Recently, we decided it was time to buy a digital video camera for the Monitor's Web site. It was time to have a digital camera that, for instance, could be used to interview our foreign correspondents when they visited Boston.
But buying a new camera became far more than just a reason to spend money on cool new technology - it also gave me an insight into how the Web will change the way we shop, and why traditional marketing methods are in big trouble.
First, I went to google.com, the Web's best search engine, and looked for anything I could find on digital video cameras. Soon I was visiting a number of companies who produced these cameras, hunting down specs and prices. But the search produced something else - links to a number of discussion groups about digital video cameras.
The discussion groups were filled with long, thoughtful posts (and more than a fair share of silly stuff) about the various cameras, what was good about them, what was bad, customer service experiences, warnings about misleading advertising, and recommendations on the best places to shop, most of which came from people who had already bought and used the cameras I was thinking about purchasing.
Based on what I read in these groups, I bought a camera from a retailer that I had never heard of before (but which several members of one group raved about), and saved almost $400 from the price that had been listed at the online computer store that I had always used in the past. I got my camera on time, and in great condition.
And that's when it hit me - what a completely different experience. Would I have bought the same camera from the same store if I had only read about them in a magazine ad? Or heard about this store on the radio or the TV?
On the other hand, I've had much better results when I've bought something based on a recommendation from a friend, co-worker, or a family member. Now, word of mouth is not exactly a new concept - retailers, moviemakers, even politicians have depended on it for years. But the Web enables word of mouth in a way never before possible. And that's what will change the way we shop and buy.
There is a name for this - viral marketing.
And for once, the hype appears to be true. But it's not really marketing - it's more like "experience sharing."
For instance, want to know the best toaster to buy? Visit the toaster group. Because not only will you find great deals on toasters, you'll also know how hard they are to repair, if they are easy or difficult to learn to use, and what's the best place to fix them when they are broken. And then later, you'll go back to the group and share your experience, helping someone else make a better decision about a purchase.
Of course, sharing experiences in this way is not foolproof - I have a friend who worked with a large publisher whose job was visiting sites like amazon.com and writing friendly reviews of books published by her company. No doubt other retailers are doing the same thing. But the sheer volume of postings in many groups negates this subterfuge to a large degree, and often the "PR plants" are spotted and outed.
*Tom Regan is associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can
e-mail him at Tom@csmonitor.com
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society