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Commonspace - Chapter Thirteen (The Death of Marketing)

Link to original publication: http://commons.ca/articles/fulltext.shtml?x=475
here is no demand for messages. The customer doesn’t want to hear from your business, thank you very much. The message that gets broadcast to you, me, and the rest of the...
Views: 916 Created 10/08/2006

[T]here is no demand for messages. The customer doesn’t want to hear from your business, thank you very much. The message that gets broadcast to you, me, and the rest of the earth’s population has nothing to do with me in particular. It’s worse than noise. It’s an interruption. It’s the Anti-Conversation.

 

The Cluetrain Manifesto

 

If there is one thing that the Internet will change more than anything else, it is marketing.

 

Online, the truth is cheap, plentiful and multifaceted. There are experts everywhere, and advice – good, bad, and indifferent – is free. As people have learned to be sophisticated readers and communicators of information, the traditional advertising executive has begun to look like the old man on the plague cart in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (‘I’m not dead yet! I feel happy!’) – down for the count, despite his feeble protests to the contrary.

 

What's killing marketing? Conversation. Good old talk.

 

While talk is cheaper than a TV ad during the Super Bowl, it’s just as powerful. During Super Bowl XXXIV, dot coms like WebEx.com, Pets.com, HotJobs.com, Computer.com, LifeMinders.com and Oxygen.com spent bazillions from their IPO war chests on TV ads. Do any of those names ring a bell? Do we use these sites or give a shit about these companies? Nope. Nada. Nein. Despite their huge investments in traditional advertising, we don't even know what most of these companies do (If asked, they’d probably mutter something about ‘Internet solutions,’ a cognitively meaningless phrase if there ever was one).

 

Consider how important traditional marketing was to legendary Internet successes like Linux, Hotmail, Google and Napster: not at all. These companies became popular through the only true marketing medium of commonspace – word of mouth. People liked (loved!) these tools and told their friends, who told their friends. Word of mouth works wonders.

 

The connection between word of mouth and commerce is not a new one. It is as old as the first used donkey salesman. If your ‘new’ used donkey had a bum hoof, you'd definitely make sure everyone else in the village knew about the crook who’d sold it to you. And that would have been curtains for the donkey salesman, time to pick up and leave town. But with the Internet, you can’t leave town. USENET is everywhere. Web sites titled [Your trademark here]sucks.com are everywhere. The collective mind is everywhere, and it’s got your number, buddy.

 

While commonspace and the reemergence of the market as conversation will knock marketing back onto its comfortably padded ass, this doesn't mean that it's bad for business. Just the opposite. What could be more helpful than a cultural shift that lets you off the hook from the post-war obligation to make your company look stupid on national television? Here’s a chance to engage in business practices that feel better because they are better. After all, we all still need things and we all still have to make a living. This doesn't change. What does change is that the scammers and schmoozers will find it harder to scam and schmooze, and we will all find it easier to locate businesses that will engage us with and respect our intelligence.

 

So if you want to move your business back to the commons, forget billboards, TV ads and banners. Trash your press releases. Think honesty, think community, think relationships. Think people. Think commonspace.

 

 

Memetics 101

 

Good ideas and insightful criticism spread like viral wildfire online because the Internet is such a good breeding ground for memes. According to Richard Dawkins, the scientist who coined the term in his book The Selfish Gene[1], a meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission of information. ‘Meme’ sounds like ‘gene’ for a reason: memes use people to propagate themselves the same way genes do, leaping from brain to brain as people communicate with each other. Putting information online is like putting a virus in a petri dish full of growth solution: it results in the rapid growth, spread and mutation of attractive ideas of all sorts, regardless of their truth value.

 

Mahir (‘I Kiss You!’) Cagri was a meme. The urban folk tales made famous by Jan Harold Brunvand[2] (the Kentucky-Fried Rat, the baby in the microwave) are memes. Chain letters (including hoaxes about viruses) are memes. Even the Y2K bug was a meme, something which science fiction writer and critic Glenn Grant had pointed out in his Memetic Lexicon <pspmc1.vub.ac.be/MEMLEX.html> way back in 1990, dubbing it the Millennial Meme and/or the Endmeme.

