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Putting the "Café" Back Into Internet Cafés: Addressing Why They Fail and How They Can Succeed

(Wordcount: 1,022; Pages: 3) A casual stroll through NY's city streets would lead the pedestrian to assume that NY has absolutely no need for an "internet café", those internet access points creatively enough served with coffee and cake. Why? A public computer is like a public telephone; unlike your cellphone, you can never (would never) have the sort of personal experience you'd prefer, (not to mention the germs!), explaining the not-surprising-but-still-incredible 36% decrease in public pay telephones in the U.S. from 1997-2004. (1)

It is a known fact that checking email or instant messaging is as addictive as spitting from a high place; if you're there, it'd be a shame to waste that opportunity. But, like any addictive habit, it comes with a cost, which addicts would gladly pay. But if you've got your fix at home, school, work, or on your cellphone, would you pay for it at a "café"? Look no further than bottled water and coffee retailers for the answer. The U.S., in fact, has the greatest number of fixed-line, fixed-location public internet access points in the known universe (2), accomplished through a vibrant market of competitors who all want your dollar-per-hour to access their lines. Other countries should be so lucky to have such enviable conditions.

There's an unusual quirk about human behavior when interacting in public areas with internet access: there is no irony more… ironic than that of a networker who visits a café to network, yet never once directs their attention to the other visitors in the café. Like any café, it draws a crowd; not the same type of crowds from days past when bulletins were posted, visitors cared, and debates at the café were the best sources of entertainment and enlightenment, but (more apathetic) crowds nonetheless. And crowds, my friends, are wonderful creatures with the potential to metamorphosis into mobs, those passionately unthinking collectives good for only one thing… buying. (Crowds, too, buy, but require thinking on the part of the aggregator comparable to that of an international grammar school student to profit from, which, as we've all been told, none of us do, according to those august international testing bodies.)

Somehow though, by adding the term "internet" in front of "café", the potential crowd-forming that's supposed to occur within skips that beautiful phase, and transitions right into a dying supernova, obliterating instantaneously into useless hunks of human matter with no discernable value. Each one must be mined tediously for chump change, a process that costs more than it's worth.

Heap this unusual phenomenon of "individual networking" onto another unfortunate fact of human nature: most of us would prefer that the world not know we're a bunch of nymphos. Publishing digital photos of our colonoscopy is only sexy when we do it from the confines of our suddenly-Playgirl-esque bedrooms, not the internet café.

Added together, these quirks mean that one of the fastest growing activities online - social networking - is not one which the internet café can profit from given their standard operating model. But keep hope, operator, for a rub of your opposing brain masses may lead to that spark of ingenuity. For the benefit of those of you reading this after that big lunch and 2pm meeting, let's just get to the spark:

The obvious recipe for a successful internet café operator is to offer a better experience (forgetting momentarily about price, as it doesn't seem to be a factor anyway in the seemingly irrational decision-making you engage in, like paying for stuff you already have free access to). But the challenge remains that a business cannot on a one-off service survive.

So, by investing into increasing traffic to their access (an incomplete, but good-starting point on growing the overall business), operators can encourage cave-dwellers without email addresses and groups larger than one to pop-in (and linger) by offering new "products" such as food (yum, greasy keyboards); online gaming machines (whoopee, greasy unemployed youngsters); cheaper internet phone service and the always-strategically-recommended shopping experience (yes, an internet cafete-retail.)

An operator will soon note that merely offering faster access isn't exactly the ideal definition of "better experience". Designing your establishment to cater to precisely what consumers do online including short communicating, research, shopping, gaming, and now, individual networking, will guarantee that no addict will be able to just stroll past your café; the force of their addiction and your services will suck them into your door like a vacuum sucking up dust bunnies. And best of all, everything can be assembled in an 800- to- 1,000-sq. ft. space.

Internet cafés, more than other businesses, fail because they never realize that the way they want to offer their product isn't the way their end-user actually uses it.

In many developing nations, internet cafés are liberally sprinkled one per every other street, sometimes in buildings hundreds of years old or aluminum shacks in the middle of dirt roads. In these countries, where communications oligopolies maintain home-access rates prohibitive to all but the upper-crust, the typical user really does need and values convenient, basic access.

But in the US, where reckless parents allow a computer with internet access in their child's bedroom, basic access is not the valuable commodity internet cafes were originally set up to offer.

Merely viewing these insights as justification to alter the way you operate your internet café limits the message; instead recognize that your business, too, may require a different perspective on why it exists if it is to grow beyond its current business.


(1) This statistic bodes poorly for the ongoing viability of basic internet access as a business. Source: Trends in Telephone Service, April 2005, Federal Communications Commission's Wireline Competition Bureau's Industry Analysis and Technology Division; al berrios & co. analysis.

(2) 478 (out of 4208 worldwide) are listed in the oft-quoted, but user-edited Cybercafes.com, http://www.cybercafes.com/, while the other oft-quoted directory, the Cybercafe Search Engine, http://www.cybercaptive.com/, lists 5763 total cafes around the world, putting into question the accurateness of any source of total cafes worldwide, but simultaneously, leaving untapped opportunities for the big-thinking visionary, including those interested in measuring the actual size of this audience to resell it to some advertiser.

Al Berrios is Managing Director of al berrios & co., an innovative strategy consulting firm advising leaders on the impact of human behavior on their strategies and on how to change their organizations to address the behavior. Write to Consumer Strategies Report at editor @ alberrios.com.


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