A “Cybernaut’s” Guide

Haveland Robinson Associates

March 2nd 1995


The Internet could be seen as a Market Researcher’s dream, once the divisions of interest and subject groupings are mastered. Moving the organisation from the most detailed level of internal market analysis to an overall strategy for improving communication with customers is the goal of ‘intermarketing’. Interactive marketing opportunities are not limited to the Net; they are expanding as fast as new technology brings interactive, high speed connections to homes, schools and offices.

The Internet is not about to become the world’s biggest electronic shopping arcade, even if legal barriers to commercial traffic, such as acceptable use policies, are removed. The Net has a strong culture for open dialogue, and a strong techie bias against anything resembling a sales pitch.

Another compelling reason that we are not going to see Net ‘High streets’ for the foreseeable future at least, is that traditional forms of marketing and selling do not translate all that successfully into a networked environment. The Internet is still evolving however, and its form and function is determined by those who contribute, and want it to change. Only by playing out the scenario will we be able to tell how the Internet will affect our lives.

Advertising is about one-way ‘broadcast’ communication — one to many. The Internet provides other mechanisms for communication — one to one, many to many and many to one. Much information on the Internet is subject to feedback, is interactive and multifaceted.

Advertising on the Net using the newsgroups can be an inflammatory (sic) activity, and can generate harsh criticism from all quarters in the form of sending masses of useless mail to those who infringe the ‘netiquette’. This can effectively close the ‘offending’ site by using up all available bandwidth and disk resources, and invoke the wrath of the Internet provider, possibly forcing removal off the Internet. One should think very carefully about posting adverts to the newsgroups - they must be relevant, short and provide a reference to further information.

World-Wide Web (WWW)

Companies familiar with the net culture have already adopted information-based approaches for reaching customers. With the astonishing growth, acceptance and ease of use of the World-Wide Web, marketing strategy will undergo a paradigm shift from the company seeking the customer, to the customer seeking the supplier. This will force the role of the marketing department to concentrate on PR by providing compelling credentials as to why use their products or services. The potential customer will find the appropriate supplier easily, and judgements about companies are made on the strength of their WWW page. Marketing departments will have to work to make their sites visible on the net, by registering their domain name and services with other Web sites, and search engines. (Although the Web analogy derived from the hypertext information web, it is also apposite to describe it as a method of entrapment!)

Because of the distributed nature of information found using the World-Wide Web, information is organic, constantly changing and refining and up-to-date. Every one of the hundreds of thousands of Web sites are maintained by their own administrators, often caring passionately for the accuracy and content of the information they provide, as they are the visible face of the individual, company or institution on the Internet.

The physical location of the information becomes meaningless—it is just as quick and easy to access information in the US in real time as it is in the adjacent building. Similarly, information about a particular crofter in Scotland could be held on a site in California, with no adverse effects on communications. Users of the WWW hop from one side of the world to another with a single mouse click.

With so many people maintaining and providing their own information services, it is not surprising that usage of the Web is exploding. A million web maintainers is vastly more productive than a company with a million employees maintaining a web site!

Web servers also have technological advantages: Many users can access it simultaneously, and bandwidth is only used when information is disseminated. Network resources are available while the web page is being read. Users can even hang up while reading the page, and then reconnect briefly to hop to the next site. This would make ISDN particularly attractive if there was no minimum call charge as call setup times are very short.

The ‘biz’ discussion groups and USENET frequently contain company-specific promotional material, though targeting is more haphazard. Some companies are adopting multimedia techniques to their contributions.

Once you have decided to commit to a strategy of using the Net to communicate with customers (as well as researching customers, suppliers and competitors), the organisational and technical issues arise. There are a number of well-tested techniques for distributing and reaching networked information, each with their own features and advantages. Among those most frequently used are:

Anonymous FTP servers:FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol. It is a fairly low-level way of transferring files between machines. Users log in as “anonymous” and enter their email address for their password. Many sites provide this for the community to download anythng from typeset documents to graphics, software code, product releases, driver updates etc. Some sites also have an upload area to receive contributions from anyone, which can be vetted by the administrators, or used for their business.

