John Wayne, The Internet, and The Cyber-Pilgrims

The Internet has reached that awkward stage worthy of a John Ford movie. You can almost hear that train whistle of progress bringing change. And we're at that poignant moment: still waving goodbye to John Wayne as he rides off with the last remnants of the Old Internet while already looking over the newcomers who have arrived with the noon stagecoach.

Talk about virtual culture shock. It's the civilizing of cyberspace.

They're a scraggly bunch, these newcomers. They don't know the way it was. Back then you didn't pay for Internet access, you grabbed it for free, as much time and bandwidth as the day and the technology allowed. And no one looked over their shoulder to see whose accounting budget it came out of.

The newcomers will change all this. They'll start up businesses, bring in a sheriff to control the wilder side of the Internet, fence in the virtual frontier. But the old culture lingers. And beware to the unsuspecting entrepreneur who doesn't tread carefully on his way to the bold new world of electronic commerce.

Mary Modahl, of Forrester Research, puts it succinctly: ''Consumers like surfing the Net. But no one sells anything. A dozen pizzas, two or three flower bouquets a week, a dozen subscriptions -- these are the dismal sales figures of the bold newcomers on the Net.''

There are many reasons electronic commerce isn't taking off yet. Ms. Modahl points to several technological obstacles: the lack of ubiquitous network access, low-speed service, security concerns, and so on. These need to be removed before electronic commerce will flourish, she says.

I think there's a cultural gap as well. Most Internet users don't want to pay for things. They think that what is free today will remain so. The successful Internet marketers are those who turn this trait to their advantage.

Scott Martin, associate brand manager for SmithKline Beecham PLC, made a smart move the other day. He got permission to post an ad on a Usenet forum called alt.consumers. free-stuff. The forum is just what its name suggests: a place where people trade phone numbers for free things, from trial long-distance service to complimentary pine trees. Mr. Martin wanted to give away free samples of his company's new teeth- whitening toothpaste, Aquafresh Whitening.

Well, the folks at alt.consumers.free-stuff fell over themselves calling the company's toll-free number. In the first two days, the company got more than 500 calls. The new-style marketer made his pitch to the old-style culture. ''You need that extra hook to hook them,'' he says. ''That's what that free offer does.''

Scott Vouri, president of Binar Graphics Inc. in San Rafael, Calif., has also figured out how to tap into the Internet's free-sample culture. He's offering free demonstration versions of his company's utilities software through the Internet. The free programs work for only 30 days. Then the user has to buy the full version. The promotion has generated thousands of calls in its first month. More than 5 percent later buy the full software package.

''It's the soft sell,'' he says. ''We want people to get hooked on it.'' The model not only cuts his marketing costs; it may also allow small companies to compete with the giants in the business.

Eventually, Internet users will get used to buying things on-line. Modahl says the technological barriers will fall within three years. And I suppose the Internet culture, like everything else, will quickly give way to late 20th-century American consumerism.

If everyone else can make the jump from digital frontier to virtual mall, I suppose I can too. I'm just glad John Wayne rode into the sunset before the tenderfoots broke out the teeth whitener.

* Well, Pilgrim, don't just stand there! Send me an e-mail via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com), CompuServe (70541,3654), or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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