column for June 1994 issue of Internet World.


By Christopher Locke

Last month we talked about the need for a commercial "knowledge exchange." In the meantime, things have heated up fast. Rather than just talk about it, we're doing it. Since being written up in Fortune magazine (March 7, 1994), MecklerWeb has generated a mountain of inquiries from businesses worldwide. The following is an e-mail response to one such request from a CEO asking for more information. The discussion here hints at what Mecklermedia will formally announce on June 1 (in conjunction with many partners) at our Internet World conference in San Jose, California.

To:      [name withheld]
Subject: MecklerWeb
From: (Christopher Locke)
Date:    March 1 1994
Alice, Thanks for sharing your enthusiastic assessment of Rick Tetzeli's article in Fortune; I agree it was one of the best things we've seen to date from the business press on the commercial development of the Internet.

Let me flesh out some of our thinking beyond what was said about MecklerWeb in that article, and attempt to share with you why we decided to create the service, some notion of how it will work, and what we envision its impact to be.

As it stands today, many companies such as your own are greatly interested in how they can leverage the Internet in pursuit of their business objectives. However, as you have experienced yourself, the obstacles to achieving corporate presence on the Internet can be daunting, to say the least. This is unfortunate, both for companies and for the net itself.

For companies, the Internet represents a truly open platform -- unlike most commercial online services -- for reaching new electronically connected markets on a global basis. Because commercial services such as America Online and CompuServe can only reach their own existing customer bases, the Internet offers a very substantial edge in this regard. However, to take advantage of the Internet's global reach, companies are typically faced with challenges they would perceive as constituting unacceptable risk in any other arena. These include the need to work with multiple vendors and consultants (many of which offer conflicting models or advice), the lack of fixed pricing, the lack of certainty as to effectiveness, and not least, learning curves steeper than Everest.

For the Internet, this state of affairs is hardly conducive to healthy growth. New users are coming onto the net in unprecedented numbers and straining existing resources, yet the governments and institutions that have traditionally underwritten Internet costs today have fewer, not more, resources to deal with this influx. Business involvement in the Internet is critical if it is to live up to its potential as a national resource (one of Al Gore's favorite themes, and appropriately so). In addition, much of the "pro bono" work that has gone into the Internet -- document collections, information management systems, and a lot of other great software -- has so far gone largely unrewarded. Such work cannot continue without new sources of funding beyond universities and libraries. Providing a mechanism for corporate involvement in the Internet will augment existing resources at a critical moment and provide employment for many thousands of highly capable knowledge workers.

But businesses need an on-ramp to the Internet and MecklerWeb was designed to provide it. Based on the World Wide Web (WWW) hypermedia system -- the fastest growing service on the Internet today -- MecklerWeb will offer companies a relatively painless and low-risk method of presenting themselves to fast-growing online markets. Working with professional partners in many areas, MecklerWeb will provide a "one-stop shopping" approach to getting up-and-running on the global Internet. Our partners will be able to handle any level of required network connectivity, the conversion of existing corporate literature to WWW format, and in-depth consulting on design and presentation within the context of the Internet. For a fixed price and within a fixed number of weeks -- not months or years -- companies will be able to begin testing these waters for themselves.

We plan to structure MecklerWeb around topical domains of interest such as arts and entertainment, technology, travel, medicine, sports, law, environment, and education; then partition these large categories into increasingly specialized sub-topics. Because professional associations constitute existing social networks of people with a demonstrated interest in such subjects (think of bar associations, environmental groups, technology SIGs) we are actively enlisting such organizations to form the "domain hubs" around which various user communities and corporate sponsors will gather. In addition, such associations will often provide from among their own ranks the knowledgeable individuals who will serve as discussion moderators and bring expert organization to the multimedia resources that will develop around each domain area. We are partnering with these associations in such a way that, by helping to bring in paying corporate sponsors, their costs can be reduced to zero. Beyond that, we have created a revenue-sharing mechanism whereby MecklerWeb will become a source of funding for their own online presence.

This model is based on a solid networking principle: real knowledge is always co-located with practical use. Translated, this means that the associations we are working with know better than anyone outside their ranks (like Mecklermedia for instance) who their own potential corporate backers are. By acknowledging this fact, and working with such associations as co-marketing partners, we largely preclude the need for a separate direct sales force, and we cement our ties with these associations by sharing the savings in a tangible way. Similar revenue-sharing applies to independent moderators; those successful in attracting large audiences and multiple corporate sponsors will be able to depend on their entire livelihoods coming from such involvement.

The need for a viable commercial Internet space is not anything new, and many of the tools and methods we are adopting lay no claim to uniqueness. We see this as good news for both end users and the businesses we will serve. Rather than have to repay enormous R&D development investments, we can -- by leveraging existing and well-tested technologies -- make MecklerWeb affordable for all involved. The general audience accessing MecklerWeb will pay no fees to do so, except in the case of optional value-added services offered by our partners. (Note that we are not offering free Internet access; users will need a net connection to access the system.) For commercial sponsors, presence on MecklerWeb will be far more cost effective than advertising in traditional media such as magazines and television. While overall end-user traffic will initially be less than can be claimed by some of these traditional media, the markets they represent will be far more focused than any mass medium can lay claim to.

