What was once a neutral platform for global communication and vast information gathering is now seen as a virtual playground for marketers seeking new and better ways to reach consumers.
The recent Web summit hosted by Procter & Gamble Co. prompted long-overdue discussions on the Internet's viability as the next great mass marketing medium. But is it really an appropriate tool for advertising consumer goods? Will marketers strategically nurture it? Or will they destroy it by applying traditional advertising models that ignore the Web's unique characteristics?
At its best, the Web is a service medium, not simply a mass marketing medium. The adage "build it and they will come" does not apply here. Consumers want -- and will eventually demand -- more. More unique services, accessible information, easy to use features and more intuitive navigation.
Consumers "sell" their attention and loyalty to the sites they visit. In exchange, they expect meaningful content and helpful service. Online ads disrupt this "agreement," with more consumers starting to interpret ads as an intrusion. While Internet ads have their place -- in online magazines and similar media sites -- they are not the right tool for companies looking to mass-market consumer goods.
As an alternative, marketers need to learn how to actually extend brands and business strategies on the Web by understanding its advantages and appreciating its limitations. They must exploit its interactive capabilities in a way that will entice consumers to come back for more.
PROBLEMS WITH SITES
Most marketers have yet to accomplish this with any strong degree of success. They rush to establish a Web presence, or simply invest in banner ads without well thought out strategic marketing objectives that capitalize on the Web's one-to-one communication capabilities. As a result, many sites today lack a unique brand voice and offer no harmony between messages, imagery and identity. They are awash in clutter and gratuitous nonsense, and offer no real value or positive "experience" to users.
I believe there's a two-to-three-year window before consumers get disenchanted enough with the Web's indiscriminate and purposeless clutter to turn away -- and stay away.
A recent report on Internet shopping by Ernst & Young showed only 38% of prospective Internet buyers are satisfied with ease of Web site navigation, and only 29% are happy with the overall organization of Web sites. The problems of consumer usability and navigation -- together with the lack of clear direction by marketers -- pose a serious threat to the long-term viability of the medium.
A study by Jupiter Communications illustrated this point well, reporting that 70% of online users click on a Web site in search of information -- reinforcing the idea the Internet is an information-driven medium at its core. Presently, one of five Americans is online, and many want more out of the Web. They're looking for information and services that heighten their experience through access to value-added resources.
But this high-ground marketing approach requires strategic planning and a consistent resourcing commitment, a goal often hindered by unbalanced site development. Many companies indiscriminately dump thousands of dollars into back-end technology and won't spend even half as much to design a compelling storefront that is engaging, easy to use and includes value-added services.
MAKE USERS COME BACK
While back-end technology is important, the usability and value bonuses built into a storefront are what make users come back.
There are a number of Web sites that provide a compelling online experience. The Weather Channel's site (www.weather.com) is strategically designed to make vast amounts of information easy to understand and instantly available, providing a valuable service to its millions of daily visitors. State-of-the-art programming and intuitive navigation underscore this crisp, highly functional site, which connects visitors to customized news and relevant information tools right from the home page. Within its first day of operation, users of the site set up more than 80,000 customized home pages! That's a success that can only result from a fulfilling user experience.
Kodak took a different approach, but is equally centered on creating a positive user experience. "Kodak Professional" (www.kodak.com/go/professional) is an online community that targets photography and print imaging professionals by empowering them to communicate with one another using Kodak as a facilitator. The strength of this site, which attracted more than 400,000 visitors in its second month, lies in such value-added features as behind-the-scenes stories, software upgrades for scanners and cameras, international copyright information and a real-time sunrise/sunset calculator.
WEB NOT A TV EXTENSION
So what's the bottom line? In the infant stages of any new medium there are often misunderstandings about its purpose and best use. The developing theory that the Web will function as an extension to TV's mass-marketing role is simply wrong.
While there are many valuable sites in cyberspace, the Web has become cluttered with valueless advertising messages and hard to access information. The industry's current effort to standardize even larger, more intrusive advertising online presents a looming danger.
While consumers have displayed patience with the Web's banner ads and brand-identifying content the last few years, their patience may be wearing thin. Time is running out for marketers to wake up and realize that traditional marketing models won't work.
Mr. Webster is managing director, Siegel & Gale Interactive Media Group, New York, which includes the Weather Channel and Eastman Kodak Co. among its clients.