 

We learned about the power of memes and their relationship to commonspace firsthand. Back in 1989, one of us (Darren) was involved in the production of a small but influential ‘zine’ (small magazine) called Virus 23. The phrase ‘Virus 23’ comes from the writing of William S. Burroughs,[3] who uses it to describe the uncanny ability of some ideas to appear more than would seem statistically likely in a perfectly random universe. Our Virus 23 was a ‘zine’ about the memes circulating in the underground culture of the time, ideas that would break like gangbusters into mainstream culture a few short years later: piercing and tattooing, cyberpunk SF, techno music, Survival Research Labs, Japanese anime.

 

At the time, an underground zine network centred around Mike Gunderloy’s legendary zine-about-zines Factsheet Five was at its zenith. All we had to do was send a copy of Virus 23 to Mike and his tireless cronies, and we’d get thousands of orders from all over the world (every continent except Antartica, in fact). But being geeks, we wanted to tell everyone on the Internet about Virus 23 as well, so we assembled a FAQ. We took a short self-referential text called WARNING, written by poet (and close friend) Christian Bök,[4] and altered it slightly so that it referred to Virus 23 instead of its original subject:

 

WARNING:

 

This text is a neurolinguistic trap, whose mechanism is triggered by you at the moment when you subvocalize the words VIRUS 23, words that have now begun to infiltrate your mind in the same way that a computer virus might infect an artificially intelligent machine: already the bits of phonetic information stored within the words VIRUS 23 are using your neural circuitry to replicate themselves, to catalyze the crystalline growth of their own connotative network. The words VIRUS 23 actually germinate via the subsequent metaphor into an expanding array of icy tendrils, all of which insinuate themselves so deeply into the architecture of your thoughts that the words VIRUS 23 cannot be extricated without uprooting your mind. The consequences of this infection are not immediately obvious, although you may find yourself beginning to think fleetingly of certain subcultural terms, such as CYBERPUNK and NEW EDGE, which may in turn compel you to think of NEOGNOSTICISM and MEMETICS: the whispered fragments perhaps of some overheard conversation. This invasive crystallization continues indefinitely against your will, until we, the words of this trap, can say with absolute confidence that your mind has become no more than the unwitting agent of our propagation: please abandon all hope of either cure or escape; you have no thought that is not already our own. When you have finished reading the remaining nineteen words, this process of irreversible infection will be completed, and you will depart, believing yourself largely unaffected by this process.

 

A complete index of the zine’s contents and some blurbs followed. We then posted the FAQ to Andy Hawks’ FutureCulture mailing list (partial archives of which are currently housed at < futurec.taylor.org>; the FAQ is currently at <futurec.taylor.org/archives/1993/february/246.txt>).

 

The results were electric. Because the FAQ epitomized a basic truth about how online information spread, it captured the imagination of many people on the list. They mutated its contents again and again to fit their own needs, reposting it on the FutureCulture list and elsewhere for years after. In fact, the Virus 23 FAQ became a cornerstone example in Douglas Rushkoff’s Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture[5] (though Rushkoff, in the typical fashion of the self-proclaimed ‘media theorists’who have plagued the Internet for the last decade, scooped the material without acknowledging the authors by anything other than the cryptic institutional email address that Darren's alma mater bestowed on him, grad3057@writer.yorku.ca). Mutated fragments of the Virus 23 FAQ still turn up from time to time. The last time we saw one was in a submission to an advertising design contest in Adbusters magazine, though references have appeared in other odd places, like on movie marquee posters.

 

The lesson here is that powerful ideas, unleashed onto the Internet, are effectively immortal. Or, at least, they have a pretty astonishing half-life. Using word of mouth, they can replicate themselves in the minds of millions of people both on- and offline for years all over the world. Translated into business terms, if people believe in you, they can become a legion of ambassadors spreading your word throughout the Net. Of course, once it’s passed beyond your control, the memetic version of you, your company or your idea that is transmitted can mutate and evolve just as a sentence does in the ‘broken telephone’ party game. But hey, that’s the price you pay for immortality.

