Weekly Web Watch: Reinforcing customer loyalty by providing Internet access

Internet access used to be a complicated purchase from vendors with various permutations of tech-sounding words like direct, access, services or solutions in their name. Either that or faceless utilities like Bell Atlantic or MCI whom we already love to hate. Let’s face it, it was a bit like buying a used car from some shady guy in a sheepskin coat who keeps going on about stuff you know nothing about.

Internet access used to be a complicated purchase from vendors with various permutations of tech-sounding words like direct, access, services or solutions in their name. Either that or faceless utilities like Bell Atlantic or MCI whom we already love to hate. Let’s face it, it was a bit like buying a used car from some shady guy in a sheepskin coat who keeps going on about stuff you know nothing about.

Internet access used to be a complicated purchase from vendors with

various permutations of tech-sounding words like direct, access,

services or solutions in their name. Either that or faceless utilities

like Bell Atlantic or MCI whom we already love to hate. Let’s face it,

it was a bit like buying a used car from some shady guy in a sheepskin

coat who keeps going on about stuff you know nothing about.



But now, all that has changed. Internet access has never looked so

friendly, and getting online has never been so easy. The reason is that

it’s not just what you do that matters, but whom you do it with - or

whom you think you’re doing it with.



Now you can walk into Kmart and pick up some Internet access (fortified

by Yahoo!) under the brand name Bluelight (www.bluelight.com). Of

course, Kmart is not running banks of servers and phone lines itself.

That’s being done by a company called Spinway.



Wal-Mart has also jumped into the Internet access game. In Wal-Mart’s

case, the partnership is with AOL. For the retailers, providing Internet

access gives them a prime position on what is already a mainstream sales

channel. They intend to bring that sales channel to millions more

people.



By being the primary gateway of their customers’ Internet experience,

and through offers and rewards programs, those customers who sign up

with them become much more valuable to Kmart and Wal-Mart.



Of course, you already knew all this. Both these companies and others

that are getting into Internet access have been getting acres of column

inches and airtime for what they are doing. But publicity is not the

only PR opportunity to arise out of being an ISP. It adds to the

opportunities for direct communication with those customers who sign up,

on top of what you can already get out of loyalty programs and the like.

It is an unmatchable tool for building a sense of community among your

customer base or constituency.



If you’re a fan of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, who would you rather get

Internet access from: your beloved Ravens or some faceless company

called PSINet? The fact that the service you get from the Ravens is in

fact provided by PSINet is beside the point. As far as the fans are

concerned, they now have a richer connection with their team.



But there are PR dangers as well. If you are to survive, you’ll need a

better reason to become an ISP than simply gaining free column

inches.



Branded ’virtual’ ISPs of this sort are going to become the norm, and

you’ll have to move quickly to get the benefit of publicity. So any

company should ask itself: will becoming an ISP be useful in reinforcing

loyalty and a sense of community among our customer base? Is our

business an information-intensive one in which it helps to have frequent

direct communication with our customers? How will we use it to increase

the value of each one?



And there is also the risk of damage to your reputation if you make the

wrong choice of partner, especially if you brand the Internet access

service with your own name. You are dependent on your ISP ’wholesaler’

partner to deliver perfect service. If that falls down, your customers

will blame you, not the hi-tech company they’ve never heard of

before.



- Stovin Hayter is editor in chief of Revolution, scheduled to launch in

the US this March. Contact Stovin at

stovin.hayter@revolutionmagazine.com.



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