A Clue...to Internet Commerce

by Dana Blankenhorn

For the Week of November 17, 1997

Volume I, No. XXXVII

This Week's Clue: Mailing List Managers

Now that the shock over spam has died-down (a little), lots of folks have suddenly become Clued-in over the potential of shared mailing lists.

What you're reading now is a primitive form of such a list. It's a one-way report you can respond to quickly, although I always hold the microphone. The point is this is just one option on a long continuum. The big growth right now is coming in discussion lists, of which there are many types. There are unmoderated lists where groups get every message sent to a shared mailbox, moderated lists where an editor controls the central mailbox, digest lists where an editor summarizes the traffic, and lists can switch among the categories. Some list memberships are public, some are open only to list members, other membership lists (like this one) are held by the editor.

Unlike newsgroups, or even push systems, lists require no special software. Commercial packages like Groupmaster, Lyris and LISTSERV offer Web interfaces for use by list managers. The commercial packages also handle "bounces," a big problem for lists like this one. They re-try messages when they're returned to sender, separating-out sloppy addresses, and saving those which bounce consistently so they're off the list until the exception is handled. And these things scale - C|Net , Wired and Netscape use L-Soft for delivering their updates to hundreds of thousands of e-mail boxes each week. Big advertisers have also learned the value of shared lists. Sony Music Canada recently put together a 250,000 person list called Team Celine for the release of Celine Dion's new album this month.

John Audette has learned that sponsorships can make list management a profit center. He started the I-Sales discussion list to advertise his own press release delivery service , then began moderating the Link Exchange list . He found himself making a profit from what he thought was his marketing time after adding ads and automating the process using Revnet's Groupmaster program. Audette's also launched a business to track ads offered as hyperlinks on shared lists.

Best of all, the technology is cheap. LSOFT, Revnet, and some third parties now offer list management as a service, for less than $50/month. The software license can cost from $500-10,000, depending on how many users you have. Any business can have a list. They can stimulate discussion on your industry, or deliver news and information on your product - "it's the true killer app" says Audette. I agree.

Audette, who says he has 30,000 members on his various lists, also offered some good advice on using the technology. "The moderator must be passionate about the topic, they must have the discipline do this every day, and from time to time you need to stimulate discussion, or steer it gently, and provide a nurturing atmosphere." Setting up a list may take just a few minutes and cost a few dollars, he concludes, but a successful list is a community demanding hands-on management.

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

This week starts our fall tour, with (of course) Comdex in Las Vegas. Next month we're speaking at Comdex Miami and then jetting to Internet World in New York. We'll see you there. I'll be wearing the beard and the gray fedora, as normal, and spending considerable time in the press room writing the next week's issue.

How do I afford such extravagance? Remember that it's Journalism -- checking the news, calling people, listening carefully, writing on deadline -- which keeps the clues coming, although I also handle consulting and commercial writing (ask about those rates via e-mail). Look for coming features in NewMedia and Internet & Electronic Commerce Strategies. If you're looking for excellent work -- like that found in my column at Atlanta Computer Currents or my regular work for Net Marketing magazine don't wait for the e-mail -- give me a call at 404-373-7634.

And now back to our show...

Everyone Competes With Everyone

There was great anger in the media when a technical glitch delayed the Internet delivery of Massachusetts Judge Harry Zobel's decision reducing the conviction of a nanny for killing a baby in her charge from murder to manslaughter. I got a call from one radio reporter whose anchor had to vamp for 20 minutes after the announced posting time. (By contrast, Zobel's courtroom announcement reducing Louise Woodward's sentence to time served was carried live - there was no delay in getting it from his lips to millions of ears on both sides of the Atlantic.)

Two great Clues come from all this. First, and most important, everyone now competes with everyone on everything. A few years ago only TV networks and wire services cared about winning or losing a beat by a few minutes. Now everyone does - magazines, newspapers, and Web-only publications have the same deadline, and it's right now. Second, the Web is an inefficient method for one-to-many communication. It's a one-to-one medium. TV will get the big stories first, and get them to the big audience faster than the Internet ever will. The Internet's strengths are in its depth and the feedback loop.

Software Sales Sites Take A Step Forward

In the last week both ZDNet and CMP Media began working with sites that sell software, linking their stories to buying opportunities. They think this solves their e-commerce problems. They could not be more wrong.

CMP is linking its content to Fairmarket , which also does online auctions. ZDNet signed a deal with Chumbo, launched by a former Gateway executive with the idea of building private-label software sites, with personalization, for other hardware companies.

