What E-Commerce Has Wrought… Really

The numbers are in: Between $10-$13 billion. The predictions are exceeded: By 200 percent.

While the few remaining doubters can soothe themselves with assurances that first quarter ’99 will be a comparative disappointment, no merchant offline or online has ever assumed that the crowds of Christmas Eve would continue through Ground Hog Day.

Even more significant than the dollars spent were consumer’s feelings about their e-commerce adventures: Visa USA reported 98 percent of online holiday shoppers said they had a satisfactory or very satisfactory experience.

So we know that e-commerce is a force to be mastered. This is no one-time fix, like the Y2K problem, but an ongoing metamorphosis that is impacting every aspect of business. From sales and service to core organizational structures. This seismic shift demands even those of us on the “agency side” to re-think our business models.

More pointedly, the real-time accountability of e-commerce may ultimately require new service models. The old model of clients dependent on agencies for online or offline marketing assets will not be the best answer for our clients in the real-time, sale-a-second world created by e-commerce.

The Self-sufficient Client

The recognized e-commerce success stories of amazon.com, shopsports.com, and mountainzone.com tell us that these outfits own and manage their own online assets. From inventory management through controlling the information that’s live on their site, and even their email lists.

These are their storefronts, no less than the bricks and mortar of your neighborhood Gap. And they are self-sufficient. They can and do reach out to marketing partners, but when it comes to deciding on-site space management, what’s on sale and who gets the information, the decision is usually internal. There’s simply no time to think twice.

Stewarding our clients to e-commerce success will require not only acknowledging their need for self-sufficiency, but helping them build it, at least initially. Slowly, at a pace that enables their organizations to adapt and learn, but relentlessly. Otherwise they will fail, and we will fail along with them.

Moving a client from ground zero to a fully self-sufficient online merchant can take months. But given the efficiencies of today’s technology, it shouldn’t take years. Clients should reject solutions that foster a technological or an intellectual dependency. Our clients should turn to us because our advice and skills will strengthen their abilities, not because we’ve made them technologically dependent or failed to educate them about their own capabilities.

New Collaborative Partnerships

Can we honestly support and lead our clients in the right direction, if that RIGHT direction seemingly negates their need for us? I think so. It means recognizing their new needs and fundamentally creating new collaborative models.

A self-sufficient e-commerce business still requires partnerships, but of a different variety. The terms of collaboration change. As our clients move to self-sufficiency, we need to shift our relationships. Our essential value-added moves to a new level.

The products we get paid for now are ads or web sites or pieces of software. And the service — managing the development of these products. That is our perceived value added — why we have clients. Our real business is ideas — the ones that generated the ads and content for the sites, and how to best use that technology.

Let’s not forget branding. It remains an essential component of the products’ or a site’s relationship to the customer. Now we will be able to see it evolving in real time. It was always changing that fast, but we lacked the tools to see it. Those who can do this fastest and most accurately (remember mistakes get corrected faster in real time) will become builders of the brands of the future.

It’s All About Time

So it’s really this new valuation of time that e-commerce has given us. If we thought we had no time for thoughtful analysis and well-planned production before, just wait until five years from now.

In this new environment, we need to develop strategies that enable our clients to compete — increasing their self-sufficiency, and for ourselves to prosper as their collaborative partners — as long as time permits.

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