Web, mobile and Facebook are the new trade routes for Irish business

21 May 2009

Firms that don’t have an online strategy at the heart of their business plan will find that the new routes to market in the 21st century will be closed to them.

This is the view of Fergal O’Byrne, CEO of the Irish Internet Association (IIA), who says the hallmark of many new start-ups today are business plans that are led by web strategies, rather than business plans with an online option bolted on.

Accelerating start-ups and helping existing businesses make effective use of the internet is the theme of this year’s IIA Congress, which is taking place in Dublin today.

What worries the IIA is how traditional businesses in the grip of the recession still aren’t taking the internet seriously.

“Businesses shouldn’t look at online as merely having a website, there’s more to it than that. There is also the problem that very few Irish businesses with websites bother to update them regularly.

“The web is the perfect mechanism for selling products, serving customers and getting feedback. The internet should be at the heart of any export-focused business. It should be an organic, living entity for customers to engage with you.”

O’Byrne points to the UK, where up to 10pc of most firms’ marketing budgets are online, compared to less than 5pc here.

“Migrating business online should be getting buy-in at boardroom level. People who spend time and money on their internet strategy get a return on investment very quickly.”

A recent €3m initiative by the IIA and Fáilte Ireland entitled WebCheck came about when Fáilte Ireland approached the IIA about equipping the hospitality sector with web skills. So far, 800 businesses have signed up.

The social-networking phenomenon that is Facebook has already resulted in 200 million individuals signing up. The head of Facebook in Ireland, Colm Long, who is the keynote speaker at today’s event, believes Irish businesses should be using it as a platform to advertise and reach new customers.

“You can connect with a global audience and make your message resonate. A lot of advertising in the past was difficult to measure and couldn’t be executed in real-time.

“You can now measure, in real-time, the success of your campaign. You can launch and refine an online advertising campaign within any budget. The beauty is that you are in control of your campaign at all times,” Long adds.

He says there is enormous room for improvement among Irish businesses and their approach to the internet.

“In the past, and to some extent in the present, many businesses saw their website solely as a ‘brochure’ of sorts. It was designed to give the customer or user an idea of what their line of business was, but didn’t necessarily allow them to transact in any meaningful way.

“The web has been a great leveller in that businesses of all sizes can benefit – it can be the engine for your business, rather than being a peripheral concern. Combined with the potential of mobile, you will see very exciting developments in the next few years.”

Accelerating business start-ups that make good use of the internet is paramount and successful Irish net pioneers – including Colm Lyon of Realex, Dylan Collins of Jolt Online Gaming and Ray Nolan of Worky.com – have spearheaded a new initiative aimed at helping Irish internet start-ups to navigate the unfortunate red tape of Irish business and go global fast.

The new Internet Growth Alliance is to be unveiled by Lyon during his address at today’s IIA Congress.

The alliance has enlisted the support of organisations that include Enterprise Ireland, the Irish Software Association, the IAA and the Institute of International and European Affairs to devise a training programme aimed at fast-tracking entrepreneurs’ international business efforts.

Lyon says there is an urgent need to create an internet-growth acceleration programme.

“There’s a stupid notion that just because you’re an Irish internet business you can’t scale internationally. You can.

“The idea is to create a training programme that is supported by peer internet companies, which have gone the journey. The training is to help businesses identify the pieces they need to scale internationally, from compiling a strategy, succeeding in online communications, localising products to cross-border VAT accounting, etc.

“Start-up culture in Ireland seems to be stymied by the perception that there is a lack of start-up capital around. The internet is a means to get going and you don’t need €100,000 to get a company up and running anymore. The challenges Irish start-ups face is not solely about funding, but also the strategy to go about doing something.”

Lyon is one of Ireland’s most successful internet entrepreneurs: having started Realex Payments in 2000, it has grown into an internet payments giant that processes €6bn in e-commerce transactions a year for companies such as Aer Lingus and Superquinn, as well as prominent Irish and UK banks. This week, Realex achieved a deal to process global payments for Virgin Atlantic.

Also speaking at today’s IIA Congress is Trey Harvin, CEO of Dublin-headquartered DotMobi, which now boasts 1.2 million .mobi domains with 800,000 active domains. DotMobi is backed by a consortium of tech industry giants, including Microsoft, Vodafone, 3 and the GSM Association. In 2008, credit-card giant Visa took a strategic investment in the organisation.

Harvin believes Irish businesses that want to achieve an edge in the evolution of the internet as a business weapon should be getting ready for the massive movement of the web as we know it to the mobile handset, thanks to devices like the iPhone and Google Android-powered devices.

“The mobile web will see people take advantage of the great thing mobiles are – always on, always with you – and they will provide more services, a marketing experience, a scanner, GPS and an address book.

“Businesses that really embrace the mobile web early will take advantage of what the mobile phone can do, and will better communicate and integrate with customers. That’s going to provide real value.”

With roughly three billion phones in the world of six billion people, and with Chinese mobile operators adding 10 million subscribers a week, Harvin says this means that mobile-phone penetration is bigger than all of the PCs and TVs in the world combined.

“From a global perspective, the mobile commerce opportunity is tremendous. From an Irish point of view, the opportunity is enormous.

“Ireland has the third highest mobile penetration in Europe behind Germany and Italy, according to the Mobile Marketing Association. Ireland is in the top three for the likelihood to use the mobile web,” adds Harvin.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Trey Harvin, CEO, DotMobi; Colm Lyon, founder and CEO of Realex Payments; Fergal O’Byrne, CEO, Irish Internet Association; and Colm Long, head of Facebook’s European operations, Dublin