Remember the Pro Dealer Exchange? In 2001, the conglomerate online effort of Builders FirstSource, 84 Lumber, BMHC, Payless Cashways, Lanoga, Wickes, and then–Carolina Holdings aimed to revolutionize the pro dealer industry by standardizing SKUs, developing XML invoices and RFQs for use by anyone in the supply chain, and even launching an online materials marketplace. The ambitious effort, one of many during the turn-of-the-century tech explosion, eventually floundered, and the domain name prodealerexchange.com is currently up for grabs.
With the dawning of the digital age in the late-'80s and early-'90s, technology exploded with the promise of unheralded opportunities in point-and-click business networking, marketing, and even sales, and the pro dealer sector was not immune to what became a litany of well-intended but ultimately undeliverable promises of an Internet-powered business revolution.
Emerging Web-based business opportunities and new strategies for leveraging the power of the Internet, however, are offering evidence that some of those dormant digital dreams could be re-awakening. With more than 90 million members, the MySpace online networking community is offering Madison Avenue premium Web space for “viral” marketing, defined as the process of leveraging existing social networks—particularly those online—to gain exponential increases in brand awareness. MySpace users, for 2006 example, can choose to be linked as “friends” with characters from soon-to-be released movies, with Adidas athlete endorsers, or even with the Honda Element, and by doing so can interact with those profile pages—essentially glorified online advertisements—via audio, video, bulletin boards, and more.
Proponents of leveraging online communities like MySpace, such as Fox Interactive Media chief revenue officer Michael Barrett, say the opportunities with Web networking might finally deliver on the Web's promise for streamlining entire business processes with one-on-one relationships between brands, products, and consumers, according to “Advertisers Connect in New Ways on Networking Sites,” an article on viral marketing and the MySpace phenomenon by Brian Morrissey in the July 24 issue of Adweek magazine. “That was the huge vision of the early-1990s, and it's coming to fruition,” Barrett tells Morrissey.
A quick spin on MySpace.com reveals a dearth of anything seriously resembling residential construction supply networking for marketing, sales, or relationship creation. But that doesn't mean that the LBM universe isn't engaged in a little Web re-evaluation and re-engineering of its own.
At the Sacramento, Calif.–based Lumber Association of California and Nevada (LACN), for example, executive director Ken Dunham has amassed a nice pro dealer subscription base for the association's weekly e-mail newsletter. LACN also aims to soon leverage the community-creating possibilities of its Web presence as a way to enhance the networking, training, and educational benefits it already offers to its membership. While it has yet to reach the critical mass of MySpace, future plans for LACN's Web site do include interactivity and peer-networking efforts. “[Web investment] isn't just about making it current and graphically good anymore,” Dunham says. “We'd like to create some online interest groups, some password-protected sections where members can communicate via chat features, where you can click on a member and immediately go to their Web site, go to their e-mail, and be able to interact with them.”
Whether you call it rebirth or rejuvenation, the business possibilities of the Internet are steadily gaining back some lost ground. While the Web has always thrived as an information outlet, other industries have been much more successful at using the Internet as another outlet to conduct, grow, and diversify their businesses. Point-and-click 2x12s are likely years away, but the enterprising dealer that looks to reboot its Web efforts now will be well prepared to leverage new technologies as they develop instead of being just another company refreshing yesterday's content.