Past the Point of No Return: Empirical Evidence

In many ways, 1995 doesn’t seem that long ago. That year, I met with my boss, the CEO of a European media giant. We were alone in his office, and I had just recommended that the company develop a Web strategy. He leaned forward and lowered his voice — half confidential, half conspiratorial. His eyes quickly darted right and left, as if to ensure no one was listening. He’d always wanted to ask someone this, he confided. “Was,” he inquired, “ist ‘software’?”

Three years later, the company’s interactive division was spun off into a separate, profitable unit. My boss was a bright guy and not old by any means. But he had probably never once typed a letter, much less used a keyboard. Getting the green light for a Web site first required that I explain “software” in terms he understood (in this case, a music analogy: a CD is software; the player is hardware).

It’s not like I wasn’t on a learning curve myself. A couple years before that meeting, as a journalist I filed stories “by modem” (the term “email” came later). That modem was 1,200 baud. Today, I have DSL and three wirelessly networked computers at home.

As marketers, we pore over research, data, and statistics: Web logs, demographics, trade publications, and the influx of reports from the Gartners, Jupiters, and Forresters of the world. Overwhelmed by a glut of data that’s scarcely digested before it’s replaced by newer information, marketers often forget to make time for an equally critical aspect of research: the reality check.

My latest reality check occurred last week on the 42nd Street crosstown bus. On board was a group of teenage African-American youths in the baggy pants and logowear of what marketers term the “urban” demographic. Cocking an ear, I eavesdropped on a heated and very sophisticated debate of the virtues of Windows XP versus those of 2000. I’d heard the ‘hood argot a million times before but never on this subject. “Yo, so I be payin’ $300 for XP, and I start getting kernel errors and shit. Then I got to be downloadin’ stuff from Microsoft.” One advocated Apple’s OSX for its improved memory use. A gray-haired man in a maintenance worker’s uniform chimed in from across the aisle with tech support suggestions.

At that moment, I realized the Web’s point of no return was no longer visible in the rearview mirror. It really has reached its democratic promise. Only two years ago, there was still a sense that the Web was “owned” by geeks, hackers, VCs, consultants, writers of business plans, adherents of the new-economy fallacy, and others who belonged to this elite fraternity by virtue of the fact that they “got it.” There’s nothing more to “get.” It’s just… “it.” And that’s progress.

The bus incident got me thinking about other empirical and anecdotal evidence that the Web is no longer a novelty but a fact of life. Recently, at my mother’s apartment, I saw her flat-screen monitor festooned with Post-it Notes on which were scrawled everything from URLs to instructions on how to cut and paste text from a document into an email message. On the Dad front, he’s finally begun to email URLs (rather than printing out Web pages and snail-mailing them across the country), and, during one recent software troubleshooting call, he actually suggested zapping his PRAM before I did (ego preservation — he calls me for troubleshooting, not vice versa). The only member of my family (and the only person in my life) without Web access is my grandmother, who’s in her 90s.

What of us early adopters — those of us among the first to book travel and buy stuff online? Speaking again from experience, the Web has made deep and permanent inroads into the way we’re managing lives and relationships. I long ago lost count of how many online transactions I’ve made, but last week counts as a watershed. I refinanced my mortgage online. The broker’s in Montana, the bank’s in Illinois, and the rate was far better than anything I found here in New York. Why is this such a big deal? A mortgage is typically the largest financial transaction American consumers make in their lifetime.

Anecdotal? Empirical? Sure — but real. As you work on strategies, budgets, and media plans for the new year, bear in mind that finally nearly everyone (except maybe your grandmother) is online. They’re staying in touch, learning, researching, and buying. Why market on the Web? As stick-up artist Willie Sutton put it, “That’s where the money is.”

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