Talking to the buyer
Marketing has always been about a dialogue between the marketer and his potential customers. Dialogue. You have to locate the buyer and engage in a dialogue with him. It's really an extension of the one-on-one process of selling.
But, as long as marketing could be done using well-established methods and distribution channels, that simple fact tended to be obscured. It sometimes seemed as though all you had to do was aim a product right, and it would find its home among the audience.
With the advent of interactive marketing, that idea is truly being put to rest. It is now no longer enough to push out something using a design and a message. You must do more. You must engage the potential buyer in an ongoing dialogue. That's interactive marketing.
What is interactive marketing?
Interactive - adj. 1. Acting upon one another 2. (of a computer or program) characterized by allowing immediate two-way communication between a source of information and a user, who can initiate or respond to queries.
Random House Webster's College Dictionary (1991)
Interactive marketing is demand creation through positive engagement of the potential buyer, using mass two-way communication technologies, primarily online.
Marketing has always been interactive, but the new electronic world of "online" makes it a whole new game; so much so that today it is rapidly overshadowing all other conventional media. Page counts in computer magazines, for example, are in steady decline as computer users increasingly get their information, and try out products, using the World Wide Web. And many companies are re-examining their huge outlays for trade shows, as alternative ways are developed of showcasing their wares on the Web.
The Power of Online
Online as a channel is so powerful that today's smart marketers will use it to gain a huge advantage against their competitors.
By the time this becomes obvious to everyone, it will be too late. Even now, it's not very productive to just blindly broadcast to a huge list of e-mail addresses. This situation will deteriorate to the point where even getting to someone's in-box will become a major challenge.
Online = Interactive
Online must always be viewed as interactive.
For example, having a cool website is only a relatively small part of online marketing. A growing community of web builders has done well for itself at building a fine collection of "headstones" (as AOL's Steve Case calls them), but the sites that actually serve interactive marketing are very few. In fact, it is possible to market online without having a website at all.
Growing a base
Most marketers know they have to reach one or more specific groups of people within the total population. These are known as target segments. An information management product might target, for example, "knowledge workers".
That's all very well, but people don't conveniently wear tags that identify them as "knowledge workers". A secretary might be a knowledge worker - does that mean you go after all secretaries? It's not easy to find types of users, because they are often badly labeled.
The answer is not to try to select these people at all; instead, let them select YOU.
1. Put out wide direct communications (to large masses of people that might or might not be, say, knowledge workers). Make sure you track the results of each "broadcast", so you know where your sweet spots are in terms of response.
2. Design the content of your broadcasts to specifically attract your target user, so that the people who respond are very likely to be potential buyers. The people who respond are then prospects.
3. Keep these prospects engaged until a sale can occur.
I call this process "find and bind". Find the target user, and bind him to you. But there has to be a reason why the user would bind himself to you. There must be a value proposition.
The value proposition
Interactivity implies mutual benefit inherent in the interchange itself. Of course, there is the basic interchange of commerce: the consumer buys the product, and benefits from using it, while the marketer benefits from being paid.
But interactivity starts much earlier. You can't just sell anymore, especially in software, where the desktop is getting very crowded and it's a challenge just to get adopted by the user.
If you want to get interactive with the user along the road to making a sale, you must offer something worthwhile. That's often forgotten. The Internet is so hot as a medium that marketers can forget that the primary thing people want from it is FREE INFORMATION. If you want to interact, you need to offer a value proposition; this one is the most popular.
Free is good
Free information is not the only value proposition on the Internet, but it's a pretty good bet that it will work. Honestly deliver the kind of information that attracts your target users, and they will be attracted to you. Continue to do so and you now have a pool of these prospects in regular communication with you on an easy, uncommitted basis. No one's being pitched here; people are genuinely enjoying hearing from you.
Somewhere in this mix you will offer your product or service, usually on a free-trial basis. If you do this artfully, you will have lots of people in the pool reaching for the product. Make sure the rest continue to hear from you as before; don't degrade that interactivity into a product pitch. Remember that what works for part of the audience will eventually work for all of them.
The website is where your interactive online activities mesh with the product or service itself.
Calling them to home base
While you can market interactively for a while without a website, you need one in the long run. That website is where your online activities find a home, especially as related to your product or service.
The idea of the website is to find as many ways as possible to get your users to visit it regularly. If you get a large percentage of them to Bookmark it (or add it to Favorites), you've succeeded.
Yes, you will offer free information on the site, but, better yet, here's where you can offer free resources, such as cool customizations of your product that people can download, and free enhancements too. You must design a marketing program to come up with fresh "cool free stuff" constantly. The only websites that get visited regularly are these.
The website in your product
In software, if you're very much on top of your development process, your product or service will interact by design with the website - for example, going there to update itself automatically. Try to make sure people can do other things at the site while they're at it.
There's a new generation of product that goes beyond this, under the heading of agent-based technology. If you're lucky enough to be launching one of these at this early date... well, I've got much more to tell you in a different article!
Functionality vs. looks
In addition to cool free stuff, you'll need to provide a variety of ways users can interact with you and other users on your site. All of this content is tied together by site functionality, which you need to think of as user functionality: value to the user, which in turn creates value for you.
Functionality must be a value proposition to the user, and that's all that matters on the Internet. Therefore it is the primary purpose of a site.
Site design, then, must serve this purpose, and looks as such are secondary.
However, good "look and feel" is an integral part of functionality, and must be worked into the design. Just don't neglect the point of it: value to the user, constantly refreshed. Remember the headstones!
Your website, exported
Having achieved great interactivity with your audience, and made them regular participants in your website, you should look at all the other sites out there, and find ways to exist on theirs.
That starts as simply as trading links with the other sites, and can go all the way to bringing your own functionality to those sites. There's a growing list of things you can do.
In theory, it's good to focus on the sites out there where your potential users will be browsing, because that's who you want coming to yours. In practice, that's somewhat difficult and not quite how it works.
What you'll do is try to get your stuff on as many other websites as possible, and the ones you'll do the most for will be those run by your marketing partners. The combination of low-level "signposts" that you've seeded pretty much everywhere out there, and higher-level interactivity on a few allied sites, will work out pretty well for you.
The three pillars
So these are the three pillars, in about the right sequence and order of importance:
1. Get a prospect base by disseminating something useful, most likely free information. Hold onto this audience and keep expanding it, while pitching tryouts of your product or service, which will convert them, over time, to paid users.
2. Provide a website that is really functional for the user, creating an audience of regulars. Keep it fresh and make sure its visual design supports the functionality.
3. Export your site onto as many other sites as possible, doing low-level seeding just about anywhere, and major tie-ins with partner sites. The best export of all is to put some element of your product or service onto these sites to contribute to their functionality.
These are the early days for interactive marketing, and there's much to be discovered. But for now, I hope you'll find these three main points useful.
So, good luck, and I wish you great success delivering interactivity to your users!
Published 17 January 1997
Copyright © Riggs Eckelberry 1997 ALL WORLD RIGHTS RESERVED
Any part of this article may be reproduced so long as copyright is acknowledged and a link to the writer's email address is included.