A Clue...to Internet Commerce

by Dana Blankenhorn

For the Week of December 8, 1997

Volume I, No. XL

This Week's Clue: Vaudeville

A recent PBS special finally gave me an analogy for all your problems in running a commercial Web site. The special was on vaudeville. The best site managers are running theaters, putting together bills. The best content is a vaudeville act. The audience is always a click away from walking out.

For a Web store or publication (they're becoming one and the same), staying fresh while keeping a dependable niche not only requires you to be on the look-out for fresh talent (or product), it requires keeping an editor's eye on your market - looking out for your reader or customer's interest. Whether you're looking for art, technology, copy, or product, you have to keep finding it, and making sure it's relevant, if you're going to keep people clicking back for more (or if you want to keep newsletter subscribers subscribed).

For vaudeville talent this meant an act (like this) might play 48 cities in 48 weeks, living out of a suitcase and taking a gigantic risk when change had to be faced (or a powerful theater manager had to be faced down). On the Web this is called freelancing. While the travel schedule is lighter (three cities in four weeks, then back home for a few months in my case), the pressure is no less real. A century ago the battle for time lay between doing the act and finding new material. Today it's a battle between reporting and writing (or speaking). In both cases you make money by doing, but you earn tomorrow by learning, and if you don't do both you're small time.

How do you keep the doors open? In both cases the key is the same - know your audience. The theater owner not only knew his town, but the slice of life in his town he was appealing to. A Web site owner must know the same things. They need to know who their readers (or buyers) are, they must keep an eye out for appealing material, and they must deliver. For Web talent, the challenge is to know your material, know how to deliver it, and to keep looking for new ideas.

All this surfing between 1900 and 2000 gives us several Clues to the Web's development, and how to stay ahead of the wave. Don't depend on your audience to surf - do that for them and bring the best ideas you find into your tent. Don't let your own act get stale - keep looking for new material. Don't be afraid of other media (as many old-time performers were) - you don't have to give the whole act away, just a taste and the attitude. Finally, the act (or the site) isn't in what you say, but how you make what you learn your own.

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

It's our fall tour. On Tuesday 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...

Submit This (Again and Again)

This week we talked to Bill Younker, CEO of Submit-It Inc., about his latest offering, called ClickTrade.

ClickTrade is supposed to let page owners benefit from all links - even editorial links - on their pages. ClickTrade lets page authors decide which links to support. Members can place links with the service and collect revenue from links they support. Links are tracked and recipricol - the system includes a graphic button on each advertiser's site that tracks the links. It goes into public beta tomorrow.

In addition to this, Younker said, Submit-It has launched the first in a series of content newsletters for its customers, with articles by leading lights like Danny Sullivan of Calafia.com. "The sign-up rate has been explosive," he says, but there's no feedback loop yet. The company's also bought PositionAgent, a software agent that monitors search engines. "What we're moving towards is helping people promote their sites not just on search engines but on the Web as a whole," he says.

The big danger here is the potential for fraud. Clicks are not an economic good. Although they may lead to purchases, there's no real money behind them. Worse, they can be faked, as Salon's Andrew Leonard noted in a cover story last week. Such tricks as "circle jerking" and "popping consoles" are now ruining the credibility of X-rated popularity lists. While you may not care if that business gets ruined, what happens when the MLM'ers, fraud promoters, and the rest of the spam community starts using this technology in earnest? (Leonard's story notes that one of the offenders in the "adultbiz" is Croatian - wanna try extradition when he goes after Yahoo?) Putting an economic value on a non-economic good, a good that can be counterfeited, can be asking for trouble.

One-Stop Shopping (For A Price)

What's most interesting about the new "one-stop" electronic commerce solutions from IBM and Hewlett Packard are what's not in them. VisualAge e-business from IBM is a complete software solution, with tools for Java and JavaBeans, a DB/2 database developer and NetObjects Fusion, as well as the Lotus Domino server and Netscape browser. It's aimed at Microsoft BackOffice. What's missing are a salesman and any Clue how to turn all this into a functioning online enterprise. Hewlett-Packard's Changengine can implement your current business logic and workflow in current software, integrated with Netscape's SuiteSpot for the Intranet stuff. EDS is in this deal, too, and they've got extensive experience building Intranets. What's missing, again, is your sales cycle.

What are our Clues here? The more large businesses adapt to Internet standards, the easier they are for you to do business with. What's missing, what you can supply, is a key component - the process of creating satisfied buyers. Software's competitive, but knowledge remains a seller's market.

What I Want For Christmas

As I have for the last few years, I tried the Web for my Christmas shopping. What I didn't find may yield some Clues for you next year.

Frankly, I didn't know what to get. Yahoo was fine when I knew what I was looking for, like animation cels (the Shopfind server bot, however, had problems with the term "cel") but for those on my list for whom I lacked ideas, I couldn't find any help.

Certainly, some personalization in a big Web store might have been helpful. What's your brother-in-law like? How old are his children? What interests him? How much are you willing to spend? Then, will you consider this, this and this? No? Tell me some more about him. This is the kind of stuff that's easy to implement, but I didn't find it - or I didn't know where to go to find it.

These are two different problems. Getting ideas, recommendations for someone else, and figuring out where to go to get such ideas - the Web doesn't offer that yet. So I went to Costco. Maybe next year...

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in this week is Infoseek , which appears to have solved (for now) the problem of Web site spamming of search engines. They're aggregating results from each server into a single listing, so you don't get dozens of "hits" from one site whose owner knows how to work the system. It's a good first-step toward getting out of the second-division.

Clueless this week is MSNBC, specifically Barton Crockett , who has once again confused tie-ins with market dominance. The success of QVC and Home Shopping Network in getting their viewers to buy from their Web sites doesn't mean TV (or TV values) will dominate the Web (or Web buying). Also, $3 million/month (his estimate of the QVC Web site's revenue) is a pimple on their totals. Failing to apportion some of the cost of programming to a Web site is another basic mistake, made by publishers and broadcasters alike. It's a mistake, however, that shouldn't be made by someone claiming to be an expert (or even a clued-in columnist). Once again, Barton - the Web is not a mass medium, but a mass of individual media. Wake up and smell the post-industrial age.

A Clue...to Internet Commerce is a weekly publication of @Have Modem, Will Travel. It's sent free to a qualified e-mail list. 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.