J&W students offer advice to ListItRI.com creators

On a recent Friday evening, Johnson & Wales graduate students gave a local
dot-com company a few thoughts on how they might want to direct their marketing
and message before taking their Ocean State Web site to new markets.

Mary Ellen Morea, a marketing research manager at Cox Communications who also teaches a graduate course within the university’s hospitality program focusing on the structure of e-commerce and e-business, said after 25 years in the business, she’s always looking to bring some reality into the classroom.

She has been inviting Tom Viall into her class for several semesters now, originally to offer his experiences as director of OSO.com (Ocean State Online) as a case study and later, after that Web site folded, to talk about the startup of a new site, ListItRI.com, offering many of the same classifieds-based services.

Viall said when he first started talking to Morea’s class, he often faced many tough questions, most reflecting the negative state Internet-based companies were finding themselves in.

That’s changed recently though. Viall said with a bit of a resurgence in the industry over the last six to eight months and the highly visible successes of sites like Yahoo, Google and eBay, the students have seemed much more positive in their outlooks.

“I’m very upfront about the challenges we face,” Viall said. “We treated the class as if we had hired a marketing firm.”

Linda Woods, who formed ListItRI.com’s Vega Interactive with Viall a little over a year ago, said the Web site has seen steady growth over the past year. The two formerly worked for OSO.com, which was overseen by a sister company of Cox Communications, Cox Interactive Media.

When a decision was made at the corporate level to discontinue operating the network of sites, Woods and Viall had already started putting together ListItRI.com, which offers many of the same localized features and classified listings. Based out of their home offices (a third former OSO employee handles the site’s graphic design and layout), Woods and Viall are now looking to move into new markets while retaining the site’s small-town appeal.

“It was an incredibly valuable thing to get that direct input,” said Woods, of the time spent in the class. “We’re basically getting a focus group which is good to have in a business where you don’t have direct contact with your customer base.”

On April 16, Woods and Viall returned to the Harborside campus classroom after an initial presentation about their company to hear presentations from teams on strategies of how to grow the company locally within the next two years and nationally over the next two to three years.

“I was so impressed with what some of the teams came up with,” Morea said. “It’s awesome, absolutely great and it gave the company a very objective viewpoint.”

Woods said many in Morea’s class of about 30 students suggested targeting the local college market, with one group pointing out that Rhode Island has the largest amount of college students per capita. Morea said her class, a mostly younger group, is filled with international students, many of whom said the site could be valuable for someone arriving in the country without furniture and other household items.

Other suggestions included advertising at T.F. Green Airport to reach that same population or doing community service work in conjunction with an operation such as the Salvation Army – the connection being, “used stuff,” Woods said. Other students said the site could be a valuable resource for students new in town if event listings were included.

“There were a few real gems in there,” Viall said. “Each group really came up with one good takeaway. Some of the things we were hearing we had thought about, or heard from another party, but it was different hearing from someone without a vested interest.”

In getting the site running, Woods said the biggest challenge has been the lack of a significant marketing budget, something OSO.com never had to face. “The key has been establishing our own brand,” she said. “That’s absolutely been the biggest challenge.”

Woods and Viall hope to soon put the finishing touches on fine-tuning the local site so they can begin moving into new markets. It’s a process, Viall said, they’re “very, very” close to and the Johnson & Wales comments will help. Woods and Viall are planning a meeting later this month to talk with Morea about specific suggestions that have made their way into an action plan for the company.

Morea added that she often has discussions with her students about their home countries’ preparedness and capabilities in the high-tech 21st century.

“The whole thing was great because it was real,” Morea said. “I have students from China, Taiwan, India, Israel. They’re looking to go back to their countries with some expertise and some experience. I tell them all the time that the Internet offers them so many opportunities.”

As Viall mentioned the importance of being able to develop relationships and a support network within Rhode Island’s confines, Woods agreed, and said, “It was time well spent for us. It’s something every small business should have.”

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