Data Connections on the Internet

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It's easy to see how the Internet is affecting the way individuals and companies operate day to day. The amount of information available to us is growing exponentially, and this trend is unlikely to dissipate as other countries catch up with the United States in terms of Web access and usage.


However, knowing that information exists and finding it are two very different things. If you are a professional football fan, is it "NFL.com," "NationalFootballLeague.com" or something else? Is the site you're looking for a dot-com, a dot-org or a dot-net?


With new URL addresses added constantly and search engines containing only a fraction of the addresses that exist, it becomes a chore to pinpoint the best source for the information needed. Moreover, even after the right site is found, it still often takes many clicks to find the right page. With the number of new URLs being added, this problem will get worse before it gets better.


The solution is to find a way that allows everyone to connect disparate information sources directly to not only a specific Web site but also to a specific page on a specific Web site. What makes this increasingly important is that we are rapidly progressing to where the Web becomes the ultimate information repository, meaning that it will continue to grow.


We all use television, newspapers, magazines, catalogs, books, etc., to get information. What we do not often realize is that the information we see is a condensed version of the total information available on a given topic. We all have had the experience of seeing or reading something and thinking to ourselves, "Gee, I wish I had more information on this topic." Chances are that more information does exist, but we do not know where to go or are unwilling to invest the time to find it, or both.


Unless we are satisfied with being unable to immediately access the information we want on the Web, a solution to this problem must be found. However, the best "informational shortcut" would need to fulfill three criteria. First, it should not require a significant change in a consumer's normal behavior. Something that requires a major change in the way that a popular television show is watched or in the way that a favorite newspaper or magazine is read is unlikely to catch on. Second, it should not require an additional financial commitment by the customer (or, at worse, one that is minimal).


Perhaps some consumers would be willing to pay substantial sums for this shortcut, but most will not. Last, the method must be easy to use. Something that requires a 50-page instruction manual and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering is not likely to take off in the real world.


By now you may be wondering what relationship this issue has to direct marketing. Imagine that a solution to this problem is developed and that everyone in the world can access the Web directly from other sources (television, magazines, newspapers, catalogs, etc.). Also imagine that you are a member of the marketing department of a company that has a Web site.


What if this new tool also allowed you to see the overall profile of the type of people who see and hear something about your company and then access your Web site? More specifically, what if your company thought that its target market was single female 30-somethings but was finding that its print and broadcast efforts were bringing in a lot of male teen-agers, too? Obviously, this may mean that there are additional opportunities for your targeting efforts or that the current targeting efforts need to be overhauled.


By now, many in the industry perceive the Internet as the most powerful direct marketing tool yet. Once again, what if a tool existed that tied other informational sources directly to the Web? Ultimately, this tool will convert all media into direct marketing programs, with the inherent ability to measure, target, test, perform cost analyses, etc.


Ever wonder how marketers can spend so much money on advertising campaigns without possessing a simple means to immediately determine their effectiveness? Instead, what if they could objectively measure the number of people accessing their Web sites to get more information about the products after seeing one of these campaigns? Moreover, what if marketers could determine not only the number, but also the rough profile of these viewers? Once again, this is purely from a direct marketing perspective, but it does not require too much imagination to see how valuable such a tool could be.


Hopefully by now some of these ideas sound interesting, but obviously no one wants to wait around for 10 years while someone figures out how to tackle the problem. The good news is that you do not have to wait. Many companies are tackling these issues as we speak, and some already have launched products that make these scenarios possible right now.


Obviously, it ultimately will be up to the consumer to decide the value of such tools and which execution of the concept is most appealing. However, assuming that such acceptance exists, the company with the right solution will have a powerful business model. Its tool will truly have the potential to unleash the potential of the Internet while continuing to demonstrate the power of direct marketing principles.


Dave Abbott is vice president of catalog marketing at DigitalConvergence Corp., Dallas.
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