Getting Web-savvy in Two Days

Getting Web-savvy in Two Days

Forrester's lineup of online retailing pundits explain it all for you

After two days at Forrester Research's Marketing & New Media Forum: Selling to Digital Customers, the future was looking pretty good: A plugged-in populace, semi-conscious before the TV set, reading unsolicited personalized E-mail offering the chance to auction, group-buy, and/or demand-collect cheap water pistols custom-colored to match their eyes, with instant delivery available through a choice of Palmtop, PCS phone, or TV remote.

Well, maybe that's not an ideal view of the future. But it does sum up the online world sketched out by Forrester's analysts last week. Held September 28-30 at New York's Grand Hyatt, it was the research analysis firm's way of reaching out to clients and potential clients still too wary or oblivious to have moved to online sales and marketing at this late date. Which explains the conference's resemblance to a tent meeting, pitched to save the souls of rueful executives.

Forrester gets high marks from conference veterans for its consulting intelligence and for running smooth confabs: True to form, presentations at the M&NM forum hewed to schedule with few if any technical glitches. Forrester moderator David Weisman kicked things off Wednesday morning on a sour note, announcing that Martha Stewart, scheduled to speak Thursday, had canceled thanks to her impending IPO -- dashing the 500-plus attendees' hopes for gift pillowcases.

Forrester led off with its own VP of research and Internet wonk, Mary Modahl. One of her main points was that some consumers are on the Web, and the rest are heading there. A remedial rather than revelatory statement, but meaningful to the reps of old-line stores grappling with supplanting their old salespeople with CGI scripts and animated blenders. And if that didn't get their attention, her other big statement surely did: "If you don't cannibalize your own business, somebody else will."

This is just the message many attendees have to get across to their laggard bosses, and soon. For all the luster of the 200-plus companies in attendance (the usual Fortune 500 suspects, augmented by a liberal sprinkling of "forces from above": AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Intel, Sprint), many seemed to have been dispatched from midwestern corporate parks untouched by copper, coax, or paper cups on string. Like the La-Z-Boy reps, unsure what this new gospel would do to their trusty network of old boy store owners; or the lieutenant from a Des Moines financial services firm who vowed to quit rather than allow his company to atrophy in the hands of insurance agents. These companies are trapped between forsaking old-style sales channels of the human variety, and getting with the program.

The presentations from those who've moved into digital selling were uneven. Macys.Com president Kent Anderson was laid-back to the point of invisibility. Attendees were abuzz after Anderson suggested quietly, during the Q&A portion, that he might be willing to beat his own bricks-and-mortar prices if that's what it takes, but he refused to elaborate.

Much more useful was Forrester's Chris Charron, a sort of marketing mad scientist whose mantras like "Advertising will become distributed selling" seemed both to reinforce and challenge conventional wisdom. Charron went beyond saying that banner ads don't work (true to form, he did suggest mysteriously that they might serve a function), presenting a model of attracting consumers with custom-tailored incentives.

Next up was Jim Rose, marketer of a group buying site called Rose presented his story about publicizing Accompany, which had something to do with "thought leadership" and "thinking in buckets."  Alas, his tale of putting Accompany on the buzzword map got lost in his nervous telling and the jargon. Even more unfortunately, after moderator Weisman asked for a vote, it turned out not one in five conference-goers had heard of his outfit.

But Rose served, however incidentally, to kick off a potent subtheme of the Forrester conference: the future of pricing models on the Web. Where essentially allows consumers to band together and buy with volume discounts, allows consumers -- in this case, purchasers of airline tickets and accomodations -- to name a low price in hopes retailers will see the opportunity to move middle- and low-end merchandise.  Enter the most entertaining speaker of the two-day confab,'s Jay Walker, who, among other accomplishments, originated the practice of selling magazine subscriptions via credit-card envelope. More recently Walker ("a cross between Billy Graham and the Reverend Jim Jones," said one attendee)  has taken to clogging the Patent Office with "intellectual property" applications for his marketing scams -- uh, schemes -- developed out of what the conference notes called a "high-tech marketing laboratory."

Walker began by deconstructing the history of pricing, moving from prehistoric barter to scan codes and thence to his latest trick, which, by the way, is called "demand collection."  Walker boldly predicted that transactions would become standard for breakfast cereals, diapers, and Fords.

Lively turned to vapid when eToys chairman Toby Lenk took the podium. There are perhaps only two things more shameful than beginning a presentation with slides of one's children. One of them is flashing slides of someone else's children, as Lenk did, showing off his tow-haired niece and nephew. The other? Well, after a bit of flacking for eToys -- including a slice-of-life story about Lenk's poor nephew getting four SuperSoakers for his birthday last year -- the lanky Lenk premiered a pair of his company's latest commercials, two maudlin 15-second spots designed to tug at the hearts of worn-down parents. Having no doubt choked himself up for the hundredth time, and determined to bring the rest of us to tears too, Lenk asked the crowd if they wanted to see the spots again. Perhaps too polite to say no, attendees had to sit through the syrupy pitches all over again.

Thursday morning, Scott Randall of auction site returned to the topics of pricing models. Randall laid out a sort of electronic consignment model for refurbished and end-of-the-cycle goods custom-tailored for big customers like Dell. As with most marketing schemes discussed over the two-day conference, a major selling point was "stickiness:" gathering information about individual consumers via purchase tracking and questionnaires.

Stickiness was a theme of winder-upper George Bell, president of Excite@Home, who forecast a positively glutinous world of what he called "mass customization," with sitekeepers, advertisers, and retailers analyzing your habits -- parsing your cookies, if you will -- in order to custom tailor their spam. Which isn't spam, said Bell, if it's selling something you like. But as moderator Weisman queried him about cable and DSL access, net mergers, and ad buys, even Bell -- as bright and well-informed as he is -- seemed to fade under the pace of his rapid-stream spout of marketspeak. You can imagine how dazed the rest of the crowd felt.