Working Without a Net

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineI first heard about the ‘Net over 20 years ago from one of my electronic school buddies. He landed a job with a computer mainframe manufacturer and was assigned to work at a university. He regaled me with tales of instantaneously sending text messages across the country and doing so at no cost. “That is fantastic,” I enthused. “How can I get in on this?”

“You can’t,” he replied matter-of-factly, “not unless you’re at a major university or work for a defense contractor.” I was very disappointed.  My visions of fast and free communications faded as quickly as they had formed. With little more thought or contemplation, I quickly dismissed the Internet as a non-issue, one with limited utility.

That was in 1981. Fast-forward 15 years. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone is talking about the Internet. I was perplexed. How could something so limited be treated like the next big thing? Had something changed to make the Internet a practical reality for the masses? Indeed it had.

I soon obtained a dial-up account from a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) that used our call center for overflow and after-hours calls. (I was amazed at the ease and adeptness with which our college-aged agents took to this account, proficiently using terms and easily bandying about acronyms which were foreign to me. Yet for them it was commonplace and familiar.)

Back then, using the Internet seemed to me to be a waste of time. It took eons to be connected, a bit of luck to stay connected, and patience to accomplish anything – not that there was much to do from a business standpoint. When a colleague would get email I would excitedly make note, but would invariably resort to the phone for any communications. As more people became connected, I tried to check email once a day, while checking voice mail multiple times daily.  (I had turned off pager notification after receiving 57 pages in one day, mostly from voice mail.)

However, it wasn’t long before I was checking email several times a day and voice mail only once or twice. Now I spend most of my day connected to the Internet and receive and send hundreds of messages. All too often, I forget to check voicemail. Altogether, I have 14 specific email addresses, from different websites and for different purposes. Of the hundreds of email messages I get each day, the majority are from list serves. These messages are automatically routed to specific folders, which I view once a day. Fortunately, I am able to filter out most of the spam. Therefore, it is not much work to delete the few that slip through. However, this still leaves 50 or more that need my direct attention. During the summer months, email traffic slows considerably. Conversely, as the publication date for an issue draws near, email communication peaks sharply.

I recently gave some thought to what my day would be like without email. Indeed, about half of my consulting work is done via email, as is over 90 percent of my publishing work. In producing this magazine, articles are submitted electronically, then routed to our proofreaders, passed back to me, and forwarded to production. Pre-production proofs are sent as PDF attachments. Without email, we would be forced to rely on snail mail and overnight delivery services, adding to our costs and lengthening our production cycle. In fact, if I only had the phone and delivery services for communications, I would need to hire a full-time assistant just to accomplish the same amount of work. Plus, I would not be nearly as effective or efficient. In short, I can’t imagine working without the ‘Net.

Email, of course, is just one aspect of the Internet; the World Wide Web is another part. Once the realm of large companies with big budgets, websites are now common for businesses of all sizes. In fact, an organization without a website is often viewed as second rate or a non-player. Websites can be a great equalizer, leveling the playing field between major corporations, smaller competitors, and start-ups.

All told, I have eight websites and a half dozen domain names waiting to be developed. The Connections Magazine website, www.ConnectionsMagazine.com is the largest and most visited. It is currently at 639 pages and grows larger each month. Usage of the site has steadily increased. Last month we hit new records with over 60,000 hits from 5,500 different users who downloaded 1.5 Gigabytes of information and files. Depending on which of these stats are considered, the site’s annual growth rate is between 334 and 751 percent!

Another interesting tidbit is that the site contains 7,357 links (6,741 are internal, while 497 point to other sites). I make all of the updates and changes to the site, but use a service that tests the links for me each week. They email me a report of any errors, along with information about the sites that link to me that have made changes. Most of the updates are made after each issue is mailed; it takes about a day and half. But minor changes and tweaking occur throughout the month.

While the purpose of the Connections Magazine website is to provide useful industry tools and information, other organizations may have different goals. Some merely want to drive as much traffic as they can. These sites are commercial, for-profit creations which generate revenue from banner ads, pop-up advertising, and link fees. (Connections website’s banner ads about cover our costs to run and maintain the site.)  Other sites are fee-based, intended to be revenue-generating vehicles, while password protected sites are used as a member benefit or to serve customers. Another common goal of websites is promotion and marketing; think of these as on-line brochures.

One seemingly obvious feature of websites is to provide a means for further communication. Therefore, a “contact us” page is a common element.  It is surprising when contact information cannot be found. Sometimes this may be explicable, as the organization’s business plan does not allow direct support. Their attitude is for self-service; take it or leave it. For other sites, the lack of contact information is confounding. These presumably major companies should have a real interest in interacting with customers and prospects. But you can’t call, can’t write, and in some cases can’t even send an email message.

Of course sending a message to an email address found on a website isn’t any guarantee of dialogue. In researching a recent article, I used a search engine and contacted the first 10 companies listed via email. The results were appalling. Only one site responded within five minutes and with a personal response. Two more followed later that day, and a fourth, three days later. But six never responded or even acknowledged receipt of my message. Now it could be that the message or reply got lost in cyberspace. That does happen, but certainly not 60 percent of the time.

In another instance, I sent out a targeted solicitation (offering a listing in our Buyer’s Guide) to over 100 addresses gleaned from published directories and listings (not websites). Again, the results were disconcerting. Six percent were returned because the mailbox was full, eight percent were rejected because the domain name was “unknown,” 14 percent were refused because the user name “could not be found” and 61 percent did not respond; only 11 percent replied.

The solution is simple. Periodically test all your email addresses to insure they are working. Then confirm that the person assigned to check corporate email addresses knows how and does so frequently. Failure to verify that your published email addresses are working and being properly handled is wasting your Internet investment and alienating customers and prospects; it is little better than working without a ‘Net.

Summary: Working with the ‘Net

  • Test your company email and published addresses frequently
  • Assign and hold accountable someone to check and process email
  • Make it a policy to respond to all email messages
  • Include complete contact information on your website:
  • Mailing address, street address, toll-free, toll, and fax number, email address
  • Include key contact information on every page: Phone number and email address

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection MagazineOctober 2003]

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