Test the Net

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It remains to be seen whether the World Wide Web is the greatest medium for promoting package goods to consumers. What's much more certain is this: Online testing already offers tremendous opportunities for faster, better and cheaper market research.

As detailed in last week's Advertising Age, Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever and research companies have jumped into the Net for online focus groups and other market research. This is the best Internet application we have seen for package-goods marketing. It's a powerful tool that's injecting much-needed innovation to help a tradition-bound industry get moving at Internet speed. Other categories also are jumping in. This issue's Interactive Media & Marketing section looks at the online research strategies of auto marketers.

Online research has its flaws, of course, and some are serious. There are security issues and questions about how accurately Web users represent the overall population. Those issues are fixable, and marketers should not lose sight of the opportunity here. Those that accept the risk of being in the vanguard of online research will reap the rewards: They will be first to learn the best techniques, and they will have a better chance of being first to market with product innovation.

This hardly means online research should replace traditional market research. (Someone needs to down the donuts and coffee behind the one-way mirror.) But we firmly believe in harnessing the power of the Internet to improve the research process. The ideal marketer would embrace the best technology for connecting with agency and media partners, suppliers, retailers and consumers. Web-based research should be part of the mix.

Package-goods sellers have other opportunities to use the Web to reach the consumer. The cleaning obsessed can visit tide.com ("the most comprehensive site on the Web dedicated to keeping your clothes looking their best"). E-tailers Peapod and Webvan, meanwhile, offer intriguing ways for marketers to sell their goods and target customers.

Perhaps package-goods sellers will come up with truly compelling reasons for consumers to visit their sites. Maybe grocery e-shopping will be a big deal tomorrow. But online research is a big deal today. Sign on.

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