A Clue..to Internet Commerce

by Dana Blankenhorn

For the Week of April 7, 1997

Volume 1, No. VI

This Week's Clue: Which ISP's On First?

With a deadline looming for a feature on Internet Service Providers for AdAge's NetMarketing supplement, and with America Online poised to put CompuServe out of its misery with a buy-out, I did what any self-respecting journalist should do. I took a shortcut and called Jack Rickard .

The latest version of Rickard's "Internet Service Providers" directory, published bi-monthly, has over 16,000 listings for over 3,600 providers in the U.S. Most thought the number would start declining last year, but Rickard says that's wrong, and the why should intrigue anyone in Internet commerce.

Put simply, small providers can play the technology card. "They can re-deploy all their 196 ports in a few weeks." That means they can switch to 56 Kbps modems from U.S. Robotics, or to Rockwell modems if that standard wins-out, in a few days. They can do the same thing with ADSL, or any other technology when it comes down the pike. "AOL can't do that."

Speaking of which. "Most ISPs have 10-12 customers per modem," explains Rickard. When AOL put in its $19.95/month plan it had 50 per modem. People responded by hoarding the lines. "There's no way AOL can buy enough modems and get 'em installed in time to do any good...but if they bought CompuServe they could turn it around in a month," with roughly 9 million users (taking out overlaps) sharing 900,000 modems.

In looking at a host for your Web site, you face the same problem. You can get a cheap PC and a T-1 connection, or spend $1 million on a T-3 and good hardware. Go the first route and if you get on CNN (or the staff commits suicide ) everyone on the Net "goes to the rail," (like at the end of a horse race), and those who can't get in don't come back. Spend the big bucks and fail to deliver big numbers, on the other hand, and your boss may send you to the Mother Ship himself.

The solution might be in what backbone provider AGIS is now offering, a system of Web "mirrors" which can put pages in many places when everyone "goes to the rail," and leave less-popular pages in one site so you don't spend yourself into the poor-house. AGIS president Phil Lawlor calls it "Coolocation."

There's another way to cut the load. Savvis Communications has put in five private Network Access Points (NAPs) -- the real U.S. Internet has just 4 and that's the system's biggest bottleneck. "They've bypased the whole thing, set up their own Internet with a checkbook," says Rickard. "It subverts the entire structure of the Internet -- it makes my head hurt. Savvis has turned the big guys into their clients, essentially, by being their customer."

What are your clues from all this? If you're in one place, look for a small ISP. If you're all over the map, geography does matter, and the more POP locations you can get the better. If you're looking for a Web host, technology matters, and the big names may not have it. (Did you know AT&T WorldNet doesn't have its own backbone? They rent BBN's.) And here's your best clue -- if you need the inside-skinny on ISPs, get to know Jack Rickard.

Shameless Self-Promotion (SSP)

As mentioned last week, I'm a freelance journalist looking for assignments. Journalism -- checking the news, calling people, listening carefully, writing on deadline -- is how I keep these clues coming, although I also handle consulting or commercial writing (ask about those rates via e-mail). My latest project is a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Web site, which will start soon. I've also recently finished work for AdAge's NetMarketing supplement and Business Marketing magazines. Now back to our program...

Web Marketing Bookshelf

Most computer books are term papers. Write 400 pages on Subject X in three weeks. They're sold by weight, through titles and (sometimes) cover art. As a result, most computer books today are as useless as manuals -- I've written on four and know.

When a topic gets hot, books follow, and that's true for Web marketing, too. Wiley has delivered 4 to me in the last month alone.

The best of this lot is Greg Helmstetter's "Increasing Hits and Selling More on Your Web Site." . Good writing, broken up with enough "tips" and "notes" to keep your eyes open. Covers obscure topics like "sigverts" (small ads in Usenet signatures) as well as all conventional means for spreading the news and designing a site for marketing purposes.

Accountants will love "Measuring the Impact of your Web Site," by Robert Buchanan and Charles Lukaszewski . This is how corporate site managers are evaluating sites. (If they had a real clue they'd track sales directly and goodwill through conventional means, using the Web as a feedback loop.) Here you can see how the other half lives, and they break-up their case studies into tight little sections so you can follow a number of them at once.

