"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 4 February 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hidden Persuaders



That net.sales still comprise a

dismal share of net sales has

done little to temper the

freestyle divinations of

corporate skywatchers. After

all, today is only temporary -

the future is where the real

money lies. And even with the

latest round of layoffs and

marketing fiascos casting an

ominous gray cloud over the

industry, the future still looks

bright to the experts: projected

ad sales of one billion dollars

in 1997, and $7.3 billion in

online commerce by the year



Such numbers have lulled most web

entrepreneurs into a sleepy

state of myoptimism; it's as if

they're convinced that the slow

tick of time alone will ensure

their eventual success. For the

fan of ubiquitous consumption,

this lack of entrepreneurial

zeal is more than a little

frustrating. Consider, for

example, Amazon.com Books'

recent revelation that its

best-selling title for 1996 was

David Siegel's portentous tome

of homicidal pixel tricks,

Creating Killer Web Sites. A

nice PR coup for the web's most

determined headline-hunter, it

probably divulged a bit more

than Amazon.com intended in

regard to its overall business

volume. Which is simply to say

you don't get to be Barnes &

Noble by selling more copies of

a niche-market reference book

than an actual industry

bestseller like The Dilbert




The good news is Amazon.com's

suspiciously modest success

calls into question the

predictions made by

antimarketing would-be Orwells:

corporate panoptica may exist,

but they've been put to

surprisingly little use. Where,

one wonders, are the

manipulative sales techniques

the web was supposed to deliver?

With their insidious ability to

track consumer behavior, with

their unprecedented capacity to

create detailed portraits of

where, why, and when people

spend their money, online

marketers have the power to turn

us all into obedient

consumer-zombies, lumbering from

purchase point to purchase point

in a perpetual state of

endlessly unfulfilled

psychographic agitation.

Instead, they send out timid

email notifications whenever our

favorite authors stop drinking

long enough to crank out a new




Even more glaring than the lack

of innovation, however, is the

lack of online salespeople. It's

one of the web's great ironies:

As community-oriented sites

search with plaintive urgency

for something - anything - to

sell, sites that actually have

viable products show almost no

sign of human habitation.

Instead of chat rooms and

bulletin boards where shoppers

could at least talk with other

shoppers, they offer boring

product information. Instead of

glad-handing, ego-fluffing,

deal-closing salespeople, they

offer more boring product




Sure, the web has the ability to

present the kind of detailed

material that can lead to

rational purchase decisions -

but who makes rational purchase

decisions? Certainly not the

women whose manic spending

sprees made Joan Rivers forsake

traditional show biz for the

apparently more lucrative realm

of home shopping. With her

shameless I-deserve-it

selfishness and schmoozy

purse-teasing, Rivers, not

Consumer Reports, is the model

every web marketer should

emulate. When she bursts into

showy tears while fondling a $40

lump of cardiovascular

garishness called the Mizpah

Heart, and the little tote board

in the corner of the TV screen

racks up thousands of sales per

minute, you see all the things

that so many commerce-oriented

sites on the web still lack:

drama, high-pressure

salesmanship, a palpably human

connection between buyer and



[BK Hoast]

Given her great success on TV,

Rivers probably won't be doing

much to augment her perfunctory

web presence anytime soon, but

one wonders why some lesser QVC

luminary hasn't drawn real-time

web duty yet. Fans post

frequently to the site's

bulletin board, and some have

even created their own chat room

on IRC - but hosts, the smarmy,

perma-pressed engines of QVC's

TV sales machine, are nowhere to

be found.


[One Sale]

In this respect, iQVC is similar

to the various auction sites

that are popping up around the

web. With the rabid excitement

they can generate simply by

putting a Hewlett-Packard Sheet

Input Tray up for grabs, sites

like OnSale are a step in the

right direction - shopping as

community event, shopping as

entertainment. But even they

don't take full advantage of

what the web can offer, because

the auction format leaves it up

to customers to decide what they

think they're interested in and

how much they're willing to pay

for it. Successful marketing in

a postnecessity culture depends

on capitalizing on customers who

don't really know if they want

to buy anything - and for that,

the friendly persuasion of a

salesperson makes all the



Of course, much of the web's

initial appeal as a marketing

channel derived from the

supposedly efficient economies

of virtuality: no storefront to

rent, no expensive buildout,

fewer staff on the payroll. The

addition of online salespeople

would appear to further erode

that myth - and yet it's not as

if all of these salespeople

actually have to be real. A

well-programmed bot, armed with

a detailed record of a

customer's previous

transactions, could undoubtedly

perform as well as the surly,

stoned teenagers who currently

staff the nation's malls.


A year from now, sites without

online salespeople will be the

exception - and the web's most

popular commercial sites will

derive their cachet not from the

junk they push, but from the

social experiences they deliver -

a la Joan Rivers. Indeed, it's

no surprise that videosex

emporiums have established

themselves as one of the most

profitable commercial ventures

so far: With salespeople who

double as product (an extremely

neat efficiency from the

proprietor's point of view),

they're one of the few online

marketers who have managed to

create a real sense of


courtesy of St. Huck


St. Huck