Confessions of a neo-Luddite: Create your Web presence now, but don’t forget: People buy from people

With the Internet growing so rapidly, how should I decide how much of my marketing budget to put into online services instead of traditional marketing activities? Will I get left behind if I don’t act now to build an Internet presence?— T.L., marketing director

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement about the Internet. Though I believe online communication will have a profound impact on all fields of commerce, many people are overreacting to the Internet’s short-term impact on building product marketing.

Electronic construction product information is not new. As far back as 1983, I worked in an architectural firm with a mainframe computer that connected me to 100 megabytes of master specifications (an incomprehensibly large number back then).

Today I use the Internet for research. I build and maintain Web sites for my clients, and communicate with colleagues via e-mail. Yet I continue to get most of my building product information from printed catalogs and magazines, advertising, telephone calls, and trade shows, with an occasional CD-ROM database. I think this is typical of how people in the industry get information.

Though it is not yet a widespread product information source, some building product firms appear to be making money on the Internet. For example, Slip Tech, a San Diego maker of slip-resistant treatments for flooring, is now doing business in several foreign countries because distributors found their products on the Internet.

Presumably, the Internet resulted in a lower cost-per-sale than traditional marketing techniques, such as directory advertising or international trade fairs.

But for every Internet success story, many companies are throwing money into a cyber-hole, developing Web sites without clear marketing strategies, at the expense of proven marketing techniques. For example, I recently met with a start-up company that wanted to spend most of its limited marketing budget on a Web site, although few of its potential customers are online.

Even when construction marketers are convinced there is a customer base on the Internet, they may not design efficient Web sites. Many pages are filled with glitzy pictures and multimedia effects that don’t impart meaningful information.

Some Web sites list products but don’t say anything substantive about them. For example, sites that offer specifications not written to Construction Specifications Institute criteria are not universally useful.

Other companies spend money to promote their Web sites instead of promoting their businesses. Their marketing resources could be better spent developing new products or better relationships with clients.

While the Internet is evolving rapidly, paper-based information systems still have many desirable attributes. Print items are portable and easily used, but it’s not easy to get information from a computer while hanging on a scaffold 30 feet above the ground. And although Internet data travels at increasingly higher speeds, most architects can find information in a familiar printed volume faster than the time it takes for a single Web page to load.

While not everyone in a design office or on a construction job site has access to a computer, printed material is plentiful and easily shared.

In addition, printed product literature creates an archival record of a manufacturer’s claims and instructions, important documentation in case a project results in litigation. The transient data flowing through millions of Web sites doesn’t exist in a fixed form—and may not even be available tomorrow.

Construction designers have trained their eyes to see patterns between a detail and a floor plan, recognizing the fit between a part and a whole.

Even with multiple windows open on a computer screen, the Internet tends to present images sequentially, rather than the everything-at-once view a designer gets by laying out catalogs, samples, clippings, and other visual stimuli.

Furthermore, Internet photos are not as sharp as those reproduced with good quality four-color printing. Even the best computer screens cannot reproduce the subtleties of color and texture in a color or swatch card. And the Internet cannot substitute for the reality of a product sample.

Electronic abilities, disabilities

These deficiencies of the Internet are mitigated by features not available in print—animation and multimedia, for example. The ability to cut and paste information from an electronic catalog into a word processing document or CAD file is an enormous time saver for the digitally savvy design professional. So is the ability to run engineering programs and other data processing operations within an Internet presentation.

The Internet also has awesome search engines that browse through millions of Web sites to find information matching selected search parameters. But until we have more sophisticated search engines specifically for construction applications, a user may find searches aggravating and time consuming. A search for information on “gaskets for sealing buildings” brought me information about head gaskets for outboard motors, but not the construction sealants I was hoping to find.

Search engines also create another marketing dilemma: unqualified traffic. Effective advertising depends on matching the medium and the message to the desired audience. Advertising in the Blue Book, for example, limits exposure to contractors who qualify for copies of that directory.

But on the Web, marketers can be swamped with e-mail inquiries from casual visitors who may not be qualified buyers.

My final caution about Internet hoopla: Most construction product sales are based on relationships; people buy from people.

Someday we may all have video cameras mounted above our computers for interactive computer conferencing. For now, it would be a mistake to replace your sales force with a digital robot.

Processing the data
Here are my recommendations for including the Internet in your marketing plans:

  • If your company does not have a Web site already, register an appropriate domain name immediately. For example, a manufacturer of pigments for colored concrete recently registered its Web site at The long-term benefits of an easily recognizable Web name are incalculable.
  • Be strategic. Know what you want to accomplish with your Web site, and with whom you want to communicate. Give the same careful consideration to designing your Web site as you do to your printed materials.
  • Realize it’s not very expensive to develop a simple Web site. The information in your printed material probably exists in a digital format that can be imported directly into a Web authoring program. In the future, develop your print and Internet publications simultaneously.
  • Start simple. You can always expand your Web presence later.
  • Don’t overreact to the Web. A good rule of thumb about new technology is: Don’t overestimate the impact the technology will have in five years, or underestimate its impact in 10 years.
Happy Surfing.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1997