Marketing Lessons from the Bee

Most of us spend too much time working at our businesses rather than working on our businesses. It’s hard to find breakthroughs when your nose is put to the grindstone.

But breakthrough ideas are easy to find when you look outside your industry. We’re accustomed to seeing online businesses find inspiration from the offline world, but now it’s going the other way, too.

For instance, welcome to the world of “street spam.” Utility poles at intersections around the nation are being posted and reposted with advertising signs.

What started with real estate promoters, politicians and garage sales has recently exploded into a full-bore industry. Corrugated plastic signs are nailed to poles, or paper signs are glued to steel. In poor neighborhoods, speculators promise to “buy houses fast.” Near shopping malls you find work-at-home scams and credit fixing scams that are “110 percent guaranteed.” Don’t know how to be a street spammer? Read the phone number under “signs like this cheap.”

The point is that no matter what you think of the trend (and I don’t like it), someone adapted an online principle (spam) to the offline world and created a profit from it. A suburban man near Atlanta who tried to fight the signs (taking them down as he saw them) was arrested by the sign-posters for trespassing – never mind that the signs themselves were illegal. It’s a hard business, so you play hardball. That’s another lesson the online spammers taught their offline brethren.

Web ad banners have become freeway billboards. Database marketing is what drives Costco’s purchasing activity. Are there other online breakthroughs we can use in the real world?

Of course there are. The feedback loop of email is still underused. Offline businesses have yet to use the leavening force of moderators to increase and understand what customers are trying to tell them.

The fact is the online and offline worlds are really part of the same world. JuniorNet, an online service for kids, has found it can’t survive without its own TV show. ABC’s experiment with an online adjunct to “Monday Night Football” has spawned NBATV.com, a TV network dedicated to a web site.

TV drives web site usage, so the web site folds back into TV. Newspapers like The New York Times use the web to go global. Lately, Jupiter Communications has repeatedly noted how we’re at the dawn of a new integrated marketing era. And it has even coined a new term for this: “web-influenced spending.

Also, the market research firm added this week that most companies are missing the opportunity to build global brands by not following up on the Internet’s global advertising reach.

One of the big trends I’ve noted for 2000 is the entry of direct marketing discipline to the web. But that’s just one part of a larger trend, the entry of real world disciplines of all types to the web. The point I’m making today is that this works both ways.

So look at what you and your competitors are doing online. Consider how your techniques might be applied to marketing in the real world. And look at the real world to see what marketing breakthroughs have yet to be applied to the online world.

Bees do it all the time, and you can do it, too. Simple cross-pollinating can make you look like a genius.

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