What Are Computers Really Good At?

Weird question? Yup, but one that I think many of us e-marketers don’t think about enough. While it might seem a painfully obvious query, answering it can tell us a lot about what we should be doing when marketing online… or off.

So what are computers good at? Storing information? Displaying information? Showing animations, sounds, and videos? Connecting us with others? Accessing the Internet? Crunching numbers?

The answer to all of these is, of course, “Yes.” Computers are very, very good at storing and displaying information of all types, good at providing a way to send and receive data, and, as we all know, good at crunching numbers. But none of these things are what really sets the computer apart. Nope, what really makes computers powerful forces in our daily lives is that they can be programmed to DO stuff with all that information. And that’s the big difference that we should be paying attention to and what can have a big impact on how we market.

If you really think about it, a lot of web media really isn’t all that different than its analog equivalent. In fact, in many respects, if you take out the “instantaneous access” advantage the web offers us, a lot of the media we experience on the web is actually inferior to older media. While web-based newspapers provide you with information, if you want to take it with you, make notes in the margins, highlight passages, or clip a story and hang it on your wall, you’ve got to print it out. Sure, there are some digital fixes that can sort of simulate many of these activities, but they’re usually less than adequate. And as for streaming audio and video, there’s no comparison with radio and television (at the moment).

But put a computer’s ability to do stuff with this information and you’ve got another story. (Pun intended!) Reading the news online becomes a much richer experience than reading a live newspaper when you can link to related stories, other sites, animations, video, or audio recordings. Streaming media, while inferior in quality to TV, is much more interesting when taken in the context of the surrounding site information and the “random accessibility” that comes with being able to pause, go back, go forward, and trigger other events.

For marketing purposes, computer-based media become powerful branding and communications tools only when the innate information-processing abilities of the computer are brought to bear. As we all know, banner ads are proving to be a fairly ineffective advertising tool (at least when click-through rates are measured, but that’s another story). But combine the power of computers to process click-stream information and user behavior, and banner ads become a much more powerful marketing tool, delivering ads to targeted audiences, automatically optimizing themselves based on usage patterns (` la Flycast), and capturing information from users. Once we break out of an analog mindset that views banners as just chunks of space we buy in media, things get a lot more interesting.

The same goes for streaming media. As the recent unpleasantness at Pseudo has shown us, just chucking sponsorships into the mix isn’t enough to pay the bills. Why should it? People aren’t too crazy about commercials to begin with; why should they be interested in inferior-quality commercials? What really makes sense when marketing in streaming media is to use the processing power of computers to capture information and target advertising directly into the mix, delivering the right ad to the right consumer.

Echo is one system that’s doing this in an interesting way right now. Echo users can set up their own streaming media “radio stations” and then invite others to the party. As others listen to the streams, they can rate songs and receive new ones based on their preferences. Advertising inserted into the mix is delivered based on data collected from ratings and preferences, ensuring that everyone listening hears what best applies to him or her.

One of the coolest things about really utilizing the power of computers – not just to deliver information but to process it – comes when moving information across media. With a lot of the developments happening in XML right now, taking content originally destined for the web and using computers to automatically repurpose it to other delivery channels gives you even more opportunities to be in front of your customers, wherever they are. Some of the most interesting applications of this technology are taking place in the wireless world right now, both on the data side (which many of us are familiar with) and, more recently, in the vortal arena.

Basically, “vortals” are voice-activated audio “portals” that deliver web content over the telephone via a series of voice-command menus. While still in its infancy, audio portals, such as Tellme, allow users to call a toll-free number and request information just by speaking (such as “stocks” for stock quotes). Ads are delivered as short audio “sponsorship” messages as the user accesses new information. Believe it or not, it really works – check out Tellme next time you’re bored at the airport. (Just watch the airtime charges!)

No matter what media you need to deliver your messages in, the thing to remember is that you should be using the power of technology to do something with the data. It’s not just enough to deliver an ad – there are a lot of cheaper analog ways to do that. You should be thinking of ways to use technology to personalize, collect information, and repurpose content across channels. In these days of increasing media “noise,” you need to be everywhere your customers are, delivering the appropriate message to them at the right time.

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