Google CIO: Online success rests on talking with customers

Merrill says IT, ad execs have to divorce themselves from a world 'that's gone'

If you still think that putting up a colorful and splashy Web site for your company's products, or running online ads about them, is enough to bring in boatloads of repeat customers, you'd better think again, according to Google's top IT executive.

What might have worked to pull people in a year or even months ago won't necessarily work now, Google CIO Douglas Merrill said. He added that the key to online business success has become a constantly moving target, and that IT managers have a central role to play in making sure their companies can cope with innovative new competitors, the rise of global markets and the general disdain for traditional advertising among online consumers.

So what's a company to do to stay ahead of rivals and grow its business? The answer is not to be wed to a technology and advertising world "that's gone," Merrill said during the opening keynote speech at US Computerworld 's ninth annual Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference.

"Your last million customers aren't going to tell you much about your next million customers," said Merrill, who also has direct responsibility for all of Google's internal engineering and support activities worldwide as one of the company's vice presidents of engineering. "The world has changed, and we have to redraw all the maps, and all the assumptions that we make -- and all the ways that we think about technology."

What's becoming more and more clear, he claimed, is that the most successful online companies are learning that "talking with your customers is markedly different than talking to your customers."

As a case in point, Merrill cited the experience of Walt Disney with its "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie series. He said that after analyzing a myriad of consumer-tracking data, Disney learned that it had so successfully marketed the first of the three films that some of the core target audience was becoming a bit "pirate weary" before the other two films had even been produced and released.

But instead of simply putting out more ads, Disney created an interactive Pirate Island Web site that fans of the films could use to explore the landscape of the island at the center of the storyline and "participate" with the characters in their ongoing adventures, Merrill said.

There's a Google connection, of course: the Web site is powered by the vendor's Google Earth mapping technology, which users have to download in order to utilize the site's features. Merrill said that nearly three-quarters of the visitors to the site do so, and that they spend an average of 18 minutes each wandering around the pretend online island.

"You can leave messages for Captain Jack," he said. "What is that? It's an ad." But not a conventional one that many consumers are liable to ignore outright, he noted.

The same kind of thing happened with the infamous "lonelygirl15" videos that have been posted on the Google-owned YouTube Web site, according to Merrill. Initially, they purported to be a series of videos made by a teenager named Bree in her bedroom, talking about her life and her family, which she said belonged to a religious cult.

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