Remeber "Green Stamps?"

Bringing back the equivalent of Green Stamps may be the key to spurring the Internet economy. S&H Green Stamps go back to the 19th Century, but I remember my parents collecting them at gas stations in the 1960s. Green Stamps were distributed by a variety of merchants as an incentive to purchase. Users collected the stamps in books and could exchange them at redemption centers for merchandise. Today, frequent-flyer points are a similar kind of currency, although these loyalty programs are usually distributed and valued only by the issuing company itself.

Micropayment systems intended to exchange small dollar amounts, such as Digital's MilliCent, may end up being important for their ability to implement Green Stamps and other incentive programs as private currencies. In an Internet economy where the userŐs perception is that information and services are free, Green Stamps can be used to establish a two-way exchange of value. In other words, users give up something of value and get something back in return.

As an online publisher, I can't yet see implementing a micropayment system where users pay for content, no matter how small the cost per page. However, I could offer users incentives to do things that produce value for my site. For instance, I might reward users who spend more time on the site or who visit regularly. I might reward users who provide detailed demographic information. In effect, Green Stamps could be used to "share" advertising revenue with users. Seeing an ad equates to one stamp; clicking on an ad might be worth two, and visiting an advertiser's site might earn the user four stamps.

Merchants on the Web could also use Green Stamps. Some merchants have difficulty discounting products for sale online, afraid that they'll jeopardize existing retail channels. Green Stamps are a way to give the user something extra without actually offering the product at a lower price.

With a system like MilliCent, Green Stamps are a form of "scrip," or a currency that can be used in place of money. When visiting a scrip-enabled site, the user can receive as well as give scrip in exchange. Users can exchange scrip with each other. What's also interesting is that the user is responsible for the record-keeping (that is, collecting and holding on to their own scrip in their wallet); you don't need a central place to manage those transactions.

The scrip model can work for coupons, tickets, and quite a number of other things. When you visit one site, you might receive scrip that functions as a ticket for a future free visit to another site, or a coupon providing a discount at yet another site. This might turn an advertisement into a transaction.

Green Stamps might be reason enough for users to download an electronic wallet, especially if sites were going to put something of value in the wallet rather than just take something out. Green Stamps can help develop the social and technological basis for establishing value and enabling transactions. --Dale Dougherty