will filter out groups that some might find offensive, for example). Once the list of available newsgroups is loaded, you can search or scroll through the list until you find a newsgroup you’re interested in.

Once you select a newsgroup, you’ll usually have the option of just browsing the last 50 or so headers (basically, the “subject” lines of the messages), or subscribing to the newsgroup and getting all the active headers. The next step would be to select those headers you’re interested in (for example, any header or subject line that mentions Bonaire), and having the newsgroup software retrieve the message bodies for you so you can see what the message is about.

When you send messages to a newsgroup, make sure to include your contact information in your electronic signature at the end of each message. Most news readers and e-mail programs allow you to set at least one signature which automatically gets attached to messages you send.

One cool thing about newsgroup software is that it normally tracks message “threads”–lists of messages that share the same subject line because people have been replying to these messages. So, if a person posts a message asking about the annual Boston Sea Rovers show in Boston, and three people reply with information, the news software will present all four messages (the original and the replies) as part of a single message thread. To see what a news reader and message thread look like, see Figure 1.

Forte Agent

Forte Agent

Figure 1. This figure shows a view of the Agent news reader. The list of names in the upper left box is a sample of the nearly 25,000 newsgroups that the author currently has listed in his news reader, with rec.scuba highlighted. The upper right box shows some of the current messages (headers only) that are available in the rec.scuba newsgroup, including a thread of eight messages dealing with decompression training. The bottom box is offering to let me retrieve the message body for the first message about decompression training.

With a Wink and a Smile
The problem with e-mail and newsgroup messages is that you can’t use text highlights like italics, bold, and underlines, as you might with a word processor. While this may seem whimsical at first, it’s a vital part of helping prove to your audience that you have a personality, along with a sense of humor. After all, if you respond to on-line messages like a cold fish, you’re probably one in person. If your messages reflect a little bit of humor or other emotion, you’ve automatically built up an empathic bond with your audience (assuming your sense of humor isn’t too warped).

In order to add emotion and depth to plain text messages, some crafty “Netizens” came up with a series of character combinations that help emphasize emotion and intent to put the statement in perspective (very important if you’ve stated something that someone might take seriously, but that you meant to be tongue in cheek). The following chart shows a small sample of such character combinations, known as “emoticons”. (You usually have to look at them sideways.) A much larger list can be found on the Web at http://www.utopiasw.demon.co.uk/emoticon.htm.

Emoticon Meaning
 :-)  :)  :->  :>
Smiling, happy faces; showing happiness, or for comments not
intended to be taken seriously
 :-(  :(  :-<  :<
Sad, disappointed faces
 ;-)  ;)  ;->  ;>
Winking happy faces; for comments said tongue-in-cheek
 :-p  |-p
aces with tongues stuck out at you
 8-)  8)  B-)  B)
Smiling faces from someone who wears glasses or sunglasses, or
has a wide-eyed look
 <text>
A facial expression spelled out, for example: <grin> or
<g>; <yawn>; <smile>; <wink>

In the next issue of Dive Report, I’ll finally delve into the mysteries of the Web, including an explanation of why Web addresses look so weird. Until then, happy Net diving, and be careful not to drown in the sea of information overload!  :-)


Product (Company) Web Address
Agent (Forte Inc.) http://www.forteinc.com
Eudora (Qualcomm) http://www.eudora.com
Microsoft Internet Explorer (Microsoft) http://www.microsoft.com
Netscape Navigator (Netscape) http://home.netscape.com
Web site URLs for companies mentioned in
this article.

On-line Communication Promotes Efficiency–And Your Business

Monday, September 1st, 1997

(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.

Industry Examples
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.