No one can deny the possibilities and potential benefits of the Internet. An estimated 600 million web sites have been launched by individuals, companies, organizations — all to experience the ride of the "information superhighway."
The grain and grain processing industry has not overlooked the Internet's promise. Many companies and suppliers maintain a website. A few months ago, the first website for interactive cash commodity trading was launched. International grain associations also are capitalizing on the Internet's opportunities.
World Grain recently talked to the American Feed Industry Association, the Association of Operative Millers and the Grain Elevator and Processing Society about the process, challenges and advantages of developing a website.
GEAPS. The extensive GEAPS website, www.geaps.com, has been a work in progress since 1995, when the association first discussed the possibilities of launching its own spot in ‘cyberland.' Two years later, GEAPS debuted the website at its technical conference, and the site has been constantly changing and adapting since then, said David Krejci, GEAPS executive vice-president.
"GEAPS exists for the purpose of exchanging information," he said. "And frankly, that's what the Internet is all about — to connect people with each other. Everything we've done as an organization has been to find more efficient ways to do that, so the Internet was the next step. It was only a matter of asking how we can use the Internet to improve what we do."
Because GEAPS is an international organization, posting a website allowed them to reach a much broader audience by providing information in a medium that has no time or space barriers. "This was our version of a billboard," Mr. Krejci said. "It allowed us to communicate much easier with international and prospective members."
After defining its mission for the website and hiring an outside web producer, the GEAPS website was well on its way. "Everything that is there, we already did in some form," said Mr. Krejci. "We didn't have to invent anything, just repackaged the information we already had."
That "repackaging" created a very efficient website. The GEAPS homepage first states the society's mission. Next, there is a "What's New" section, followed by a summary of the site's in-depth, grain operations Resource Center. The homepage menu bar consists of links to GEAPS news, the GEAPS forum, the resource center, a membership information page, a GEAPS tour that describes the association's functions, a "contact us" page and a member login page.
The Resource Center has its own menu bar links, including one to access industry alerts that contain frequent updates of government and regulatory news. The user can even be notified by email whenever a new alert is posted.
The resource center also includes a virtual reference library; a grain handling operations forum where one can ask questions and offer opinions or suggestions about grain operations issues; a searchable, on-line buyer's guide; a searchable collection of GEAPS exchange educational programs from the past five years; a directory of guidebooks, audio tapes and videos that can be ordered online; and the latest edition of the GEAPS publication, In-Grain.
"The Internet has allowed us to do things that we never could have done, such as putting together all the information we have and making it accessible around the clock," Mr. Krejci said. "It is, in essence, it's own entity. Everything we do must be thought of in terms of duplication for the Internet."
Although GEAPS has only 2,800 members, its website generates an average of eight to 10,000 sessions each month. (The number of people who visit a specific site is usually measured in hits or sessions. A hit is tallied each time someone moves to another page within a website. A session, however, only tallies once for the entire website visit, regardless of how many different pages are viewed.)
This success has come with minimal promotion of the website — GEAPS simply noted the website address on all of its published materials.
"It has become a natural tendency for people to expect that a website exists," said Mr. Krejci. "So, promoting the website wasn't as big an issue as responding to the demand to create one. It would be like marketing that we have a telephone."
The next challenge, according to Mr. Krejci, is to keep the site user friendly and to make navigation easier. "So, now we are redesigning," he said.
In the future, Mr. Krejci hopes "to provide access to interactive information to do the kind of thing we do in meetings, sessions and conferences. That is as far as we can see on the horizon."
A.O.M. Three years ago, A.O.M. launched its first website in association with a company called Training Forum, which offers websites to training organizations.
"This was just a first, intermediate step for us," said Roger Gelsinger, A.O.M.'s director of association services, who was in charge of the website project. Motivated to provide better service to members, A.O.M. decided to launch its own, independent site.
"About a year ago, the Education Committee really started the ball rolling to set up our own website," Mr. Gelsinger said.
Frustrated with the difficulty of keeping the calendar events page updated on the Training Forum site, A.O.M. decided it was time to start doing it themselves. "The Training Forum didn't really fit our needs, but it was an economical means at the time," Mr. Gelsinger said.
After an education committee brainstorming session and a year of preparing, A.O.M. launced its new site, www.aomillers.org, in December 1999.
Developed under what Mr. Gelsinger called the "KIS policy (Keep It Simple)," A.O.M.'s homepage consists of a straightforward menu. The first wegpage link, "Boards and Committees," leads to a list of officers, board of directors, committees and district organizations. A drawback, however is the lack of email links or contact numbers.
The second link accesses "Membership Information," which describes A.O.M.'s technical bulletin, short courses, seminars, correspondence courses, district breakdowns, member classifications and member dues. Details of the technical conference and trade show, along with an online registration form, can be accessed here or from the homepage main menu.
