Starting this week, guests at some Hilton hotels will find an unusual gift awaiting them on their pillows: a computer disc with the potential to take them to a powerful new marketing world.
The disc contains graphical software that, if installed on a PC equipped with a modem, can whisk a Hilton Hotels Corp. customer directly to the company's home page on the World Wide Web (http://www.hilton.com/hilton).
Over the next six to 12 months, expect to find customized Web browsers in automobile glove compartments, tucked into sneakers and bundled with catalogs, as marketers embrace what has the potential to be a potent electronic-age link to the customer.
"There's a lot of talk about inserting browser software with a consumer product .....maybe with a six-pack of soda..... In the next 12 months there will be discs all over the place for getting online," predicted Doug Ahlers, a partner in Modem Media, a Westport, Conn., interactive agency.
Volkswagen of America, for one, in a marriage of the information highway with the driveway, expects to place customized discs in the glove compartment of its new cars, said Lisa Thorell, VP-marketing for CompuServe's Internet Division, Seattle, which is supplying Volkswagen with copies of its Mosaic browser.
"Volkswagen will be able to constantly update its customers," Ms. Thorell said. "This gives them direct contact with the consumer, bypassing distributors."
In a similar deal, Time Inc. last week said it would offer a browser from CompuServe that would connect users directly to its Pathfinder site (http://pathfinder.com). Time Inc. will market the browser via its powerful magazine and direct mail channels, meaning millions of cable TV and print subscribers will soon be getting the chance to surf the Web.
"It is, for us, the next phase in commercializing our service," said Bruce Judson, general manager of Time Inc. New Media. The browser will be out by the holiday season.
Browsers also help address another sticky problem: getting Joe Consumer wired. It's estimated less than 10% of U.S. households subscribe to online services. But bundling a browser with automatic Internet access makes it easy for a person to get online.
Browsers also can give an immediate cyberspace cachet.
"Every time a person fires up your browser your company's logo appears," Mr. Ahlers said. "That's pretty powerful real estate."
Next-generation browsers are expected to be even more powerful marketing missiles. CompuServe, for example, is adding an electronic wallet-a kind of cyberspace shopping companion-to its Mosaic browser.
"A company will be able to load the browser with a discount such as a 10% coupon," Ms. Thorell said. "Or a company like United Airlines could load it with 200 frequent-flier miles."
Since March, Spry has signed up 35 companies and delivered 3.3 million customized browsers costing under $1 each, Ms. Thorell said. It expects business to quadruple over the next year.
Netscape Communications Corp., Mountain View, Calif., the browser market-share leader, also expects to begin an initiative in this area, a spokesman said.
Browsers are a case where both vendors and companies seek the same result: more customers online. Spry, for example, is so eager for new customers it pays a bounty for sign-ups to some of its partner companies.
"We were paid for our performance," said Paul Bonington, group publisher for Mecklermedia Corp., Westport, Conn. Mecklermedia this spring bundled Spry's customized browser with newsstand copies of its Internet World. The company said more than 10% of its magazine buyers not only used the browser but signed up for CompuServe's Internet access.
What's ahead? Companies as diverse as MasterCard International (http://www.mastercard.com), Oracle Corp. (http://www.oracle.com) and USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com) are developing browsers to distribute to customers. MasterCard, for example, is distributing kits to most of its 22,000 member institutions worldwide. The purpose? "To encourage members to become familiar with the Internet and to make it easy for them to get on our home page," a spokeswoman said.
Interactive Media Works, Overland Park, Kan., is offering an Internet marketing twist that combines the free trial benefits of a prepaid calling card with the customized browser market. Called SampleNet, the "taste of the Web" software gives consumers free, limited Web access while allowing advertisers to drive traffic to their home pages and measure online behavior.
At Hilton, which expects to place 200,000 browser discs in hotel rooms this fall, the offer is a way to deliver cost-effective relationship marketing and customer service.
Explained Jeffrey Diskin, VP-corporate marketing for Hilton: "It's much less expensive to talk to customers online. And we can do so much more dynamically. We can e-mail customers. We can make special offers available. And it costs us virtually nothing compared to a mailing."
Of course, not everyone is climbing onto the browser bandwagon.
"We're focusing on improving the experience once you get to the site rather than using browsers to drive traffic. There are better ways of getting people to your site by including your URL [Internet address] on all your communications," said Mark Kvamme, president-CEO of CKS Group, Cupertino, Calif.
Still, Richard Villars, director of network software research for market researcher International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., said he expects customized browsers to be attractive for the next few years as interest in the Internet grows.