Who’s Walking Away from the Web?

As if there weren’t enough for e-commerce to worry about — quick, somebody make sure Amazon is still up — it seems that some people are concerned about a potential Internet backlash.

That’s right, people are leaving the Web behind: people who are disgusted with the commercialization, frustrated with the mechanics, or just plain bored. It’s hard to tell exactly how many of them are out there, but they’re out there. In fact, one research firm recently estimated there are 30 million of these “former Internet users.”

Don’t get me wrong; this situation should raise some red flags. But before any rash efforts are made to get those former users back, let’s try waiting them out. My guess is that they’ll be back. And until they’re ready to come back, we don’t want them around anyway.

Money Changes Things

Seems that about a third of the ex-surfers are under the age of 25. These are the people who used the machines in their university computer lab to make Napster founder Shawn Fanning very famous, not to mention rain e-mail on the free world and generally surf their heads off.

Then graduation came. And in the workaday world, once rent had been paid and food had been bought, there was little cash left to buy a computer and keep it connected to the Web every month.

Like I said: Who needs these particular users? E-commerce targets they are not. How likely is it that they’ll buy anything online if they can barely manage to get online in the first place?

But fear not. These are people who know the Web. And once they move up the ladder a bit, getting re-connected will be an urgent goal of theirs. Then they will be ripe for the online world of commerce. They’ll know their way around and have the credit cards to buy what they see.

Frustrated Users

Another category of Internet expatriates appears to be self-taught computer users — the ones whose teachers weren’t that good, if you get my drift. It isn’t a stretch to say that members of this group aren’t easily finding whatthey are looking for online very easily.

Again, these users are far from ideal for e-commerce. Retailers doing business on the Web want savvy users — the ones who won’t give up when they can’t find what they want after three or four clicks through an e-tail site.

Less experienced users are more likely to have their confidence shattered by slow servers, crashed sites and broken links. Fair enough. Let the novices migrate back to the Web in a couple years, when the underpinnings of the Internet have been beefed up and the entire ship is a lot more seaworthy.

See You Soon

The rest of the former Web users may fall into several categories. But based on experience and the general lay of the land, there’s a good chance a bunch of them fall into the category of the Internet hippie.

You know these people. Twenty years ago, they had Compuserve accounts and turtle-speed modems that connected them to bulletin boards. Ah, they think, that was the real Internet. That was what it was all about.

Now, those people are faced with Web sites where every available inch of space is packed with banner ads, blinking or streaming or rotating in three dimensions to get their attention. They are disgusted with the commercialization.

As the flight attendants on Saturday Night Live say: “Buh-bye.” Maybe it’s a shame that the academic and intellectual medium the Internet hippies used to love so much has been taken over by commercial interests. But that’s the way it is.

And as you may have guessed, Internet hippies don’t make good e-commerce customers.

Quality, not Quantity

In the end, it’s not the number of Web surfers that will matter for e-commerce, but the number of Web dollars. That research firm I mentioned recently found that, indeed, 90 percent of all online spending is done by 20 percent of the Web users.

Yes, it is important to make sure users aren’t being driven away for the wrong reasons. But as long as every effort is being made to ensure they don’t leave because of ugly Web sites, bad customer service or undelivered goods, then let them go.

If 30 million people have unplugged their PCs from the Net, so be it. My guess is that most, if not all of them, will be back before too long.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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