There is much concern amongst corporates about the propagation of viruses, but in my experience the risks are wildly exaggerated - in downloading many gigabytes of information over the last few years, I have yet to catch a virus off the Internet or any other bulletin board, yet I caught the Form virus only once from a next-door neighbour’s floppy!

Disadvantages: The customer has to find their way to the server, and execute some commands to locate and transfer the files. This is however being made much easier by Windows applications that present the site in a similar way to Windows File Manager, where files can literally be selected with the mouse and transferred to the local machine.
Gopher:Has the advantages of FTP with the accessibility of the Gopher services and can be searched by subject interest.
USENET Newsgroups:20,000+ discussion groups that make up the USENET. Topics and discussion norms vary considerably from group to group. Complex democratic approval process to start new groups.
Mailing Lists:Interactive discussion or announcement only groups, cover a variety of topics. 3 types of mailing lists: Unmoderated - Messages are posted to everyone on the list. Moderated - designated person receives and screens all messages before posting. Digested - Messages are gathered and posted in batches. For the customer, a brief e-mail request is usually all it takes to be added to a mailing list.
Electronic Newsletter:These are distributed on-line by publishers to a list of subscribers. Number of titles is increasing dramatically.
World-Wide Web:This facility is the biggest growth area on the Internet. The ease of use, pretty and informative graphics, structured pages and seamless integration of ‘Uniform Resource Locators’ (URLs) make it the one of the most powerful ways of providing and locating information. WWW servers are capable of acting as a front end to comprehensive databases, and ‘forms’ can be provided for interactive communications using client-server architecture. For these reasons it is growing at around 1% per day. It is proposed that in 2 years, the American Inland Revenue Service (and the UK for that matter) will use the Web to provide the facility for the on-line population to fill in their tax returns on-line. Such acceptance by the Establishment is difficult to ignore, and represents a significant step forward to integrating the Internet into our future society.

The WWW can also be implemented locally on a LAN for internal business use, and needn’t have any links to the outside world. This is called an Intranet.

It is very easy to set up a network information server first and worry about where the information will come from later. It can be a full time role to keep the existing information current and provide regular updates.

One key is to use the net to inform people, answer their questions and respond to their suggestions. Each step should help to increase the level of useful information available to the customer, and to the company. In my experience using the Net as my primary means of acquiring work, being helpful and giving information can lead to more business.

1. Identify the Audience

Start with USENET - there is likely to be a relevant customer group. USENET is primarily used to ask thousands of people for directions or answer to obscure questions, with responses usually mailed to the enquirer, or posted to the group if appropriate for a wider audience. It is also used for the announcement of interesting things to the group, and for discussion of relevant topics. Traffic amounts to around 200-500Mb per day, so it is not easy to read everything!

2. Negotiate Company-Wide Participation

Get people using the net and providing information to their customers - all the customer-facing people? Develop a co-ordinated approach and a clear set of expectations - this will help keep the Net’s use focused on company goals.

3. Feature Essential Information

The quality of the information determines the long-term success of intermarketing. Posted messages should be accurate, current and clear. It should highlight the value-add. People want to know about future plans, how to deal with problems. The type of information should be adjusted according to customer feedback.

4. Open Communication Channels

It is easy for customers to respond through the net with reactions to company services and future directions. Servers can provide features that encourage direct comments and discussion. It is important to build interfaces that encourage feedback. These can include suggestion boxes, prompts for comments and questions with responses posted on-line or off-line.

5. Respond to Customers

Encourage a flow of two-way communications by providing some response to suggestions or comments.

If the volume is large, this could be distributed around the company, for particular groups to respond to various communities of interest.

6. Monitor the Results

The way customers use the information can be easily tracked. Web servers can identify how many people look at each file and record the origin of the query. Companies who are actively INTER marketing now are Apple and Digital.

The net can be used to provide enhanced customer support. For example, Silicon Graphics monitor Net discussions every day, in addition to responding to individual queries from customers. Their web site offers comprehensive information on their products.

Whether Marketing or other areas of business offering, the Net offers an important channel.

Copyright ©2003 HRA
Last Modified: 26th August 2003
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