Hope, longing and despair: that familiar sinking feeling
To sell something to someone, you’d better know them inside out. Yet till now, existing methods of information collection have often yielded results that are limited in scope, offering stilted or one-dimensional views of consumers. Marketers everywhere have had wet dreams about obtaining ‘that perfect piece of information’ leading to the blindingly obvious insight that would help improve marketing efforts. No wonder then, that information is gold for most companies, helping to drive advertising campaigns, targeting efforts, consumer promotions, pricing and product development efforts.
In this search for information, the internet has emerged as a major tool in the hands of Marketers. And I am not talking about online advertising. I am talking of the usage of the internet to track and collect consumer’s information. This is a still emerging world that is murky and ill-regulated, rife with controversies related to privacy issues and the rights of individuals vs. those of governments and companies. However, those controversies aside, I believe this is a HUGE, HUGE, HUGE tool and an absolute boon for marketers. In my opinion, every company better have a strategy to take advantage of what the internet enables us to do.
Firstly, it is almost universal and access to the internet is growing. Sooner or later, almost everyone (except of course for the few inevitable religious nuts) will have access to the internet.
Secondly, once all the infrastructure has been put in place, sending messages or undertaking transactions is very cheap at the margin.
Finally, and to my mind most importantly the quality of information that can be collected through the internet is more comprehensive, finer grained and qualitatively much better or truer than anything available till now. This is due to a number of different factors. Firstly, there are many motivations, opinions or suppressed desires that we may not express in public or even be aware of which will be accurately reflected by our surfing behavior. (You know what I mean when I say suppressed desires, my friend Loknath Rao is a prime example of this.) Secondly, websites can be made to be interactive, thus enabling two-way communication between the marketer and the consumer. Thirdly, the internet can be customized thus matching a particular ad or a particular web page layout to a particular consumer’s previous online behavior. In fact, there are already some indications that Google is matching search results to the previous search patterns emanating from a particular IP address. And finally, I really do believe that the quality or the integrity of the information that companies can collect through monitoring online behavior is much better than that available from other sources. (I used to work part-time as a field researcher with the Indian Market Research Bureau through college and that experience left me quite pessimistic about the quality of consumer insight that companies can get through the standard question-and-answer survey method. I have no doubt that the internet is far truer than some of these methods.)
Already things are happening. Consider Google. Every time you search something on Google, one of their servers will be recording your cookie ID (the Google cookie that was downloaded to your computer), your IP address, the time and date of your search and your search terms. Not just that, it is alleged that Google's free toolbar for Explorer phones home with every page you surf, and yes, it reads your cookie too. And it is not just Google. Companies like DoubleClick are known to be downloading cookies to your computer and monitoring your online behavior. Even programs like Real Audio, Comet Cursor, and Netscape Smart Download have been detected communicating in the background of users' computers with servers on the Net.
Consider local advertising, something that was uniquely identified with Newspaper advertising earlier. Today, the internet can help local businesses reach out to consumers in its vicinity in a much more targeted manner than newspapers ever could. In fact, by making these ads interactive, these ads can also do a much better job at ensuring that consumers are in fact, actually reading the ad. There are many other ways in which Marketers can gain through using the internet and each would require almost a whole posting by itself. I will not try and enumerate everything, but I’ll leave you now with just one anecdote that illustrates just how the Internet can be a marketer’s wet dream.
It so happened that one day, one of my professors realized that he wanted a new mobile phone and service provider. So like all self-respecting geeks, he immediately went to the site cnet.com to check up on technical specifications and read reviews put up by other geeks. After doing his due diligence, he finally decided upon a particular model and decided to order his phone. Through the cnet site, he was taken to the Sprint website where he was given a great deal on the phone and a calling plan at a discounted price. He ordered it immediately, and couldn’t have been less satisfied with the deal he got.
That should have been the end of the story except that a couple of days later he ran into one of his own students who had the same phone and the same plan and had got it from Sprint around the same period for 20-30$ cheaper. When the student insisted that he had got the offer from Sprint, the Prof. decided to investigate. So this time, he logged on from an office computer and deleted all cookies. Then he went into cnet.com and created another profile and started looking for a mobile phone, but this time he searched by price. He also made sure to spend more minutes looking at the cheaper phones and discounted offerings than the more expensive ones. After following this pattern, he finally settled on the same mobile phone and was again taken to a Sprint page but only this time the same number of minutes and the same phone was being offered for cheaper.
He went back to his laptop and repeated the experiment, this time searching by specifications and not bothering about price. Lo and Behold, he was offered the higher price once again.
Question: A lot of people were very angry when they realized that individuals who had their phone number could just go onto google and get a map of where they lived. (Reverse directory lookup- http://websearch.about.com/od/dailywebsearchtips/qt/dnt0703.htm). Does it bother you that anyone can get to know where you live if they have your number? But why should it, unless you have a unlisted number such information is already available to a determined stalker through telephone directories. Much of what the internet enables is also like that, just an online application of practices already taking place off-line- only a LOT better