An interesting question was put to me recently, following a discussion about the success of online advertising. Do people need to have a website in order to advertise on the internet? The instant reaction from most is “yes”. I beg to differ.

Today, businesses use the internet in a variety of ways to advertise services and products ranging from electronic versions of classified ads and directory listings through to the provision of promotional support. That said, I still believe it is possible to advertise successfully on the internet without having an online presence to fulfil the sale. After all, for many small businesses it is just not possible to facilitate the completion of a sale via a website.

There is a general assumption that internet advertising should conclude in driving visitors to a website where the sale will be completed and fulfilled, but this is by no means mandatory. Nor is it the most efficient way to ensure a sale. In many instances online advertising is likely to result in visitors browsing from one site to another without the retailer having the ability to close the sale.

Banner advertising in association with the 'click-through' model is often used by retailers but the end destination for all of these is a website with little or no up-sell or cross-sell opportunities. Often the criterion for a sale is achieved when the visitor browses to the cheapest product with no regard for the benefits a traditional retailer brings. It could be argued that the only thing that internet advertising ensures is lower margins – after all, the competition is always just around the corner.

It is also fair to say that not all businesses have an established website or a suitable fulfilment function to support operations from one. In fact, not all businesses have the ability or the confidence to hire the skills necessary to create and maintain a web presence.

The perception that you need a website in order to support online advertising comes down to a lack of understanding of what is available to help achieve the best compromise between traditional and e-delivered sales. Often this is not just about selling just one item or service, but more about influencing the sales process, cross-selling, up-selling and encouraging human interaction, loyalty and trust.

Advertising in free or costly untargeted directory listings and sitting back and waiting for customers to find you is a risky business. The risks being mis-targeted advertising, no guarantee of results and loss of valuable marketing budget, whether in financial or resource terms.

Click-through is also another way of paying for consumer browsing with no guarantee of success – plus it makes a website with an e-commerce function a requirement rather than a 'nice to have'. The same applies to pay-per-click, again another way of encouraging costly browsing with the need for web facilities to support and fulfil the sale.

So what is the answer? I believe that what hasn't been fully exploited is the use of the internet as a way of delivering highly targeted promotions – often to consumers who have already expressed an interest in that specific product or service.

Tools should be usable regardless of whether a business has an online presence. These tools should 'match-make' advertisers with interested consumers whilst ensuring that the advertiser only pays for real results. The old-adage is that 'people buy from people'; the internet has nibbled away at this but I genuinely believe it is as true today as it ever was.

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