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Marketing in the internet – as seen from Italy

No. 47 – July 31, 2000



loghino.gif (1071 byte) 1. Editorial: Stormy weather for “dot coms”

There’s more confusing news about “internet companies”. Even in Hong Kong many of the “portals” that should have opened the access to China are cutting staff and losing money. Everywhere, it’s hard to understand which companies were poorly conceived in the first place, which set their hopes too high – and which are really quite healthy but suffering in a stormy environment.

There are strange stories about how companies in trouble try to patch up. Some reports say that companies are removing the “.com” from their names to be more appealing to investors (that’s so silly that it may be true). The Wall Street Journal reported on June 27 that «Some of the internet’s hottest sites are trying to weather skepticism about online advertising by running lots of ads – for themselves». A much more serious problem is that several companies are trying to make up for part of their losses by selling the personal data of their customers, that they had promised to keep confidential. The case of bankrupt Toysmart, that was investigated by the FTC for privacy violation, is just one of many examples.

I know many people and businesses that are becoming more and more skeptical about dealing with “internet companies”. They’ve had experiences of unkept promises, unpaid bills, vanishing companies, agreements that didn’t work out as expected. There is lack of trust; and that is getting in the way also of reliable companies, and viable projects, that are finding it difficult to sell their services and get the support they need. Customers, as well, are disappointed, because of poor service, poorly conceived websites, etcetera. Over-promising and under-delivering, as discussed in the next point, are a problem everywhere. Some serious weeding will be necessary to provide a less cluttered environment in which healthy enterprises can grow.

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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 2. Ten “rules“ (Gerry McGovern)

I’m quoting, once again, one of my favorite authors: Gerry McGovern: On June 26 he published an interesting article: Over-promising, under-delivering. Of course “overpromising” is a serious risk in traditional marketing; but it’s even worse on the internet.

I was born and raised on a small farm in rural Ireland. Every year we brought cattle to the Granard mart. When they entered the selling pen, expert buyers judged them. Mostly, good cattle got good prices, poor cattle, poor prices. Quality came out.

Selling on the internet is based on promises. If you met a potential buyer the day before the mart there was no point in promising him that you had fantastic cattle if they were not indeed fantastic. But when writing about your product or service on your website it’s so easy to reach for ‘easy-to-use,’ ‘innovative,’ ‘unique,’ ‘trouble-free,’ ‘comprehensive support,’ ‘fantastic.’

A critical problem that the internet economy faces is that of over-promising with its words and under-delivering with its products and services. If we can’t tame our urge to hype, then the customer will become increasingly cynical about the information they find online. If the integrity of the information the internet delivers becomes seriously undermined, then the very function of the internet becomes seriously undermined.

To repeat the obvious: the function of the internet is to deliver information. The first question that I instinctively ask myself when I visit a new website is whether I can trust the information it is offering to me. That is often a difficult thing to judge and is perhaps one of the reasons I visit very few new websites. I suppose I’m conservative. If I want to see what’s happening in the world today, I’ll go to CNN. If I want to buy a book or CD, I’ll go to Amazon.

When I arrive at a new website I’m in a very skeptical mode. I read carefully, watching out for the tone, style and balance. I’m there for the facts, and if I get a sense that I’m being over-promised I back out. When I read about product limitations, I’m impressed. I feel that if the website is up-front enough to tell me about the limitations of what it offers, then maybe it’s being factual about the benefits.

Here are 10 Rules we should follow when writing for the internet:

  1. Be honest. Paper never refused ink. Websites never refused hype. If you can’t deliver within twenty-four hours, then don’t promise to.
  2. Be simple, clear and precise. Time is the scarcest resource, so never use five sentences when one will do. Avoid jargon. People are confused enough today.
  3. State your offer clearly. What exactly is it that you sell?
  4. Tell them about your products limitations
  5. Have a clear call to action? If they like what you have to offer how do they go about buying it?
  6. Tell them quickly if they’re not a customer you can supply. There’s nothing I find more frustrating than finding out at the last moment that they can’t deliver to Ireland
  7. Edit! Edit! Edit! There has never been an article that cannot be made shorter.
  8. Give them detail. If they feel like finding out more about a particular product feature, then give them that opportunity. (That’s what hypertext is for!)
  9. Write for the Web. Avoid the customer having to download Word documents, Powerpoints or PDF
  10. If you want to create a "10 Rules" but can only find 9, leave it at 9.

There’s a lot of discussion, in professional internet circles, about “usability“. Of course that’s a good idea and I hope companies setting up (or upgrading) their websites will understand that it’s a priority over cosmetic appearance. But it’s not enough. Good writing and good hypertext architecture are important, but they can’t replace the basic quality of goods provided and customer service.


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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 3. Choosing online, buying offline

Since the origins of online communication the net has always been used to look for information, compare, verify, before buying goods or services in the traditional outlets. And that can be a good starting point for the development of relationships that can lead to online buying. But the bridge must be built carefully, with good quality of service and solid facts (as well as behaviors) that can build reliability and trust.

One more confirmation of this fact is in a recent survey by the Gartner Group.

Between September 1999 and March 2000, 45 percent of US households that bought a new vehicle used the internet to research their purchase. Only 3 percent, however, actually bought their vehicle online. Less than a quarter of households buying a new vehicle 2 years ago researched their purchase on the internet.

Gartner surveyed 40,000 households and 48 percent of these said they are “very likely” to use the internet the next time they buy a new vehicle. Seven percent said they are “very likely” to actually buy their next new vehicle online and another 12 percent said they were “likely” to buy online the next time they buy a car.


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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 4. The virus that never was

I’m not going to bore readers by reporting every silly story I read in the press. There are so many that it’s almost impossible to catch up with all. Especially when they write about the internet, and even more so when “news” is about alleged dangers and threats, such as kackers or viruses.

But there was an unusual concentration of absurdity in an article published by Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, on July 20.

A front page headline said “Killer email hits computers when they are shut off”. One doesn’t need to be a computer expert to understand that it’s impossible. How did such a ridiculous statement get past the editors of a major newspaper?

In the text of the article, of course, there was no statement about anything entering a computer while the power is off. But there was a detailed description of a “very dangerous virus“ that never existed. The actual fact was that a security company had found one more bug in notoriously leaky Outlook, and pointed to the fact that it could be used by one more “worm”.

It’s quite funny, but it’s also a symptom of a serious problem. The more false horror stories we read and hear, the less we understand how to protect ourselves properly from real dangers. And of course one of the best solutions to avoid most of the sneaky attachments that can be sent by mail (and to keep all sorts of other problems out of our way) is quite simple: “don’t use Outlook”. That would have been quite a good headline – but it’s the sort of information that most newspapers don’t want to print.


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