Goodbye, Consumers; Hello, Dictators

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The Internet is an interesting mix of newcomers, old-timers, multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, venture capital, technology, consumer anxiety, vendor expectations, success and failure. It is one of the most exciting, yet challenging, environments to work in, because traditional marketing and business are often dysfunctional in this new marketplace.


Members of the purchasing public should no longer be considered simply "consumers." They are the dictators in the new economy. They comparison shop in minutes, research almost any subject or company and communicate via e-mail or chat. They have been given the reins. The kingdom of powerful big businesses mandating what is available for what price has gone the way of Camelot, like Merlin, vanishing into thin air.


New companies rise and fold every day on the Internet. The marketplace has taken dollars from big companies and meted out those dollars to thousands of new businesses or divisions selling similar product selections. Each of these new entities needs not only to establish its Web site, name, division, etc., but also to establish itself as better than the one that arose yesterday or the one that was there before that. Everyone is accountable.


Economic Darwinism: The Internet challenge is basically the law of Darwinism. Only the strongest and most fit will survive this new evolution. The struggle to be the best, however, is quite difficult with technology changing every day, buyers having the control and businesses operating in new ways. For the e-tailer, it's like the quest for the grail. What creates success in this new environment is what some e-tailers are missing.


E-tailing vs. traditional sales. Whether you're Internet-savvy or not, it seems too difficult to remember all the new companies and Web sites. The enormous influx of advertising does evoke interest, but it is easily forgotten or mixed up with other companies.


E-tailers as a category are lacking in branding expertise and a developed corporate identity. And when an e-tailer's advertising is successful and actually drives the target to the Web site, if the site navigation is too difficult, company information is not clear or graphics take too long to upload, the customer is lost. It is a much more complicated playing field than traditional bricks-and-mortar -- all things matter.


The new business rules: One of the new business rules for Internet companies is that they must diversify their advertising budgets to drive traffic to their sites and build new brand names. So far, television and print have proved to help increase mainstream brand awareness, but they do not necessarily drive traffic.


This traffic need has created a new marketing direction. Advertising must be everywhere online and offline, including transportation ads, TV commercials, radio spots, outdoor signage, direct mailers, banners, promotional gifts and trade shows, not only to create interest and instant brand recognition, but also to drive site hits and dollars. The critical mix must create interest, build Web site or company recognition and simply explain the business, all within a few seconds.


Cross-platform the advertising: Overall, cross-platform advertising, such as offering gifts during a TV commercial for visitors who log on within an allotted time and mention the ad, tends to be the most effective traffic and dollar driver. Including direct mail pieces into cross-platform further interests the target, actually creating customer confidence about sites and companies. The cliché, "If you build it, they will come," is appropriate for the Internet world. Build a site, create and launch an advertising campaign, then finish it with branded gifts in direct mailers. Entice customers and create interest, and they will come.


Close the sale: Once traffic starts, close the sale with superior customer service. Disclose all contact information clearly, offer direct feedback and ensure fast order fulfillment. Dilute the fears of online purchasing by ensuring that the order process is secure. And notify the buyer of product-specific details, such as long delivery periods, before the order is finalized.


An example of poor service I recently encountered occurred when an expected 24-hour delivery took more than a week to arrive. Upon arrival, it required a signature, which required me to go pick it up. It was not fast, efficient and easy, as promised, so I did not order from the company again.


Online customers are too finicky and too busy for poor service. Remember, they are in control. They can purchase similar items from a hundred different places online within minutes. In the cyberworld, if you upset one customer, you have potentially lost hundreds due to today's viral marketing, which can spread your mistake like wildfire.


The look of your site: Site design and navigation are considered two of the most important factors for maintaining and attracting customers. If it takes too long for your graphics to download, you have lost the customer's attention. An online store has about six to eight seconds to tell the customer who they are, what products it sells and entertain him enough to stay.


Web sites that entice customers with gifts or make them laugh, cry or dream tend to succeed, as they make customers feel like a part of the experience, combating the leading difference between cyberspace and bricks-and-mortar: a lack-of-feeling connection. Name recognition, wish lists, order histories and automatic reorders also help customers feel involved. This also creates loyalty and customer appreciation of a company.


Serve your customer: Bring out your big weapons and fight with all you have to survive. Advertise everywhere. Send branded gifts in the mail. Strive to provide the best customer service -- and enjoy this new empire.
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