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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein

7.15.99  
Pitching Your Net Software to Small Biz
First narrow the target market, then pound the virtual pavement

Q: Our product is a new program for Internet sharing and E-mail service targeting companies with 10 to 100 employees that want to do business on the Web cheaply. How do we reach these companies, and where can we get publicity for our product? --V.M., Woodside, Calif.

A: Sounds like what your company needs is a marketing plan with some solid research to back it up. When you're starting a company of any size, it's never enough to have just a terrific idea or a great product. That won't get you anywhere if you don't also have a very specific strategy for finding your market niche, appealing to the customers most likely to purchase your product, and pinpointing the publications, seminars, books, associations, and Web sites where your clients get the information they use to make their purchasing decisions.

Especially in the highly competitive software arena, where everybody and their grandmother seems to be offering free E-mail and Web hosting these days, you had better come up with a smart way to pitch this product to your target audience -- and fast. Can you shell out some money to hire a marketing consultant? Ralph Wilson, a Web-site developer who has hosted an online resource for small and midsize businesses interested in E-commerce since 1995, says you really need an expert to personally evaluate your product, identify its selling points, and help you devise a plan that encompasses both Web-based and traditional marketing and advertising.

You need to narrow your target market down to some specific industries that would be best served by your product and then become an expert on your potential customers, says Jim Kelton, president of Software Unlimited, a computer consulting firm in Irvine, Calif. "Start out by talking to everyone you can find in those industries. Go to small-business networking groups, attend breakfast meetings, talk to people at local business schools, contact the Web sites that publish E-mail newsletters and online magazines about small businesses in your niche," Kelton says.

Ask the small-business owners you meet where they get advice and information on computer products, then see how you can get your product noticed at those places -- whether it be on store shelves, in trade journals, or on Web sites. In order to generate word-of-mouth referrals, be willing to give away some trial packages to companies that will agree to provide feedback on your software. Take the positive responses you get and use them as testimonials, Kelton advises.

There are myriad Web sites devoted to electronic commerce, computer software, and Web marketing. Try any major search engine, and you're bound to find several that offer some combination of resource lists, news stories, advice, how-to articles, and monthly or weekly E-mail newsletters that will help you learn more about Web businesses. Many also host discussion groups and online business forums that bring together companies doing business on the Net or hoping to get started there -- the very audience you want to find. A few leads to get you started: I-Advertising, at www.internetadvertising.org; the Internet Advertising Bureau, at www.iab.net; and the Webmarketing Information Center (Wilson's site) at www.wilsonweb.com. The Electronic Commerce Guide has all of the above features plus a database of new-product reviews that might provide a way to publicize your product. Laura Rush, managing editor of the guide, says it reviews auction, storefront, payment-solution, and portal software, and is always open to looking at new products and rating them with its five-star system. You can contact Rush through the site: http://ecommerce.internet.com.

There are associations of software developers and information technology professionals that might provide you with additional help and advice. Try the Software & Information Industry Assn., based in Washington, at 202 452-1600. The group's Web site (www.siia.net) has an information-packed research library and a series of white papers available for sale to nonmembers. Another online library and list of links can be found at: www.adresource.com. The Software Co-op is a homegrown group of independent software developers and consultants looking to pool their resources for advertising and marketing. Find out more and see if the group is for you at their Web site: www.softco-op.com.

Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an E-mail at editors@businessweekmail.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 46th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

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