Of the two, Chumbo's the most interesting. Personalization is your salesman, and if the salesman can know you and your tastes, so much the better for the store. But while it's great to see reviews linked to a cash register, there's still something missing. That's vox populi, the voice of the people. What I'm talking about are links to every form of help available on a product, not just within the company but (since the store is an outsider) everywhere. Are there discussion groups or newsgroups discussing this product, or its category? Link to them. Stimulate discussion on your own site, organize it, and link to it. (A discussion database to search for answers to questions. Yeah, that's the ticket.) The idea is to build communities that model the entire process of buying and using a product, not to repeat what a paper publication does.

The first site to get savvy to all this and publicize the fact effectively wins the game.

What's .nu With You?

Every philatelist knows how some small nations sell-out their sovereignty, delivering lovely stamps on every subject that have nothing to do with their own postal systems and everything to do with other nations' desires. (They also do this in finance.)

Now this selling-out of sovereignty has come to the Web, promising solutions to the shortage of domain names. The small South Pacific island of Niue (it's near Tonga, the philatelist's friend, and pronounced new-way) is now offering .nu domains to outsiders at just $25 each per year - half what InterNIC charges for names in the .com domain. The Internet Users Society is managing all this, under technical manager and WebWeek editor Bill Semich. His partners are Nu-bies Stafford Guest and Richard St. Clare. They say they have 800 names and a Whois so you can search for your own.

There's a Clue to this, one involving international action and national sovereignty. Some 148 countries, under the aegis of the United Nations, met in Geneva recently to discuss bans on "computerized hate messages," but they admit they're unlikely to get anywhere because of America's First Amendment. Such bans are troubling since hate is always in the eye of the beholder. The English consider Sinn Fein a "hate group," the Irish might say the same about the Ulster Defense Force. A supporter of Hamas in Israel might be considered outrageously liberal in Algeria. Try criticizing Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Try praising him in Washington.

Unless it's a question of basic commerce, in other words, don't worry about international law. Consider the national law and the U.S. attitude toward the government making it. This .nu deal is as good as the guarantees given it by the Niue government, and no better.

Briefly Noted

Anyone who doesn't have FedEx on his permanent "clued-in" list is clueless. Consider their latest offering, NetReturn. It's a complete returns management system for mail-order merchants, based on the Internet, which can cut the time it takes to handle returns from 10 days to 3. Merchants enter customers' addresses in a Web-based form, which passes pick-up orders to couriers, who in turn print shipment labels at the customer's home or office. Since the reference data is bar-coded, it's also protected. This solves one of the biggest problems a Web merchant can face.

The redesign of 1-800-Flowers features a lot more support for impulse buys, which they call a one-click-to-product approach. Flowers are an old niche, and trends there have since been followed in other consumer goods categories. So if you're in one of those, click the link above and study the code carefully. You might learn something.

It's always nice to have numbers on the obvious. Keynote Systems , which tests ISP and Web site performance for the good people at Boardwatch , says stock trading sites delivered "dramatically reduced" performance when the market tanked October 27, and came up even worse during the next day's buying frenzy. (Schwab scored least bad.) It's also nice, sometimes, to have numbers, period. Their latest ranking of Internet backbones puts SAVVIS on top, thanks in part to its construction of private network access points (P-NAPs) rather than relying on MAE-EAST or MAE-WEST. Units of what will soon be the mega-Worldcom - CompuServe, UUNet, and MCI - finished third-through-fifth, and AGIS, which until recently took a laissez-faire attitude toward spammers, finished next-to-last. Keynote said overall backbone performance weakened 4.5% between its April-May and August-September studies, with the average packet moving at 40 Kbps.

Finally, Microsoft delivered its response to the U.S. Department of Justice's anti-trust filing regarding Windows, calling the government all sorts of nasty names. The response, as we wrote a few weeks ago - drip, drip, drip. Water dissolves rock.

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in this week is the Foresight Institute ,a great place to not only get, but to discuss new Web tools. Their latest efforts are CritLink, which lets users "mark-up" Web documents, CritMap, which displays all of a documents' links, and CritMail, which turns e-mail discussions into Web documents with links back to notes. You may call great, free tools naïve or old-fashioned. I'm just glad folks like this exist.

Clueless this week is Apple Computer, specifically Dictator-For-Life Steve Jobs. This company is very badly managed, and lacks the infrastructure to handle build-to-order, on or off the Internet. In his speech describing his new sales site Jobs, who wants Apple to be a hardware company, showed a picture of Dell Computer Corp. chairman Michael Dell and superimposed a target on him. Hey, Tex, some advice. Don't target a man who long-ago got the draw on you.

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. (Unlike Netscape, we don't expect you to pay it.)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.