You Say We’ve Had a Revolution?

You don’t need me to tell you any more about the weaknesses of the Web — something that I’ve been doing in these articles for the last two years and that others are now talking about, too. (Check out, for instance, Michael Porter’s article in the Harvard Business Review, which takes a more expansive look at the topic than I can here.)

“Pure-play dot-coms” are now best referred to as “pure-play caught-dumbs.” The senselessness of investing in companies without profits, run by people who openly declare their primary strategy to be an exit strategy, is clear to everyone. The lack of value of online advertising is common knowledge. Application service providers (ASPs) are fast joining push technology as one of the tidal waves of the past. Online purchasing (according to the latest U.S. Department of Commerce report) still makes up only one percent of total retail sales — and that number is certainly skewed upward by the holiday season.

And for those of you waiting for things to turn around again, I’d bring a book, a deck of cards, and some rose-colored sunglasses, because it ain’t gonna happen. The Web itself is already becoming outdated. Online as we know it (TCP/IP fighting bandwidth and security to accomplish something it was never meant to do) is going to become obsolete in a few years. And a lot of the enormously expensive sales and marketing technologies being implemented today will be as reusable as CP/M-based systems in the not-very near future.

In other words, if you are still planning on using technology instead of strategy and common sense to make yourself rich, you’re in for a rude awakening.

The More Things Change…

Online is nothing new. Airlines, for instance, have been conducting online commerce and supply-chain and inventory management for 30 years. And although online made some things easier for them, it didn’t change the basic strategic foundation upon which their industry rested. And the availability of those same online tools to all of us won’t change our foundations, either:

  • Traditional strategies (such as the 4Ps — price, place, product, and promotion — and segmentation) will still dominate marketing.

  • Profit will still be king.
  • Price cutting will continue to destroy markets, not make dot-coms rich.
  • People will still want to do business with people.

In other words, let’s all disabuse ourselves of the notion that the Web is some magnificent revolution and realize that it is simply — SIMPLY — another useful tool for executing strategies. And as time goes on, it will become a smaller and smaller element of that arsenal.

Where It Will Work

But before I go back to smoke-signal marketing, let me hasten to add that I use the Web in the strategies I put together every day. And I will continue to use it. It has value — as long as its worth is kept in perspective. The integration of database infrastructure and online presentation is an excellent marketing and business tool in a number of ways. For instance:

  • Target marketing. There is no less expensive method of driving specific product and service information to specific visitor profiles and, for that matter, to specific visitors.

  • Customer self-service. Order checking, delivery-status tracking, and account self-management are all activities that the Web does well and that in the future, more secure, more pervasive technologies will do even better.
  • Customer relations. Those customers who wish to be kept informed of product advances via online technology will be well served by technology. But, again, it won’t be via the Web. For instance, when your car reaches a tune-up point, you’ll be notified by technology embedded in the car itself — and that doesn’t involve the Web.

But the key here is perspective. I never advise a client to cut prices, stop talking to customers, or try to become a pure play or an ASP.

And Where It Won’t

Finally, we have to take hard look at where the Web can destroy our business if we rely on it too heavily:

  • Channel destruction. Keep your channels well cared for. Your partners and distribution channels are a precious asset. Don’t turn your back on them because you think you can go it alone, and don’t relegate your contact points to email and notifications for them to check on things on the Web.

  • Customer service. Technology as a tool for satisfying customers is about as useful as a fork is for eating soup. Everything that matters slips through the cracks, and your customers are going to hate you for it.
  • The banding experience. Recognize that your customers are experiencing on your Web site the same thing you experience on the sites you try and work with. Servers temporarily down, 404 errors, orders not taken correctly, long download times. Technology doesn’t replace people.

I know it’s bad rhetorical form, but let me close with one of my favorite quotations:

    The influence of this… on the political, social, and commercial relations of the people of this widely extended country will of itself amount to a revolution unsurpassed in world range by any discovery that has been made in the arts and sciences. Space will be, to all practical purposes of information, annihilated between the states of the Union and also between the individual citizens thereof.

This was written in 1847 by a U.S. Congressman pushing for the adoption of the telegraph. That “revolution” didn’t change the nature of business and marketing strategies, and it’s that certain the one we’ve seen these last five years won’t, either.

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