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Today's Tools Are Tomorrow's Touchstones

by Michel Fortin

In a world divided by computer screens, human interaction is probably the most lacked element of the Internet. Of course there are chat programs and discussion lists. But when a customer wants to buy a product, there is no live person upon whom the customer can rely in order to get immediate answers to specific questions, especially a person who will pay exclusive attention to that customer's unique set of individual needs, preferences and wants.

Pundits claim that this Tsunami we call the Internet, which is now sweeping across the entire marketplace, will eventually destroy the brick-and-mortar retail environment. Others predict that shopping malls, obtrusive retail clerks and clogged mall parking lots will become extinct.

This is not entirely true.

We are edging toward the "high-tech/high-touch," according to futurist John Naisbitt's book "Megatrends." In other words, the more the buying experience will become automated the more people will crave human interaction. Renowned psychologist Abraham Maeslow illustrates this core, fundamental desire all too well with his pyramid of human needs.

Maeslow states that the foundation of all human needs consists of survival needs, followed by safety needs. Once the need for food, oxygen and water is filled, then comes the need for clothing, lodging and security. However, next in line is the need for social interaction -- e.g., love, affection and belonging (http://www.connect.net/georgen/20maslow.htm). Like it or not, we are social animals -- and the web can never change that.

While the ebusiness may reduce costs and automate the buying experience, the need for individual attention and interaction will always remain a driving force in commerce. In his book "Hyper Wars: 11 Strategies for Survival and Profit in the era of Online Business," Bruce Judson spells out this basic human need clearly (http://www.growyourprofits.com) for business owners, while at the same time offering an important warning.

Judson claims that, while the web will not overthrow the retail establishment completely, offline retail outlets most likely to suffer the wrath of the Tsunami are those that currently do not offer a personalized shopping experience. In other words, webless brick-and-mortar businesses that transact without the need for some kind of human intervention will be the ones at risk of becoming extinct. However, ebusinesses are not excluded.

Obviously, the Internet simplifies both business and buying processes. In addition to cost savings and profit potential, the decreased need for employees makes ecommerce terribly attractive. But one thing remains: The social animal begs for attention. And it is likely that, as time goes on, those ebusinesses that will suffer the same fate as their brick-and-mortar gemini will be those that forget the customer in the buying experience.

Relationship marketing, ezine publishing and personalization are a few of the many business tools that are growing in popularity. Why? Because cyberspace is cold and faceless. And based on Naibitt's prediction the need to develop solid relationships with customers and at the same time to become more interactive with them will also continue to increase. Therefore, the use of such tools will parallel that of business automation technologies.

Granted, personalization is not entirely essential now. But if current trends are any indication (such as the continual increase in online population and competition, and the overwhelming nature of information on the web), personalization will thus give the ebusiness more than a simple winning edge -- it will inevitably become a weapon in the survival of the web's fittest.

An example of this growing tendency is the fact that web sites using opt-in mailing lists, CGI or ASP scripts, databases and cascading style sheets (for content personalization) are fast becoming industry standards. Consequently, sites consisting of plain, static HTML code will be crushed by those now taking advantage of such tools. In fact, another example is the recent emergence of personalization products and services, such as:

- http://www.guesttrack.com,
- http://www.personalization.com,
- http://www.andromedia.com,
- http://www.broadvision.com,
- http://www.netperceptions.com,
- http://www.liveperson.com,
- http://www.newchannel.com, and
- http://www.arialsoftware.com

Dylan Tweney at http://www.tweney.com, author of the popular column "Net Prophet," takes a thorough look at personalization technologies and their much needed role in today's lagging online customer service. Commenting on the pitfalls of stereotyping on the web, Tweney states: "On the Internet, it's possible to know each customer individually -- or at least to give the appearance of doing so -- through the use of personalization technologies."

A recent Business Week article entitled "How Personalization Keeps Online Buyers Coming Back" explains that, "Personalization techniques have matured beyond the basic collection and analysis of consumer data, from pages that users customize themselves to creating sites that give users a unique, personal experience and level of service that can't be mirrored in local malls" (http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/july1999/nf90720a.htm).

The folks at Andromedia and Sun Microsystems seem to agree. Along with iXL and statistics giant Jupiter Communications, they've recently put together a free cross-American seminar, entitled "Personalize or Perish." According to a recent advertisement for the event (see http://www.andromedia.com/personalize/), they claim that, "Within a year, ninety percent of all ecommerce sites will use personalization to increase online sales."

In the end, it is fair to conclude that personalization and its role (if not its importance) still remains the subject of much debate. But without some of the most basic Internet marketing tools, such as ezines, scripts and even simple, good customer service, static web sites that fail to be interactive with their users will eventually fall the way of the dinosaurs.

About the Author
Michel Fortin is a consultant dedicated to helping businesses turn into powerful magnets. Visit http://SuccessDoctor.com to receive a free copy of his book, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning." He is also the editor of the "Internet Marketing Chronicles" ezine delivered weekly to 90,000 subscribers -- subscribe free at http://SuccessDoctor.com/IMC/.

Tags: E-commerce and Internet



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