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
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
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
- Stovin Hayter is editor in chief of Revolution, scheduled to launch in
the US this March. Contact Stovin at