Innovation and Online Advertising
I’m sitting on a panel tomorrow as part of the Media track at the OMMA Conference … a panel with a really long title that’s about the breakdown of “mega-media” in the online space. Many of the buzzwords du jour (blogs, wikipedia, podcasting) are poured into that panel description, but in organizing my thoughts it occurred to me that the topic is nearly identical to ones I’ve talked about as far back as 1998. Once upon a time, as part of a reviewing committee for grants for artists exploring public uses of the Web, we came up with a litmus test for quickly telling if a proposal qualified as an “innovative use of the Web” worth funding — does it enable the kinds of many-to-many communication that makes the Web unique, or does it just recapitulate the one-to-many (publishing/broadcasting) or many-to-one (research/feedback) models that “old media” does so well? I think marketers and advertisers online might be well served to think about a similar litmus test.
While online marketers have always been excited by the “bling bling” of interactive digital media, they frequently seem suprised or startled when media emerges online from that core innovation of the Web. Despite being nearly 10 years since the publishing of the Cluetrain Manifesto, online marketers are still confused and nervous about a world where the line between publisher and audience is thinner and thinner. I still occassionally have clients that say things like, “Not everyone should be allowed to have a blog” or “We need to stop people from saying that kind of thing.”
The Internet and the people who use it, however, have never been confused on this subject (even if perhaps they can’t express it), and if you look at where both the greatest sum of human attention and the greatest sum of bandwidth on the Internet are going, you find it leading back to that same core of many-to-many media — email, instant messenger, online gaming, peer-to-peer sharing (like BitTorrent), discussion boads and community media make up the thriving heart of this medium. Sorry to say, but buying stuff and click ads rank way below that.
If you think you’re working on something innovative in online publishing or advertising and that something doesn’t enable your audience to collaborate with other audience members, you’re still stuck in the mold of reproducing old media approaches in a new environment. Not that there’s anything bad about that, mind you: television networks are still putting cameras on radio hosts and thinking that makes good TV. But with that mindset, you’re likely to continue to look at things like blogs and podcasting and wikipedia (let alone newer more potentially disruptive technologies like Grease Monkey) as strange, fragmented, dangerous, confusing niches.
Like Cluetrain said so long ago, companies seem afraid of their marketplaces — and the more organized and collaborative those marketplaces, the more capable they are of throwing monkeywrenches into the safe and controlled channels that a one-to-many marketer would prefer. The most interesting innovations in online marketing (and therefore the people that I’m most interesting in rubbing shoulders with at OMMA) are those that embrace the Internet as a community, a conversation, a many-to-many experience. A marketer’s real choice is whether they choose to participate in that conversation or stick their fingers in their ears and hope all those disruptive, uncontrollable niches go away (or that they aren’t talking about you.)