For bankers who fear that sound business cases for Internet banking are about as real as Santa Claus, a recent seminar sponsored by Citibank offered reassurance:
Yes, Virginia, there is money to be made on the World Wide Web.
The seminar this month featured profiles on nonbanks that have devised ways to boost their bottom lines on the Internet's multimedia annex.
Federal Express, for instance, lets customers track packages through its Web site, reducing calls to customer service lines and pleasing customers who hate making such calls.
Holiday Inn books hotel rooms through its Web site, where the cost of taking a reservation is 25% lower than through an "800" number. The site even gives tours of Crowne Plaza hotels - a service that telephones cannot offer.
But most companies are not so forward-thinking. "Many sites do not adequately leverage the potential of the 'net," said Jonathan B. Spira, founder of a New York research and management consultancy called the Basex Group.
Mr. Spira criticized sites that lack interactivity. "How many times do you go to a Web site and see, 'for further information, call our "800" number'?" he asked. "It's sort of like hitting a brick wall at 50 miles an hour."
By contrast, Mr. Spira praised the example of General Motors Corp., which has just launched a Web site with 16,000 pages of manuals and technical data.
"You, the customer, now know where everything from GM can be found, and it lowers GM's cost of delivering the information to you by a thousandfold," he said.
About 125 bankers and business executives attended the seminar in New York City, which was cosponsored by KCSA Public Relations with the Citicorp unit. The meeting was a concrete sign of how bankers increasingly look beyond their own industry for strategic ideas.
"Those of you who don't yet have Web sites, you will all have them within a year or two," predicted Scott Kurnit, former chief executive officer and president of MCI/News Corp. Internet Ventures.
Mr. Kurnit described most of today's Web sites as "slow, not productive," and "pretty awful." But he said businesses should take lessons from the handful of useful and well-crafted sites.
Brent Baker, dean of Boston University's College of Communication, told the audience how important it is to target young consumers. Half of American teenagers have PCs, he said, and they are busy sending E-mail to one another.
"Only 1.9 million Americans made a transaction on the Web in the last year, but that's going to explode," Mr. Baker said.
By 2000, Mr. Baker predicted, 1 billion of the world's people will have Internet access. "That's a pretty good potential audience for whatever products you guys have," he said.