MUCKING UP MARKETING ON THE 'NET

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Message to marketers who have established-or are in the process of setting up-sites on the Internet: Why are you doing this?

This is the one question every company should ask itself two or three thousand times before giving the green light to an internal task force or ad agency or anyone else to set them up with a home page on the World Wide Web. If the answer is "Because everyone else is," keep your money in the bank.

Marketers-the term takes on even more relevance in cyberspace, where the descriptor "advertisers" just isn't apt-are pouring onto the Internet, especially the Web, by the score. Most are doing it mainly to project an image or make a statement ("I surf, therefore I am"?).

The problem-and it came into sharp focus when the editors of this section spent hours exploring two dozen Web marketing sites in recent weeks-is that most of what's up there so far stinks.

To start with, Internet addresses are arcane and unwieldy. Say what you want about interactive TV, but punching in the number 97 on a handheld remote to access shopping services on Time Warner's Orlando system is a simple, intuitive act. Typing in http://www.address.com/squiggly line/when will this end.html, on the other hand, is a consumer-unfriendly waste of time. One wrong keystroke and you're not going anywhere.

Which may be a blessing in some cases. Even if you are lucky enough to find the site you're looking for, chances are you have a relatively low-speed connection. That means it can take many minutes to download a home page. It doesn't sound like much until you're sitting in front of a computer screen watching a page painfully materialize while you think of all the things you're not doing instead.

If you want to download a video file, be prepared to put aside the better part of an hour.

Unfortunately, the payoff is rarely worth the wait. Most marketing sites still have areas under construction, meaning the sponsor's not ready to deliver what it's promising. Imagine if a launch issue of a magazine listed an entertainment section in its table of contents but instead ran several blank pages in the back of the magazine.

A computer user who spends valuable time getting to an area once is not likely to return later to see if the information he wanted the first time has appeared yet.

Often, the offerings available are neither deep, dazzling nor even current. Because of security concerns, online transactions can't be conducted in most areas, though there are plenty of 1-800 phone number listings.

That's not to say great work can't be done on the Web. MCI is already doing just that with its Gramercy Press, which is even more fun online than it is on TV.

And it's not to say marketers shouldn't be experimenting with new-media outlets. Of course they should. Of course there will be missteps in the early phases of interactivity. Of course advances in technology will make it easier for consumers to access, explore and conduct transactions on the Internet.

And marketers will clearly play a key role in reshaping 'net culture as the global network of networks emerges as a mainstream medium.

But marketers should not be exploiting technology because it's there. They should be figuring out whether and how the Internet can help them meet marketing goals and then develop products that deliver real value in the form of information or entertainment.

Those that don't think before leaping will discover the Web to be a sticky, tangled domain.

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