Making the net work for you

Publishing on the Net is growing at an enormous pace and could prove a valuable way of advertising your firm's services as well as saving money, reports Chris Davis

In Europe, companies spend an estimated 22.5 billion ECU each year on publishing. It is an area that can benefit immensely from using the information superhighway, with printing, shipping and design costs drastically reduced.

The volume of publishing on the Internet is growing fast. The number of Internet Web sites is estimated at 27,000, with the number doubling every 53 days.

A report commissioned by the European Commission on electronic corporate publishing is being produced by Deloitte & Touche. This contains a thorough review of publishing on the Internet and looks at its limitations and future.

The main area of the Internet in which business is actively interested is the World Wide Web. This uses the Internet as a transport system to show authored articles through computer screens.

Originally developed at CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research, by a British scientist, it is this section of the Internet that is causing much of the media interest and it is what most people think of when referring to the Internet.

The Web uses a protocol called HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), which is a way of making a textual document become interactive, producing an entirely new way of retrieving and accessing publications of any kind.

HTML is also used to create a home page, a welcome screen which allows other users of the Internet to access your published documents.

Internet publishing is fairly easy. Most service providers can design and display a home page for your firm as part of your connection to the Internet, but this does not really provide the full benefits of the Web.

To make full use of the system you need your own dedicated machine, called a Web server, which will hold all your HTML documents and home pages. It is this machine your clients will access.

Setting up your own Web server involves a certain amount of expenditure – connection to a service provider, the Web server itself, a permanent-leased phone line, a security firewall and the services of a specialist to set it all up.

The greatest cost savings are achieved when the firm fully embraces electronic publishing. The documents or web pages are easy to create. Most standard word processor software, such as Microsoft Word, has add-on software which allows the author to create HTML documents from existing files at the touch of a button. The danger of this approach is that simply placing text on a computer screen does not make it very interactive which should be one of the major considerations.

For large firms wanting to make the most of the Internet, the best approach is to hire a dedicated specialist editor to oversee the creation of the Web pages, while smaller firms can out-source the work to one of the many bureaux specialising in Web publishing.

Once a practice has got to grips with Web pages it is also possible to set up an intranet across the firm's internal computer network. In essence, this is just another Web server but without the connection to the Internet so only employees can access it.

The Internet Web server can be used to publish external publications while the Intranet is used to hold in-house documents such as newsletters, training manuals and management announcements.

Law firms can use the Internet to make their publications available to a wider audience at less cost than traditional paper-based articles. The system allows small firms to make the same impact as much larger ones and provides large firms with a cheaper means of disseminating information and a way of improving access to it.

Over time it is likely that specialist Web sites will be developed for particular aspects and branches of the law.

However, many questions remain unanswered at this stage, such as how many clients will browse through the Internet to see your publication? And if they do see your literature, will it deliver real marketing benefit over and above more traditional means?

In addition, there are informal bulletin boards and exchanges of information on the Internet that have no controls. The writers, for example, cannot be traced, and you have no control over what people are saying on the Internet about your firm, its services and the professionals it employs.