Speaking in the old language of market segments and sales effectiveness begs the question: why would people pay to be exposed to advertising? The simple answer is they won't. Companies buying exorbitant single-page print ads or 30-second TV spots have time and space to say only one thing: "Buy our product!" In an online context, where space and time are plentiful, this approach is not only unnecessary; it is counterproductive. Most companies worth their salt have a lot more to convey than a product pitch. Many are valuable sources of knowledge on matters relating to their particular domain of operation. And, in the case of viable companies in healthy industries, these domains of operation usually overlap or intersect with the professional or avocational interests of some community focused on a related set of themes and issues. While the social groupings that represent these interests are often called associations (whether for- or not-for-profit), from the business viewpoint these same groups are called "markets." Bringing the two together is the whole point of MecklerWeb.

To present an effective presence to these interest groups, companies must offer some form of informational value, not more in-your-face advertising. Pharmaceutical companies have a wealth of material that would be of high interest and tangible benefit to medical practitioners. Similarly, technology companies often have gained objective knowledge about business problems that would be of great benefit to companies exploring potential solutions. In fact, the sales and marketing organizations of most companies -- long before than can close a contract -- spend enormous time demonstrating their familiarity with the challenges facing their customers. This knowledge is real, but often has no place to express itself except in very costly one-on-one meetings with clients. Well organized and presented, such a knowledge base can be a powerful way for a company to offer something of genuine value while at the same time positioning itself as a natural source of expertise or products.

While it's true that companies will always try to sell us something, the first thing they have to sell us is themselves. And they do that at no charge. In fact, they expend millions of dollars in the process of getting us to believe how smart, forward-looking, caring, innovative, and all-around-wonderful they are. As practised through the mass media, advertising is a lousy mechanism for building such a case to prospective consumers. We are bombarded with unfounded claims, saturated with hyperbolic pitches and generally sick to death of the whole noisy content-free arm-twisting process.

The Internet in general and, we hope, MecklerWeb in particular, offer an entirely different way for companies to enter into relationships with their markets. Imagine, for instance, a company sponsoring its state's public libraries or K-12 schools in its home city. Or imagine an oil company sponsoring Greenpeace. While the latter may be a bit far fetched, there are plenty of socially useful activities and interests that companies would be willing to support. The motivation is self-serving, of course -- that's what companies are supposed to be good at -- but the results can go far beyond improved public perception. The outcome of such partnerships can include new levels of genuine discourse between corporations and the needs and desires of the communities they purport to serve. One-way advertising channels offer no such benefit, or even the potential for it.

While I know this doesn't give you a complete enough model to enable you to frame a business decision, I hope it does give a sense of what we're up to with MecklerWeb, and that it encourages you to explore further how we can work together. I've been telling people like yourself that our business model can be summed up in phrase coined in an entirely different context: fast, cheap and out of control. Let me end by unpacking that a bit.

Fast: We can bring this vision about in a fraction of the time required by the companies pursuing multi-billion-dollar convergence synergies between cable TV operators, the TelCos and "content providers," for the simple reason that we are not going after the Home Shopping market, whatever that may be. We are leveraging technologies that are here today, not coming in 3-5 years, and we are rapidly creating mutual-benefit alliances between technology providers, professional associations and business organizations that have a lot to gain from each other.

Cheap: Because we are sharing revenues with partners and expert domain moderators, we can offer high value at low-rent prices. Because subscribers pay nothing, we can build a critical-mass audience for value-added information from professional associations and their corporate affiliates. Measured by effectiveness, MecklerWeb should offer substantial advantages over far more costly means of reaching potentially interested consumers.

Out of control: While the Internet has often been accused of breeding anarchy, the spirit of free-wheeling voluntary association it tends to foster constitutes one of its most powerful cultural values. That spirit is "networking" in its truest sense, where the focus is far more on providing value than on creating empires of subordinated operations. We are out of control in the sense that we are not into control: we find it uninteresting. What is interesting to us is the potential for collaboratively crafting a viable commercial cyberspace in which all of us can launch exciting new business initiatives, assist in the construction of dynamic new online communities, and have a lot of fun with an unusually interesting collection of creative people -- while at the same time generating substantial new sources of wealth in which potentially millions will share.

There will be many companies who don't quite grasp what we're getting at with all this, and which won't therefore recognize the size of the opportunity. From our earlier communications, though, yours doesn't sound to be among that lot. Let's talk more about how we can work together on this.


Christopher Locke
General Manager, Internet Group


Current note: While I am no longer at Mecklermedia, you can still send email to