Specificity lesson of the week

What are the odds of a reviewer of business books and two authors of such a book all managing to understand that the Web is about maniacally hyperdetailed “special interests” (NUblog passim) and is not, in fact, television?

Christopher Locke reviews Simplicity Marketing: Relieving Customer Stress in the Digital Age by Cristol and Sealey:

Internet communities have always been self-selecting – audiences gather around content of high personal interest.... People find what they want not as much through advertising as through testimonials from friends and colleagues.... Companies that engage in this type of dialogue will forge powerful relationships with micromarkets that will soon become their major source of revenues. But how will they engage?

For nearly a century, companies like Ford have told workers to check their brains at the door.... Just imagine how Ford might benefit from releasing all those workers into an open market.

Suppose Ford discovers, through offering Web space to self-motivated employees, that one tenth of 1% of its workforce are gung-ho organic gardeners. Why would a car company care about that fact? Two reasons: first, 400,000 people [with computers and net access supplied by Ford] are a pretty fair sample of the population at large, so it’s reasonable to guess that a similar tenth of a percent of its market are organic gardeners. Second, Ford also sells trucks, and gardeners tend to haul stuff around that they wouldn’t want to put in the backseat of the family sedan. Thus, such a micromarket includes excellent prospects for pickup trucks.

Ford would want to introduce these workers to one another and suggest that they build an organic-gardening subsite at ford.com – on company time, of course.... [A]mbassadors would then approach this best-of-breed site bearing gifts: Cash, server hardware, technical assistance, even reverse ad banners to drive traffic from ford.com to [the gerdening site]....

Ford’s money would enable the [gardening] site developers to quit their day jobs in some corporate cube farm and work full time on what they love. Notice that love is a powerful motivator on both sides of the equation. And it is an equation – perhaps better, an equator.... Does this intersection of common interests hold more promise than conventional advertising? How much might it be worth to find out before competitors do?

Imagine taking this one step further. Suppose Joe Smith is Ford’s primary ambassador to the OGW site and is highly visible in posting there. It’s part of his job. He doesn’t write about Ford products but about his knowledge of organic gardening. Now say Mary sends him a private E-mail: “Joe, I know you work at Ford. I wonder if you can help me. I bought an Explorer a while back, but the driver’s-side door is sprung and my dealer is giving me the runaround.” Joe tells the executive VP of customer service, and 20 minutes later Mary gets this note: “Mary, Joe tells me you’re having problems with your Explorer. Sorry to hear it. Call Bill Jones at the number below and schedule a time to have it fixed. I worked it out with Bill to take care of you at no charge.” How many times would a company have to comp such service to gain evangelists it could never buy with a $100 million ad campaign?

We understand that the gospel of Web specificity is open to interpretation, and here the business majors are interpreting it to mean meeting specific customer needs. We’re OK with that. Very much so. In this scenario, an enlightened Ford provides imprimatur for obsessively microdetailed content, attracts civilians with said microdetailed obsessions, and the customers and would-be customers in that cohort eventually bubble up to the surface. Goodwill is then transmitted by word-of-mouth to the microdetailed obsessif’s peer group, which then eventually magnifies.

Whereas attempting to persuade everyone at once that Fords are better than Toyotas does nothing whatsoever, and on the Web, designers will invariably attempt to do this nothing whatsoever via bombastic Flash barrage.

Absurdly and, on paper, unsupportably individualized microcontent ends up with macroscopic effects. Are those a butterfly’s wings we hear batting down in China?

Posted on 2001-10-08