A Clue...to Internet Commerce
by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume II, No. IV
For the Week of January 26, 1998
The enduring strength of America Online is that your friends are there. Chat and "buddy lists" are just part of that. You also know that if new people who care about what you care about go online, they'll more likely be found among the AOL 11 million than any single Web site.
Web communities must be smaller. But they can be profitable.
Storksite is just one example. It has 40,000 members - they call themselves "Storkies" -- who spend 40 minutes at a time chatting or leaving notes for each other. The heart of the site is a program called "Nucleo," written by founder Tori Kropp's stepson Matt, which uses the registration database to deliver custom content (like "your baby is six weeks old") and links to other sleepless users.
Success always brings competition, in this case BabyCenter, founded by "Parenting" magazine contributors under former Intuit executive (and new father) Matt Glickman. In 1998, these market battles are no longer fought between the clued-in and clueless, and this is a good example of one. Babycenter's home page is excellent - a three-column table highlighting interactive opportunities. All the content is vetted by experts, including a medical board. There is also an excellent online store, selling everything a parent might want. The competition should be fun to watch.
The key question is whether there's room for two strong sites in this niche, especially since the big magazines have hardly been heard from and you'd expect their financial clout would eventually give them a place. With concepts and markets proven, the Clues needed here may involve negotiation, knowing how to hold advertisers, and when to fold your hand in favor of a stronger player. Turning attention into product purchases may also play a role in who wins and who loses here.
What are the Clues here for the rest of us? The bar is always going up, and there are some interesting technologies on both these sites worth looking at. Registration isn't loyalty - loyalty is built over time online. Turning time into money remains a challenge, the true balance of editorial and commerce. Finally, more and more of us are now Clued-in, so the search for new Clues must continue.
SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)
Just for fun, I've written a novel. E-mail me for a copy and you'll get a ZIP file that unzips to reveal 20 chapters in MS Word 6.0 of "The Time Mirror," which tells you what we can really do with the Pentium II. If you like, you might also pass some Clues about how to get some money out of this thing - it's not my day job.
Meanwhile, CoolTool is just the latest outlet to admit we work hard to give you the best coverage possible of Internet Commerce. John Audette will soon host the e-mail editions of A Clue, and we hope you'll join the discussion and help us build a digest of Clues we can share. (The Web version stays with Sean Cafferky and Tommy Bass.) Our present estimate for the hand-over is February 1. To pay for all this, we'll add a weekly, tracked ad (http://www.adniche.com). I figure on calling it shameless promotion, running along this SSP we've always done. The theory is you first provide service - real newspapers don't put ads above the fold.
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, as found in Atlanta Computer Currents , on Access Atlanta or 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...
As Madison Avenue "takes over" the Net (that's what reporters claim - in fact they're just participating and investing like the rest of us, only with bigger dollar signs) some disquieting trends have become evident, trends I found myself covering in the last week.
One trend is a growing reluctance to let users link. It's seen on news sites that cover Madison Avenue, and increasingly on sites run by marketers. Links aren't given, they're offered only as text, or a number of "frameless frames" techniques are used - the "target" tag that opens a new window, the framed link that actually keeps you on the first site, etc. It's as though these people don't know browsers have a "back" button or, worse, think we're as Clueless as they are.
A second trend is the growing use of "pop-ups" and other techniques aimed at keeping users on sites and throwing additional ads at them. We can blame AOL for a lot of this. They've been making money for months by spamming their users with pop-ups, e-mails and other garbage and the cattle just sit there - few even use the "marketing preferences" section to Stop the Madness. So Geocities, Tripod and Prodigy began throwing pop-ups on their free member pages. No sympathy for the victims here - they were getting free service and deserved the abuse, sayeth the analysts.
Another trend, and I think it's related to the first, is a reluctance to place proper contact information on corporate sites. For me, this started with difficulty in getting the press office' phone number, even in the section of the site hosting news releases. Lately, I've seen a shortage of addresses and phone numbers on corporate sites generally, and if you're looking for the name and contact information on the person running the site - fuhgetaboutit. (This nonsense hit its height last week when I called GeoCities on a story and was told they couldn't give me the name of their press spokesman over the phone.)
