While the Internet is widely touted as offering a level playing field in terms of advertising opportunities and access to information, anyone who has tried to publish a functional Web site realises it is no longer a matter of learning a bit of HTML and installing a fast connection.
The hype regarding the immediacy of electronic media often overlooks the fact that there is still a timelag associated with the release of information and its publication on a Web site.
The publication of online information requires as many technical and media resources as any other publication of information. And unlike brochures and catalogues, Web sites require constant surveillance and daily updates to remain fresh. They also need reliable back-end technical support, which means costs in terms of human resources.
While vendors are more likely to have the resources to set up and run effective Web sites, these tend to fulfill end-user marketing roles, rather than provide resellers resources.
Distributor Web sites on the other hand are an increasingly important aspect of channel communication. According to Channel Trends 2000, analyst Inform's latest report on the whys and wherefores of the reseller channel, almost half of the participants said they now access the supplier Web sites for support on a daily basis. Consequently, Web-based communication has gone from being an added extra to a fundamental part of the information and support chain.
The difficulty lies in identifying aspects of online services which are particularly efficient and easy to use. Although holding no great surprises, the feedback from Channel Trends 2000 is telling.
According to the majority of resellers, a distributor Web site is considered useful if it is easy to navigate, and contains up-to-date, relevant information such as price and stock availability.
The report states that resellers: "Want to be able to find the information they need clearly and efficiently. Overcomplicated or confusing Web sites can be irritating to use when time is an important factor in a reseller's business".
Ease of navigation comes down to good design and speed. With Web writing skills in high demand on the employment market, and high-speed connections requiring a substantial outlay, both of these come at a cost.
Paul Wilson, creative director at Sydney-based Web design company Hot Chilli Media, points out that Web designers have to focus on the end users rather than their clients when creating a Web site.
"Clients can get excited about what they want to see rather than what end users need. When designing a Web site, you can't single out one element and say that needs to be your focus. Designing a Web site is about a whole package of things," Wilson commented.
Ultimately, it all comes down to content. "You have to give people reason to visit your site, and then focus on making it easy to use," Wilson said.
Far and away the most popular site among resellers was distribution giant Tech Pacific's Tech Link service. The site offers resellers an impressive range of services including details on over 20, 000 products, price lists, stock and supply information, breaking news and order forms.
Fiona Stewart, Tech Pacific's marketing manager, explained that the Web site had gone through a number of incarnations, going back as far as the early 90s when the distributor embarked on a program called Tech Connect.
By the mid-90s this had evolved into an EDI program aimed at keeping channel partners informed, and by 1996 the "embryonic version" of Tech Pacific's current site appeared.
"That original site was small and static," Stewart commented. "Now our site is information rich and dynamic, and not everyone sees the same thing when they log on. We try to make the site as relevant as possible to the individual reseller."Being involved in providing Internet-based information to resellers over an extended period of time, Tech Pacific has had the opportunity to develop a sophisticated online service and intricate site design.
Tech Link requires 12 people to keep the site operating at current levels. Half of those are directly involved in updating and organising the content. As Stewart pointed out: "We put a lot of work into the content. It is important to ensure that all the products have complete and up-to-date information attached."Understandably, many smaller distributors are in no position to match Tech Pacific's online service and are forced to play catch up in terms of the design and structure of their services online.
Sydney-based distributor Synnex offers a comprehensive Web site complete with pricing and product information. Launched in 1997, the Synnex site requires six staff to keep it running, four of which work on processing and presenting the product data appearing on the site.
According to Synnex management information system (MSI) manager James Hsueh, the site is particularly important to smaller resellers, because they tend to require more sales support, as well as benefiting from having access to the site around the clock. "For the big corporate resellers it is just an added extra; they are not as dependant on the distributor for information as the smaller resellers," Hsueh said.
Synnex is relying on a two-pronged approach, whereby its online services support and are supported by traditional customer services.
Hsueh explained that Synnex reseller support was not limited to the Web alone.
"Sometimes we need to educate our customers about how to use our site effectively so [we offer] extra help over the phone if there are any problems not answered by the site. Once [customers] can use the site they all like it very much, and see that it is faster than any other way to get information. The main issue then becomes download speed [and for this] we have to provide a very fast site."To remain competitive Synnex is constantly changing and developing its site.
"Right now we are gearing the site up to provide e-commerce capabilities, which will come online after the introduction of the GST. We expect that our customers will want to do all their ordering online so we need to provide them with the capability," said Hsueh.
Lacking access to the human and financial resources available to the larger players, smaller distributors are in danger of being left behind in the struggle to provide efficient online services.
Adelaide-based Hitech Distribution maintains however, that it is possible to offer the channel a competitive online resource without breaking the bank. The trick, according to Hitech marketing manager David Hein, lies in good planning and regular contact with channel partners.
"One of the nice things about being smaller is that we are in immediate contact with our channel. Our guys on the road come back to us with feedback about what the resellers want to see on the site, and we are always monitoring our e-mails. We know what [our customers] want and because we are not tied down by management we can implement changes immediately," Hein said.
