Chemical & Engineering News,
March 27, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by the American Chemical Society.

Billboards on the information superhighway

Monsanto and GE Plastics are among the chemical companies that have set up shop on the Internet, hanging their shingles on the user-friendly World Wide Web. Each of the chemical companies has different reasons for becoming a pioneer.

The move is "primarily to help Monsanto market its products," says Monsanto business systems consultant Richard C. Moore. "It's basically a way to get in touch with 30 million people for a very low cost. It reinforces the fact that we are a high-tech, cutting-edge company."

Monsanto's computer logs over 1,000 "hits" - requests to view a single page of the numerous pages that describe the company and its products - per day. Thousands of different users have accessed the site since October, says Moore. Customers, competitors, and academics have signed onto the electronic guest book with messages and questions. Moore can forward a message depending on its content - for example, to a product manager or the environmental department.

Messages range from queries on job opportunities to new technology proposals. "We've got access to our markets and strategic information," says Moore, "and research institutions write into us with ideas they would like to commercialize."

Being on the Internet also creates goodwill, says Moore. Along with product information, technical information, financial information, news releases, and text of speeches given by corporate officers, the Monsanto site includes information on the company's philanthropic activities and environmental improvement.

GE Plastics was looking for a better way of communicating with customers, says Richard D. Pocock, general manager of marketing communications. "The whole purpose is to make [up-to-date] information available as conveniently, as thoroughly as we can." He considered sending customers compact discs full of information, but dropped the idea for the more responsive Internet when user-friendly access was introduced. "We don't have a high percentage of customers who access the Internet regularly, but we are absolutely convinced that [accessing the Internet] will become commonplace in a short period of time."

GE Plastics bounded onto the Internet in October and now has 2,000 pages of technical information on-line. The site is loaded with design guides, processing guides, material guides, and properties sheets. "Our presence is not a public relations initiative," says Pocock. "We're not there for people who are surfing the Internet. We're there for people who need hard information. There are far, far glitzier places on the web."

Pocock says more is in store. In addition to beginning a weekly technology tip, GE Plastics is planning to add a complete training program in polymer fundamentals. The program, 10 one-hour sessions, will be available to be downloaded from the web site along with companion workbooks.

Pocock stresses that GE is honoring the "protocol that already exists on the Internet." The company notes only the name of the server that visitors come through, not the visitor's actual address. About 600 people from around the world visit GE Plastics' site each day. Pocock says most appear to be end users of plastics - such as computer and automotive companies - rather than plastics processors. Universities and research centers are also highly represented.

Whether the Internet has sold any product is unknown. Information on Monsanto's retail products, such as RoundUp herbicide, is included on the site, "but we don't know if [net-users] went out and bought a bottle of RoundUp," says Moore. Monsanto may conduct a survey of Internet-savvy customers, but Moore says the company is not likely to conduct a special effort to quantify the sales value of potential new product ideas proffered through the Internet. "Overall, the goodwill is going to [make the site worthwhile]," he says.

Getting a road stand on the Internet - the hardware and software - cost Monsanto less than $10,000. But a team of 12 full- and part-time employees spent months building it. GE Plastics would not disclose the amount of money it has spent.

"The biggest problem is trying to get our pages filled," says Moore. The team set up the framework for the pages, but it relies on the businesses to get the information to fill them. "It takes time, everybody's busy," says Moore. But, "There's been more excitement as Monsanto employees get on the Internet and look around. [That could prompt them] to fill in the pages on our home pages."

GE Plastics' system suffered a shutdown for a few days after a hacker infiltrated its system. Although security is a concern that makes many companies reluctant to connect to the Internet, Pocock says GE was back on-line quickly.

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