When asked about the dot-com economy, Tim Dyson was succinct and acid — almost contemptuous. “There’s only one metric,” he said. “Stock price.”
The venom was surprising on two counts. First, Dyson seems like a laid-back, easy-going guy. The flash seemed out of character. Second, he has done well by the dot-com economy. His company, Text 100, does public relations for information-technology businesses (including such giants as Microsoft and British Telecom). It listed on the London Stock Exchange two years ago and the enthusiasm for all things digital has boosted its share price, making Dyson a fairly wealthy fella in the process.
So why the anger? Dyson’s flash revealed his deep concern for the dynamics of the digital economy (and that concern is the real reason for Text 100’s success, dot mania notwithstanding).
“Marketing is driving everything right now,” he explained last week. “Everything is overheated, and everyone involved is to some degree guilty.”
No argument there, but it is hard to see the danger — apart from a staggering loss of wealth when the market corrects. And the stories can be amusing: Dyson likes to tell about the South Africans who got so caught up in the Windows 95 hype that they bought the software even though they didn’t own computers.
That is entertaining — to a point. And the problem is that point is approaching. Dyson worries that the hype threatens a backlash. The continual screechings about “the next big thing” will turn consumers (and here we mean businesses and individuals) off when they wake up the next morning, mugged by the dot-coms, hungover from the digital euphoria, and facing “the very next big thing.”
“Some marketing is actually hurting consumers,” he said. “Everyone is second-guessing technology. The common refrain is that if you don’t have a digital business strategy, you’ll be dead in five years. That’s just not true!”
The fact is “technology is merely the ticket to enter the game,” explained Dyson. It is back-office stuff that is completely invisible to the consumer — and rightly so. The only time technology is an issue for the customer is when it fails. “It doesn’t differentiate among companies.”
What does? The last time Dyson was in town, we talked about design and the way that transcends boundaries. The iMac had just been released and he was marveling at the way its appeal cut across cultures. Forget the insider’s talk of socially based color preferences; cool, elegant lines were the bottom line.
No longer. Dyson says design may have run its course. The aesthetic envelope has been opened, and we now expect elegance from manufacturers. No more clunky boxes, thank you — unless retro is the look.
Dyson believes we’re going back to basics. “You have to try to improve life and try to deliver a better product.”
That sounds easy enough. But it means rejecting some of the newfound conventional wisdom about the Net.
For example, Dyson dismisses the idea that Net retailing is more convenient than old-fashioned shopping. It’s nice to be able to have everything made to order, but customization takes time. Sometimes you just want to buy an item and take it straight home.
That’s true, but convenience also comes from being able to order anything, anytime. It’s nice to be able to go shopping when the mood strikes, office hours and availability be damned, or on a rainy day without getting wet.
He has a point, though. Convenience isn’t the metric, either. The next generation of successful Net companies will put information to use for consumers. Forget portals that merely organize data. They are neat, but they’re passive. Apart from the gee-whiz factor, there is very little difference between getting stock prices whenever you want on a PDA or keitai and reading them in the newspaper.
No, the trick is “to improve your experience with the company, not just to create a more efficient process.” That means creating truly smart devices that combine your personal needs with the data. That means notifying you when there is information about a company you have stock in or one you’re interested in buying. That means sending excerpts from a new work by an author whose previous books you have bought, or the first song of a new CD from a band you listen to.
Even better, says Dyson, “technology will quit informing you and tell you how to react.” Last year you sent a special someone flowers: Your florist should send a message a week before that anniversary. Or when they have a special on those flowers you sent.
Ironically, there is a model for this kind of relationship: It’s the old neighborhood store, in which the clerk knew all the customers, their likes and preferences, and could suggest new items on the basis of that history. “I know you always have this drink, but I blended something special and I think you might like it.” That is the sort of customization that creates loyal customers. And that is where the technology is going to go.
Of course, that raises some horrific privacy issues. Understanding those preferences requires vast databases — virtual profiles — and far better protection of that information than is now in place.
It raises another issue, too. What a company actually does — which ultimately determines its success, its profits and its market value — comes from processing the information in your profile. The formula itself is meaningless without the individual particulars. In other words, the company needs you in ways that are fundamentally different from the standard impersonal relationship between business and customer. In the analog world, companies sell to someone once and call it a day. Each transaction, even with the same customer, is discrete.
In the digital world, that isn’t good enough. Companies need repeat customers to work their electronic magic. At the very least, that implies that you are a stakeholder in the company. Amusing concept, no? OK, then, let’s talk about profit-sharing.