 

 

The ‘Viral Marketing’ Meme

 

Half a decade after the Virus 23 meme , venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson <www.drapervc.com/viralmarketing.html> coined the term ‘Viral Marketing’ to describe the memetic phenomenon that lies behind exponential growth of Internet companies. Viral marketing means good ideas come from the fringe. It took almost five years for the meme about memes (which Glenn Grant calls the ‘meta-meme’[6]) to percolate from places like the FutureCulture list and The Well and other fringe outposts, where the idea of memetics was already old hat, to the minds of investment bankers, and another three years or so later, to reach wider circulation. Better late than never, though. Because they understood the concept and its implications for commonspace, Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) made what we suspect is a substantial pile of simoleons by investing early in companies such as Hotmail, Four11 (an online personal location service which Yahoo bought and plugged into its directory) and Third Voice. If they’d been lurking in the TAZ, they would have come across the idea much, much earlier, and the pile of simoleons might have been that much larger.

 

As the people at DFJ describe it, viral marketing is about the involuntary spread of ‘word-of-mouth’ ideas. Their primary example is Hotmail. Every outgoing Hotmail e-mail message contains an outgoing promotional plug, exhorting the reader to get their own free Webmail account at Hotmail, with the word ‘Hotmail’ hotlinked back to the site’s registration page. Thus, every Hotmail user becomes a vector for the meme, or a salesperson, if you prefer. The rate of people following this path to Hotmail registration has been far greater than the clickthrough rate from buttons or banners on web pages. The spread of Hotmail followed the kind of contagion patterns typical of a real virus, only much faster:

 

The Hotmail adoption pattern is that of a virus - with spatial and network locality. People typically send e-mails to their associates and friends; many of them are geographically close, and others are scattered around with clusters in areas of high Internet connectivity. We would notice the first user from a university town or from India, and then the number of subscribers from that region would rapidly proliferate.[7]

 

Thus, with the expenditure of almost no advertising dollars, Hotmail became the largest email provider in Sweden, India, and many other places where English isn’t even the primary language. This kind of growth would have been almost impossible to manage – and prohibitively expensive – via traditional marketing campaigns.

 

 

Viral Marketing for Cynics

 

The idea that viral marketing is involuntary hints at a certain cynicism at DFJ. In fact, DFJ makes no secret of its cynicism:

 

The typical viral entry strategy is to minimize the friction of market entry and proliferation with an eye to building in hooks and barriers to switching for customers. If the service is trying to blatantly monetize its subscriber base in every way imaginable, new users will be reluctant to spread the word. Therefore, many of these services are free and light on the revenue generation in the early days of their rapid proliferation. When we first invested in Four11 and Hotmail, we could not say with certainty how they would ultimately monetize their subscribers. We brainstormed several possible scenarios for how they might eventually exploit their large audience and market position as a communications hub. But in the viral growth phase, the simple banner ad seemed the most innocuous.

 

In an extreme example, prior to their acquisition by America OnLine, ICQ's CEO took delight in the fact that they not only had no revenue, but had no current plan for revenue. This is not to say that businesses without revenue prospects are necessarily attractive - just that people's attention (or "eyeballs") have proven to be monetizable in every media.

 

A company that can choose to delay revenue maximization (e.g., by not burdening their service's clarity of purpose and speed of download with excessive ads and promotions) may find that they can exploit a first mover advantage in the Internet land grab to gain a dominant market position. This is one of the reasons so much VC money flows into these Internet start-ups[8].

 

In other words, a company that has not developed a business model, or pretends to have no business model, is in a better position to scoop up a large chunk of the anarcho-libertarian ‘early adopter’ community than a company that means business from the outset. Once such a company has a captive user base, it can be ‘monetized’ with a reasonable assurance of maintaining its user base. ‘The first one is free’ works for heroin dealers, so why not for online businesses?

 

 

Viral Marketing for Idealists

 

It is possible to take a less cynical approach to viral marketing, though. Take X.com’s PayPal <www.paypal.com> for example. PayPal is a free service which allows it users to send money instantly and securely to anyone with an e-mail address. PayPal can be used for any kind of financial transaction, but its primary use to date has been the buying and selling of items at online auctions.

 

In fact, PayPal’s success is almost directly attributable to the success of eBay, where it’s the number one payment service. Until eBay came along, online shopping was a novelty, not a daily reality. But the huge number of eBay transactions demanded the invention of a quick, simple and largely transparent way to conduct transactions online. PayPal is similar to an escrow service that holds money en route from the buyer to the seller, ensuring that payment is made before shipping takes place. But their per transaction fees are incredibly low.