In addition, one can check a calendar of current events, order A.O.M. publications, videos and other products and review the association's bylaws.
Because the site is so new, A.O.M. is still trying to gather response to the site and to decipher the technical, weekly web trends report.
"We've been basically just trying to get the site up," Mr. Gelsinger said. Further development will continue after the A.O.M. conference in May, has said.
Feedback is crucial for future improvements. "First, we just have to use it, work with it and get the members to experience it," Mr. Gelsinger said. "We need to get a wide range of people to look at the website and give us some feedback."
The association, which has about 1,700 members, continually updates the events calendar from its office, while the webmaster updates everything else.
"We are really just beginning to crawl right now," Mr. Gelsinger said. "Once we get more established, we'll have some real fun with it."
A.F.I.A. The second version of A.F.I.A.'s website, www.afia.org, debuted in October 1999, two years after the first version was launched.
The original website was effective, said Joe Pickett, A.F.I.A.'s public information specialist, "but A.F.I.A. realized that the explosive growth of Internet technology and its use by consumers mandated that the A.F.I.A. must command a stronger web presence to thrive in the modern business world."
A four-hour staff meeting and a four-month development span headed by Mr. Pickett led to the current website.
"The goal was to provide members with a complete, instant resource to the information they need about the feed and pet food industries," he said.
Wanting to conduct as much business online as possible, the A.F.I.A. decided to design an online dues schedule, member and meeting registration, an online store and summaries of its publications. "At the meeting's conclusion, we had generated a total of 200-plus separate web pages," Mr. Pickett said. "The total on the site today is about 250."
The A.F.I.A. initially began searching for web design firms to build the site and planned to have Mr. Pickett update the site once it was completed.
"This was my original idea, but I grew uncomfortable with having an outside source build such a large project and have me come in at the end to manage it," he said.
To gain more design control, the A.F.I.A. chose a web design company, GUI Works in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S., that also provided web design software. GUI's E-Grail software allowed the A.F.I.A. the control they wanted, while still offering help for technical issues and tricky programming.
"This software allows someone with limited ‘html' skills to build and manage a site with a surprising amount of flexibility and control," Mr. Pickett said. "At the end of the project, we would have an excellent website that I built myself and could manage without further outside contracting expenses."
News releases about the new site were distributed to the agricultural press. Already, the website averages 60,000 hits per month and 100 visits per day. Mr. Pickett said he expects those numbers to increase in 2000 as A.F.I.A. further promotes the website with a "blast" of e-mail campaigns and adds an online member directory.
Of the association's 675 members, 600 responded to an Internet-use survey in a recent newsletter. "Most members said they are using or will use afia.org," Mr. Pickett said.
The site includes a description of A.F.I.A.; staff members (each with an e-mail link); industry committees; industry news; government affairs issue summaries and action letters; A.F.I.A. statistics and testimonials; a dues schedule; a member application; and an online shop of A.F.I.A. products and publications. Persons also can register online for A.F.I.A. events and download brochures.
In addition, there are more than 300 links to other websites.
According to Mr. Pickett, the news section, online registrations and issue summaries are the most popular with viewers. "I am very pleased with the website project to this point," he said. "A.F.I.A. assembled a very usable, informative and attractive site at a reasonable cost."
The online membership directory should be up in the summer and may include banner advertising.
His final goal is to make it a fully integrated website and database where members can access personal information and update company listings, meeting registrations and other member information.
"This integration would really open the door for making afia.org a complete resource for our members and the portal for conducting the majority of A.F.I.A.'s business," Mr. Pickett said.
BENEFITS AND PREDICTIONS. All three associations said their websites had been a terrific benefit not only for their members, but also for the associations themselves.
"The website has helped us do everything we did before and be more responsive [to our members], Mr. Krejci said of the GEAPS site. "It brings people to GEAPS that would not otherwise find us. It increases the value of membership. Although it doesn't reduce the demand on resources, your return on that investment can be very efficient."
Mr. Gelsinger of the A.O.M. said its website has been an easy, cost-effective, economical way to have contact with members and others searching for information about the A.O.M.
The A.F.I.A., as well as the other two associations, has benefited particularly from the on-line registration form. To date, the A.F.I.A. has received 50 online registrations for its Purchasing and Ingredient Suppliers Conference.
Exactly how the Internet will continue to impact these associations in the future is unclear.
"Ten years ago, no one would have thought we could be providing information the way we are," Mr. Krejci said. "It makes it hard to know where it will be going. Who am I to speculate what can happen in the next five to 10 years when five to 10 years ago we would have never imagined what we are doing now?"