Radio Free Cubicle

Working in that strip-mall paradise some call Silicon Valley, Emily is a victim of the cubicle culture. Workers everywhere are corralled into lab-rat-like mazes of cubbies.

Among many drawbacks to this work environment, Emily has to listen to the radio in the next cubicle. Every day she is subjected to the mournful lamentations of Lionel Ritchie, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, and — the passing-a-kidney-stone scream-queen — Whitney Houston.

Until now, the office radio was the only way to infiltrate the 9-to-5 market. Tucked between the five-times-a-day Titanic theme song are commercials for everything from muffler replacement to whatever is on television tonight.

Enter the Internet

The Simmons Online Usage Study shows 64 percent of those who accessed the internet over past 30 days did so from their offices. Another study said about a third of internet users log in from work, and office workers make up about half of all web traffic.

Corporate users can be broken into two major categories — those using the internet for business, and those surfing for personal use.

Many corporate internet users conduct business online, from research to email. But they also veer off course and do a bit of personal surfing to sports or travel sites. A study earlier this year reports about a quarter of the time workers spent on the internet was personal, not job-related.

Denial is the Best Policy

The problem, of course, is that no one wants to admit it. Workers surfing at their desks are not likely to answer survey questions that can somehow be traced back to them. Media Matrix boasts a panel of roughly 30,000 people who report their surfing habits — much like the Nielsen TV diaries. However, only 2,500 of them monitor their online habits at work.

Corporate management isn’t likely to cooperate, either. Some studies have shown there’s a great potential for lost productivity with so many people spending so much time online. But management won’t let anyone do any exhaustive research, afraid of coming off as Big Brother at work.

It may be embarrassment that keeps them from cooperating. In 1997, Nielsen Media Research revealed IBM, AT&T, and Apple workers made 13,000 visits to Penthouse’s web site in just one month. Shareholders of the respective companies were not amused. Another study in 1996 reported that in 185 companies surveyed, about a quarter of workers visited porno sites.

The Value of the Business User

Business users are attractive for online marketers and e-commerce entrepreneurs — even if you’re not Hugh Hefner. These users are probably busy and may be looking for easier and more convenient ways to shop, pay bills, or make dream vacation plans. It’s easier to do your holiday shopping at lunch while sitting at your desk, eating a ham sandwich, than to drive all over town, jockey for parking spots, and skip the sandwich entirely.

All the buzz about broadband web sites and advertising has hinged, with bated breath, on the widespread adoption of home access technologies such as DSL and cable modems. Meanwhile, many corporate users already have super-fast T-1 or even T-3 lines. Here’s an audience just waiting to be dazzled with rich content, and yet we know little or nothing about them and what they want.

“Drop the mouse and step back from the cubicle!”

Online ratings companies such as Media Matrix are having a hard time quantifying who is online at work and what do they do — both professionally and personally.

Are their at-home habits different from those at work? Do they surf faster because their boss might come in the cubicle at any moment? Do they avoid certain sites, afraid someone in IT is tracking their every move? (The fact is most business users have no idea how easy it is to trace web usage.)

Obviously, this is a huge untapped market. But because we know so little about this audience, any marketing effort toward them is a shot in the dark. Meanwhile, at least five times a day, Emily will continue hearing “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion-and-on-and-on a song that seems to last longer than the ship took to sink.

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