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Marketing in the Internet - as seen from Italy

by Giancarlo Livraghi

No. 2 - March 28, 1997
1. Editorial: going out of fashion?
2. Don't
3. Avoid glitz
4. The dangers of spamming
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1. Editorial: what if the internet goes out of fashion?
We are beginning to hear (and read) that the Net is not as fashionable in Italy as it used to be. It's not discussed as often in restaurants and bars; some "intellectuals" that were afraid of it, or superficially attracted, are discovering that it isn't what they thought. Many people, after reading about fabulous things that they would find on the Web, made a few attempts, gave up when they met the first difficulties, and now come back only occasionally to look at something for which they have a precise address.

Many companies, that had opened a website without knowing why, now don't know how to keep it up; and are disappointed because results (that someone had promised) aren't there.

It's not easy to understand these trends; I don't know if the fashion is really changing. When something new is discussed too much, and in a vague and confusing manner, a temporary drop of interest is to be expected; but this does not mean that the "fashion" (often consisting of meaningless chatter rather than serious analysis) is really over.

If it were true... in my mind, this would be very good news. Let's imagine that, just as the fashion fades away, practical use of the net spreads quietly. That in companies, universities, organizations of all sorts more and more people get a mailbox, that initially they don't use, but gradually begin to understand. That "word of mouth" spreads specific uses, opportunities for people to meet or join mailing lists and newsgroups.

Let's imagine that all of a sudden, also as an effect of relations with more advanced countries, companies and organization discover that the fax is obsolete and overexpensive - and get seriously organized with e-mail.

We may see a silent and practical revolution: less talk, more facts. Probably a real and consistent growth of the number of users. The Net would no longer be mysterious wizardry, but a normal daily tool, like the telephone.

Sooner or later, it is bound to happen. The Net will have to get out of fashion and into normal life. So it would begin to move from infancy to adolescence, maybe show a few signs of maturity. And it would have a real identity as a tool for communication and marketing.

Of course such an evolution depends only marginally on technology -- it's already there and will continue to improve (in spite of awkward software and lack of compatibility). The crucial factor, as always, is human behavior.

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2. Don't
In following issues of this newsletter I shall try to discuss the "dos": what I think works.

I hope readers will forgive me if I begin with a few "negative" observations. The "don'ts", the risks to be avoided. This is still a new a place (largely unexplored) and each one of us can find our own solution - unique, original and unexpected. This is probably, when possible, the best choice. But we know from experience that, especially when treading on new ground, the first need is to know what not to do: by avoiding traps and dead alleys one can concentrate on the exploration of what is useful.

The initial phase of net activity by companies, and organizations of all sorts, was dictated by fashion: a vague feeling that one should "be there", without knowing why. The result is a large number of abandoned websites, with no continuity or update, or with no interesting content; and has caused that feeling of confusion and disappointment, that hangover that I mentioned in the first issue.

The time has come, I think, to get out of that state and work more seriously and effectively.

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3. Avoid glitz
Also in traditional advertising, and generally in corporate communication, we come from an extended period in which appearance prevailed a bit too often over substance. So now we hear that "the consumer is more mature and demanding, less easily persuaded", which is true; and that "advertising doesn't work anymore", which is not true, because it works perfectly well when it communicates relevant information and offers real advantages (but too often it doesn't, and relies too much on the waning myth of "image").

On the Net, this is even worse. Its users are generally of a higher social and cultural standard than average; they are often busy people, with no time to waste. When they navigate, they are investing time and energy - and can be quite impatient.

The technique of putting a web page together encourages us to play. It's so easy (or so it seems) to include more pictures, backgrounds, effects and visual tricks that are really needed... The temptation is irresistible... but does it work? I don't think so.

The first, and most obvious, problem is that all unnecessary "glitz" creates an undesirable bandwidth load. The resulting slowness discourages readers. In spite of all the talk about "highways" (and some real improvement in connections) the slowness remains, especially in Italy - and even Americans complain, though they have much better access. There are many smart ways to reduce these problems, such as the useful hints provided by the Bandwidth Conservation Society.

But this is not the only problem.

If we rely on appearance at the expense of content, we are competing with countless other sites doing the same thing, even though they are covering completely different subjects; and it is very difficult, if not totally impossible, to compete with the resources and expertise of the large entertainment providers, whose presence is massive and growing.

The more we beat around the bush, the more visitors to our site may get tired with our antics, or distracted from the substance of what we were trying to say.

Let's look, for instance, at one of the most successful commercial sites, the huge Amazon bookstore. Great richness of content, stark simplicity of form. Even so their site, that has large and growing traffic, can be quite slow; if they were cluttered with graphics they would be clogged.

I believe that sooner or later net users (and especially frequent users, who are the most interesting audience) will learn to apply a simple criterion: the more a site is cluttered with decoration, the less content it has to offer. Those who are really successful, and have a lot to say, go quickly to the facts and do their best to avoid clutter.

I think the classic KISS acronym (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies to the Net even more that to general business administration. Simplicity is the most enticing and seductive kiss to greet visitors to our site - and the mark of success.

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4. The dangers of spamming
When I write on (and about) the Net I am often torn by doubt. How many readers know very well what I am going to say, and will be bored? How many don't?

A case in point is the concept of spam - well known to people who have "old" experience of the Net but quite unknown (as I have had a chance to notice) to many people who are on it now.

Spam (my countrymen may not know) is a type of canned food (spicy pork and ham) quite well known in the US - though few people think it's gourmet food. It was the subject of a famous gag by Monty Python, in a restaurant were all dishes contained that ingredient, and the word spam was repeated endlessly. So spam in net jargon (long before anyone had heard of the World Wide Web) came to mean the obsessive and repetitive spreading of the same message - especially if it's commercial or in any way "selfish".

Still today there are people recommending spamming as a commercial tool on the net; there are services selling software and lists for the spamming of large numbers of mailboxes.

As far as I can see, this habit is not widespread in Italy (but it's creeping around). In the US it's a real problem, causing a great deal of uneasiness and complaint.

If anyone is unhappy about receiving junk mail, the reaction is worse when it's electronic. The reason is quite obvious. If one receives an unwanted catalog or sales letter, one can throw it in the waste paper basket without opening the envelope or after a quick glance at the content. But when it comes in e-mail one has to read the message to realize it's spam; the clutter, the waste of time, the invasion of privacy are quite irritating. In an office, paper mail can be filtered by a secretary. Most e-mail goes directly to the person (who assumes that only chosen correspondents have his or her mailbox address). And... especially in countries, such as mine, where local calls are not free, there is a problem of cost. The actual amount may be irrelevant, but the sheer idea of paying for unwanted mail can make many people quite angry.

Someone, perhaps, can have temporary success with spam. But this is not the way for anyone who wants to build a pleasant and reliable brand image.

My candid advice about spam to anyone who wants to be believable in the Net is simple. Don't.

I think that in this environment the classic principle of direct marketing (or marketing in general) is even more true. What matters is not a single sale. It's gaining clients, building relationships, generating trust. None of these can be achieved by irritating customers.

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