Imagine a mall in which most of the stores don't actually sell anything. Instead, one walks into them only to find pointers to other stores that might have something in them - but might also be filled with nothing more than advertisements for still more stores.
It's the hall-of-mirrors theory of consumer behavior: If you keep bouncing people from place to place, eventually they might wind up at a place where they can buy something from you, and maybe, just maybe, out of frustration or exasperation or simply an overload of advertising, they'll buy it.
On Wednesday, NBC announced that its newly formed Internet unit -- NBC Internet, an amalgam of the Web portal Snap.com, the "community" and shopping site Xoom.com and NBC.com -- would team up with ValueVision, a cable shopping channel partly owned by NBC. ValueVision will be renamed SnapTV, forming what Tom Rogers, president of NBC Cable, underwhelmingly calls, "the first cable shopping channel to be branded with the name of an Internet portal."
Hmmm. Is this a new paradigm for media synergy? A brilliant vision for creating a multimedia shopping experience? A big vote of confidence by a huge media conglomerate in the power of a Web brand?
Try none of the above. Actually, what NBC is attempting is nothing more than to put the loony hall-of-mirrors theory into action.
Snap.com and SnapTV will share some back-office functions, but when you cut through to the heart of it, Snap.com is a Web portal and SnapTV is a cable shopping channel. SnapTV, according to NBC, will offer "several new entertaining and innovative programming formats that uniquely highlight the convergence of television with the Internet." Meanwhile, Snap.com will promote an online SnapTV store, and, presumably, the cable channel with it. In other words, the cable shopping channel will occasionally send viewers to the Web, and vice-versa.
This is how it works: NBC barrages its viewers with advertising for Snap.com. If some of them take the bait, eventually they'll log on to Snap.com. Snap.com, in turn, can send them, in ping-pong fashion, back to their television sets. But this time, instead of just going straight to NBC, they can go to SnapTV, a home shopping channel.
Ironically, Snap itself is the outgrowth of what marketing types like to call "a cross-media strategy." Halsey Minor, the founder of the CNet network of Web sites, had from the beginning envisioned a media empire that would combine Web sites with a cable television channel. Somewhere along the line, CNet launched a portal - Snap. Still further down the line, NBC bought a big stake in Snap, reasoning that the Web portal would prosper if only it was given many millions of dollars worth of promotion on the NBC network.
Problem is, none of this has worked out exactly as planned. NBC's big promotion has helped Snap, but probably not nearly as much as the company must have hoped. Since January, Snap has moved from No. 19 to No. 14 on the crucial Media Metrix rankings of top Web sites.
NBC, like many media companies, knows how to move "eyeballs," as the ad people like to say, from place to place, but knows little about what to do with them once they get to NBC's sites. NBC's suits know they want to bring people to their Web sites and sell them stuff, but they are not certain how that's done. That's fair enough -- no one else in the media has the right equation yet either. Their strategy, then, is to retreat to doing the one thing that media companies do know how to do: bounce them back to their television sets.