All the technology in nasa can’t buy you customers

Web policing software from NASA fails to succeed, but a simple name register service is a huge success. The first, says Robert Dwek, lacked the human touch

Back in the dot-com glory days, I and other journalists waxed lyrical about something called online brand protection. No surprise we became mildly hysterical about this subject as brands had taken on a godlike significance by the end of the Nineties. First marketing consultancies, then accountancy firms convinced us that nothing, absolutely nothing, was as valuable as a good brand.

By extension, companies would want to do their utmost to protect their brands online, wouldn’t they? Especially since they were being told daily that there were hordes of pirates on them there hi-tech seas, ready to jump aboard the good ship brand and steal the wind from its sails. And since the online representation of a brand is often simply a visual image that can be easily copied, brand owners were even more vulnerable to misuse and abuse from these cyber-swashbucklers.

True to those lawless days, every and any anticipated need merited an instant industry of experts. Two of the biggest names were US-based Cyveillance and UK start-up IBNet. Each offered hugely expensive software designed to patrol the darkest corners of the internet and offer complete peace of mind to brand owners.

Fast-forward to today: Cyveillance has retreated to the US, IBNet no longer exists and this once burgeoning industry appears to have disappeared into thin air.

A closer inspection of IBNet’s fortunes makes for interesting reading. At its launch on the UK stock market some time in 2000, I recall its then marketing director telling me how the technology, referred to as “spidering”, had originally been developed by NASA boffins, before being spun off into a new company.

Thousands of man-hours had gone into this stuff and, indeed, it sounded truly out of this world. Something that could continuously monitor every nook and cranny of the Net and report back immediately. Who wouldn’t want that? Yes, the price seemed pretty steep – in the tens of thousands of pounds, I seem to recall – but surely the return on investment would be enormous?

Well, no. At least, not in the eyes of the people who mattered: the marketing directors and their purse-string holders, the financial directors. They decided that online pirates just weren’t that important.

So the boffins at IBNet found themselves out in the cold and were eventually taken over by a search engine marketing company, WebGravity. Nevertheless, there was much excitement about the potential for the merged entity to leverage and cross-sell IBNet’s super-duper technology.

About 18 months later, with spidering technology still wrapped in cobwebs, WebGravity was in turn taken over by Deal Group Media, an affiliate marketing specialist. Once again, the new bosses made excited noises about the potential for online brand protection, which by now had been given its own brand – NetDetec.

Fast-forward again to this month, when Deal Group announced its latest results. Everything with the affiliate marketing and search engine marketing is apparently hunky-dory but NetDetec, we now discover, is to be binned. Or, in the more carefully calibrated words of the chairman’s statement: “The former IBNet internet monitoring and intelligence service has been reviewed and the board has decided not to proceed with this product. The benefits of this decision will mean lower costs and an improved focus on our core online marketing offer.”

A long, slow death, then, for what once promised so much. It is instructive to compare and contrast this sorry tale with another company that has just reported results.

The fortunes of NetNames, the domain-name registering specialist, have picked up significantly. The main impetus behind this is its service to companies that want to outsource all of their domain-name management.

Registering and re-registering domain names never used to be considered a big deal, and certainly not worthy of an outsourced specialist charging a monthly fee. But the rise of website addresses linked to specific marketing campaigns has resulted in large corporations often having hundreds or even thousands of domain names to keep track of.

In the past year, NetNames has experienced its own personal tipping-point, with FTSE-100 companies flocking to use its one-stop shop service.

The contrast between IBNet and NetNames shows us, once again, that new technology can only ever be half of the equation. Just as important is how our quirky human behaviour interacts with that technology.

For the moment, keeping track of domain names, and making sure they are kept out of the clutches of cyber-squatters or rivals, is considered more important than amazingly impressive software that can police the Web.

Perhaps online surveillance will one day have its big break and marketers will see it as a must-have. In the meantime, we should learn from those dot-com days of hope and hype and remember that marketing to marketers, as with consumers, must never run too far ahead of reality.

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