For dot-coms, a super test

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How does one player stand out in a huddle? That's a question Super Bowl-bound dot-com advertisers should be asking themselves. It could mean the difference between a touchdown and a fumble.

When the big game starts Jan. 30, as many as a dozen Web companies-from newbie Angeltips.com to repeater Hotjobs.com-will have kicked in big bucks (an average $2 million) for a 30-second spot. Obviously, the goal is to stand out and make an impression on viewers more preoccupied with cheering, jeering and raiding the fridge than with surfing the Internet. The risk, however, as some media observers have pointed out, is that the blur of Super Bowl dot-com advertising could make one spot virtually indistinguishable from another.

Web site marketers have already established a reputation for outrageous ads that say little, if anything, about what they do or sell. Consider those highly publicized spots from Outpost.com, which-despite what the ads might have you think-is neither in the business of feeding marching bands to wolves nor using hamsters for target practice. That kind of advertising may get laughs and laurels, but does it get a brand-building message across? When the field is as crowded-not to mention, expensive-as it will be on Super Sunday, dot.coms should be thinking about how to get the most branding for their buck.

Of course, getting eyeballs to turn to your Web site only goes so far. If dot-coms want to keep consumers coming back, then they had better learn the importance of customer service. According to a recently released report from Jupiter Communications, it's a lesson Web players have yet to learn. The Jupiter report, which tracked how fast major e-commerce sites responded to customer e-mails during the third quarter, found that things are actually getting worse. The failure rate-tallying responses to customer inquiries that took five days or more-was up 12% from the third quarter of `98.

The poor showing would suggest that even though Web sites are willing to spend $7.4 billion in the next year to attract visitors, they are quick to forget how easy it is for those eyeballs to look elsewhere. And with the holiday shopping season well underway, online retailers will have plenty of opportunities to fail the customer disservice test.

Web players would be wise to remember that only half the battle is giving consumers a reason to come to your site. The other half is giving them a reason to come back. Right now, many dot-coms seem poised to drop the ball on both counts.

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