Spiral Marketing: The More You Know, The More You Can Know

February 8, 2009

Publicis pulls funding for The Honeyshed: Another Example Of Form Ignoring Function

Publicis Group, the enormous ad agency, pulled financial backing from The Honeyshed (http://tinyurl.com/yozdwh).  The Honeyshed, I hate to say, is nothing more than an online, high end version of the QVC, for the under-35 crowd.  Ultra-chic presenters talking about merchandise – clever bits, hip, flash with a lot of flair, this property has grown to 20,000 unique visitors / day.  So what’s the problem?  The simple truth of the internet: “visits” does not equal “dollars.”  Publicis, given the current economic climate, was simply not willing to continue to invest in a venue that wasn’t making enough money.

Now, the pundits are already talking about why this seemingly brilliant property is not meeting its lofty expectations – Ad Age, the source of the story I read, blames user experience and cart strategy.  I think Ad Age got it right, but only unintentionally.  In this internet age, we continue to misunderstand the medium, and use tired old metaphors that exist and perhaps thrive in a completely different medium, targeting a completely different audience, and try to apply them to online behavior, and inexplicably, we are surprised at the lack of results.

What is The Honeyshed?  “Virtual Shopping Mall?” “QVC for the under-35 crowd?”  It tries to be both, and fails at both.  Why?

The metaphor of the shopping mall has not, and still does not, apply to the internet: it did not in 1995 when these sites started appearing, and nothing has changed.  The fundamental problem is that the metaphor of the “shopping mall” – and we can only speak in metaphorical terms, given the medium.  As I’ve said before, shopping malls came into existence to solve a physical space problem: as people moved from the cities to the suburbs, with the expansion of area, the natural concentration of shopping in the cities disappeared.  Instead of walking a few blocks to complete your shopping, you would now spend half your day driving.  To solve this physical space problem, developers began concentrating shops into malls – drive to the mall, get all of your shopping done in a single place.

Shopping on the internet doesn’t present the same physical space problem – looking for a pair of boots is as easy as typing the search term into your browser – the search engine aggregates the results for you, and can even provide a price comparison when you find the ones you like.  So what advantage does a “virtual shopping mall” provide: none.

The more unexpected twist in this model is the ultra-chic spin on QVC.  The Honeyweb professes to “Reinvent Shopping For The Digital Generation,” with scantily clad women, comic burglars, presumed luminaries of the under-35 culture, all promoting products.  The videos are at times interesting, and they aren’t badly done.  And yet, in the final analysis a medium that worked for middle-aged women, and tried to make it relevent to under-35s – talk about misunderstanding your audience.  Of course, the rise of YouTube and Flickr probably led someone to the mistaken conclusion that these commercial messages, done in a clever way, would attract an audience.  Given that the site was attracting 20,000 visitors a day, they may have succeeded to a degree in attracting eyes to their content (although YouTube, for example, reports over 6 million visitors a day, or over 250,000 an hour); but attracting eyes to content is not “reinventing shopping.”

One might also argue that the real play for the Honeyshed is brand and product marketing – after all, studies have shown that online stores generate $3 to $4 spent offline for every dollar spent online.  This might be a legitimate play for this site – certainly, it would explain the Publicis involvement.  But providing a new advertising channel is not “reinventing shopping.”

The Honeyshed is not a bad site, and I think it may attract funding to continue operations even though Publicis has pulled out.  The real message of The Honeyshed story, though, is a recurring message for all of us attempting to use this new medium for influencing consumer purchasing.  That message is that we cannot look around our physical world, and attempt to apply metaphors from the physical world to the internet.  A website is not a shopping mall: the internet can be legitimately thought of as the largest shopping mall in the world, I suppose, but that does not translate to individual websites aggregating the shopping preferences for a large group of consumers into a single site – the closest you will get on the internet are comparison pricing services, an advertising play.  Nor is the internet a billboard, or even a home shopping channel.

We have to look not at the physical world for “metaphors” of business models that we want to replicate online.  We instead have to seek to understand our audience, and what drives their interactions on the internet, and then build strategies and properties that meet the needs of these interactions.  Form truly does follow function – I think the real message of The Honeyshed is that it misunderstands its audience, it misunderstands its function, and ulimately it misunderstands its own goal of “Reinventing Shopping For The Digital Generation.’  It may be great form, but it serves no clear function . . .



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