Giving Consumers a Choice (or Not)

When it comes to e-marketing, the operations group has as much or more to say about the success of your brand than marketing does. Disagree? Read on.

Over the past couple of weeks, two stories emerged that perfectly illustrate the role of operations in marketing while consumers — armed with new networked capabilities — increasingly push the notion of free choice onto established business models. It’s that fresh combination of Web 2.0 and the intellectual “I wonder if we could…?” that goes along with it.

Single Status

The first story involves MySpace.com and an innovative application called SingleStat.us. In a nutshell, SingleStat.us allows MySpace users to set notifications as the “single” status of other MySpace users changes. SingleStat.us was built by David Weekly in a few hours and attracted 100,000 or so visitors over the course of its 10-day life. MySpace got wind of it and promptly sent Weekly a cease-and-desist notice, citing “irreparable harm.” My guess is “irreparable loss of control of users” was the more likely internal issue.

Of course, MySpace, like any other information-based service (including advertising), doesn’t have control of its users in the first place. MySpace users have made the site popular because they find it valuable. Someone else adds a tool that adds more value, and it’s not surprising it gets adopted. Stop adding value or attempt too much control, and users stop showing up. It’ll be interesting to see whether MySpace lives longer than the teen-powered Izod shirt craze of the ’80s. Certainly, shutting down complimentary services like SingleStat.us won’t help.

Weekly chose to fold, but the story doesn’t end there. A good number of homes around the globe have garages. Inside more than a few of those is a pair of enterprising millennials. SingleStat.us won’t be the last of its kind. Control freaks, be warned.

Boarding First

The second case involves a brand I personally love and use: Southwest Airlines. One of those garage entrepreneurs I mentioned was Kate Bell. Bell created BoardFirst.com, a service that allows Southwest flyers to obtain an A boarding pass for $5. (If the best BoardFirst can do is a B or C pass, the fee is waived.) Oddly, the airline that values “freedom” above all else sent Kate, you guessed it, a cease-and-desist note, citing “fear the airline would lose control” as well as a concern for passenger security.

Security? Yes, Southwest is concerned about customers turning credit card data over to non-affiliated businesses. Of course, travelers have been doing that for years with hotels, rental cars, and so on. Why BoardFirst is any different is a mystery. Like SingleStat.us, it’s simply a service people find useful, one that in its own way adds value to Southwest’s services. Instead of shutting it down, seems to me Southwest should’ve taken note, teamed up, and made more customers happier.

To Southwest’s credit (as I said, I love this airline), it’s again taking a hard look at the boarding process. It’s a tough issue: a lot customers like it, and lot of customers (not to mention would-be customers) don’t. I’m OK with it when flying Southwest Airlines alone on business. I set a reminder to grab an A pass when the 24-hour period opens. It usually works out fine. My firm’s accounts payable department appreciates the low fares, too.

Traveling with my family is a different matter. Because we aren’t guaranteed seats together, we often select an alternate carrier. Call us oddballs, but we enjoy each other’s company while flying. Personally, I’m fine with an extra five bucks each for seats we want. From the company that brought us “Ding!” that wouldn’t seem hard to do. As I often say, “It’s no hill for a stepper.”

To Bell’s credit, she chose to fight. Stay tuned as this plays out.

Conclusion

As you consider your e-marketing programs and are confronted with new Web 2.0 online services that emerge around your current business, take a good look at your operations policies. The combined impact of operations and legal services did more to favorably bolster the brand recognition for BoardFirst than for Southwest. Playing the heavy generally doesn’t pay off. Bell’s business is growing as the summer travel season gets underway. Bell cites Southwest’s actions as one of the growth drivers.

In the coming wave of Web 2.0 applications are both the real competitors that any brand should be mindful of and a range of add-on services that, if adopted, could actually form the basis of a competitive advantage and an accompanying marketing platform. What if Southwest teamed up with and endorsed BoardFirst? Customers would retain low fares and those who value A passes would get one. That’s the genius of the “and” hard at work. What if MySpace had teamed up with Weekly? How much additional value could MySpace garner if it had added his service to its vast social network? Instead, 100,000 customers feel like Dad just took the car keys away. Oops.

Think about it. Unlike TV in the ’80s, contemporary marketing doesn’t live in a vacuum. It’s affected by operations, both directly by policy and tangentially through the resulting customer conversations. Learn to work marketing and operations together and watch your e-marketing campaigns’ efficiency rocket.

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