I wrote the above words in my mind even before I finished the below-the-fold story on the front page of The New York Times Feb. 8, the one headlined "For sale: online bookstore's recommendations." The piece revealed Amazon was charging publishers up to $10,000 for a co-op ad package that included editorial reviews and placement on such lists as "What We're Reading" and "Destined for Greatness."
I fired off an e-mail to Amazon that morning to express my dismay, as apparently did many others. Amazon listened; two days after the story broke, the company said as of March 1 it will label all co-op placements "in a way that's easy for customers to identify." It also said it will loosen its book return policy so customers can return recommended books they don't like "even if you thought the book was so bad you ripped the pages out."
That quick, marketing-savvy response is part of the reason Amazon has built a large, loyal customer base in a very short time. And it should serve as a lesson to other marketers, whether they do business in cyberspace or the bricks-and-mortar world.
If you know Amazon's business model, you can understand the temptation to develop ad programs that push the envelope. Since it sells books at discount prices, its core business isn't profitable. So it has to open new revenue streams if it hopes to make money (and imagine what its market cap would be then!). But the co-op program was a boneheaded play. It threatened the brand integrity that is the glue for millions of book lovers who trust the site and its recommendations.
Yes, competitive prices, great selection and ease of use are factors in Amazon's success. But they're really just a price of entry; the factors that add up to a great brand are more intangible.
A simple mouse pad got me hooked. It arrived in the mail during the 1997 holiday season, along with a greeting card. Printed on the pad is a Groucho Marx bon mot ("Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.") and Amazon's Web address. The gift, of course, is self-promotional. But since I identify myself as an avid book reader, I got a kick out of it. And no matter how much money I spend at Barnes & Noble, that chain has never given any indication it knows who I am, or cares.
Jeff Bezos, I'm sure, is the mastermind behind such marketing plans. Yet the Amazon founder and CEO's comments in The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 9 were dangerously off the mark. According to the Journal, Mr. Bezos "suggested Amazon and other online retailers that feature reviews, recommendations and other `content' . . . shouldn't be held to the same standards as, say, the book-review sections of newspapers and magazines, which strive for independence from advertising concerns." Mr. Bezos also says "collecting co-op advertising money can lead to much lower prices."
But at what cost? The notion that Web sites don't need to be held to the same standards as other media, that the line between advertising and editorial is by definition blurry in cyberspace, is foolish and dangerous. Unfortunately, it's also widely held.
The line is blurry, but that's a problem, not an opportunity. The Web has an ability to close the loop that other media lack. If you read a book review on The New York Times site, you can click to another site to buy the book. That's the beauty of the Internet.
The danger comes when advertising dollars influence editorial decisions. If the Times publishes only positive reviews because those lead to higher book sales, its integrity would be corrupted. Which is exactly the mistake Amazon made, and exactly the mistake others will make if they don't clarify the line between editorial and advertising material.
At the end of the day, the Internet is just another delivery platform. The information that comes across that platform needs to be as trustworthy as the