Imagine. You’re the marketing director of a multi-billion pound Internet service provider (ISP) – call it Freeserve if you like – which has carved out a fortune based on the concept of free access to the Net. Much of your revenue derives from a percentage of the copious phone calls your mould-breaking market proposition has generated. Then, overnight, your position crumbles. An arch-rival offers not only access but phone calls at a knock-down price. Never mind that no one can work out the business model behind this initiative: the rest of the market follows it like a herd of stampeding wildebeest. Your share price is in freefall; your marketing strategy in tatters. You thought that in time you could build an alternative revenue stream to advertising. But there is no time. What do you do?
The unmetered Net access phenomenon is a dramatic, but highly symbolic, example of the increasing difficulties facing marketers of any product or service associated with technology. What a generation or so ago was a fairly leisurely pace of development – think of the transition from LP vinyl records to CDs, or the stately battle between VHS and Betamax video formats – has now become a headlong rush without pause. Each new product, and often the business model based around it, faces the threat of instant obsolescence. And not only that, the products themselves are becoming increasingly complex, increasingly difficult to communicate and, the suspicion is, increasingly unreliable.
No wonder marketers are pulling their hair out. They barely have time to absorb the technology, let alone product benefits, before being forced to engage the baffled, and frequently unreceptive, consumer.
Wireless application protocol (WAP) phones are a good case in point. They affect to make contact with the Net easy through mobile handsets. But most of the public is underwhelmed by the concept; while those in the know already have their eye on the more sophisticated so-called third generation phones, for which, rather confusingly, the franchise bids are taking place just as WAP technology comes onto the market.
The marketer’s task is made stickier still by the phenomenon of convergence, which plays havoc with conventional product and service categories, further clouding consumer perception.
In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that consumer technology is challenging all the conventional assumptions – such as the four ps – on which marketers have been brought up. Gambling, in the absence of firm knowledge or a firm platform, is becoming the norm.
Is there an alternative? More carefully targeted communication of product benefits would be a start. But that in turn implies a greater understanding of consumer needs and behaviour than generally exists at present. One thing is for certain, skilful and forceful marketing is pivotal to the future success of this sector. For their own good, the tecchies should not be allowed to have it all their own way.