Build the Net’s Brand; Don’t Hype It

Does the Internet have a brand? And if so, what are you doing to strengthen it?

By “brand,” I don’t mean a logo or some sort of identifiable graphic ID. Nope, what I’m asking is how people feel when they think about the Net.

A year ago, I’d bet that if you asked most people about the Internet and what they thought about it, they’d probably tell you that the Net is “the future,” or “where the world is going.” They’d talk about a technology full of promise — poised to make our lives better, easier, and more fulfilling.

Doom and Gloom

But now… how a year changes things. I can’t tell you how often I get sympathetic looks from people when they hear I work for a company that builds Web sites. “Oh…,” they usually say, voices trailing off as they avert their eyes. “So are you guys gonna stay in business? You’re not one of those dot-coms, are you?”

Over the past year or so, the image of the Web has gone from one of unlimited opportunity to one of doom, gloom, and economic ruin. Technology, once held as the driver of the new economy, has now become associated with plunging stock prices, layoffs, and corporate failures. A public that once talked excitedly about new technologies and the joys of discovering new things online has become increasingly cynical, equating the Net with unfulfilled promises and fanciful hype.

Not that you can blame them. The breathless articles in the tech press, the bandwagon-boosting business leaders saying the revolution would “change everything,” the popular books hyping the “Dow 100,000” and promising to make us all rich quick… the dream they drove ended up far from reality. The popular press, which once gushed breathlessly about dot-com millionaires and CEOs who were each seen as “the next Edison,” now publish scathing stories about scandal, greed, and foolish investing.

Here to Stay

Yet, with all of this negativity, people still continue to flock online in record numbers and buy more and more. The Boston Consulting Group recently published a report stating that business-to-consumer (B2C) e-commerce grew 66 percent to $45 billion last year and is expected to grow 45 percent to $65 billion this year — and that 72 percent of online catalog retailers have reached profitability, as have more than one-fourth of Web-only retailers.

But e-commerce aside, think of all the other accomplishments and changes the Internet has wrought. Who could live without email? Probably none of us reading this, that’s for sure! And how many could go without daily news, instant messaging, online gaming, or all those other things impossible to imagine a decade ago? No matter what the state of online advertising, B2B e-commerce, or mobile technology, few people who use the Internet today could imagine going back to a time when sending a note took days (or had to be faxed).

Sure, there has been a lot of hype, empty promises, greed, and sheer stupidity. But there’s also been an awful lot to be proud of, too. We may not have changed the world overnight, but we’re certainly changing it one gift, email, and instant message at a time.

As an industry, though, we’ve done a terrible job of promoting the Internet brand. With many eyes on short-term goals of market dominance and brand building at all costs, we’ve now come to rediscover Newton’s Third Law: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In a rush to find the quickest way to make a buck (or protect some advantage that we imagined we might have due to deregulation and a free-for-all attitude), we’ve done a horrible job of policing ourselves and working together to build up the Internet as a thing that regular folks believe in.

Paying the Price

Recently, a friend of mine was a victim of a spam scam (or mistake, we’re not sure). It resulted in his site being unjustly fingered as a spam factory. Spam was sent out that linked to his store at CafePress by mistake. The spammers stupidly screwed up their software and ended up bombarding one company with more than 2,000 emails per hour. Naturally, the system administrator at the targeted company was more than a little peeved at his network’s being clogged by unsolicited emails and retaliated the only way he knew how: He bounced the offending emails back to my unsuspecting friend and informed CafePress that one of its members was sending out spam.

CafePress invoked its “zero tolerance” spam policy and took down my friend’s site, effectively cutting off one of his revenue streams. At the same time, one of the other editors of the site had his site taken down (cutting off his consulting business) because of his involvement with the supposedly offending site. AOL was contacted, and who knows how many other “spam cops,” and was told that my friend’s site was the culprit (possibly resulting in permanent blockage of his site).

Why did this happen? Because some yahoo didn’t know how to type a URL correctly. Instead of directing spam recipients to his own scam shop, he sent them to my friend’s store.

In the end, even though CafePress realized the problem and graciously offered to help put the store back in order, the damage was done. And you really can’t blame anybody victimized in this case… many of us have come to react quite strongly to unsolicited email.

How does this relate to the Internet brand? Because for every person who did react to this case, there were probably hundreds who didn’t — except to sulkily delete the offending message and grumble about spammers.

I work in the biz, and these things irritate me. You can only imagine what average users bombarded by these things think. They hate them. And for every parent who cuts off her child’s computer access due to unsolicited porn messages on her family’s AOL account, you can bet that there are probably hundreds more who are silently growing to resent the Internet.

Learning From Mistakes?

Are we as an industry making a point to listen to our users? Are we working to correct the things that harm the online user experience? According to a new report from Zona Research, we’re not. Half of online sales are abandoned midstream due to slow-loading sites and transmission problems… approximately $25 billion in e-commerce lost! And it’s not improving. Zona estimates that the average B2C site takes 20 percent longer to load this year than last year!

In times such as these, we all need to work harder to build an Internet that consumers want to use, one that provides a consistently good user experience and one that makes their lives better for using it. If we’re going to stay in business, over the long run it’s going to mean looking beyond the immediate fast buck and working to constantly strive for user-friendly (not user-surly) experiences. It means abandoning all unsolicited emails. It means eschewing annoying in-your-face ad methods (no matter how immediately “effective” they are in the short term). It means building technology to what people want, not forcing people to fit our technology. It means working to expose unsavory business practices and educating people on how to avoid scams.

If the past year has taught us one thing, it’s that short-term thinking equals short-term companies. Success means understanding that the Net is about people, not technology. We all need to work together to succeed together in the long run.

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