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Netropolis

Big business has moved online. Now they’re taking down Web users’ names to be used for cannon fodder in the marketing battle of the millennium. And apparently, the Motor City wants to buy into the action.

That was the message brought home by last week’s "Digital Detroit" conference, sponsored by the young upstart Detroit New Media Association. The first of its kind, the conference was held in Novi, at the city’s rather conservative and airportlike Expo Center. And despite the catchy hipster name (and flashy logo), this was not an edgy gathering of Web ideologues, Net futurists and code geeks.

No, "Digital Detroit" was suit-and-tie all the way.

In fact – with keynote preaching from charismatic industry leaders such as Broadcast.com chief Todd Wagner and Excite CEO George Bell – it was high-tech corporate evangelism of the highest order.

And the business card-flashing crowd – a congregation of mostly auto industry types, advertising folks and Internet start-up execs – listened faithfully.

"It’s all about creating compelling commerce," began Broadcast.com’s Wagner, as he proselytized his vision of a broadband world. According to Wagner, broadband – the not-yet-but-coming-soon capability to send television-quality signals over the Web – will change the face of online business.

"Today’s online video still gives me a headache," he admitted, promising it will only get better.

"Hi-res screens will be everywhere – all sponsored by advertisers," touted Wagner, "We’ll see screens in grocery stores."

I can imagine it now: They’ll show commercials for Twinkies as you enter the vegetable aisle.

Wagner says audience is what matters. "I don’t care about much else."

And when he says audience, what he means is customers (or "eyeballs" as they’re called in the booming Web marketing biz).

"We look at this as a big war," says Wagner. "We want to be the last soldier at the end of it."

Boom, boom, indeed.

Excite CEO George Bell announced what may be the ultimate secret eyeball-gathering weapon – Excite’s (www.excite.com) infamous library of user "profiles" (data harvested from existing Excite users, including names, preferences and sometimes even addresses) has reached the 28 million mark. These personal profiles are collected through online contests ("Click here to win $25,000!") and the gimmicky-yet-fun "my Excite" Web information service.

Using a small laptop computer and a huge projection video screen, Bell demonstrated his own personalized Excite front page – which included a selection of his own preferred news categories and stock quotes topped by the headline "George you Hero!" ("That’s my customized greeting to myself," he later quipped).

The price tag for this customization? Incredibly personalized advertising that can be creepy in its accuracy. Currently, this includes banner ads and even e-mail messages targeted directly to the user (for example, a Chevrolet owner living in a Texas border town might receive ads for the new Chevy S-10 written in Spanish). Said Bell, "We want to become the trusted profile builder."

As the saying goes, caveat emptor. But Bell is confident he’ll succeed. "The benefit of personalization is convenience," he continued. "It saves the user time."

And apparently, time is money.

Bell also had good news for corporate cyber slackers surfing the Web during work hours: You’re not alone. In fact, a full two-thirds of Internet usage comes during the day. "This is the first medium that can actually reach people in the office," said Bell.

But wouldn’t advertising to people on the job create a conflict of interest? "You don’t stop being a whole person just because you’re at work," Bell responded with glee. "When you go to the office bathroom, you’re not prohibited from talking about your next vacation."

In addition to the keynote speakers, "Digital Detroit" offered an array of break-out sessions covering such fascinating topics as "Managing Supply Chains on the Internet," "Automotive Branding on the Web," and of course the excitingly titled, "E-Commerce: The Challenge of Meeting Sales Objectives." Clearly this was not your father’s Web conference.

Well, OK. Maybe it was your father’s Web conference.

But is that such a bad thing? Arguably, metro Detroit is a bit late to the digital party. Although Detroit is home to some of the world’s largest corporations, the country’s online industry has largely concentrated itself on the two coasts. Old-style industrial cities like Detroit just haven’t been part of the mix.

Of course, where a company is physically located matters very little in the virtual world of Web commerce. But as one out-of-town industry rep confided, "Detroit may rank ninth nationally population-wise, but it places something like twenty-ninth in terms of actual Web use."

Ouch.

So perhaps we should be thankful for "Digital Detroit." It’s our first homegrown Web gathering that’s actually brought the world to our door. Plus, it finally gave us something that has for too long been the exclusive domain of places like Silicon Valley and New York: The schmooze factor.

"I can’t stay for any of the presentations," admitted one silk-tied attendee as he left for a meeting downtown. "I just came here to see who I could meet."

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