When I first got involved with the Internet in 1994, I only saw a computer-based communications medium. The computer network initially appeared as a way to reach millions of people for pennies and to boost billing helping clients do the same.
Promoting the use of the Internet for communications, I developed separate usage levels to educate marketers. The four levels were advertising, promoting, interacting and transacting. After three years, these initial levels have grown to six as the Internet has evolved from a communications vehicle to a relationship tool. These new levels are transformation and community.
Consider the first four as you use the Internet in your marketing mix. Eventually, as you adopt the Internet as a relationship medium, the last two will be realized. These are the levels through which all Internet users, marketers and companies will pass:
Advertisement. Having a home page with a few links is as valuable to the marketer as putting a billboard in the basement. This is the ego stage that provides bragging rights at social gatherings and expanded business card addresses. Value Index=0.
Promotion. Since the first level was so easy, it's only natural for businesses to convert all existing marketing materials to electronic formats for Web publishing. The result is hundreds of pages of generally useless, self-promoting prose and pictures with thousands of links and cross links. This level can be called the bit-barfing stage, regurgitating millions of information bits on the market. Value Index=1.
Interactive. Here's the first time the customer receives benefits from the marketer and the beginning of an online ROI for the company. Customers can interact and resolve their issues without the marketers' direct involvement. An excellent example is FedEx giving us the ability to check the whereabouts on our own packages. We pay for the time and the Internet connectivity and we love it. FedEx saves millions of dollars in customer service costs, contributing directly to its bottom line. Value Index=5.
Transaction. Customers completing transactions online using their time and initiative. Examples include online access to information and products, including purchasing, by the customer. Benefits to both the customer (convenience) and marketer (cost of sale) are realized in cyberspace. Continuing with the same example, FedEx has moved from interactive to transactive by letting the user schedule a pickup through the Web site. Providing Internet purchasing using a credit card or electronic currency system are obviously transaction level communication. Value Index=7.
Transformation. Transactions are based on buyers and sellers. Transformation involves the advancement of business relationships from buying/selling to partnering based on mutual benefit. A transformed relationship provides customers and companies with rapid, interactive, value-based interchanges of information. This communication is independent of traditional constraints, such as departments, product lines, sales people, territories, channels, time zones and borders. The Internet, database, mutual need and imagination are the transformation tools.
For example, an e-mail sent from an accounts payable person to an accounts receivable person confirming a purchase order without involving purchasing or sales would be a transformed use of the Internet. This interchange in the traditional environment could be as easy as a telephone call if the payable person knows the receivable person. Typically, though, this simple interaction involves several different people in all four departments wasting time and talent answering an administrative question, a question that can halt an entire order. Value Index=9.
Community. The perpetual availability of support for mission-critical relationships transcends the medium. The Internet becomes the invisible link. An illustration could involve a vendor who sends a client an e-mail resolving an issue while the client is on business in Australia. The client doesn't incur worry, and the issue is erased without phone conversations, cumbersome international faxing or frantic tracking through travel agents.
An e-mail from the office while traveling; a quick review of online medical information researching a friend's illness; an order for a client gift, reducing the to-do list by one item; delivery of a company service using a URL in lieu of a brochure. In all cases, neither the medium nor the structure are of concern. The issues involve person-to-person relationships that are not limited by time, location or physical context. Value Index=10.
The Internet soon will be crucial in business relationships, eventually becoming similar to currency in the monetary system and water in the ecosystem — essential and unnoticed unless missing. The level you attain is up to you.
Tracy Emerick is principal of Taurus Direct Marketing, Hampton, NH, a direct marketing agency and consultancy, and president of Receptive Marketing Inc., which provides Internet site development.