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Online and offline distinctions starting to blur May 7, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, Ecommerce, Internet, start-up, startups, user generated content, web 2.0.

On Friday Om Malik put up an interesting post about how small companies can now fully benefit from the internet in a way that was once open to only companies at greater scale.

In his article Om namechecks Moocards (mini “personal” cards, personalized with your pictures or avatars), Spreadshirt and Skinny Corp/Threadless (both user created and curated t-shirt retailers), JPG magazine (print photography magazine, with user created and curated photos), and CastingWords (marketplace for audio to text transcription).

The other interesting thread through these companies is that they all connect the online and the offline.

To some extent, almost all e-commerce companies connect the online (transaction) with the offline (fulfillment). Most retailers instinctively grasped that the internet was just a new channel, and today the Internet Retailer top 500 is dominated by multichannel retailers who started in bricks and mortar or catalogs. Small business entrepreneurs running everything from hardware stores to strip mall blinds stores have grasped the opportunity that the internet represents, and launched profitable businesses online doing tens of millions in revenue. We’ve even seen movement the other way, with e-tailers sending catalogs or even opening stores.

Marketers too have known instinctively that they need to blend their online and offline campaigns together. From the earliest days of the internet, AOL partners were required to add their “AOL Keyword” to their offline advertising, and when I was at Citysearch in ’96, one of the things we made sure to tell our small business customers was to put their URLs in their business cards, menus, letterhead and other paraphernalia. Today you’ll be hard pressed to find an ad in a magazine or on a billboard that doesn’t include a URL.

Furthermore, manufacturers, who are one step removed from their consumers, are starting to use the internet to connect directly with their end users. I’ve posted in the past about how companies such as General Mills (cereal), Ganz (plush toys) and Mattel (Barbie) have all set up casual immersive worlds where their endusers can connect with these brands and each other.

Even the two mainstays of the internet, Communication and Community, have found ways to cross over to the offline world.

Mobile access to the internet via cellphones is further blurring the distinction between online and offline companies. Photo mobile blogging sites like Fotolog and Radar continue to grow, with Fotolog currently at an Alexa rank of 24th in the world. Cell phone users are using their mobile phones to snap pictures of 2d barcodes to access information about the real world, to get alerts of sales in the mall that they are in, or to keep track of their spending.

I think we’ll be seeing an increasing blurring between online and offline as the internet becomes more of the fabric of people’s daily lives. More examples of companies who are blurring this line are welcome in comments.


1. Erik - May 7, 2007

Long time reader, first time commenter.

I wouldn’t normally use someone’s blog for self promotion, but since you asked for it…

I’m working on a project called YourSharade (private beta, just started issuing accounts) that specifically aims to blur the online/offline representation of any and all physical goods. There are some sites (shelfari, listal, librarything) that address specific cross sections of goods (books, movies, music), but nothing that we know of that’s really targeted at incorporating any and all goods (your clothes, your postage stamp collection, whatever).

The biggest hurdle for such a service is getting all of one’s goods into it in the first place. To bridge the online/offline representations as much as possible, we use webcams, digital cameras and cameraphones to extract UPC/EAN barcode information to make it easy to add items.

You mention the internet is becoming “the fabric of people’s daily lives.” It seems similar to the revolution of instant interpersonal communication brought on by cellphones. I’m often amazed that I was ever able to get anything done back before I had a cell phone. How did I ever manage to connect with people? Or maybe the real amazing thing is that anything gets done now that I have the constant distraction of the cell phone…

Insightful post, as always! Sorry for the plug.

2. Linda Lee - May 7, 2007

I wholeheartedly agree. As a player in the custom window coverings space, the Internet is a convenient, flexible medium that consumers can use 24/7 in their own homes, to do as much or as little research as they please on a product as complex as customer window coverings. The vast majority of our customers are fully confident with their ability to order online from what they have researched.

3. Justin - May 7, 2007

At Postful, our entire focus is blurring the online/offline distinction.

But I think this trend is about more than just that. It’s about making the richness and dynamism of the online world available through what we’ve thought of as offline channels.

At the end of the day, it isn’t about getting everyone using the web, it’s about digital networks dissolving into the fabric of everyday life.

Information can enter those networks through any source and be interacted with in whatever way we prefer (whether on a computer, over the phone, in print, etc). Ubiquitous personalization and customization is a starting point rather than a final goal. It will be exciting to see where it goes from there!

Justin Garten

4. Big companies have led the latest surges in virtual worlds « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - October 11, 2007

[…] of these companies are using offline channels to drive online growth, and many other companies (including MTV, Disney etc) will be taking the same approach. While the […]

5. Mass customization drives online-offline hybrid business models « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - November 12, 2007

[…] start-up, startups, user generated content. trackback I’ve noted in the past that some online and offline distinctions are starting to blur. Some companies are finding that the easiest way to monetize their content is to turn bits into […]

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