Now, there are some good reasons not to put some e-mail addresses on Web sites. You don't want to invite spam into the chairman's office. But you at least need a department mailbox, or you're cutting yourself off from any value that might accrue to the site. As to the "stupid Web tricks" trend, there may be a dangerous disconnect developing between Web departments and the people they work for. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should, and there's a thin line between delivering another ad and annoying people. Remember the purpose of advertising - it's to make a sale. When you deliberately annoy someone you lose all hope of making a sale, often for all time.
Last week the Microsoft Network mailed me a CD for Version 2.5 of its Premier Service, backed by a heavy ad campaign featuring disembodied faces talking about how fast it is.
Independent tests show MSN isn't particularly fast, but let's talk about the disk. It is, in a word, Bloatware. The software requires 63 megabytes for a minimum installation, and the custom install routine on the CD-ROM demands that storage be on the default drive, usually C: The install stops if you don't have the required space in the required place - even if there's plenty of room on Little Disks D:, E:, F: and G:.
This bloat is being floated at the same time as Intel launches a campaign for its Pentium II chip on major sites like C|Net, which claims in effect that the ad (or what's behind it), is only "optimized" if you have the new chip. Let's skip for a moment the fact these ads are telling surfers "nyah, nyah, nyah" for no good reason - chips have never been the roadblock to better Web performance. (The problems are in the infrastructure and the modem performance - you can still run a fine Web site on a 486.)
Here's the point. Both the MSN disk and the Intel ad campaign are aimed at lighting a fire under users, creating a demand for upgrades. But if there's no real service - no great applications behind the hype - you're killing long-term goodwill for short-term gain. We have a word for that here - Clueless. And if there really are no valid reasons to upgrade, the whole market better watch out.
The last few weeks have seen a lot of stories about "HTML e-mail." Analysts from Forrester Research have discovered the marketing potential. Direct marketers continue to fight for their "rights" to force folks to "opt-out" of marketing e-mail, hoping for a pot of gold from HTML messages.
Most of you get this message as an HTML e-mail. The HTML version of this letter provides links, a clean graphic look, and you don't see parentheses () with http: in the middle of 'em all over the place. What I've learned in perfecting this product is that any e-mail - HTML or otherwise - had better earn its way into your time if you're to keep wanting it. That's an important message for marketers, publishers, and anyone else who wants to get into this business. No matter what you charge for something you still expect the reader to pay for it - with his or her time. If you don't earn every moment, you'll lose your audience, and the goodwill that goes with them.
Try and remember that in your own e-mailing, and you'll do well in this new medium.
For King Day last week, I took the kids to a movie - their choice. We wound up the only white faces in the theater lobby, and I felt comfortable. I smiled at the children, and understood the short-tempers of mothers for what they were -- exhaustion and a demand for respect.
It's taken me 25 years to reach this point, from a boyhood spent in the segregated suburb of Massapequa, on Long Island. It's taught me that Dr. King's true gifts were given white folks who may still resent the man who turned the South into the Sun Belt. This year it also opened my eyes to how much the Web and my hometown have in common. There are black faces here, but very few. They face a hard choice between ignoring their color or making co-workers and business partners uncomfortable. My Clue to you is to accept that discomfort and start working through it.
Behind this screen you don't know my color, age or sex, but look around at any Internet World show and see the truth. We have an awful long way to go and we pay for that, in unopened markets and hearts, in missed opportunities. If we want to win the coming political struggles over our rights online, we'd better get started and make this medium look more like America. Or America, in the form of its political leadership, will emasculate this medium.
Clued-in this week is Hotbot, for coming up with an attractive way to put lots more ads on the page. They've got a list of major merchants along one side of the screen, with small icons, all in yellow, a muted contrast to the background. With all the stupid Web tricks being played to throw ads at people, it's nice to see someone do things in a way that doesn't byte-me.
Clueless is everyone, including some folks at Wired who should know better, who persist in writing that attempts by money-losing Web sites to charge - either for any access or "premium" access - somehow means the death of the "free Web." The whole idea is nonsense. Those who fail at charging will quickly go out of business, while those who succeed will prove a new business model (for which we say "bully"). In either case, it's no big deal. There are valid online business models that don't include ripping-off consumers' time and money, and plenty of savvy publishers pursuing those business models. As Chris Berman of ESPN (http://www.espn.com) said in a recent ad, "There are no stupid questions, only stupid people who ask questions." So get "back back back back back" to work and sin no more.
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 mailto:Dana.Blankenhorn@ att.net. We're on the Web at http://www.tbass.com/clue and http://www.ppn.org/clue.