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ONLINE DOCUMENT: MARKETERS DISCOVER THE INTERNET

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For a marketer, it's love at first byte. Imagine finding a new and inexpensive way to reach mass markets: a medium so popular that 24 million adults in the U.S. and Canada used it during a recent three-month period. That's as many as viewed rental videos.

As anyone knows who's not been hibernating for the last couple of years, there is such a marketing tool. It's called the Internet, and for many companies it's an incredible pipeline to new markets.Take Sun Microsystems: a software company with a new programming language called Java. In order to build a user base for Java, Sun decided to distribute it free on the Internet. Like other high-tech vendors, Sun can use the Internet for instant product upgrades once it has recruited users.

According to Time magazine, the giveaway has been spectacularly successful. So far, Internet surfers have downloaded 100,000 copies of Java.

Other companies are using the Net to find players in growing niche market industries, such as golf. Every year there are another 325 golf courses in the U.S. That's why Roger Dunn Golf Shops of Carmel, Calif., has set up a home page on the World Wide Web to sell franchises for golf equipment stores.

Another growing use of the Internet is customer service. Unidata, a Denver-based data management company, markets a service called "legacy migration," which enables clients to upgrade their databases without losing current data. Unidata serves a worldwide network of 500,000 users in 10,000 sites with technology that's constantly changing. It's no wonder that the company averages 5000 "hits" a month on its Internet customer service line.

Spokesman John Sawyer says, "The reach made possible by the Internet is phenomenal. But this is a very fluid environment and you have to be prepared for that. The biggest blemish on an Internet company is not keeping all its information current."

On Feb. 6-7, the Conference Board will hold a "hands-on" seminar on "Commerce in Cyberspace" in New York City. The conference is billed as an opportunity to "cut through the clouds of cyberbabble and get down to doing business on the Internet."

It's intended to bridge the gap between senior managers who hope to ultimately control the commercial application of the Internet and the technical types who currently run it.

The advance program suggests the kinds of challenges businesses are already facing on the Internet. "If you are purveying information, it has to be up to the minute and well-organized. If you are selling tangible products, customization and really rapid distribution become your competitive performance edges."

Other topics include pricing, ensuring transaction security (since many potential customers are reluctant to send credit card information over the Net), and dealing with unprecedented legal issues.

For information on the Conference Board Meeting on Electronic Commerce, contact Carol Courter at 212-339-0232.

(William Charland, a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and author of "Career Shifting: Starting Over in a Changing Economy," writes this weekly column discussing ways of updating job skills at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.)