You'll never surf alone

Malcolm Wheatley looks at a pioneering venture to sell Merseyside to the world on the Internet
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The Independent Online
MERSEYSIDE is marketing itself on the Internet, the first region in Britain to use the information superhighway to sell itself to a global audience. Local firms are benefiting too, with free advice on how to use the MerseyWorld showcase to promote themselves and take orders through the on-line MerseyMall. Netsurfers visiting the site (Internet address can find out about anything from travel and tourism to arts, entertainment and education, as well as browse through the wares of dozens of businesses from which they can buy goods and services.

The project is the brainchild of Colin Charlton of the University of Liverpool. A senior lecturer in the department of computing, he saw the potential and also the enormous amount of interest among local businesses, both large and small, in what the Internet had to offer. As a first step to harnessing this interest a one-day "Internet appreciation" course was conceived and publicised.

"The response was incredible," says Mr Charlton. "We did one mailshot to 1,300 local businesses and have been running the sessions ever since." In "cold" mailshots, a response rate of 2 or 3 per cent is considered quite good; the university's Internet mailshot achieved a 30 per cent response rate. As the courses started, further interest came from word- of-mouth referrals. "We haven't needed to publicise them since," said Mr Charlton.

But how best to turn this enthusiasm into reality and generate benefits for Merseyside and businesses? It was clear that others could see the potential: in particular, a joint business and local community inward investment marketing agency, the Mersey Partnership, whose chairman was Philip Love, the vice-chancellor of Liverpool University.

But funding was clearly required: Mr Charlton estimated that pounds 700,000 would be needed to get the project up and running. Thanks to Merseyside's development status, special European Union "Objective 1" funding was a possibility and an application for 15 months' initial proof-of-concept EU funding was drawn up, under the aegis of Connect, a commercial revenue- earning body created by Liverpool University to bring the idea to fruition.

The application was successful but the EU grant called for "match funding" from the private sector. This came from Hewlett Packard, the electronics company, small local firms and the Merseyside Training and Enterprise Council - the latter because Merseyside, just like anywhere else in the country, has unemployed former computer programers and operators.

Liverpool University was already helping to retrain these in today's new languages and computer skills but lacked opportunities to offer the newly retrained computer professionals appropriate work experience.

Offering them the opportunity to work on creating and maintaining MerseyWorld in partnership with the local companies and organisations that were using the Internet site to showpiece their wares would provide this experience, and perhaps jobs afterwards. This is exactly what has started to happen, reports Mr Charlton.

In addition to using the MerseyMall to purchase anything from Everton Football Club memorabilia and confectionery, businesses can incorporate provision of Internet access within their own IT systems. One company, Henry Diaper, a wine and spirit firm that is 145 years old, plans to use MerseyWorld as part of its order processing system to fulfil the needs of national retail chains such as Spar.

"MerseyWorld puts Merseyside at the forefront of the information revolution," believes Christopher Gibaud, the chief executive of Mersey Partnership. It is, he believes, an important weapon in the battle to attract investment.

He said: "Not only does it provide easy access to an extensive showcase of information on business and leisure in the region but it enables local businesses to market themselves on a national and global basis."