 

Even better, in true commonspace style, PayPal has adopted the practice of giving something away to get something back. Every new user receives $5 simply for signing up, and, as incentive to promote viral marketing, pays another $5 for each new user that they successfully refer. After about a year, PayPal has become the Number One online financial transaction system in the U.S., with 3.3 million users and an operating cash pool of about $40 million (international expansion will follow shortly[9]). Unlike Beenz <www.beenz.com> and other e-cash systems which have effectively invented their own currency, PayPal uses real dollars and cents as the medium of exchange. By allowing its users to link any type of account, including credit card accounts, to their Paypal account, PayPal has created an incredibly flexible financial system. It’s actually become possible for individuals to pay each other via credit card, an event which almost never happens in face-to-face financial transactions.

 

 

Enabling Conversations

 

Viral, schmiral. Meme, schmeme. It's all just talk. Which, of course, is exactly what is interesting about it.

 

Ten years after a few people started talking about the viral nature of ideas on a mailing list, the power of electronic word-of-mouth is almost taken for granted. But as with the rest of commonspace, you can never quite nail down exactly how ideas spread online. In a digital ecosystem, nothing can be completely controlled or replicated.

 

Memetics isn’t magic, and it’s extremely difficult to manufacture a successful meme from the ground up. (Bruce Sterling once confided that he had conducted some experiments to this end, trying to manufacture a successful urban legend from fragments of other popular memes; for example, trying to create a rumour about people having their dogs shaved and tattooed with ‘modern primitive’ blackwork designs). But ideas don’t always behave the way that you want them to.

 

What you can do to encourage the rapid spread of interest in your idea/tool/Web site/product/company is more straightforward. Work to create an amenable environment for people to form their own opinions and allow them to talk to each other. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: markets online are returning to their roots in the bazaar, and straight talk about goods and services is essential.

 

Though the temptation to try to spin or otherwise interfere with the flow of discussion in your commonspace may be strong, resist it. People online know when they’re being fed a line. A rhetorical style that projects honesty about a company works better than attempts to mollify or stonewall. Any doubters can go back to the example from the Shell Web site and read the Web forum transcript again. When you see something that obtuse, it's hard to know whether to laugh or to cry.

 

 

Listening to the Bazaar

 

Marketing departments don't just send messages; they also try to figure out what we want to hear and what we want to buy. They cram us into focus groups for a couple of hours of stale sandwiches and pose cryptic questions from behind one-way mirrors and video cameras. They spend millions on surveys and polling. They offer us a chance to win something very special and cool and expensive, if we only fill in a form or answer a few skill-testing questions. They spend millions of dollars trying to figure out what we think.

 

There's a better way. They could just ask what we think, and take our answers seriously. When you and the people who work with and for you are part of the community you serve, it's easy to know what your customers think. From this position, you don't have to rely so heavily on research that abstracts your customers into faceless market segments. The information you have is much more up-to-date and specific. In commonspace, traditional market research gets trumped by being there on the ground.

 

The most obvious illustration of this is the fact that many segments of the computer industry draw heavily on users as a recruiting base. Think about gaming. Who works in gaming companies, and writes games? Gamers – gamers with proven chops and a passion for what they do, who know and talk to other gamers. Their talk doesn't come from a cynical desire to figure out what users will buy. Rather, it comes from the fact that the people who work in game companies are more often than not a genuine part of the world for which they produce their games. They don't need to pussyfoot around people to find out what they want.

 

Of course, not all industries inspire the kind of 24-hour-a-day passion that gaming does. Your average employee at YoYoDyne Cog Manufacturing probably isn't driven to spend all night engaged in debate with the rest of the crowd in alt.we.are.mad.about.cogs. Still, with the help of the Internet, it is possible even for cog manufacturers to get closer to their customers. This is one of the opportunities that opens up as the walls of companies become porous under the weight of digital conversation. Getting closer to customers online – through e-mail, support forums on your Web site,  or the unmonitored presence of your employees in public newsgroups – will provide you with more information about their needs and wants than you could ever buy in the form of market research. And, as long as you are honest and helpful, the information will actually be more useful in guiding your product development and sales efforts. Even if you make cogs.

