There's a creative revolution flourishing online. It could be so big as to redefine marketers' roles entirely. Are you up to speed on what Web services could mean for marketers? I'm freshly finished with my crash course, so I'll fill you in.
"Web services" is a vague term, just as "service" is vague. It can have an amazingly wide variety of meanings and functions. Web services is really just a way of exchanging information over the Internet. Instead of using browsers, it allows applications to talk to one another directly using open standard technologies such as XML, SOAP, WSDL, and UDDI.
What can you do with this type of information exchange? The possibilities seem as infinite as your imagination.
Probably the best-known example of Web service-esque technology is RSS, which stands for rich site summary or really simple syndication. My ClickZ colleagues Rebecca Lieb, Sean Carton, Jeanne Jennings, and Kathleen Goodwin have all weighed in on RSS, so I won't belabor it here. Suffice it to say it's a content distribution mechanism that's getting a lot of attention from marketers. If you "get" RSS, it's time to move on. RSS is only the beginning.
The most dramatic impact Web services is having in the marketing world is among the ranks of affiliate marketers. Amazon.com's affiliate program is widely acknowledged as one of the best, and the company is diving into Web services in a big way. As an example of what's possible, Jeff Barr, Web services evangelist at Amazon.com, points to PsychicBrad.com.
Brad has combined a calendar, Amazon's Web services for affiliates, a celebrity birthday database, and a horoscope service to create a very interesting amalgam. Psychic Brad recommends books and movies based on horoscopes and celebrities. I get: "Sydney Omarr's Virgo 2004: Day-By-Day Astrological Guide" as a book recommendation. Clicking on a celebrity Virgo (Sam Neill) brings me a link to the Jurassic Park trilogy DVD set.
A gee-whiz example, but it gives you some idea how creative affiliates can be if they're given access to Amazon data: specific data they want, updated constantly and displayed in the manner they think most appropriate.
"We think of it as unlocking creativity out there in the community," Barr told me. "The associates were always asking us for a little bit more control."
The information flow runs both ways, so more sophisticated programmers can host the entire transaction on their own sites via Amazon's remote shopping cart. Amazon provides the data and the technical back end. The customer relationship belongs entirely to the affiliate. But, hey, Amazon's making money, right? Does it really need that customer relationship, or can it just be a facilitator?
"Increasingly, it's becoming easier to round out your offering by merchandising a range of other products and services that you may not provide, but add value to your total offer," said Troy Young, VP of interactive strategy at Organic.
As Young sees it, this emerging technology makes the marketer's unique skills more important than ever. "The person that has the most powerful point of gravity with that customer and the best understanding of their needs and how to merchandise around that ends up getting a good chunk of the revenue."
Making things even more interesting is the flow of data from smaller merchants to sites such as Amazon and eBay. Rebecca wrote about how Amazon and eBay are becoming more like interactive agencies. Now, if you're an online merchant, they can serve as an alternate storefront, too.
I'm using a little software package called Kurant StoreSense to help my husband get our family cashmere business off the ground. Last week, some new buttons appeared on the StoreSense administrative interface. They said "eBay." Thanks to Web services, I can now use the StoreSense software to list something on the eBay site without ever visiting eBay.com.
It's not limited to merchandising, either. Since we're just getting our start, it's also a way to get our brand and products in front of a larger audience and hopefully bring some of them back to our site.
eBay's doing the same thing with a software company called Highline Technologies. Highline develops software to help car dealerships list their inventory on eBay Motors. It's been around six months now, and the software is used by about 400 dealers who have listed over 5,000 vehicles on eBay.
"One of the fun and exciting things is that you don't know what people are going to invent and it will surprise you," Debbie Brackeen, director of the eBay Developers Program, told me.
Logitech, the peripherals company, uses Web services to offer SpotLife VideoSnap. It allows eBay sellers to easily add video clips to their listings. Another company facilitates the addition of audio clips.
Still More Possibilities
At its core, Web services is about giving your data away or using other companies' data to your advantage -- and to the advantage of your customers.
Microsoft shared another good example this week as it announced a new version of its location-based Web service, MapPoint. Bridgestone/Firestone North America Tire uses it to help fleet customers find its commercial-dealer and truck-stop-service locations. The company also plans to add the Web service functionality to TruckTires.com.
In the olden days, these types of two-way communications did occur, but only between big companies that could dedicate programming resources to making the connections. Web services democratizes the process.
When Organic built DaimlerChrysler's Jeep brand site, it brought in functionality from Yahoo Groups to create a Jeep Groups community. It was done the old-fashioned way, with teams of programmers from each side dedicated to facilitating the two-way communication.
"With Web services, the dream is to allow it to be simplified," said Godfrey Baker, group director of engineering at Organic. "As a technology enabler, I think it's going to end up doing things that no one ever envisioned."
These types of features aren't the focus of the site, obviously, but they add the kind of utility that boosts customers' view of the brand.
If you're like me, tech savvy -- up to a point, you'll probably have to get your friendly (or not-so-friendly) neighborhood developer to implement your bright ideas. Marketers should get involved and generate ideas for Web services. That's the way to get services that help us reach our goals. Let's put on our thinking caps and start imagining the possibilities.
I agree with Amazon's Barr, who said: "I think we are still on day one of a long journey with Web services."
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.