The Wide, Wide Web: A Cautionary Tale

Grinnell More has seen the power--and pitfalls--of online marketing. This summer, his Real World Interface Inc., a $3 million Jaffrey (N.H.) maker of mobile robots, set up an Internet contest to build sales leads for a new product. The company ran a name-the-robot contest, offering prizes to robotics researchers who participated and submitted their names and net addresses. Voila: a list of the best prospects for the company's $2,000 to $70,000 machines.

But the name-the-robot contest turned into a cautionary tale about how the Internet's free-sharing culture can undermine marketing schemes. Cybernauts, likely using search tools to scan for contests, found out about the offer, and soon details downloaded from the company's World Wide Web site were posted on a directory of contests on the Web. What started out as a focused marketing ploy quickly became a carpet-bombing by Internet cruisers.

SWARMS OF PUNSTERS. That wasn't the way it was supposed to work. More, working with online marketing consultants ActivMedia Inc. in Peterborough, N.H., had carefully set up the contest by posting electronic notices to Internet discussion groups specializing in robotics, artificial intelligence, and fuzzy logic--an area of AI dealing with imprecise information and useful in robotic vision systems. For a while, the contest worked perfectly--giving Real World a golden list of prospects.

Then, disaster. As news of the contest spread across the Net, Real World's Web site began attracting swarms of students, Ray Bradbury fans, and punsters. Overnight, suggestions tripled but also shifted to the whimsically cliched, such as Fuzzy Wuzzy. "Most were more amusing than helpful," says More.

In the end, Real World got 350 leads. The robot became Pioneer 1, courtesy of a marketing consultant--not a researcher--who entered the contest. More plans to continue marketing over the Internet--after separating the sci-fi fans from the researchers. After all, he says, "there's no place in the world as well connected as the major universities." And there's no easier way to reach them than the Net.

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