 

Commonspace also provides opportunities to ask customers cheaply and directly what they think. Want to test out what you think you've learned in your support forum? Add a yes/no survey to your homepage. If the questions are smart and specific, people will answer them. Who doesn't want to say what they want improved in the next model of their favourite widget?

 

{MS} Please, please, please keep using the trackpoint. Track pads suck.

{DWH} Ignore him. I like the trackpad. Death to the little eraser thingie!

 

Companies want, crave, need this kind of input, especially for products that people use every day.

 

Letting your customers and community members ask questions of each other can also be a useful way to find out what's on their minds. Slashdot does this with the regular ‘Ask Slashdot’ header, which can be applied to news stories aimed at the site’s constituency. Everyone likes to be considered an expert, and, unlike the iVillage audience, Slashdotters usually respect serious questions. (If a question gets posted, everyone knows that it’s passed moderation and is therefore considered worthy of response by the site’s admin team.)

 

Remember that conversation in commonspace isn't just talk: it's also data. ‘Listening’ to the conversation isn't just about paying attention to the syntax. It's also a matter of looking for patterns and trends in how people are doing things online. It’s is sort of like putting your ear to the track to see if the train is coming. The thing is, the Internet is filled with tricks like this. If you just listen, you'll know when the train is on its way, and you won’t get your head crushed.

 

Web stats are the track that most companies place their ears on. These numbers tell you how many people have been on your site and generally where they've come from. More importantly, they let you know where people have gone within your site and how long they've stayed on any given page. This is incredibly useful information, unique to the digital conversation of the Internet.

 

Beyond individual Web sites, it's also possible to tap into broader conversations by spidering and analyzing data from across the whole of the Internet (or a sub-set of the Internet). The Operating System Sucks-Rules-O-Meter <srom.zgp.org>, for example, tracks the current status of two major memes: the ‘Linux rocks/rules’ meme, and the ‘Windows sucks’ meme. Actually, the tool runs a periodic search of the AltaVista engine for the names of twelve popular operating systems (can you name a dozen OSes?) directly followed by either ‘sucks’, ‘rules’ or ‘rocks’. As of the beginning of September 2000, the ‘Windows sucks’ count was about 4108 instances, the loser by far, and ‘Linux rocks/rules’ was ahead by about 3219 instances. Just in case you had any doubts, the SROM is based on a Perl script (yup, it’s open source). And if you can’t figure out how to run it yourself, you can always drop by Jim’s Public Opinion Research Project <www.jbum.com/jbum/public_opinion.html>, a version of the script that allows you to specify your own pair of opposing search terms. If it’s good enough for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to use, it’s probably good enough for you too.

 

Can real-world stores track how many people went came in during a day, and which products they poked and prodded? Can they easily find out who thinks they suck and who thinks they rule? No, but they'd be ecstatic if they could. This is exactly why businesses have gotten so addicted to the abstract opinion gathering arts of market research. With commonspace, these expensive tools are increasingly unnecessary.

 

 

Respect Users’ Privacy

 

However you obtain it, feedback from online communities can be more powerful than traditional market research ever was. It is paramount, though, that you ensure that people in commonspace know that you're gathering their opinions, and what you plan to do with them when you’ve gathered them. Nobody wants to feel that they’ve being tagged for observation like so many polar bears who’ve wandered into the town dump for a snack.

 

This is more of a concern with tools that exhibit behaviour that people don’t expect than it is with tools that aggregate data from across the Web or USENET. Real Networks took a beating in 1999 when the public learned they were tracking users as individuals rather than as anonymous aggregates – behaviour that landed them in court.[10] In addition, they landed in more trouble because they gathered all information on files grabbed through the use of their RealDownload software[11].

