E-Children: Come Home

Imagine that you’re a kid, and from the day you were born you had to look after yourself. No controlling parents — or guiding parents. No demanding parents — or limiting parents. Certainly, you had parents, but they offered you no assistance. They sent you out into the world to fend for yourself before you could even walk.

Now imagine that you managed to walk and talk and live by your own cunning and survived as a result of your instincts, but now your parents want you to come home and live with them. How would you cope with that?

There’d be more than a few conflicts to endure if you were made to comply with their wishes. You and they would hold divergent attitudes toward, well, everything; those differences would be obvious even if you did understand each other’s language.

This is, of course, a parable, and I’m using parents as a symbol for brick-and-mortar parent companies. The majority of dot-coms were born in 1999. If their parents were brick-and-mortar companies, expulsion of the infant online companies into the harsh world of online commerce followed hot on the heels of those dot-coms’ birth. The fledglings were under the parental wing for ultra-short periods before the newly born dot-coms were kicked out and expected to survive on the strength of their own identities. The likes of CBSNews.com, CNN.com, and FOX.com were all separated from their parents the very day they were born.

Not a bad idea, according to the experts — the theory being that separation ensures the dot-com’s dedicated focus on survival. Not only that, the eviction safeguards the parent company’s well being, they said, by limiting the chances of the online identity cannibalizing the offline progenitor. Freedom was, apparently, the new dot-com’s prize — until February 2001.

In February, the parents almost simultaneously called their kids back home. CBS.com and CBSNews.com were rolled back into the television group. CNBC.com laid off 26 percent of its staff and was rolled back into the broadcasting division. CNN.com was also rolled into the parent’s broadcast division. And News Corporation is folding its dot-com units, FOX.com and FOXSports.com, back into its broadcast operations.

The overnight, forced creation of click-and-mortar relationships, alliances that were not well-planned efforts at creating real click-and-brick operations, banished “spinoffs” from the world and relegated them to being just another entry in dictionaries. What management saw as a perfect concept two years ago — independent online units — was suddenly replaced with an ostensibly integrated solution. But integration was more of a concept — a palatable buzzword for press release explanations — than a description of the business mix’s reality.

Tell me, do you know of any case in which a kid who has been living on his or her own and has been forced to move back home has immediately managed to find a harmonious, equilibratory relationship with his or her parents? Sorry, I don’t. I’m not saying that the parallel I’m drawing is necessarily an accurate one, but you must admit that there are enough similarities. We might never hear about the companies’ internal discord, and if we do, I’m sure we won’t learn of it from the companies’ own press releases. But the reality of these reunions is that they will cause disharmony and dramatic suffering over the next several years. Either the parents will have to change, or the dot-coms will have to adapt.

My question is this: Will the forced reunions yield true click-and-mortar solutions, or will they yield brick-and-mortar solutions, flavored with a twist of clicks? Knowing that the weakest link is the dot-com, I think the outcome is likely to be that dot-coms will adapt to the brick-and-mortar model.

Today’s most successful click-and-mortar companies have been those that have been planning for successful synergy between both parties: partnerships in which online and offline parties clearly contribute their strengths to the collective progress of the company and in which both parties compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Such relationships will become realities only if those parameters are observed — from a logistics, operations, and branding point of view.

Moving back in with your parents when you’re 18 years old isn’t necessarily a great idea for parents or kids. But it may be convenient for the parents! Think of the warm, inclusive, effusive press releases the happy event would allow them to write to the world…

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