April 7, 2013

Charles Lawton: We must use digital highway to drive commerce

The massive investment made in our national highway system in the 1950s led to a similarly massive increase in automobile sales and travel. A largely unforeseen but entirely understandable consequence of this growth was the emergence of the roadside sign.

From the simple appeal and curiosity of a series of Burma-Shave signs to the garish extremity of a gigantic cowboy with an enormous mechanical arm waving hello, businesses sought to capture the attention of motorists speeding by. Those of us of a certain age remember similarly large statues of Paul Bunyan in Bangor, the giant cigar-store Indian in Freeport and a selection of yellow slickered, old salts brandishing corncob pipes along Route 1 as examples of such visitor enticements.

For the past decade, we've seen a similarly massive investment in the development of a global digital highway network, a similarly massive increase in the sale of travel devices -- computers, smartphones, tablets -- and a similar increase in the volume of digital "miles traveled" by consumers, businesses, governments and nonprofit agencies. So, it is hardly surprising that this massive increase in digital "travel" has been accompanied by increasingly garish, intrusive and ubiquitous efforts to grab the attention of the ever-growing number of digital travelers.

The key to increasing sales along the highway – asphalt or digital – is grabbing the attention of the passer-by. And the key to attention is information, ever more appealing, ever more personalized information. "Howdy partner, you must be tired from a long day of driving that machine; pull over here for a friendly face and a home-cooked meal!"

For Maine, however, there are several important differences between the asphalt highway and its digital counterpart. The digital highway is almost entirely immune from seasonal changes in the weather, and, for most of Maine, it's not at the end of the line. Anyone on earth with an Internet connection can get here from there.

These facts present Maine businesses with a tremendous opportunity to reach out to potential customers – to build less garish, more appealing "roadside signs" – and to come to know their customers better, to customize products for their specific needs.

Many Maine businesses pride themselves on the durability of their customer relations. "I have people who have been coming here for generations," they say. With the instantaneous and ubiquitous nature of the digital highway, such personal relations can and should be the goal of all businesses.

An innkeeper I encountered recently said, "Used to be, I just made reservations, now I plan vacation experiences."

Turns out he added a button to his Web page (his digital roadside sign), "Click here if you'd like suggestions for things to do during your stay in our area." So many people clicked that he's become an expert on historic trails, bike and horse riding, garden tours and a growing list of other activities in which his guests have an interest.

An antiques dealer in Franklin County assembled a group of her colleague/competitors to create an "antiques road" showing all of their locations and made the information available on a variety of social networks where antiques aficionados hang out, and all have seen a dramatic increase in their sales.

Similar examples abound, from chocolatiers on Islesboro to artists in Freeport. Maine businesses have taken advantage of their proximity not to the visitors who happen to be driving by their places of business on a bright sunny summer day but of their electronic proximity to virtually every customer in the world.

But this success depends on developing fluency in the world of digital communication. Maine businesses must become as skilled in the creation and dissemination of useful information as they are in the production of their goods and services. This is as important to Maine's future prosperity as any other skill.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be reached at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com

 

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