Give the People Their Due

Whew! I guess I must have kicked over the ol’ hornet’s nest of multimedia art directors last week with that Flash article!

Yes, I received a few angry responses: “Shut up, and let us be entertained!” said one. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” yelled another (one of the more popular responses). But truth be told, these responses (loud as they were) were drowned out nearly 5 to 1 by folks thanking me for standing up to the gratuitous “rasterbation” of the Flashies and pointing out that, yes, Virginia, our job is to get people information… and to hell with anything that stands in the way and doesn’t add value!

And then I came across a new study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. This new survey (“Risky Business: Americans See Greed, Cluelessness Behind Dot-coms’ Comeuppance”) of 2,096 adults, conducted in February of this year, came to one stunning conclusion: The majority of Americans don’t give a hoot about the troubles of the Internet industry.

Reality Check

Yup, nearly 75 percent of the respondents think that the troubles will NOT have a major effect on the economy, and 57 percent feel that the closing of a lot of commercial Web sites was a good thing because there were too many sites with too little to offer. Only 30 percent report following the dot-com downturn “closely.”

Ouch. Reality-check time: While many of us wring our hands about the state of our industry, Mom and Pop on Main Street don’t care. They’re just going on with their lives.

I know it’s not fun to hear, but it’s true. The rest of the world doesn’t revolve around the Web. Most Americans don’t feel part of the new economy. Most (93 percent) haven’t lost money on a dot-com investment, and 92 percent haven’t seen their favorite sites shut down. In all, only 1 out of 6 Americans feel that the dot-com downturn has touched their lives.

What does this have to do with the Flash fracas from last week? Lots. Because both have to do with one major inescapable fact about mass marketing: Consumers don’t care about you.

Cost and Benefit

Yes, that’s right — consumers don’t care about you. They don’t care about your company. They don’t care about your product. And now that the novelty has worn off, they don’t necessarily care about the Internet and the Web.

What do they care about? Themselves! What consumers care about in particular is the kind of value they’re going to get out of what you can provide and how it will make their lives easier, simpler, or more enjoyable. They want to get what they want for the lowest cost, plain and simple.

But cost doesn’t necessarily have to mean money, though in many cases it does. It must also include the psychological cost: How much frustration, irritation, and headache am I, the consumer, going to have to go through to acquire that product or service?

Likewise, benefit doesn’t necessarily mean the raw good or service. The benefit received by the consumer includes psychological benefits — status among peers, satisfaction, entertainment value, pride of ownership, ease of use — as well as the tangible benefits of the product or service.

Taken together, it’s a pretty simple relationship. Things that cost less and provide a higher benefit will be adopted faster than things that cost more and provide a lower benefit. The higher the benefit-to-cost ratio, the more successful and widely used the product or service.

Real-World Value, Online

This returns us to the Web in general. For many e-commerce sites, the irritation factor — dealing with shipping, Byzantine technologies, or poorly designed interfaces — outweighs the benefits of getting the product.

It just becomes, or seems, easier to just go to the physical store and just buy the damn thing. Content sites that provide masses of free content with little or no value to the consumer are skipped in favor of sites that provide high-value content. Web-based services such as free file storage and Web-based calendars and address books become adopted on a wide basis only when their ease of use and benefits of networked access outweigh the inconvenience of slower speeds and irritating interfaces. A Web-based application has to be damn good to force out a client-based app.

So back to gratuitous Flash intros and other valueless (to the consumer) knickknacks and gewgaws: If you’re providing a barrier to usage, you’re tipping that benefit-to-cost ratio against your company. If you’re making things easy or more enjoyable to use or giving them a higher value, then you’re tipping the scales in your favor. It’s pretty simple.

The days of people visiting your site or buying your products online simply because you’re online are over. The novelty’s worn off. To survive and thrive in the dot-com implosion, we’re going to have to focus on providing the most value for the least cost possible (psychological and financial). We’ve got to create products and services that are worth going online for. It’s time to pay full attention to “the customer first.”

Problems? The world is yawning. If you want it to wake up, you’re going to have to give it something of value to wake up for. Otherwise it’s just going to go about its business.

Time to face facts: To most people, the Web just isn’t that important.

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