Broadsmith, Go Home.
by Doc Searls
ore than thirty-five years have passed since Theodore Levitt
gave substance to the word "marketing." In his 1960 manifesto,
Marketing Myopia, Levitt defined marketing's job as "satisfying the
customer, no matter what." Unfortunately, marketing was much more
successful as a buzzword than as a discipline; but this kept Levitt
busy, serving with thought what too many others served only with
In The Marketing Mode (1969), Levitt heaped coals on companies "whose policies are geared totally and obsessively to their own convenience at the total expense of the customer." Finally, in The Marketing Imagination (Free Press, 1984) Levitt summarized his thinking with two sentences:
The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.
* To do that, you have to do those things that will make people want to do business with you.
When those words were published, marketing was still understood in what we might call "broadcast" terms. Even for companies that meet face-to-face with large numbers of customers, such as McDonald's and Sears, marketing was a top-down, one-way effort aimed at large numbers of people from whom little direct feedback (in forms other than cash) was expected. Or wanted.
The Web changes all that.
The Web does not work like an 800 number, a mail-back card, or any other "direct response" medium. It can't be controlled and managed by customer service or an order fulfillment office, because it's too open and too interactive. Anybody outside the company can contact anybody inside the company whose e-mail address can be found. And with so many employees participating in newsgroups and other Internet activities, finding and contacting those people is not hard to do.
For companies with fortress mentalities, the Web is a scary development. It lets the rabble in the gates and turns them loose in the ivory towers. In fact, fortress-minded companies are often so Web-blind that they hardly see the rabble penetration that does occur. Websmiths at these companies find themselves in the interesting position of knowing far more about what's going on than the guys upstairs.
But for companies with frontier mentalities, the Web is a wide open galaxy of Star Trek-grade opportunities (with new places "to boldly go" exploring new worlds and splitting new infinitives). These companies see the Web as a rich new medium through which customers--and everybody else--can participate in the marketing process. To them, the Web is nothing less than the best medium ever developed for marketing as Levitt defines it: something that will make people want to do business with you.
The problem is, even frontier-minded companies are inclined to approach the Web as yet another broadcast medium. So they use what we might call "broadsmith" strategies, rather than websmith strategies. They want to "send messages," "create impressions," "increase brand awareness," "make a positioning statement" and so forth.
In other words, they want to Tell & Sell--which is exactly what you want to do when you're spending millions of dollars to impress millions of people.
With the Web, however, the challenge is not to Tell & Sell, but to Learn & Earn. Information is the communicable form of knowledge, and the opportunistic company is at least as interested in knowing as it is in telling, in obtaining information as in disseminating it. They want to earn the continuing interest of their customers, because they want those customers to keep coming back.
In his excellent book Relationship Marketing (Addison-Wesley, 1991), Regis McKenna insists that marketing is entirely about relationships: "dialogue, not monologue." In 1984 Levitt saw the growing importance of relationships in marketing, and used relationships to differentiate between "old" and "new" styles of selling. In the old style, "the seller, living at a distance from the buyer, reaches out with his sales department to unload onto the buyer what the seller has decided to make. With the new style, the seller, living closer to the buyer, penetrates the buyer's domain to learn about his needs, desires, fears and the like, and then designs and supplies the product in all its forms."
"The future," Levitt summarized, "will be one of more and more intensified relationships." The Web takes "more and more" and pushes that slope straight up at the sky. Already it threatens to make relationships more numerous and intense than most companies can stand. Even Netscape and Microsoft are stripping their gears trying to manage countless customer relationships over the Web.
This makes relationship-management the most important work a websmith faces. And the ever-prescient Levitt provides us with a few very helpful suggestions:
* Recognize relationships as the most precious assets a company has, and invest in them.
* Foster actual or felt dependencies between buyers and sellers.
* Establish direct links between buyers and sellers, and use them.
* Recognize that it is the seller's responsibility to create and nurture these relationships.
* Help the buyer understand the long-term costs and benefits of these relationships.
* Prefer to humanize, rather than institutionalize, relationships.
* Use your imagination, and start by getting down the "the simple essence in things"--in other words, don't BS.
How close do vendor sites on the Web come to these ideals? To find out, I went into the electronic design engineering newsgroups and posted questions for the kinds of customers who seek the relationship-grade service from vendors that Levitt talks about.
Identifying myself as a journalist working on an article, I said, "I'm trying to get an idea of how useful the Web is making itself to design engineers (as opposed to, say, multimedia publishers). I want to cut through hype and see the ways that the Web is being truly helpful to real professionals. I hope to find things that have real significance, but are rarely written about." And I asked these questions:
1. Are some company sites (Intel, Motorola, HP, Sun...) useful (in the sense that they go beyond pre-producing brochures and press releases)? How?
2. Are any of the hosted forums (the ones within company sites) as useful as newsgroups such as this one? What is the preferred form of on-line documentation? HTML? PDF? SGML? Plain text? Who's doing a good job of delivering it?
3. What's missing that ought to be available?
I received about twenty responses by e-mail. Here is a summary of the findings:
What They Want
* Information--the search engines (e.g. Lycos) can find "Useful tutorials and application information" or at least pointers to other sites that can help.
* Facts. "Complete documentation and budgetary pricing." "All product specs from databooks and catalogs should be on-line and searchable from your WWW browser."
* "Ability to get access to information on products without waiting for the 'rep' to explain he is still waiting for a copy of the info on XXX but decided to make me come to the lobby just to shake my hand."
* Vendor effort and commitment. "[The Web is the] greatest thing since sliced bread when done with even a little bit of effort on the vendor's end. Could even swing the deal on a close call between two similar products. If I were running my own company I wouldn't even think twice about dumping 10%+ of my ad budget into a web page."
* Reading ease. "I am really looking forward to Acrobat being able to deal with things without getting the whole document."
What They Don't Want
* Self-aggrandizement. "Marketing hype." "Company B.S." "[There is] more marketing information on most vendor web sites than actual engineering content." "Most of the new stuff on web sites consists of reprints of press releases released in the print media."
* Authentication. "'Sign-on' or 'log-in' CGIs are a definite turn-off and may make me avoid the page all together if they are not optional."
* Complications. "Detailed info in PDF or compressed postscript, so it can't be easily browsed."
* Useless visuals. "[Too] many big GIFs for backgrounds and clickable-maps. Pretty, but not useful if you just want to get in and get the information."
* "Vendors who have no Internet presence."
* "Vendors who don't have their product information on the Internet."
* "Vendors who don't offer software updates & bug fixes on the Internet."
* "Vendors who have a 'net presence' but use too small a system or too low bandwidth connection to their ISP."
* Hosted forums. "Too much extra effort needed to participate." Feelings were not weak.
"Done correctly, a web page is a great way to keep in contact with current and potential customers. Most engineers I know avoid contact with sales reps as it is too time consuming. Many of us (myself included) give out wrong contact info just to avoid the 'follow-ups' until we want to talk again. With web pages I can check things out without 'stirring up the pot' unless I want to."
Perhaps the most telling response was this one:"Probably the most important contribution the Web can make to the design engineer is to provide her with 24-hour/day access to product information, component data, and application notes.
"Some companies--good examples are Motorola Semiconductor (http://motserv.indirect.com) and Marshall Industries (http://www.marshall.com)--have provided on-line resources that provide comprehensive information about nearly their entire product lines. Most other company pages, alas, are simply glossy HTML facades containing nothing more than brief company overviews and toll-free numbers. Guess which parts we design in?"
For websmiths whose bosses want them to be broadsmiths, perhaps the
best educational strategy is to go out, gather intelligence and
present the results. A bottom line like the one above should be most