BURMA SHAVE SIGNS ON THE I-WAY
The market Van den Bergh Foods would like to reach with its line of Ragu sauces probably includes a lot of people who think the World Wide Web is an international crime ring. Even so, the Unilever unit's spaghetti-sauce-in-a-jar has now pitched its tent on the vast computer network that is just beginning to attract nontechie users. It's not alone. Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. is on the Web. So are MCI Communications, Reebok International, and Coors' clear, beer-like drink, Zima.
Mass marketing this isn't. While 34 million people watch Seinfeld every week, only about 2 million cruise the Web. But that small group has irresistible demographics: mostly young, male, college-educated, and affluent. And with the major online services poised to offer Internet access and Microsoft Corp. promising to blanket the landscape with easy-to-use Web browsers in its long-promised Windows update, that audience is sure to grow fast. The number of commercial Web sites, now pegged at about 3,000, is growing exponentially. Most are for business products and services, but in the last six months mass marketers fearful of being left behind have been rushing to build a presence in cyberspace.
TERRA INCOGNITA. While most commercial sites offer lots of product information, the new advertisers offer menus that range from product information to games to bulletin boards. Users move from page to page, or sometimes site to site, by clicking on highlighted text or graphics.
This is terra incognita for advertisers and consumers alike. It's unclear whether consumers will put up with marketing messages on the Web, where it can take minutes to move from page to page. And even if droves of potential customers arrive, there's no way to ensure they'll find their way to a particular outpost or, more important, spend much time there. The old rules are turned upside down: In this wonderland, the consumer is in control and must actively seek out the message.
So why would anyone click on a spaghetti-sauce commercial? "You have to provide information that's useful, and you have to keep updating it in order to get repeat visitors," says William Gentner, vice-president for marketing at Van den Bergh. A little entertainment and a few freebies help, too. Ragu's "Mama's Cucina" site offers Italian phrases, recipes, and a sweepstakes. Thousands of Web surfers have clicked on the site since it went up last month. Remarkably, considering the overwhelmingly male Web population, half have been women.
JOINING "TRIBE Z." Most marketers don't actually sell products on the Web: The capability to offer widespread online transactions is at least 18 months away. And advertisers have quickly grasped that consumers are unlikely to wade through an electronic brochure on beer or sneakers or return to a site that never changes. With sales and straight product information out, that leaves entertainment and service. "People don't want overt advertising on the Internet, and that's something that has to be recognized," says James Taylor, brand director for Miller Genuine Draft.
Miller Brewing Co.'s virtual tap room, up since October, is one of the earliest consumer-products sites. Visitors there won't see any billboards for Miller's suds, though there is a page called "Ask the Brew Master," for E-mail interaction with the brewer. Updated monthly, the site carries offbeat regional news stories and items on sports Miller sponsors, such as race-car driving. Striving for a similar audience, Reebok offers colorful graphics and athlete interviews.
Adolph Coors Co. uses its Web site to imbue its Zima malt drink with a cult-like aura, inviting visitors to join "Tribe Z" to receive T-shirts and caps, and running a serialized story featuring Zima-loving characters. The hip tone and emphasis on entertainment mask a carefully crafted marketing tool. Like most Web marketers, Coors collects names and addresses for its database and also conducts E-mail surveys and online focus groups to test, for example, TV viewing habits. "If it were just providing a good time, we wouldn't be there," says Zima Brand Manager Mark Lee. He says the cutting-edge Web culture is perfect for a beverage that defies categorization. To herd people to its site, Zima prints its Web address on bottles and buys electronic "billboards" at other popular Web sites. HotWired, the online cousin of Wired magazine, for example, sells four-week ad slots for $15,000 a shot and has attracted Zima, MCI, and Stolichnaya vodka, among others.
With the explosive growth of new sites, the look and feel of the Web will probably be as different in a few years as today's computer games are from their Stone Age ancestor, Pong. In fact, computer games may be a model for future Web marketers. MCI Business Markets' "Gramercy Press" Web site is structured like a computer game, with each page leading to myriad other pages. All deal with the characters in MCI's ongoing TV campaign revolving around a fictional publishing house. As they move through the Web site, visitors can use simulations of the services MCI is trying to sell, such as information retrieval and E-mail.
GAME PLAYERS. Some marketing experts question whether people who have time to play computer games are likely to make business purchases. Still, MCI says the site has drawn more than 1 million visitors since going up in October and has generated significant sales inquiries.
Most observers think marketing on the Web will ultimately take a much different form. Today's games and giveaways are "really a short-term phenomenon," says Mary A. Modahl of Forrester Research Inc. She believes that in the next 12 to 18 months, as software for ensuring secure transactions appears, a huge new online marketplace will open up in which the cost of presenting goods will be a fraction of presenting them in a store or catalog. Consumers will search out Web sites that offer bargain prices for everything from snacks to clothing.
In the meantime, if the size of the cybermarket isn't overwhelming, neither is the cost. A decent site, at which visitors might linger for five minutes or longer and to which they might return over and over, can be built for less than $150,000. Compare that with $500,000 for a single 30-second spot on Seinfeld, and experimenting on the Web doesn't look like such a bad bet.By Mary Kuntz in New York