Rules for Internet Marketers

I met a savvy entrepreneur last week in Vermont. She runs an upscale business in a small village in the Green Mountains, but her target market is wealthy folk in the big metropolises. How does she reach them? She uses the usual methods, like advertising in slick publications and sending out mailings. But she's recently added a new skill to her repertoire: "e-marketing." Yes, it's an ungainly, god-awful term. But get used to it. It's here to stay. E-marketing is more than just putting up a Web site, which has become relatively commonplace. In fact, too commonplace. It's hard to get noticed with so many Web sites out there, and it's hard to convince people to pay a visit to read promotional copy. (Literally pay, too, since Internauts pay for their own connect time - as yet there's no toll-free equivalent where the businesses pay for the connection.) Rising above the Web clutter requires a more personal touch. That's where e-marketing comes in. E-marketing involves prowling other areas of cyberspace that heretofore haven't generated much commercial traffic. That includes chat rooms, e-mail, LISTSERVs (a type of mailing list), newsgroups and the forums hosted by commercial information services. For instance, the Vermont entrepreneur I spoke with subscribes to both America Online and CompuServe. She cruises daily in places online where she figures people might be interested in her product. When she detects a prospect, she jumps in and responds with a message that contains some subtle promotion. Now there's nothing wrong with telling people about your product, even if your goal is to profit from the transaction. That's the American way. The problem is that more aggressive salespeople view cyberspace - not just the Web - with a sort of Manifest Destiny outlook. They're eager to hawk their goods even if those participating aren't the least bit interested in what they're peddling. As a consequence, this unique form of grassroots communication is becoming increasingly polluted. The bad news is that the pollution will only get worse. PR firms and spare-bedroom consultants will likely find that shilling in cyberspace can be lucrative, and will spew forth self-serving dreck. And the hucksters may not be all that obvious. As the now-famous New Yorker cartoon put it, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." The commercial corollary is, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a salesperson." As a result, the Internet threatens to become less and less a grassroots medium, and more and more another medium of for-profit advertising. That may well drive many current users away. In the end, those who most desperately want the Internet to lay a golden egg may end up strangling the goose. It doesn't have to be this way. While some would just as soon see all commercial activity banned from the Internet, that's simply not going to happen. The barn door's been left open. Instead, I would propose some simple rules for e-marketers that should ease the exodus of potential customers.1. Wear your name tag. Don't pretend to be a helpful cybergeek when you're actually a salesperson. Be honest about your intentions. You may be a fanatical believer in the wondrous properties of your product, but you're not an unbiased source.2. Let demand drive information, not supply. If someone posts a message seeking information on renting a lakeside cabin in Maine, and you're a real estate agent with a list of places, by all means jump in and let them know. But don't keep posting the same tired message to the world in general that you've got places to rent. 3. Stick to the commercial areas. A number of newsgroups and forums are designed as free-for-all markets, where buyers and sellers can meet and swap information. Go nuts with your sales pitch; that's what these areas are for. View the rest of cyberspace as more a market for ideas, not goods.4. Get out of the way of good conversation. Cyberspace often breeds good debate and discussion. Nothing kills this quicker than someone hollering the online equivalent of "HOT DOG, GET YER HOT DOG" in your ear just when things are getting interesting. Know when to stand back and let the stream run. If the debate is over a subject you know well, jump in. Otherwise, leave your sales mission behind.For those who enjoy cyberspace, you've got a mission as well. If an entrepreneur oversteps his or her bounds, blast 'em. Fill their mailbox with their own drivel. Call them to account online. Make their lives miserable.That's one of the other great things about cyberspace. The customer can retaliate. And in getting greedheads offline, nothing succeeds like their lack of success.

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