Best Practices for Online Marketing

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The Internet economy is in disarray. Content sites, business-to-business exchanges, back-office vendors and other companies involved in the new era of Internet-enabled marketing are in collapse.


In general, buyers and sellers are getting information and services they need, but companies expecting to service them have been disappointed with their online profitability. What they are missing are connections. Bubble marketing is a new, networked model for online marketing that leverages existing, trusted relationships to market products and services. It satisfies the three key constituencies for effective online commerce: It provides marketers with a large, receptive audience, buyers with relevant offers from Web sites they trust, and Web sites with a profitable business model that recognizes the lifetime value of their customers.


Now is an especially opportune time for Web sites to consider a new marketing technique. Limited by the cost per thousand-based pricing of banner advertisements, many have looked to e-commerce opportunities as their solution. However, this approach fails to fully leverage their most valuable asset: trusted relationships with millions of members who, because they are seeking value-added, specific information, have volunteered rich, deep data on themselves.


The most popular sections of Web sites such as zdnet.com, vertical.net and webmd.com are opinions and ratings of products and services. As buyers become more proactive and research the options available to them, these sites present unique opportunities for marketers to establish relationships with well-qualified prospects. How can a third-party marketer target these prospects without violating privacy and trust in the Web site?


A soap bubble provides a simple metaphor for privacy. What can pass through a bubble without popping it? Some light, perhaps. Once pierced, it can never be repaired. A customer's relationship with a Web site is as fragile as a bubble. Personal information about customers must be held "inside the bubble." If it is released, the trust is broken and can never be recovered.


This fragile bubble must be kept intact by the maintenance of privacy, objectivity and quality information. As long as it is intact, the value of the trusted relationship is maintained and can be safely repackaged and monetized using a range of techniques.


Online customers are increasingly aware of the vast stores of information collected about them. Surveys, questionnaires, customer service requests and Web site registrations all request wide-ranging personal and corporate information. Certainly, a small fraction of these fields of information are necessary for any one vendor interested in reaching a specific audience. Which ones? Does a manufacturer of a cholesterol medication need to know whether a doctor has a large practice? Or does a software vendor's Web site need to know whether a prospective customer is interested in golf?


The answers depend on your perspective. Marketers would prefer to have the ability to target based on the most information they can get. If asked directly, online users generally say they prefer that no personal information is made available to marketers. The opportunity for progress comes at the intersection of these perspectives: If customers perceive value in sharing their information with a trusted third party for specific benefits, then they are willing to do so.


With bubble marketing, communities of customers are concealed within a privacy-safe bubble managed by trusted Web sites. These sites aggregate information so as to conceal any individually identifiable information, but still provide research, targeting and tracking tools for third-party marketers. These marketers then can analyze customer populations in aggregate and develop targeted message and offer strategies to encourage trial, improve compliance or other marketing objectives.


Five key steps allow online communities to enable bubble marketing:


· Build the bubble. Define clear boundaries beyond which individually identifiable information cannot be accessed. Audit any aggregate data that you may distribute to ensure that it cannot be reverse-engineered to determine customer and prospect identities.


· Don't burst it. Evaluate internal business practices and chain-of-trust partnerships to detect and avoid potential privacy violations.


· Always ask permission. Online users need to be educated as to the value from and the risks of sharing their information. Remind them each step of the way of your responsibility and theirs.


· Deliver compelling value. Do not waste your precious customer relationships on information and offers that are not relevant.


· Tell them when they will burst the bubble. Make customers fully aware of actions that they may take that will take them outside the bubble. Make sure they are free to choose when and if they leave.


Trusted Web sites hold enormous potential for privacy-safe marketing. Web site visitors have self-selected themselves based on interest in specific topics, and the Web sites themselves are making enormous investments to build traffic and position their sites as trusted intermediaries to deliver information. Though marketers interacting with Web site customers in a bubble lack access to name and address information, they can analyze and target based on any segmentation criteria collected by the Web site.


Bubble marketing lets marketers establish privacy-safe virtual customer relationships in the context of trusted Web communities. Customers and prospects gain the peace of mind that their interactions are managed by a trusted third party, yet benefit from information and offers relevant to their condition.


This new generation of marketing provides the best of all worlds: flexible targeting, customer opt-in and strong privacy.


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