The COVID-19 Crisis Will Accelerate the Evolution of the Online Marketplace – Will You Adapt or Become a Fossil?

The COVID-19 Pandemic is accelerating the evolution of the online marketplace – an evolution 30 years in the making – and those who fail to adapt could lose everything. The canaries in the mine: Sears, RadioShack, Borders, Blockbuster and many more, each have their own specific stories of failure, but they all failed for the same reason. Failure to adapt to the new online environment.

This latest test is going to be grueling for all businesses – online and off – but the true entrepreneurs among them, those who figure out how to evolve along with the marketplace, can survive, adapt and ultimately be a better version of their past selves.

As an online marketer in the digital trenches for the last thirty years. I’ve been involved in starting and pushing adaptation of some of today’s most commonly used data technology concepts, including opt-in email, E-appending, digital data/media marketing (SEO, pay-per-click, and social networking), affiliate marketing and mobile app development.

The Internet Age has seen some of the most significant advances in technology and, thanks to the Internet and the software developed in tandem, we have seen the greatest increase in corporate and personal wealth in history and the unprecedented globalization of our planet, both commercially and culturally. This has also been a period of tremendous economic upheaval, one that includes the Dot.com bust in 2000, the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the subsequent decimation of the stock market and the crash in fall 2008. Those who learned the lessons and survived those catastrophes helped lead the digital revolution of the last decade. We now have the COVID-19 crisis, which has been and will remain an unprecedented and crushing experience for businesses and individuals in the USA and worldwide.

In the face of the current pandemic, I can offer the following tips, drawing from my “ancient wisdom,” which defines how I approach crises such as the one we are facing and offer insights for those in the trenches today:

  1. Always find a way to evolve

Back in the early ‘90s, the “prehistoric era” of technology, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were the first Internet marketplaces to crawl on land; the life form that would evolve into the World Wide Web and the social networks we use today. I saw the opportunity and leaped at it: my company, Lens Express, Inc., sold contact lenses, sunglasses, and Swiss Army Knives via BBS beginning in 1990. BY 1994, InfoWorld estimated there were 60,000 Bulletin Board Systems serving 17 million users in the USA. Then, we built a store in the original AOL Mall. In those days, that required you to fly to Virginia and building the store with their assistance in the AOL offices. Later, the marketplace would be distributed like the rest of the AOL network by CDs shipped by mail to homes across the country.

Times certainly have changed since then and they are changing more rapidly now than ever before. My first thought, when I saw the Internet take flight, was it would be an incredible way to reach consumers directly, the ultimate marketplace. I refused to dig my heels in, ossify…I welcomed the change and the opportunity this change delivered to me and other like-minded entrepreneurs. COVID-19 is your opportunity to evolve. Do so, or go extinct.

  1. Learn to create and use tools

If you’re someone who saves letters and cards, which I do, you’ll notice the volume in your archives drops off drastically around 1996. This was when email took hold as the key method of communication for both individuals and corporations. In response, I founded eDirect in 1998, which helped pioneer the use of opt-in email. I knew this would be an incomparable marketing tool but obtaining permission from users would be the key to email success and ultimately the law. I was proven right with both the overwhelming use of email by virtually every business today and regulations from The CAN-SPAM ACT of 2002 to this year’s passage of The California Consumer Privacy Act. So, here’s another truth I’ve gleaned from my experiences – these days, not only can an idea become a digital marketing tool, it can become an industry and ultimately the law! Let change, even crises like this one, inspire your imagination and fuel your vision.

  1. Adapt to your environment

eDirect continued to grow through the Dot.com collapse and weathered the dreadful attacks of September 11th. In 2002, eDirect merged with Naviant, which was subsequently sold to Equifax for $ 135 million. We built our high-tech household file primarily through our proprietary online warranty registration processes combined with our vast network of permission-based data collection sites, and our clients included blue-chip companies like Dell, HP, IBM, and Pac Bell, along with a who’s who of early internet pioneers from AOL to Myspace, Napster and Amazon. Naviant was all about adapting to massive marketplace changes – in the early 2000s, people were becoming more comfortable making large tech purchases online. This was another seismic shift in global consumer behavior, and we saw an emergent need for the provision of warranty services to these new online consumers while establishing best practices in marketing on behalf of some of the world’s biggest companies and hottest startups. The lesson? When the environment changes, don’t stick to your old ways (see Blockbuster example below). You need to adapt to the new, “always online” marketplace or else you and your business will freeze or starve to death.

  1. Use your instincts and do what you do best…only differently

It wasn’t long before online “tech” purchases evolved into online shopping for everything else – something I had been predicting would happen for a decade – the Amazon economy. If there’s a true visionary in the online marketplace, it’s Jeff Bezos. Sears, a company who drowned in the digital wave, actually had the idea years ago. Their Sears Catalog was the print version of today’s online marketplace and included virtually anything you could need, much like Amazon today. So why did Sears fail while Amazon succeeded? Instead of returning to the origins of their success to compete in the new digital age, Sears doubled down on large box retail and mall locations. Even the original source for everything, the company that brought us brands like Kenmore, Allstate, Discover and Craftsmen wasn’t too big to fail when they failed to adapt. Take a look at the milestones Amazon has achieved and pay attention to what they intend to do going forward. Like Bezos, you have an opportunity to not only adapt to the evolution of the marketplace but shape, perhaps even dictate, that evolution.

  1. When an Ice Age comes, bundle up and keep moving!

If there was anything left that hadn’t transitioned to the Internet, in response to the pandemic it’s had to. AMC Theaters is a perfect example – the company began streaming movies back in October, in response to competition from Netflix. Now that cinemas are closed, AMC’s flexibility and entrepreneurial spirit may help save the company, while other theater chains that didn’t make the jump are now scrambling to adopt a streaming model or, like Bow Tie Cinemas, have simply shuttered their theaters and given up any hope to drive revenue. Video rental retailer, Blockbuster the brainchild of serial entrepreneur, Wayne Huizenga, suffered the same fate as the fallen theater chains. While Blockbuster brought movies and entertainment into your home long before Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the like, they failed to adapt and ultimately failed. Only one store remains open today in Bend, Oregon; a once-dominant entertainment player which at its height had nearly 9,000 locations globally. As I learned from my early digital successes and failures, business leaders must embrace new ideas and technologies, and take an aggressive approach to capitalizing on changes in the marketplace, especially when those changes are global in nature.

If the whole world can change in an instant, so can your business!

Just as I’ve pursued opportunities driven by technological and market changes, I’ve seen many organizations refuse to evolve, to cling to thermal paper fax machines, to ignore social media, only to desperately scramble for it once it’s already too late, at tremendous expense to the enterprise. Yes, this pandemic is terrible and frightening. But, like all evolutionary events, it will settle down at some point, and things will look very different from how they did before.

If you’re a true entrepreneur and willing to aggressively embrace the forced evolution, you can be successful right now and going forward. Opportunities abound as long as you learn to adapt and respond to quickly changing environment.

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Author: Scott Hirsch

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