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Web Lessons Learned From 2000

As the tumultuous millennial year limps to a close, columnists everywhere feel the urge to wrap things up, to draw some conclusions and, yes, to pontificate. Who am I to resist?

A moderate amount of soul-searching is called for, to be sure. Year 2000 was pivotal for Internet marketers. In January we began with great expectations. We rode the Internet roller coaster, up and down, whether in our jobs, with our investment portfolios or simply as professionals scrambling to get familiar with the new tools. Whatever our personal level of involvement, the Internet has affected us all, in spades.

So what have we learned about the Web during 2000? I offer seven lessons:

• Slow and steady wins the race. In the capitalist economy, where free markets reign, quick hits are an anomaly. They exist, certainly, and they do a great job of driving human greed and inspiring innovation. But remember the tortoise and the hare. Forget first-mover advantage, forget millionaire kids. Building a business is about solid planning and hard work over the long term.

• Branding is not everything. Why did so many start-up marketers confuse brand awareness with business results? Easy venture capitalist money was probably the biggest culprit. Whatever the cause, it is now clear to everyone that awareness is only part of the marketing story. Direct marketers are now being asked to step in and help drive responses and sales. We’re allowed to gloat, at least a little.

• New ideas need market validation. So many great new technologies have emerged, it’s like being a kid in a candy store for marketers. Lots of the new ideas sounded so plausible, so intuitively promising. After all, the Internet is the first truly interactive, measurable communications vehicle. Visions of one-to-one danced in our heads.

In the year 2000, though, a scad of exciting marketing tools bit the dust: anonymous interest-based profiles, shopping “bots” and name-your-price sales models, to name a few. Many bright ideas still sound good — Web callback and other computer telephony integration innovations, for example — but we must remind ourselves that the market will have to tell us whether they work.

• Clear objectives drive great marketing. It is embarrassing that we have to learn this again and again, but so be it. Web design and functionality, for example, work only when they support a well-constructed marketing objective. Is the Web site intended to sell? To generate leads? To build awareness? If you do not know, then the site is doomed to frustrate everyone. Lesson learned? Test. Ensure fast page loads. Analyze traffic patterns to refine your navigation. Design the site to support the goal.

• If there is a new economy, a lot of the old rules apply. Look at consumer e-commerce. Selling merchandise via the Web is closer to catalog marketing than many wanted to think. Oh, the pain of trying to sell dog food, shampoo, toys and scores of other unsuitable products over the Web. Is it not obvious why only certain product lines have ever succeeded in mail order? Worse still, e-commerce start-ups failed to understand the importance not only of superb merchandising, but also service excellence and efficient fulfillment.

• The Web is only one tool in the marketing tool kit. Treating the Internet piece as a silo has proved to be a big mistake. The Web needs to be managed as part of the larger customer experience or, from the marketer’s point of view, the larger marketing strategy.

Schwab is a master at this. The customer does business with Schwab, and from the customer’s point of view, he expects his interaction with the broker to be consistent regardless of the communications channel. The sad corollary lesson here is that no one, yet, has figured out how to operate, communicate and measure marketing results across all channels. That might be a job for 2001.

• These are the early days of the Internet. We had our gold rush. Now we can settle down and do some real marketing. We can create real value for our customers and extract real value for our businesses. And the upside, in technical innovation, marketing opportunity and sheer joy, is still ahead of us. What a blast.

Now, this columnist may pontificate, but I will not prognosticate. I am just waiting, with enthusiasm, for what 2001 will bring.

• Ruth P. Stevens consults with companies about customer acquisition and retention and teaches at New York University’s graduate program in direct marketing. Reach her at [email protected].

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