A Clue...to Internet Commerce

by Dana Blankenhorn

For the Week of December 15, 1997

Volume I, No. XLI

This Week's Clue: Taking It Overseas

It often seems like the U.S. is the only country online, and English the only language. But the Web is becoming a true global phenomenon, and you can take advantage of it.

Last week, I moderated a panel at Comdex Miami dealing with just that topic. About 150 eager businessmen from Latin America listened, through Portuguese and Spanish translators, as a panel of experts tried to explain electronic commerce. I made my usual point, that the Internet lets you perform the entire marketing process - from seeking an audience to serving the customer - so even a trickle of business generated from that channel makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Fernando Espuelas of StarMedia Networks noted that while 95% of the Web is in English, 90% of Latin consumers can't speak English. He also pointed out that Latin America has 450 million people and is now growing faster than East Asia. StarMedia hosts Web servers and ISP services throughout Latin America, and he noted that both Netscape and Microsoft offer browsers for Spanish and Portuguese. But he said automatic language-translation programs aren't ready for prime time yet. Even the CD-ROM from Red Dot Interactive fails the test of usability. "You still need people" to translate effectively, he said. (Take a look at how an expert does it, I suggested. AMP (http://www.amp.com), an online pioneer, now has sites in eight languages, even more than Dell.)

Robert Lipshutz of SVIP offered a valuable chart, from Harvard, impacting all commerce. It shows business success emerging from three dynamics - great products , real intimacy with the customer and operational excellence . The winners online need all three. It's a good point that's often missed.

James Wood, CEO of Silknet Software , concluded with another key point - customer service. "You can't just think about sales when doing a Web site," he pointed out. He told horror stories of brokers who launched sites without FAQs, and angry customers calling those brokers to get answers to simple Web questions. "If customers can't get service on the web, they will call you on the phone, and get upset when they don't reach you," he said. "Serving isn't just solving a problem, but getting people the information they need."

The audience listened intently, then demanded printed copies of our notes, proof there's a long way to go here. But if you serve in local languages, concentrate on customer service, and stay on the learning curve, there's still a lot of undiscovered online country out there.

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

It's great to be back home. Thanks to the Internet, I get more done at home than on the road. Recent examples include a story on personalization for New Media , part of Kate Maddox's book "Web Commerce" for John Wiley & Sons, and a novel called "The Time Mirror" . I'll gladly send you the Zip file on the latter upon request, because it's looking for a publisher.

Still, 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). 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 and Internet & Electronic Commerce Strategies don't wait for the e-mail -- give me a call at 404-373-7634.

And now back to our show...

The Real Danger From Microsoft

While most reporters were firing-away over a judge's decision that Microsoft must stop integration of Internet Explorer with Windows '98 (perhaps turning it into Windows '99), Microsoft's most dangerous Internet business practice has gone unnoticed. The company has been making strategic investments in phone companies pushing DSL and cable companies pushing cable modems, on condition they not only make Explorer their default browser, but their ONLY browser.

Having finally figured out what I dislike about Explorer (it doesn't tell you what it's doing, as Netscape does) I find this very upsetting. The idea that combining content and delivery is an old principle in anti-trust law. Loew's had to sell MGM, and for decades TV networks couldn't own their own shows. It's time to consider that principle in looking at Microsoft's moves to use its financial clout to guarantee it'll be the only browser you can use to get real bandwidth.

Update Your Listings

Here's a story from Comdex Miami with a lesson for you. One of my old editors was going to dinner with me, and first suggested a restaurant near the Convention Center. I walked over and found them closed. Returning by foot to the Convention Center, a sign on the door showed me the editor had left, suggesting we meet at a place a mile away, on Ocean Drive. I walked some more, and found the place didn't exist. A waiter at a nearby restaurant told me where my editor's favorite place had gone - turned out I'd walked by it on my first trek. I called the editor, who said (with some surprise) she'd gotten the address from a directory on the Web. The restaurant had a Web site, and the address was correct there. The directory just hadn't been updated.

Your Clue is this. Even if you have a Web site, your physical store may be listed in many places. If you move, update all those listings. This will take time. You'll have to find the directories online, send their managers e-mails, and follow-up by phone. But it's time well spent. Not only will you save headaches for your customers -- you'll become a smart online ad buyer.

Selling Books

I recently wrote a book outside this market (it's a sci-fi thriller) and began looking at publishing with fresh eyes. It needs them.

Publishing is the manufacture and distribution of a simple product. Yet as Ken Auletta wrote in the New Yorker early this year, it's a dying business. Bookselling is a better business, but you need big volumes to profit. Thus, even Amazon.com wants no part of slow-sellers. All this squeezes out small publishers.

The solution should be obvious. Use the Web to represent these small sellers, and give them their full mark-up to ensure loyalty. Associate with a printer who can publish-on-demand, begin collecting (and marketing) manuscripts and, over time, put the two together.

There are big problems to overcome. How do you find the reader of an esoteric title? (By advertising and having a fully-scaled, database-driven site that will enable someone to find what they want as easily as they can at Amazon or Yahoo.) How do you find publishable, yet unpublished manuscripts? (Advertise the opportunity online, and hire someone who knows publishing to read them.) There are a host of "middle-market" (read 10,000 copies sold) titles being squeezed out by big publishers and big booksellers. This is not a problem. It's a gold mine awaiting someone with a pickaxe. And when you stake your claim, call me...like I said I have a manuscript...

Lawyers Love Us

Lance Rose is finally going to make his pile in the coming year. Lance recently moved from Phoenix back to the East, he's been involved in online law since before-the-beginning, and the issues demanding expert advice are exploding in number and complexity.

What if someone grabs something like your domain and goes into the same business? How do you stop Microsoft from driving competitors like Netscape into the ground by buying, say, the cable TV market? Trademark, copyright, anti-trust, contracts...it's all here. And someone's going to have to represent hackers, pornographers, spammers, online casinos, and anyone whom anyone else decides didn't fulfill their promises.

It should be clear from the case of Pamela Lee Anderson, the TV star who gave up her fight to prevent her post-wedding video from being distributed online, that everyone's going to need a lawyer with real experience and real knowledge of the online world. There will be a lot of phonies and Johnny-come-latelies to this party, as there always are. But a Perry Mason's going to be created here, and right now I give Lance the inside track on it. (If he starts favoring those Gerry Spence cowboy jackets, he must read A Clue...)

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Daniel Okrent , formerly editor of "Life" Magazine and now director of Time's Pathfinder site. He's given each magazine its own identity, added interactive elements, created multiple revenue streams and brought page views to 18 million per month. (That's still less than one-third of friendly rival CNN's, when all its sites are taken together, but it's not too-shabby.) This puts him #2 within his own company (behind CNN's Scott Woelfel), but we're expecting he'll try harder in 1998.

Clueless this week is the New York Times . Their story last week on Barnes and Noble's links to editorial sites claimed direct links between news and commerce are somehow unsavory. But the story's internal links are themselves indirect - they feel a need to warn you before letting you go anywhere . Given that kind of patronizing attitude, how can they be expected to be objective about attempts at Web innovation? The jury's still out on this kind of linking (especially for expensive stuff , but for a Web newspaper to claim commerce is beneath them is absurd. Well, Clueless anyway.

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.