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Net Commerce

I wrote in TidBITS-311 about Apple and marketing the Macintosh on the Internet, but – on further reflection – I don’t think many companies take Internet marketing seriously. That may be because it’s a totally different world than traditional marketing, and the folks making marketing decisions don’t know how to take advantage of the Internet’s strengths.

I’d like to offer a few concepts to anyone doing business and trying to work on the Internet. First, think information. Fizzy Web pages that leave users with more questions than they had when they arrived are a bad thing. Provide real information. Second, think community. For the most part, the Web stinks at creating community because it’s so easy to pop from one site to another, and sites that require a userid and a password annoy users who must try to remember their userids and passwords. Mailing lists are ideal for creating community. Third, think customer contact. I’m talking about frequent contact here, via email and other methods, and aside from the obvious utility of staying in touch with the customer, consider the fact that contact promotes trust, which is tremendously important on the Internet.

In the past, some of these concepts were hard to put into practice because the tools weren’t present, and when they were, they weren’t easy to experiment or play with. Now that problem no longer applies, thanks to cheap Apple Internet servers and a decent set of server software from a variety of companies. Of these companies, StarNine (now Quarterdeck) stands out, first because of WebSTAR, which they were clever enough to buy from Chuck Shotton back when it was MacHTTP, and also because of ListSTAR, which was developed internally and based in part on StarNine’s email gateway code. Being acquired by Quarterdeck recently gave StarNine yet another Mac Internet server, an IRC server for the Mac called GlobalChat (currently in beta, due out in February).

For the most part, I think StarNine realizes the power of Internet marketing. While we were at Macworld Expo, StarNine’s Director of Marketing, David Thompson, gave us a demo that involved all the above tools along with the recently announced WebSTAR Commerce Toolkit (also in beta and due in February), a CGI that aids in creating sites that can accept payment over the Internet. More on that in a minute.

Imagine, if you will, a European maker of expensive automobiles whose initials, to provide anonymity, are BMW. They recently paid what must have been a small fortune to have a new model featured in the latest James Bond flick. It had all sorts of features, probably including bulletproof glass, forward mounted missile launchers, and a passenger eject seat for getting rid of pesky co-stars. BMW could set up a Web site with WebSTAR, provide full specs on the car, and even include movies of it driving, blowing up bad guys, and so on. Of course, Java and Shockwave are just more data to WebSTAR, so yes, BMW could use them as well. But let’s face it. The kind of people who buy this sort of car don’t often need a test drive, so BMW could have a secured page served by WebSTAR/SSL (the secure version of WebSTAR) that let clients and secret agents order cars over the Web, pick whatever options seem appropriate, and then have the cars drop-shipped overnight to their mountaintop or undersea hideaways by Federal Express’s Parachute Division (and tracked via the FedEx Web page).

The WebSTAR Commerce Toolkit, written by Chuck’s cohort Louis Slothouber, lets customers choose payment options and calculate the total. It also works with First Virtual or a program called MacAuthorize to complete the transaction. First Virtual works best with information right now, but enables secure payment over the Internet, whereas MacAuthorize takes credit card numbers and authorizes them in real time. Great, so BMW has just sold a car for more money than the cost of most houses. But what next?

The Web site could feature a form that lets customers join a ListSTAR-based mailing list devoted to discussion of the cars, a list where BMW employees spend time. After all, if BMW drivers are continually destroying traffic in front of them with missiles when they just want to change the radio station, that’s something the engineers should know. The mailing list will also let customers share information about their cars, such as warnings about using the smoke screen in California because of strict pollution control laws. And, of course, the digests of those discussions should be converted to HTML and posted on the Web site to provide a searchable archive of the information.

But a good marketing person shouldn’t stop there, and our imaginary BMW marketing people do not. When they get the customer’s email address as part of the order, they add the address to several lists. One of these lists is used to send out a letter from BMW soliciting comments about the purchase a month or so afterwards, perhaps directing customers to a Web-based survey form. Another list is used purely for information from BMW itself, like a recall notice for that badly designed missile launching switch, or even a message informing current customers BMW has perfected the submarine conversion kit. All of this is fairly easily done via ListSTAR right now, and although I’d hesitate to serve a truly huge mailing list with ListSTAR, it’s proven it can handle thousands of users without trouble.

The final part of the scenario is an IRC channel devoted to BMW car buffs, run from StarNine’s GlobalChat server, but I have to admit that I think using IRC for support is stretching reality a bit far. I can imagine BMW-designed missile launchers, but chat-based tech support is just too much. The simple fact of the matter is that real-time discussions can only support a certain number of people before things become too chaotic, no matter what the medium. I’m being negative; I’m sure someone could figure out how to merge IRC into an overall marketing plan. In further discussions with David Thompson, he suggested a chat server could provide online "event-marketing" to draw people to the site for, say, a chat with Sean Connery. David also commented that chat is only the tip of the event-marketing iceberg, and audio and video can’t be far behind.

Now imagine that instead of BMW, this company was Apple.

I won’t pretend this marketing situation would be trivial to set up, since most serious things in life require real thought, and tools can only do so much thinking for you. There are places in the description above where a magic tool suddenly appears and takes care of a problem. But, if you’re in business to make money, you can probably afford to find someone who can write tools in AppleScript, Frontier, C++, or something. Or, you can figure it out for yourself, if that’s cheaper in your personal time to money ratio.

In the end, although I started writing this article because I think StarNine’s stuff is pretty neat, I think the demo David Thompson cooked up is as good a tutorial on the basics of Internet marketing as it is a demo of StarNine’s tools. The demo provides information, creates community, and fosters trust via frequent customer contact. All of those things aid both in making money and providing happy customers, who will then be inclined to plunk down more money after they’ve been forced to drive their BMW off a cliff and utilize the hang-glider option to escape the obligatory explosion.

You can find more information about StarNine’s products and mailing lists on their Web server. Oh, and you can check out civilian BMWs online, too. z3downloads.html

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