Are people getting sick of the Internet? Silly question... maybe not. As more and more dot-coms become dot-bombs, and earnings decline in the tech sector, investors flee the stock market, and previously astronomical valuations plunge, it doesn't take too prescient a pundit to point out that the gold rush is over.
What does this mean? A lot of it has to do with money: A year or two ago, anyone with a business plan and a dream could get funding and then rush to the public markets to offer a company with no earnings to a ready and waiting IPO market. Today, those same companies are making regular appearances on FuckedCompany.com and appearing in the nightly "losers" column during CNN's financial reports.
A lot of it had to do with hype. The breathless pronouncements in a lot of the popular tech press (remember Wired's "Push" cover story a few years ago or its more recent "Long Boom" story?), where the announcement that every new idea was going to create billionaires, has been replaced by gloomy stories proclaiming that maybe things aren't quite as rosy as they once seemed.
Some recent studies also point to a public that's becoming increasingly jaded with the web and the hype surrounding it. A recent study by MSN in the United Kingdom found that 21 percent of respondents were bored with Internet coverage and that 62 percent felt that the term "dot-com" had become overused. In addition, more than 66 percent said that they were bored with media stories about young Internet millionaires.
I think that if you really examine your own attitudes with some honesty, you'll probably notice some similar feelings. Who among us (especially those of us in the professional-services industries who've had to cater to the whims of these millionaires) hasn't recently felt a little guilty twinge of glee at hearing about the demise of some previously cocky dot-com? (Unless, of course, you work for one of these companies, in which case I offer my condolences.)
Does this shift in attitudes mean more doom and gloom ahead? Interestingly enough, even though many people report getting bored with the Net, more than 75 percent of the users surveyed in the MSN study reported that they couldn't live without the Internet. It's that statistic, I think, that tells the most important part of the story: It's not that people are getting bored with the web; it's that it's now become a regular part of their lives. And that's how we need to begin to think about how we market to these people.
It's pretty ironic. For many of us who've been in the biz for a while, we've always dreamt of the time when the web would be big enough to become a regular part of people's lives. I'll never forget the thrill I got when I saw my first dot-com billboard about six years ago. There, for the first time, was an indication that the web wasn't just some wacky thing nerds played with. Now, as the web has finally started to achieve mainstream status, it may be that the ordinariness of it all is starting to negatively affect e-businesses.
But I don't think it's the users. I think the problem may be us.
We need to start realizing that the web is an everyday part of people's lives and that people aren't just going to use our sites or sit through our ad downloads for the novelty of it. They want real-life solutions to their real-life problems. While the web may have been able to get away with bad service, poor performance, and interminable waits because people were excited about the new medium, today sites have to actually perform or will lose its users forever.
Look at online banking. For all the hype and promise of the early days, it still really hasn't taken off as projected. Some Net-only banks have kicked the bucket, while many other bricks-and-clicks combinations are struggling to get off the ground. A recent Cap Gemini Ernst & Young survey (as reported in The Sunday Times) found that 30 percent of banks in Europe and 40 percent of banks in the United States were giving out inconsistent information online and offline. In addition, the survey found that nearly half weren't offering incentives to move bankers online. Taking the "if you build it they will come" strategy doesn't seem to be working. Customers are demanding more.
Paying attention to those customers is vital to e-biz success. Cyber Dialogue recently reported on its new "90/20" rule of e-commerce the fact that 90 percent of sales are made to 20 percent of customers. Even so, it found that most sites weren't set up to distinguish between the browsers and the buyers and didn't do a great job servicing the customers they already had. Customer needs weren't met, and service continues to be a problem.
Growing up is painful, but it's time to face facts and realize that our baby is growing up. E-business of the future will have to move away from a focus on the excitement of the "new" and start to concentrate on delivering on the promises already made. We need to start thinking about web sites as ongoing resources in our customers' lives, not onetime events that don't build long-term relationships.
Marketing is going to have to start focusing on delivering real benefits, not hype, building repeat customers who find true value. Differentiation is going to become more and more important, too, as people come to realize how easy it is to compare prices, features, and site offerings. Information, not persuasion, is going to win the day as the web becomes more mature.
Can regular web users do without the web? I doubt it. Can they do without your web site in their lives? You'd better give them a reason to say "no."
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.