Don’t Get on This Bandwagon

Bandwagons are marvelous things.

They’re big, slow, and easy to jump on because they’re so crowded with people eager to make room and extend a hand to pull you up. The herding instinct is a glorious thing to behold.

They’re also usually the last car in the parade.

So it’s no wonder that the “dot-com demise” bandwagon is so full of wise men and women who now predict the death of Web marketing.

No Rose-Colored Glasses Here

As a professional consultant (read: cynic), I am often called upon to find flaw. I’ve honed this skill to an art. You show me the proverbial half glass of water, and I don’t say it’s half full or half empty. I say, “How come you’re using that glass in the first place, and what in the world is that thing floating in the water?”

So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been decrying the flaws of Web marketing for more than two years. And I thought maybe a look back at some of that might help us understand the lay of the land today.

For example:

  1. Back in December of ’98 I wrote a piece called “Web Advertising Doesn’t Work.” What I said then — that people don’t respond to advertising on the Web — is truer now than it was even then. Ask anyone who advertises or accepts advertising.

  2. Stop trying to brand on the Web. By the time people get online, branding is over. The natural progression is for agencies to explain the failure to show value (read: increased sales) from advertising by saying that it’s branding that counts and you can’t measure branding on a sales chart. Check out my April ’99 piece, “Roundup at the Branding Ranch.”
  3. And as far as stickiness goes: Unless we’re talking about a venue such as ClickZ, whose fundamental business is readership, business Web sites have no need for return visits. Once your site has done its job — connecting with a prospect — it’s time for real life (read: people) to take over. See “Thank You for Clicking… Now Please Get Out of My Site.”

Email marketing is the latest disappointment. We’ve all now realized that — permission, schmermission — getting a bunch of emails is just like getting any other pile of junk mail. Once in a while we open it, but mostly we dump it without reading.

So does that mean that we ought to give up and go back to the old days of saddle-stitch marketing? Absolutely not.

Not a Cure-All

The Web has great marketing and business value, make no mistake about it. But its value is fundamentally strategic. I incorporate the Web, and net technologies in general, into every strategic business engagement I accept. But I incorporate something else as well: plain old common business sense.

The Web is no miracle cure. It does not level the playing field and never has. It does not create international success for little companies in Milwaukee, Stuttgart, or Johannesburg. All it does is give you another tool to make things happen. But tools in the hands of amateurs still turn every project into a pile of sawdust. And tactical marketing tools in the hands of nonstrategic marketers means another loss center.

And that’s the secret of Web success. It’s not implementation of a $3 million personalization system (ask American Airlines). It’s not the installation of a $400 million supply chain overhaul (ask Nike). It’s not the deployment of a megamillion-dollar portal enterprise (ask Disney). It’s understanding the Web as a visible manifestation of a strategic business infrastructural system. As a powerful weapon that, when combined with other strategic elements and good common sense, can reap solid, predictable results.

In other words, if you incorporate the Web as just one more element of your overall business strategy, you’re doing fine. But if you make the fundamental error of believing that the Web changes everything, you’re going to be in for a lot of business grief.

Oh, yes, one other thing to remember: When it comes to all the people on that bandwagon who predict the future, if you look closely at their crystal balls, you’ll see that 99 percent of them are really rearview mirrors.

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