Helping Small Firms Trade Effectively with the Internet

Article excerpt

The case of Malta shows how a national trade promotion organization can help SMEs take advantage of the Internet to boost exports.

In Malta, trade promotion necessarily starts with creating visibility for the country. Due to its small size, foreign investors and potential commercial partners do not see or hear enough about Malta to appreciate its potential as a supplier of goods and services. Few people know that Malta manufactures and exports a broad spectrum of products ranging from sophisticated industrial equipment and semi-conductors to general consumer goods such as giftware and furniture, to management and financial services. Few know that Malta's export-per-capita ratio exceeds that of some of the most developed economies.

Trade support institutions have an important role in Malta, to firmly establish Malta on the world trade map. As the national trade promotion organization, the Malta External Trade Corporation (METCO) is the lead agency responsible for projecting Malta's image as a business partner.

National IT strategy: the link to trade promotion

In 1994, the Government of Malta commissioned a one-year project to draw up recommendations to deploy information technology on three principal fronts:

* business opportunities and development;

* telecommunications infrastructure; and

* education.

The study, conducted by Malta's Council for Science and Technology, evolved into Malta's National Strategy for Information Technology. It identified IT as the necessary ingredient that Malta needed in its search for a new cycle of socio-economic growth and recommended ten strategic thrusts. At the top of the list stood the raison d'etre of the IT strategy: "to augment Malta's profile as an international broker of services and goods".

The Internet's role in trade promotion

Visibility for Malta. METCO recognized the potential of the Internet as a promotional tool at an early stage. METCO Online was officially launched in July 1995, before an Internet node was available in Malta. For the first time, it was possible for foreign business entities to easily access online information about Malta, its business environment and support institutions, and about METCO and its services for the international business community. METCO was therefore instrumental in establishing Malta's presence on the Internet.

Visibility for Maltese industry. In 1995, METCO also published its 'Made In Malta Directory' company register in its entirety on the web. With over 1,500 entries, there are product and contact details for manufacturers, exporters and services companies, organized in 25 industry sectors. This online business directory is still the most accessed resource on METCO Online and has often proved to be the gateway that links Maltese suppliers and overseas buyers for the first time. This initiative placed METCO as one of the first trade support institutions to provide a comprehensive national register of exporters on the web.

Visibility for Maltese enterprises. Out of a registered user base of over 550 enterprises, only about 30% have a web site. Although the number is growing fast, METCO perceives this as being too low. It thus decided to take its exposure for Maltese exporters one step further: it delivers a comprehensive web-publishing service based on companies' specified needs, to help them use Internet as a promotional tool and generate business leads. Firms can bring product information to potential buyers via an online presence that al ready enjoys high visibility. METCO designed, hosts and maintains about 50 such web sites (with a detailed profile, a visual and descriptive product/service catalogue and an online electronic form for buyer enquiries). Firms can now have their own domain name and their own e-mail address. The enterprises pay an annual fee, which helps METCO gauge whether firms still deem the service as a useful one. …