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Intelligent software aids in buying

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Branding will become an even more vital component of marketers' business communications as companies increasingly use Web-based "intelligent" software to help make decisions about buying products and services.

An "intelligent agent," in the context of the Internet, is software embedded into a Web site that acts as a search engine. A company also can write its own software as part of an extranet, which can go out to the Web and bring back information.

These programs search the Web in a discriminating fashion. They don't pick up on every site that contains a particular keyword or phrase but weigh the results according to their own criteria.

There's no room for emotional appeals. These search engines simply crawl across the Web, looking for the best sites with the best deals on a particular item.

Search and rank

Google! is one such intelligent search tool. With business-to-business applications, Google! rates each site it finds based on the number of other sites that link to it, creating a virtual reference check for the credibility of a particular site.

"These are intelligent agents, searching in much the same way that we humans do, to find the best possible deals and rank those deals in some kind of order," says Henry Bar-Levav, president-strategic director of Oven Digital, New York, a new-media consultancy. "It's intelligent in that as it learns what you want it to do, or as you input your experience with certain sites or companies, it will learn to avoid those sites you want it to."

In essence, these programs lessen the impact of the emotional appeal of advertising, Mr. Bar-Levav contends.

Don't get emotional

"These agents will have the most power in business-to-business contexts, because in business, there should ideally be no emotion," Mr. Bar-Levav says. "What that means is that client-vendor relationships that are based on things other than pure business, like price, value and quality, those relationships will not be able to flourish in a non-emotional, Web-driven context."

Yet when it comes down to making a decision between Company A and Company B, "it's the brand name and the reputation of the company that will surely win out," says Caroline Riby, VP-media director, Saatchi & Saatchi Business Communications, Fairport, N.Y. "Confidence in the brand name needs to be there for there to be confidence in the purchasing decision."

If anything, the rise of intelligent agents will create a need for even stronger brand identity. New-media opportunities will unfold, since marketers who rely on strong branding may feel compelled to take their communications to new forums.

Reputation for winning

Intelligent agents "simply are new research tools," says Scott Crawford, senior VP-creative director, Howard, Merrell & Partners, Raleigh, N.C. "But they will not replace the importance of relationships with brands. If that were the case, we'd already have seen the same situation with grocery stores, where all purchases would be based simply on price.

"Sure, these intelligent agents may make it easier to get to a desired brand and get it at a better price . . ., but it will still come down to the reputation of the brand itself."

That's where marketing and advertising will remain a strategic necessity for growth of any company, he says.

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