Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Big Modem Giveaway

To join the Information Revolution and subscribe to StarText you needed more than $9.95 a month. You also needed 1) a computer or communications terminal 2) a telephone line or connection 3) communications software and last but not least, 4) a modem -- that gizmo that acomplished the "handshake" between you and the computer with all the information you desired.

Modems came in several varieties. Early on it was the acoustic coupler, where you actually set the telephone receiver into a pair of rubber cups. Simply walking around the room could disrupt the connection. Not great. They evolved eventually into cards that fit into the slots inside the computer or slid into a port on the side. The one pictured above, courtesy of Jim Boughton, was the "StarText 1200-baud direct connect modem" that you could handily plug into your com port and presto! -- your personal on-ramp to the Information Superhighway.

What, you ask, was that about? Did StarText branch into manufacturing modems? Thereby hangs a tale.

One year, when 1200 baud (1200 characters a second) was the standard for personal computers (1984 going into 1985), we hatched a marketing idea which we were certain would explode our numbers. What if we bundled a three-month subscription with a free, 1200-baud modem? Even Ries and Trout would surely bless that one.

The trick was finding a source for reliable, low-cost, easy-to-use modems. And eventually we did. Of course, "low cost" is relative. What might seem low cost for many marketing budgets became the most money we ever spent on a single promotion. But coupled with the three-month, nonrefundable subscription, we would make it up on volume. And regardless, it was an idea that got the whole staff pretty jazzed. So much so we ordered hundreds of them to meet the anticipated demand.

We cranked up a marketing campaign that included ads in the StarTelegram, flyers for schools and libraries, speeches at meetings -- it was the proverbial full court press.

The results? Yes, we did definitely gain new subscribers, but it ultimately fell woefully short of our expectations. Alas, like computer makers whose products were almost obsolete by the time they hit the shelves, modems moved quickly to 2400 baud, then 9600 baud and ... well, you get the idea. The modem parade had passed us by.

So we were left with dozens of boxes of 1200 baud modems which we decided were best relegated to a dark corner of a storage closet. Who knows? They could still be there today, somewhere in the recesses of the Star-Telegram.

And as the late Paul Harvey would say ... now you know the rest of the story.