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Op-Ed: Idea Before Experience – The .Com Era Repeats Itself

Virginia Alber-Glanstaetten, group director of planning at Huge, has returned with her monthly column for this here site, this time discussing among other things, the mobile web, couponing, digital performance and how a certain well-known retail chain is playing into it all. Why say any more, let her take it away.

I was recently reminiscing about the early days of .com: an era where big ideas came first and the business model came later, if at all. We can look back now at what were essentially large scale experiments in digital: Kozmo.com, brought down by its free shipping on any order; Pets.com, the founding fathers of cute overload but otherwise useless for pet owners; and WebVan, whose razor thin margins couldn’t support their vision resulting in 2000 people out of work.  We didn’t really know what we were getting into and, at the time, few people were thinking about things like the user journey, the consumer experience, or basic usability for that matter.

Fast forward to 2013 and we’ve made strides in technology but we continue to make the same mistakes. Perhaps not with the same pageantry as with Webvan or Pets.com, but every day agencies produce work where good user experiences and viable business results take a back seat to a big idea, or at least something that will generate a cycle of good press. As digital has become more sophisticated and extended to multiple platforms, so have our audiences and their expectations.  The gap between great idea and another failure is getting smaller and smaller.

As reinforced by this McKinsey report in May on disruptive technologies, the mobile Internet is already transforming businesses, so it makes sense that companies are looking at any and all opportunities to use mobile platforms to drive consumers into their stores. While launched in beta, Cartwheel is a great example of an effort in this area where the idea is running ahead of the experience. Conceptualized as the next big thing in coupons, Cartwheel is supposed to be the easiest way for mobile-enabled moms to redeem coupons in Target stores, leveraging Facebook and gamification at the same time. Once you actually try it, you’ll find yourself having to execute half a dozen steps before you’re able to redeem any savings at all. As a mom commenting on hip2save says: “It’s great to save money, but I’m usually shopping with 1-3 kids and have a hard time keeping track of just my paper coupons so I’m not sure if 5% off is enough incentive to get me to keep up with this new program.”

The point of this is not to bash Target, whose digital ambitions are in the right place. The world of couponing is ever expansive and growing and we know that it drives purchase. However, the primary audience for coupons are moms, one of the most time-pressed consumer segments known to mankind. With so many coupon apps already available, companies need to make sure the obstacles to usage are as low as possible and the value exchange is very high if they are going to go down this path. As another mom vents: “There are wayyyy tooo many programs popping up! How am I to keep track? There needs to be one program that combines them all. Between this SavingStar, Ibotta, Target Mobile Coupons- someone create one app!”

To be successful in digital, brands have to help their users get from point A to point B as efficiently and effectively as possible.  Identifying these efficiencies are what makes good business sense. For brand planners working in digital, it is incumbent upon us to employ the brand’s strengths and innate capabilities to help users realize the promise of the brand. Applications like Cartwheel are disappointing because, while the ambition is right, they fail to capitalize on the truly unmet needs of the consumer, and more importantly, what the brand can uniquely and powerfully offer them. While the advertising industry is grappling to meet the demands of performing in digital, it often seems like very few lessons have been learned along the way. How is it that while the options available to us have increased exponentially, we are still letting what seem like “good ideas” trump the basic tenets of good business and strong customer value props?

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