Also new from Wiley are Kim Bayne's "The Internet Marketing Plan,", which might be termed "organizing your marketing department around a Web sales project" and the "Web Marketing Cookbook" by Janice King, Paul Knight, and James Mason, filled with templates for those (like me) who are HTML-challenged.

Which book is best for you? It depends on what you're clueless about. If you need HTML help, the King book may be tops. If you're trying to sell a Web project in a large company, Bell or Lukaszewski may be for you. For pure marketing expertise (and clear writing), Helmstetter tops this list.

Our E-Mail Experiment

Last week we reported on plans to test NetCreations' list service. In exchange for their ad here, we'd offer A Clue at $49/year. Immediately, some loyal readers told us to "back-off" -- warning of spam claims and mail-bombs. I appreciate that, but going inside a story like this has been around since the days of Nellie Bly, and better me than you. I also talked to Rosalind Resnick, who runs the lists, and she stopped me short. Said I'd better get a merchant number before trying an e-mailing, because no one online sends checks. Good point. We'll move to the next step once the merchant number is in-hand, and add her warning to your list of Clues....

Briefly Noted...

New Horizons In Page Design. Take a look at how Nike has used multi-screen breadth in its first pages, designed by Vivid Studios. (Note: Between writing this and checking the links, Nike and Vivid switched to a "Final Four" theme, and chances are they'll have switched again before you click over.) I don't care for super wide screens myself, but it's a fast-moving trend....If your programmers aren't C-ready, and you're loaded with Basic programs as you prepare your Web site, consider Black Dirt's Convert 1.0, a $60 program which can turn them into Java applets....Thanks go to Larry Chase of "Web Digest For Marketers" for his kind review of A Clue in his April 1 issue. He calls it a "plain-talk summary of the week's Internet trends," and we'll take that as a continuing challenge....Why the http://'s all over the place? This lets some .txt subscribers to A Clue get hot-links, just like the .htm subscribers. Let us know what you think...What am I reading? Just finished "Dave Barry in Cyberspace," and while most of it is just-plain funny, his story of love online, "MsPtato and RayAdverb" is one of his best pieces ever, and illustrates our clue from "Levels of Intimacy." (March 17). Chat is about heart -- people making themselves vulnerable. Thanks, Dave....

Clued-In, Clueless

Clued-in this week is John Brogan of Reply.Net. We wrote last week about a new 10 cent per-note rate for his AutoResponse E-Mail service (the regular rate is $59/month), using the phrase "last gasp." OOPS. In fact, Brogan says, he's got over 5,400 paying customers, and thousands more thanks to the new offer. "This gives them a chance to experiment and it costs us basically nothing for the auto-responders," he writes. "Everyone that has signed up has asked about the 'other services we offer at our full service rate." John's right, and it's a key clue. To sell, Web visits should lead to e-mail conversations. Farming these conversations out can save time (and money). Just make sure your replies, like your Web site, concentrate on providing real service, not just a pitch -- there's a high threshold of skepticism out there, and honesty is still the real breakthrough.

Clueless this week is the "Washington Post" . Fear and loathing all in one package! Writers take a smarmy attitude to the Net's reality, because they're new to the beat and the city sees the Web as a threat to central media power (which it is). Archives are taken down quickly, because the Post thinks they're a profit-center -- they could be if the Post didn't take them down so quickly. A clue for Mrs. Graham -- give someone with successful online experience some power to lead, follow your employees at Newsweek (like clued-in writers Steve Levy and Katie Hafner) or get out of the way.

A Clue...to Internet Commerce is a weekly publication of @Have Modem, Will Travel. It's sent free to a qualified e-mail list. Like Netscape Navigator, it carries a list price -- $49 per year. Subscribers can receive either a .txt file or an .htm file. The .htm version features links which become active when online with a browser, or an e-mail package like Netscape 3.0. (Let us know which you prefer.) To take your name off the list, simply write REMOVE as the subject, or content, of a message replying to this post. To request your free copy, write us at Dana Blankenhorn@worldnet.att.net. We're on the Web at www.tbass.com/clue and www.ppn.org/clue .

A Clue...to Internet Commerce -- Copyright @Have Modem, Will Travel and Dana Blankenhorn, 1997