MasterCard International is trying to turn its Web site into a central resource for small businesses, a place where they can find suppliers, seek out relevant news articles, and evaluate services.
The initiative, characterized as a "virtual portal" or clearing house for companies in the business card program, is part of MasterCard's strategy of focusing on this segment of the commercial card market.
MasterCard said small-business owners are hungry for convenient ways to transact with vendors and the availability of on-line guidance will draw more card customers into the fold.
The card association's Web site has a section designed for corporate customers, and within this area it added a feature Aug. 17, "MasterCard Small Business Connections." In addition to touting card products, the site has links to Internet news services, including Microsoft Network and ZDNet, and to on-line storefronts, such as OfficeDepot.com.
Another connection is to Register.com, a domain-name registry.
In a further branding and marketing gimmick, MasterCard has created a logo that incorporates its signature interlocking circles and the "Small Business Connections" slogan. A box on the small-business site says, "When you see the 'Connections' decal on one of our partners' sites, you'll know that company is committed to serving the needs of small business."
The Purchase, N.Y.-based card association plans to add another feature, "Market Access," which would let small-business cardholders make purchases directly from MasterCard's site.
"We're very interested in expanding our reach into the small-business community, especially over the Internet, to provide value-added services," said Steve L. Abrams, senior vice president of global corporate products at MasterCard. "Small businesses are very interested in receiving more of a total package of services that meet their needs."
In about two months, MasterCard's site is to begin spotlighting suppliers in a variety of fields. They may include companies that sell business cards or help small businesses set up Internet storefronts, buy insurance, or manage personnel functions.
Keith Butler, vice president of Office Depot On-Line, said his company shares MasterCard's "commitment to be the one-stop resource for the small-business community." The latest initiatives "move both companies closer to that goal."
Mr. Abrams said the interactive sites are a fresh direction for MasterCard. "We're going from a product focus to a market-segment focus and trying to bring value-added services that completely meet the needs of that market segment, outside of just payments," he said.
MasterCard surveyed small businesses and found they were looking for comprehensive service sources -- places they could go for everything from venture capital and legal advice to payroll services and the latest software.
Analysts see the small-business market as far less saturated than the consumer side of the card business. Issuers that can show the benefits of business purchasing and procurement on-line stand to capture more of the opportunity.
"Small businesses can really benefit from bringing some order to their purchasing patterns, and that's where there is opportunity" for credit card growth over the Internet, said Kenneth A. Posner, a principal at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. in New York.
American Express Co. has been the small-business card market leader for many years, Mr. Posner said, and is starting to face new competitors. Its Web site, "Small Business Exchange," is three years old. In the last 12 months it has started offering links to the likes of International Business Machines Corp. and Federal Express Corp., which offer special discounts to cardmembers.
American Express continuously adds interactive tools and resources for small businesses, places they can find information on topics ranging from international expansion to on-line marketing. The company cites research saying that 60% to 70% of small businesses have computers and modem access, and it predicts that more small businesses will use the Internet as a management tool.
"The Internet provides a low-cost, effective way to be ever-present in the small-business owner's mind," said an American Express spokesman. "If you don't have a significant presence on the Internet with a brand that draws people in above the clutter, you are at a competitive disadvantage."