Why service is king in the world of Net marketing

The threadbare mantra ‘content is king’ ignores what really attracts customers to the Internet – lower costs and easier accessibility, says Alan Mitchell

Thanks to some high-profile mergers it now seems official: as far as the Net is concerned, content is king. Marketers wanting to develop their own Web marketing strategies beware! Content is indeed king, but not in ways which are helpful to marketers.

Why? First, to say content is king on the Internet is tautology. The Internet is all about content; its job is to distribute content (information) like the national grid distributes electricity. Content is king on the Net as energy is emperor on the national grid.

Second, the fact that content is king tells us nothing new. Wherever there is unique and special content with magic and spark – Pokémon or Harry Potter, for example – consumers flock to it. It was true before the Internet and it is true now. But few marketers (beyond the lucky intellectual property holders) can use this kind of content to build their Websites: the intellectual property holders hold all the cards.

Yes, marketers can follow in the footsteps of the toy manufacturers with licensed merchandising deals, and pay heavily for the privilege of riding on the content’s coat-tails for promotional purposes. But if that is what is meant by the phrase “content is king”, 99 per cent of Web marketers’ futures look bleak.

Elsewhere, however, there are enormous opportunities on the Net, most of which revolve, not around content, but cost and capability. Take cost. The Net opens up breathtaking opportunities to cut costs.

Over half of all economic activity is spent on information processing: planning, administering, organising, co-ordinating, collaborating, negotiating, transacting, interacting, communicating, and so on. The Internet enables firms to revolutionise these processes – and their costs. This may be behind-the-scenes stuff, but it has major importance. Lower costs mean lower prices for the same or even better products or services. And lower prices are, after all, a hugely powerful marketing weapon.

Another area of huge potential is interface management. As IBM board member Geoff Papows points out, very soon “an enterprise’s primary connection to the outside world will be its worldwide Website and its collaborative and messaging reliant extensions” (such as e-mail). Websites are also fast becoming enterprises’ primary connections to themselves, internally.

Increasingly, a company’s Website is the central (if not the only) way companies interact with suppliers, employees, customers, investors, the media, and the like. The quality (and efficiency) of all these relationships can be transformed by the right Web interface.

Another major effect of the Net is the revolution of the distribution of information-intensive products such as financial services, music and news.

It is transforming these industries’ business models: their organisational structures, infrastructures, cost and power structures. Soon, if you are a bank, music company or media company, if you are not online you will be a flatline. But please note: this is not about using content to sell Websites. It is about using Websites to sell content.

This distinction is important. Few sites which use content to attract visitors actually offer content that is unique, special or magical. If they did, they would be selling it in its own right, not giving it away.

Instead, Websites that are desperate to attract eyeballs tend to vomit “content” at their users – news, celebrity gossip, financial news, sports news, weather, horoscopes, debates and chat forums, games, competitions, special offers, advertisements and listings.

But increasingly, this type of content is no differentiator. Everyone offers it; the world is awash with it. In fact, as the Internet’s novelty wears off, content overload will become a major turn-off for consumers.

Economist Herbert Simon summed it up brilliantly when he noted that information “consumes” the attention of its recipients: “hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. And the overall effect of the Net is to push “return on attention” further up the consumer agenda – “There are more Websites out there than I could possibly visit in a lifetime of surfing. Why should I, the consumer, pay attention to yours?”

Please note: the word “pay” is crucial because that is precisely what the consumer is doing, “paying” attention. In a context where offering more run-of-the-mill commodity content is like offering a drowning man another glass of water, marketers will have to find better ways to “pay” consumers for their attention. Some are doing this – literally. For example, US portal iwon.com pays consumers for their attention through lucrative prize draws. It is growing rapidly. But assuming few businesses will find an economically viable way of literally paying for customers’ attention, what are the alternatives?

A mindset change is needed. It’s summed up well by a banner ad which reads “Galileo was wrong. The world revolves around you”. Traditionally, the marketer’s job has been to maximise a brand’s gravitational force – its ability to pull consumers (that is, value in the form of sales) towards it. Marketers have instinctively transferred this thinking to the Web, and by having “how do I get consumers to visit my Website and spend more time and money with me?” as the crux of their Web presence, they have latched onto content as the one way of improving their gravitational pull.

What marketers need to do, however, is to make the Web revolve around consumers. If consumers rather than brand are at the centre of the marketing relationship, and it is them who have the gravitational force by pulling the content that they desire and how they desire it towards themselves, marketers can then begin to maximise consumers’ return on attention.

Websites that help consumers make their existing relationships with companies easier, quicker and better are doing this. So do Websites that enable consumers to access valued products, services and content more easily or more cheaply. As do personalised sites that enable users to create personalised Web pages, which help them do the things they want to do.

But they are all driven by cost and capability foremost, not content – they provide a service.

And that’s the real centre of marketing gravity on the Net. Not content, service.

Alan Mitchell can be contacted at asmitchell@aol.com

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