Yahoo! ROBO: Research Online, Buy Offline

August 8, 2007

Yahoo! Search Marketing Blog published last week a study showing that online exposure to product and retailer information, as well as ads, changes consumers behavior. Yahoo! calls that Research Online, Buy Offline, or ROBO (btw, ROBO means theft in Spanish).

I can easily identify myself as one of those consumers in the study. It's much easier to use the internet to find out exactly what one is looking for. Sometimes, I want (need?) to buy something, but I am unclear about what is available in the market that would suit my needs. For example, I want to install a multi-room sound system. However, as I do research on the internet, I happen to find many different types of solutions to this problem: wired, wireless, bluetooth controlled, streaming, centrally amplified, room-amplified, etc. So I end up doing my market taxonomy, then market research, then learning about the vendors and their products, and finally finding the retailers in my area where I can take a look at the actual products. I will then go visit the retailer and possibly buy offline. That's what Yahoo! calls ROBO.

Well, actually, a few times, I don't do ROBO. I research online, and buy offline. But then I go online to find the best deal based on price and retailer's consumer feedback, using, for example, Kelkoo. I then buy online, and once the product arrives, I return it offline. I call it ROBOBORO.

Now, seriously, what is really interesting about the study are the implications the findings have for retailers. Back in the late 90's folks talked about personalized online/offline merchants: your profile would be known to the merchant from your online browsing behaviour, and the offline presence of the merchant could use that information for better targetting products for sale to you. Admitedly, during the 90's the internet was not particularly strong on privacy yet, neither was technology to make this personalized marketing possible, but think of the following scenario based on how technology has evolved since then.

Suppose you are browsing the web using your bluetooth enabled mobile phone, looking for a new portable music player. You do your research online, find what you want, but your wife tells you it's time to go shopping and swing by the mall with the kids. So off you go. Once you enter the mall, your phone communicates with the bluetooth mall facilities. Those merchants in the mall with which you have a online trust relationship, access your relevant browsing history, and match against it. You then receive, on your phone, an offer like "Hello Bruno, we have the iPod nano on sale for only $79.99, all ready packed and ready for you to take home". You swing by the store, swipe your credit card, and happily walk out of the mall with a new toy. Interestingly, the reverse also holds as a benefit for the publishers. The search engine knows who you are, and it could use some of your profile attributes for the retailers to bid on, besides the search terms. Let's say you just bought the iPod at said merchant. That merchant is interested in selling you accessories for your new iPod, so whenever you are now searching for music related terms, you should be targeted with iPod accessories, instead of generic music store, or download ads.

Welcome to the future of one-to-one marketing.

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