The foundation of all successful businesses -- dot-com and traditional -- is creating and delivering true value to distinct groups of customers. The Internet holy grail of being first to market doesn't make an online brand. Nor do interactive Java bells and whistles. Anyone with enough money can replicate those features, making a dot-com business an also-ran overnight.
Most dot-com businesses are based on testosterone, hopes and prayers rather than anything that could be called real business metrics or marketing strategy. Those companies with no strategy and a huge obsession with pure tactics are doomed to flounder or fail. Those that succeed will embrace these five Internet marketing rules.
DEFINE A DIFFERENCE
An Internet company's brand must be different from its competitors' in a real and valuable way -- and consumers must be able to understand what that difference is.
Consider Theglobe.com, which describes its business as being "one of the world's leading online communities . . . setting the standard by providing members with a wealth of services and content." Call me crazy, but haven't Yahoo! and America Online set the standards in this category? What makes Theglobe.com different? It's impossible to tell.
SERVE A SEGMENT
Success lies in identifying a profitable customer segment and serving that segment better than the competition.
Internet marketers seem fixated on attracting "eyeballs" and creating stickiness -- anybody's eyeballs and anyone who will stick. But some eyeballs are more valuable than others.
Take another Web community offering broad content and services, StarMedia Network (starmedia.com). Unlike Theglobe.com, StarMedia's prospects for becoming a serious, international Internet brand look good because it identified a distinct, growing market segment: Hispanics. It's already the No. 1 portal site in 20 Latin American countries and is aggressively building its U.S. base.
Most Internet marketers, however, try to be all things to all people. Amazon.com offers convenience to the Nevada retiree, who cannot travel to a large bookstore, and deep discounts to a Manhattan book buyer, who has many other choices. The result? Amazon charges less than it could for convenience and attracts bargain hunters, who cost more than they are worth.
The site's value proposition must be quickly and intuitively understood. Many Internet businesses continually violate this ridiculously obvious tenet. When people go to a site, they must understand the value of its offering in less than 30 seconds or the marketing has failed.
The investment in copy- and user-interface testing is money well spent. Too often, the obsession with speed -- and drinking one's own Web Kool-Aid -- prevents dot-com businesses from observing this critical business step.
DEVELOP A MARKETING PLAN
The reason to buy must be clearly communicated using an effective mix of opt-in e-mail, PR, contextual promotions, online and traditional advertising, etc.
Too many Internet businesses mount machine-gun promotional programs, firing everywhere at everyone in hopes of reaching as many people as possible. There's little "ready" or "aim" -- just "fire."
"Current Internet promotion plans amount to trying anything and everything to drive traffic to Web sites," explains a recent Forrester Research report, concluding that "the marketing efforts advertisers believe to be most effective are not the ones most commonly used." That's right. Though there's some understanding of what actually works, few Internet marketers are using those approaches.
According to the marketing chief of a Boston-based dot-com start-up, "it's all about getting as many eyeballs to our site as we can. Then the site will sell itself because we're the first ones to offer this type of service."
Although this "viral marketing" method has worked for a few first-to-market sites, such as Hotmail.com, the "virus" may have affected the sensibilities of most Internet marketers.
Opinion Research Corp. has found that typical Internet consumers say they tell 12 people about online shopping experiences; while impressive, this word-of-mouth conveyance is not enough to be a marketing foundation of a business. Nearly 50% of Internet users visit sites because of coverage or advertising in magazines, newspapers and TV.
Data must be captured and leveraged to continuously improve the core business offering and marketing strategy.
The most successful Internet businesses are those that capture meaningful data -- from their customers, prospects and marketing program results -- and use them to enhance their business, build customer relationships and make smarter decisions.
Many dot-coms talk the one-to-one marketing talk; the only way to back it up is to invest in data-mining technology and strategy. Intelligent use of gathered data is simply the most important competitive differentiator for Internet concerns.
For years, business guru Peter Drucker has said the only way to grow a business is through innovation and marketing. The dot-com world is rich in innovation, yet feeble in marketing smarts. The next time you hear about a hip new dot-com business, ask the tough marketing questions to determine the business's real viability.
Mr. Clancy is chairman-CEO, Copernicus, Newton, Mass., a marketing strategy