I have been working on the Internet — first as a user, then designer, then marketer — since my college days and for the whole of my career. I’ve witnessed the expansion of the Internet from being the domain of geeks and students to becoming the playground of VCs and celebrities. I remember hearing the term “dot-com” as a description of a business type and thinking, “What? What’s that?” It rang false back then, but it became the standard hype term. I’m glad to say it’s now ringing false again. It used to signify that a company was hip and nouveau, well above the passé ideas of phones, bricks, warehouses, people, and such tedium. The term has now become associated with Ponzi-like business models and failed dog-food e-tailers.
Well… good. There really is no such thing as a “dot-com,” and there never was. You may operate your business online, but it is nearly impossible to exist solely as a virtual entity and ignore the classic business principles that have existed and evolved for millennia and include what are some strange concepts to many dot-coms: customers, service, inventory, rational pricing, profit-loss ratios, good teams of good employees, fair wages and reasonable hours, marketing and branding, and, yes, ultimately profit. Good business is essentially based on people: customers and employees. And people do not change as quickly as technology might.
Dot-Coms Get Real
Even the companies that personified the dot-com phenomenon are now moving away from those new-media clichés. In its advertising, branding, press relations, and even customer relations, Amazon.com repeatedly reinforces that it is about people, not technology. Sure, it markets and sells online. But its real mission is about better selection, lower prices, and personalized service — goals that just as well suit your local brick-and-mortar bookstore. Amazon’s marketing has also progressed from virtual to inclusive: It may have started out online, but it built its brand through television, magazine, and radio pushes.
The most virtual you can get is web-based, web-exclusive content networks. But even that flavor of dot-com has been forced to enter the real world. With online advertising on the skids and models in constant shift, dot-com publishers have either gone under or pursued new venues. The web-only model is difficult to sustain, and the fallout from companies such as Webforia. Inc., Listen.com, Send.com, eToys.com, and all the rest seems to suggest that it’s near impossible. So lots of former dot-coms are entering real-world ventures: Even Yahoo has a print publication, a handy “plan B” revenue source. Our very own ClickZ has branched out from a pure web-based model to conferences. ICONOCAST, a grub-staked, email-based newsletter with a very pure Internet start, also started real-world conferences to balance out its virtual existence.
Leaving Dot-Com Branding Behind
Back in the early days, ads for web sites started with, “There’s this guy sitting at a computer, and he sees our site…” It was just too hard to explain what a dot-com company was about. And it rang false with customers. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that your company might exist in virtual reality, but the customers were elsewhere — in the real world. It wasn’t long before ads focused on real-world stuff: saving time, improving home or work efficiency, communicating better, and saving money.
Very few web sites that could not translate their virtual existence into real-world values have survived or will survive. If what you sell doesn’t work in the real world, why would doing it online suddenly make it successful?
The Real World Goes Dot-Com
This doesn’t mean that the Internet is passé, of course. Indeed, offline companies are now having the best luck leveraging the web and web branding. Companies that were often the latest comers and most grounded in real-world models are now experiencing some of the best success in online models. The Gap, Nordstrom, and Levi’s are some of the latest retailers to launch — but their grounding in real-world knowledge of customer experience, branding, shipping and inventory models, return policies, service guarantees, supply chains, etc., more than compensated for their late arrival. Each of them has used the web to nicely reinforce, not undermine, their existing models and branding.
Volkswagen offers a unique example of web branding that reflects well on an offline model. It seems every car company has struggled to use the web well. But just try to look up a picture of what a 2001 Acura Integra looks like, what options are available, and what the pricing would be: It’s difficult to do in less than 20 clicks and nearly impossible if you’re not using DSL or better.
But Volkswagen has taken a different tack: The films feature on its web site has become hugely popular, gaining the site not only visitors but also exposure and goodwill. The content and hosting cost VW very little — certainly less than a 30-second spot on “Friends.” Yet the films have huge pass-around value and linkage. Nicest of all is the low-key, low-sell approach: Visitors may be inundated with Volkswagen pitches, but they do memorize the flavor of the Volkswagen brand.
It’s ironic but true: Companies that are most grounded in old world branding and old economy models are the only ones levelheaded and experienced enough to have really demonstrated how online business should work.
Long Live the Dot-Com
So now that we have killed off the dot-com mania, what’s next?
The Internet hype may have died, but it left behind some important lessons: Not all consumers like computer screens, so your business had best offer consumers something better than virtual; branding is more than being a hip flavor, it takes a real relationship; never put your eggs in one (web) basket; the web was never the be-all solution, it was just another tool; the web will be around for a long, long time, so even if you are an old-school old-timer, there is a valuable place for it in your service, selling, and branding. Take those lessons to heart.