Beyond the Hype: The challenge of finding “solutions” that actually work

March 21, 2001

The ideas are often brilliant; the potential huge. But advertisers and ad agencies evaluating new online “solutions” too often find that the marketing pitch outshines the technology.

“A lot of the time, the hype machine gets into play and they’ll be telling you how great the product is and then you get a sample and the thing will hose up,” says TribalDDB Director of Technology Clifford Lopez, who evaluates vendor products for the interactive advertising agency.

Agency executives like Lopez — and Internet reporters — are bombarded with new products every day. Separating the digital wheat from the chaff can be a full-time job. And there is plenty of chaff.

“Every day we have a new vendor proposing a new format of rich media or email,” says Jason Kuperman, director of interactive marketing at TBWA/Chiat/Day. “The danger is these products might not provide the ideal user experience in the long run.”

Three of the “groundbreaking” new “solutions” that arrived in this reporter’s in-box in the past week failed to deploy, variously producing error pages, interminable downloads that never ended, or completely freezing the system.

“There’s a lot of stuff that comes to our doors that isn’t ready for primetime,” says Lopez of TribalDDB. “If it’s a new technology that’s less than six months old, we tend to be pretty skeptical. We tend not to adopt something that’s the latest buzzword.”

Even products that are already out in the marketplace can present problems. The endless variations in browsers, email clients, bandwidth and the like can mean that even a product that performs impressively on one computer can crash on another.

For advertising agencies, ever mindful of their clients’ relationship with the consumer, “solutions” that get in the way can prove disastrous.

“It may sound hokey, but you don’t get a second chance,” says Jonathan Jackson, an analyst with the research firm e-Marketer. “That initial impression has a huge impact on customer loyalty.”

“Some of these things need to become more standardized and streamlined before we can reliably use them,” says Mark Stephens, director of media services at Lot21, a digital marketing agency. “Our greatest challenge is not in building or buying solutions, but in implementing them effectively.”

An email chat product developed by Multicity.com is an example of the challenges faced by agency technology gurus as they decide which third-party solutions to deploy on behalf of their clients.

The company claims 500,000 web sites are using its In-the-Box chat room, message board and online polling technologies. The products have been praised by PC Magazine and Yahoo! Internet Life. The company that is serving ads to the community, 24/7 Media, claims Multicity.com is getting a better than 1 percent clickthrough rate.

One of the most unique aspects of Multicity is a function by which anyone — for free — can create a chat room that lives not on a web site, but in their email client. They can then email the chat room to as many friends as they would like, and those friends can send it on to <I>their</I> friends.

“The In-the-Box technology becomes an acquisition and marketing tool for the company [employing it],” explains Alain Hanash, CEO of Multicity.com. “The viral marketing aspect comes into play when you send it to 100,000 users and they send to others and the user base grows to 500,000.”

If you can get it to work, that is. This reporter couldn’t. Instead of creating a chat room, I was plunged into a digital version of Groundhog Day, in which the system kept generating the same email that asked me to click on the same link that required a set of actions that once more generated the same email — none of which actually created a chat room.

“You must have done something wrong,” Hanash suggested during a telephone interview. He kindly created and emailed one to me as we spoke. It never arrived.

Another, sent by one of his colleagues a short time later, arrived, but the chat room wouldn’t deploy.

Within an hour, Multicity’s PR person had the chief of technology on the phone with me. He couldn’t get the system to work, either.

Eventually, they decided that a “recent upgrade” must have “created a few bugs.”

“Thank you for alerting us to this problem,” they declared. They promised to get back to me within a few days, once the bugs were exterminated. That was in February.

There ensued a series of emails from the PR person over the next few weeks, each setting a new deadline by which time they were sure the problems would be resolved.

“Our chief product testing programmer has informed me that all the bugs you experienced should be completely fixed by early next week,” PR manager James DuBeau said in an email on March 8th. “I will send you an update on
Wednesday of next week (March 14).”

That date came and went. It wasn’t until March 19 — a full month after the initial contact with the company’s top executives — that an email arrived saying that while the chat function was finally fixed, there were still problems with the online polling feature.

“According to our CTO, we are tentatively expecting to have this final
problem resolved by March 26,” DuBeau explained. “I will contact you as soon as I can confirm that this problem has been resolved. I’m sorry again for the long delay in fixing these problems.”

One month, when a media product review was at stake. Imagine the hapless consumer.

e-Marketer’s Jackson, who specializes in evaluating email technology, also recently tried to create a Multicity.com chat room of his own. Did it work?

“No, of course not,” replied Jackson.

Told about the experience, one ad agency executive, who asked not to be identified, said he wasn’t surprised.

“They came in here to try to sell us on it, and they couldn’t even get it to work on their own laptop,” he recalls.

“If somebody comes in saying we have this crazy new thing, it’s not unusual that they can’t get the technology to work in their own sales presentation,” reports Karim Sanjabi, CEO of Freestyle Interactive.

“They’ll often say, ‘It’s a new version, there must be some bugs,’ or ‘I haven’t played with this version before,'” adds Lopez. “Or, if it’s on our system, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you don’t have the right system configuration,’ or ‘it’s not a hot enough box.'”

That doesn’t always go down very well with the agency jury.

“I don’t want to see a lab experiment, I want to see real life,” Lopez observes. “And I want to see something that is going to work on anybody’s system.”

Jackson, who regularly sees technologies that are being hyped ahead of their time, has become cynical about overblown promises.

“Why are they being hyped? Either to drive up the stock price or keep the VC’s happy,” he says. “And typically before a major show there’s this rush to the altar.”

As for Multicity.com, the problems this reporter encountered certainly did not affect other aspects of the service, such as the much-publicized multiple language capability that provides real-time translations between eight languages.

Upon entering a Spanish-language chat room, we were greeted with a warm, “Shalom to which they have entered.”

And over in one of the Italian-language chat rooms, a participant typed:

“Sole salutatutti.”

Which naturally translated as: “Sun salutatutti.”

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