To the companies selling electronic commerce, technology is not a problem. Marketing budgets also seem to be ample.
But they still face an uneducated, even mystified, public. Many consumers either don't know about the wonders and conveniences of shopping on the Net, or are afraid to test them out.
So Internet commerce companies want to take consumers to school: Internet Shopping 101.
Though still in its infancy, the industry is growing fast. International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., has estimated annual revenue from on-line transactions will climb to $220 billion in 2001 from $11 billion today, but the majority would come from business-to-business sales.
To drum up interest in consumer-oriented commerce, corporations with an interest in the infrastructure, like International Business Machines Corp. and AT&T Corp., are blanketing the conventional media with ads about on- line business capabilities. They have a distinctly educational tone.
A growing number of companies are advertising what people can buy on their Web sites.
Most educational advertising about electronic commerce is found in traditional media and is directed at non-Internet users, said Marc Johnson, on-line advertising analyst at Jupiter Communications of New York. Advertising directly on the Web, by contrast, assumes its viewers already know about the Internet's business potential.
IBM is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a global television and print ad campaign on the theme of "e-business" to spread the word not just about the company, but about the phenomenon.
"We believe it is absolutely critical to educate the marketplace," said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, general manager of IBM's Internet division. "A huge part of the campaign is to encourage everyone to get going."
IBM's comical television ads portray people asking what e-business is, and business owners saying they should get on the Internet though they aren't sure why. An eight-page pullout section in The Wall Street Journal told why companies can't ignore the Internet.
Though the ads are aimed at getting businesses to go on-line, Mr. Wladawsky-Berger said, they also have a public service undertone in trying to raise awareness.
"We want consumers to notice it and say, 'What does it mean that people are selling (products) on the Web?'" he continued.
Companies such as IBM and AT&T, along with major merchants and service providers, such as banks, are counting on their brand names to encourage on-line commerce.
AT&T, which also offers corporate Internet services, believes its ads will alleviate some of the public's concerns about on-line shopping, said vice president Jim Speros.
"Part of the role of the ads is to let people know we are making shopping on the Web a reality and that it's safe and secure," Mr. Speros said. "AT&T's brand name is associated with trust. By AT&T endorsing electronic commerce, it almost becomes permission to act."
AT&T's ads show entrepreneurs promoting their products on-line. One spot features two women futilely marketing rubber sunglasses-until they open a Web site. Another shows an art museum looking for another location-and finding it on-line. The scenarios include people purchasing products on- line.
Mr. Speros compares electronic commerce's growth to that of toll-free phone numbers. When they were first implemented more than two decades ago, he said, the telephone company had to educate businesses and people about them. Now advertisers "can be a lot more assumptive."
Electronic commerce advertising often revolves around the "Did you know?" theme, said Richard Rosenblatt, chief executive officer of Studio City, Calif.-based iMall Inc. It informs people that they can buy many things on-line, stressing the safety and convenience of the transaction.
"There are still a lot of people who think the Internet is just for computer people," Mr. Rosenblatt said. His ads will show that "Just as people would watch infomercials or QVC, they can come to iMall."
iMall cannot afford to fund general advertisements about electronic commerce, so it will focus on its own site. A company in educational mode like IBM, however, is willing to risk that its ads might benefit competitors, because the cause is bigger than any one of them.
"You want people to trust technology," said Mr. Wladawsky-Berger of IBM. "That will expand the market and hopefully we'll get our fair share."