WHY THE WEB NEEDS THE REAL WORLD

By Published on .

June 18, 2001

Geography is underrated.

For proof, look no further than Feed and Suck, which shut down last week. Feed and Suck were two pioneering Web publications -- "zines" in a parlance that seems to have evaporated with the Nasdaq -- that specialized in cynicism and irreverence for Generations X and Y.

Feed had a TriBeCa feel; Suck was a bit more SoMa ("South of Market" for those unfamiliar with San Francisco). Feed was intellectually sharp, with more real, reported pieces. I struck up a friendship with the writer-editor-playwright-actor Steve Bodow after reading an acute, hysterical piece he'd written there about focus groups; the article centered on Bodow watching through a two-way mirror as a group of young women dissected him and his "dateability."

Suck was more acerbic and solipsistic; guided by an early Wired contributor, Joey Anuff, it hatched from the same gene pool that gave us Might, the short-lived humor magazine.

Living nowhere
By any normal measure, both zines were successful. Feed had 160,000 monthly visitors; Suck had 200,000. Those circulations would make most freebie alternative newspapers weep for joy -- and leap to the bank. Ah, but here's the difference: Those paper papers are based in real places, populated by real restaurants, real bookstores, real boutiques -- all of them real advertisers with real money. Web publications, which in theory live everywhere, in practice live nowhere.

Pundits have attributed the decline of Internet media to three factors: the inability of the publications and of Web advertising to take full advantage of metrics and targeting to drive ROI on marketing investments; their failure to build brands as they attempted to drive direct sales; and their reliance on dot-com advertisers with virtual bank accounts. All three contributed to the evaporation of this once (and future) promising form. But a larger reason was the zines' inability to act local while they thought global. A little bit of retail advertising can go a long way for an alternative publication.

My favorite new-economy tool is the scissors.

Using the scissors, I have cut out of publications articles from the ancien regime of the Internet -- as far back as April 2000. That's the date of a column I clipped from Red Herring, the title of which reveals its thesis: "In the Internet business world, start-ups have an unfair advantage."

The author, Steve Jurvetson, is a managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a Left Coast venture-capital firm whose criteria for investing seems, in retrospect, curious. "When DFJ funds a start-up today," Mr. Jurvetson crowed, "we rarely -- if ever -- worry about a large corporation posing a competitive threat to our investment. ... We used to worry about the giants. But today, an existing business franchise is more often an albatross than an asset."

Fallacious argument
The fallaciousness of this argument should have been as visible in 2000 as it is in 2001. Sure, lots of companies get stuck in damaging ruts. That's the primary reason the best put themselves through exercises in continual transformation, lest they wither. But as a broad principle, the notion that any existing business, especially a "giant," would be hobbled by a loyal customer base, existing supplier relationships, investor familiarity and a trained cadre of managers and staff is preposterous on its face.

But why did the Jurvetsons and their investors fall for such absurdities? Because they believed that there really exists something called "viral marketing." That is, they thought that word of mouth about a new company, brand, product or service could, via technology, be spread with an effectiveness never before possible.

"The Internet is a substrate for intellectual-property growth," Mr. Jurvetson wrote. "It allows good ideas to spread more quickly than ever before."

Maybe. But guess what? It allows bad ideas to spread more quickly, too. And in the real world there are probably 10,000 bad ideas for every good one.

To the Jurvetsons, Feeds and Sucks of the world, the lesson, although late, is clear: Reality does bite. Really.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

Copyright June 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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