Market Forces

More companies are looking to the World Wide Web for their marketing

by Hank Mishkoff (hank@webfeats.com)

Note: This article originally appeared in The Met on June 15, 1995.

"By the year 2000, there will be one billion people on the Internet." -- Nicholas Negroponte

"By the year 2020, there will be more people on the Internet than there are particles of matter in the universe." -- Michael Bauer

My Pappy told me never to explain a joke (he also told me never to call him Pappy, but you see what good that did), but this one's kind of obscure, and not much of a joke at that, so...

The first quotation is from Nicholas Negroponte, founding director of the MIT Media Lab, author of the best-selling Being Digital, and creator of a monthly column that graces the last page of the digitally-hip Wired magazine every month. His "one billion" figure may seem somewhat ambitious, but Negroponte has analyzed the statistics, and his credentials certainly imply that he knows what he's talking about, don't you think?

In the second quote, Michael Bauer, President of The Internet Group, is having some fun at Negroponte's expense, taking the same projections to their logical conclusions, and pointing out the folly of accepting the predictions of self-appointed Internet gurus at face value. (Get it? Well, I told you it wasn't much of a joke.)

All this is great fun (to some people, anyway), but it raises the serious question of whether the Internet is really going to continue to expand exponentially until it's every bit as pervasive as television, or whether it's just the latest fad, destined to go the way of the CB radio and the hula hoop.

If, like many people, you regard the Internet primarily as a playground in cyberspace, you may not consider the issue to be especially "serious." But if you're a businessperson with a limited marketing budget, then the issue of whether Negroponte's one billion electronic consumers really are going to materialize in five years -- or whether they're just figments of an over-active imagination -- is very serious.

Jim Sterne, President of Target Marketing of Santa Barbara, thinks that he knows the answer. Of course, Sterne makes his living largely by showing businesses how to use the Internet as a marketing tool, so it's not much of a surprise which side of the question he comes down on. But he has some interesting things to say, and a lot of people pay a lot of money for his advice, and so I thought I'd pass some of it along to you. For free.

I met Sterne at the Infomart, where more than 30 people paid $800 each to hear him lead a seminar called How to Market Using the Internet and the World Wide Web. Even without considering his content, the demographics of his audience provide an interesting clue about the direction of the Net.

"When I first started delivering these seminars last fall," Sterne told me, "almost all of the people in the audience were MIS-types, and nearly all of them were male. The few businesspeople in the audience were invariably entrepreneurs, people with their own small businesses. That was only nine months ago, but look at how that's changed."

What Sterne was referring to was the composition of his audience at the Infomart -- nearly a third of whom, by the way, were women. (This, in itself, is a major change. I've attended computer shows and seminars for years; typically, the only women I've seen were wearing short skirts and trying to lure the businessmen into a booth so they could sell them something. Now, Sterne says, it's not uncommon for over half of his audience to be women.) Significantly, more than three- quarters of the attendees were marketing people, not MIS people. And most of the marketing folks, instead of being pioneering entrepreneurial types, were sent to the seminar by Fortune 500 companies.

The difference, Sterne feels, is the World Wide Web. "Last year, the seminars concentrated on newsgroups and electronic mail," Sterne says. "Marketing people realized that the Web was a mass-marketing tool when it hit the covers of Time and Newsweek. Now, the Web is all that anybody wants to talk about."

So, is the Web going to replace the more traditional forms of marketing? Are magazine ads and TV commercials relics of a pre- cyberbiz past? Not according to Sterne, who believes that the Net will add to existing marketing techniques, rather than replace them. "It's like the microwave oven," he says. "People still have stoves; people still use conventional ovens. Microwave ovens gave people a convenient new way to prepare food, but the old ways didn't go away. It's just that cooks now have more options than they used to. And that's what the Internet is doing for marketing people, giving them another alternative, a convenient new way for them to advertise their products."

And don't forget that we're talking about marketing, not sales. "Right now, the Net is a fabulous tool for customer service," Sterne says. "It's a good tool for marketing. But it won't be a good place to actually sell products until next year, after encryption and some other security issues have been resolved."

But there's no doubt that Sterne is a true believer: There may be some outstanding issues, but they will be resolved, and the Net will assume its rightful place among the more traditional, time-tested marketing tools. "The Internet," he tells me, referring to the Net's origins as a project funded by the Defense Department, "is a great example of a military experiment that escaped the lab and took over the world."

Sterne is smiling, but I don't think he's kidding.

Cyberbiz June 29, 1995: Talk Net.

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