Hitech's planning and development has certainly paid off, with its URL coming in seventh in the Channel Trends 2000 report.
The Hitech site has been in operation since the mid 90s and has grown according to reseller demand. With one full-time Web master and a host of others involved in organising and updating the site, the distributor manages to produce comprehensive product, stock and ordering information running on significantly less human resources than the larger players.
"Distributors really don't have much choice when it comes to providing [the most efficient] information online, unless they want to be swamped with telephone calls and have channel partners waiting for 10 minutes before they get any information. In actual fact, Web sites and electronic media are [proving] more efficient than traditional ways of maintaining contact with resellers," Hein observed.
Internet service, however, doesn't end with Web site content and design.
According to Hein, there has been a natural progression from paper to online media because of the immediacy and resource-saving aspects of electronic communication.
"We link all the information that appears on the site to our own databases, so our price lists are automatically updated. Communications generally have changed from mail-outs and faxes to electronic forms of communication. We rely fairly heavily on e-mails to keep resellers up to date with specials and promotions."Tony Prince, managing director of Sydney reseller Complus Computing, singles out services like price-list updates via e-mail as an important aspect of distributor services.
"All major suppliers send me price lists on an Excel spreadsheet, so I can just tweak them the right way and print them up. Things like that just make my life easier," Prince said.
However, Tech Pacific's Stewart is cautious about contacting registered resellers via mass e-mail.
"We have to make sure that we don't start spamming the channel. On the Tech Link site resellers have the option to sign up for specific information, although we will send out a general e-mail if we come across some really critical information," Stewart said.
While on the one hand big is beautiful when it comes to Web site resources, really big can detract from the overall effectiveness of a supply-chain Web site. Although large vendors have the ability to fast-track information to their site and draw on top Web designers, they are often bound by stylistic concerns which can alienate local markets.
To counteract this most major vendor Web sites have local versions as well as a generic focused dot-com site. These may look good but are sometimes unable to develop according to local requirements.
Microsoft came in as the second most useful supply site according to the Channel Trends 2000 report. Like many large vendors Microsoft's sites around the world appear as variations on the one theme, in this case with either a blue, red or yellow colour scheme. Each provides local news and information and a Microsoft stable of information.
The more lucrative markets appear to have a greater local design control, while small markets such as Australia and Argentina appear as clones of the generic dot-com site. European sites such as Germany and the UK clearly have a good deal more local design control.
However, it is not only the larger vendors who can get caught up in Web site issues. Maurice Famulario, D-Link marketing manager for Australia/New Zealand, has had to weigh up the local versus generic Web site issue.
"Some of the D-Link sites in other countries have gone their own way with design and layout, but I think it is important to keep the feel consistent around the world. While our site is based on the US site, it does have a lot of local content," Famulario explained. "We share material back and forth across the Pacific.
"Basically, Web sites are a real pain in the butt to administer, but you really have to have one. Like any other type of media it takes a special mindset to publish on the Web; you have to be aware of a series of different issues like image file size and browsers. In the end, it all pays off because when it is properly managed you keep your channel partners happy and even pick up new business."While vendors and larger distributors easily outclass the smaller channel players in terms of available Web resources, Hitech Distribution's online success says a lot for what can be done with creativity and showcases the importance of local flavour.
The supply channel generally cannot ignore the importance of the Internet for disseminating information to resellers. A well designed and maintained Web site is capable of taking the pressure off call centres and can be an effective but unobtrusive marketing tool.
The key for small distributors it seems is to listen to their resellers and make their site responsive to the local market.
Hot web tips
Paul Wilson of Hot Chilli Media provides some important Web site design adviceAUDIENCE: Plan your site with your targeted audience in mind. Who will be viewing the site? What will those people find useful and interesting? Whatever the purpose of your site, it should be recognised from the moment the page begins to appear.
CONTENT: Make sure it's relevant and current.
NAVIGATION: It needs to be simple, appropriate and include everything from menus to links and search functions. The navigation should be clear; end users should always be aware of where they have been and where they can go.
LANGUAGE: Conversational, yet credible. Be concise and summarise, remembering Net users are lazy; they don't like to scroll.
GRAPHICS: Make them appropriate and small in file size for fast downloading.
They should highlight, summarise or add to the message of the page.
LAYOUT: Information hierarchy should be obvious. Headline, subheadline and body text styles should be consistent.
COLOUR: Colour needs to create an impression to enhance readability, provide contrast and highlight the message. Less is usually more.
DOWNLOAD SPEED: Pages should appear quickly. While new surfers might be impressed with snazzy graphics, resellers are more likely to bookmark and revisit or recommend a site which is content rich and lets them locate the information they are seeking more efficiently.
STYLE: Download speed concerns should not mean that Web sites must be dull and boring. Simplicity can have a tremendous degree of style.
LOOK & FEEL: It takes only a few seconds for visitors to form an impression of a Web site. All components listed above are taken into consideration and the user decides whether the site is likely to provide them with the content they seek.