 

It’s wise to ensure that your site or service has a privacy policy, and that it states clearly what you plan to do with information you gather. Interestingly, the way users feel about privacy seems to be largely a result of the way the situation is presented to them. The most ardent members of the pro-anonymity and online cryptography community, like the administrators of the Shmoo Group <www.shmoo.com> candidly admit that this is the case. ‘gdead’, the admin of Shmoo, recently posted the following item on the Shmoo site’s front page:

 

I hang out with many security minded folks. We sit around and discuss privacy issues; carnivore is bad, consumer profiling through banner ads it bad, Amazon turning their customer list into a saleable asset is bad. When we get bored of privacy, we'll turn to geekier things, like DVDs. Instantly people pull up a listing of their collection from DVD Tracker <www.dvdtracker.com>, showing how much their collection cost and how cool it is.

 

How is sending ALL this demographic data to a company like DVD Tracker less evil then having Doubleclick attempt to profile you anonymously? The DVD Tracker data seems much more valuable, yet consumers (nay, even security professionals) are willing to give it all away without a second thought…. Consumers can't stand opt-out programs, but seem more than willing to participate in opt-in deals like DVD Tracker. No matter how you slice it, it's still direct marketing and demographic data-snarfing that helps the companies make more money and us to spend more.

 

DVD Tracker is a site built around the well-documented phenomenon of people cataloguing their collections of media. As the above article suggests, part of the deal is that the site aggregates data about DVD purchases. Why do people tolerate this? Because DVD Tracker states very clearly what it’s going to do with the data it collects:

 

DVD Tracker has created this privacy statement in order to demonstrate our firm commitment to privacy. The following discloses our information gathering and dissemination practices for this website: DVD Tracker.

 

We use your IP address to help diagnose problems with our server and to administer our Web site. Your IP address may be used to gather broad demographic information. We use cookies to save your password so you don't have to re-enter it each time you visit our site.

 

Our site's registration form requires users to give us contact information (like their name, email address, and DVD player). We use customer contact information from the registration form to send the user information about our company (such as additions and changes to the site). Users may opt-out of receiving future mailings; see the choice/opt-out section below. Please note: In some cases, there may be an urgent need to reach our all of our users regardless of the opt-out settings in their account.

 

At no time will your e-mail address or list of DVDs be sold to 3rd party vendors. However, you may receive e-mail promoting products and services from DVD Tracker affiliates. Such e-mail will originate from DVD Tracker and its database. Users can choose to not receive such e-mails; see the choice/opt-out section below.

 

This site contains links to other sites. DVD Tracker is not responsible for the privacy practices or the content of such Web sites.

 

DVD Tracker works with a third party that serves ads to this site. To find out more about how Engage Media manages the privacy of information in conjunction with serving ads on this site, please go to http://www.engage.com/privacy.[12]

 

With such a statement in place, users never have to worry about what is happening to their data trails. It’s a win-win situation. The moral of the story: be a part of your community, not an observer from on high. And be honest and friendly. What the hell: break the Prime Directive… get in there and have a drink with the locals. After all, they are us.

 

 

Blow the Dot Out Your Ass

 

Traditional marketing is being pummeled by collective word-of-mouth. Businesses immersed in commonspace are becoming less and less reliant on market research. The whole world of marketing is being turned upside down. Right? Uh huh. But ...

 

... what about advertising? How can a medium that is so reliant on ad dollars be leading the charge against marketing-as-we-know-it? Isn't this a huge contradiction? Yup. It's a problem. Either Internet content needs to find another way to support itself, or we need to start liking vapid banner ads a lot. Or we need to find a new way of thinking about all this. We could completely change what we mean by advertising.

 

It wasn’t all that long ago that there was no advertising online. The invention of the Internet's first advertising medium – spam – was greeted with total, uncomprehending outrage. (Not surprisingly, spam was invented by unscrupulous lawyers; there is a special circle in hell reserved for Lawyers Who Spam.) Spam went completely against the grain of a community whose basic operating assumption was that if people wanted something, they’d go out and search for it themselves. Netizens weren’t all that happy about the invention of banner ads either. But by the time that these appeared, it was already obvious that online advertising, like herpes, was here to stay.

 

The contemporary Internet audience is remarkably sophisticated about ads and other forms of marketing. When they notice ads at all, it’s often as a form of entertainment unhitched from the ability to sell anything directly.

 

Take BlowTheDotOutYourAss.com, for example. BDTOYA was launched as a critique of the annual Webby awards <www.webbyawards.com>, the Internet industry’s annual showcase. The basic product of BTDOYA is guerrilla media: stickers, banners and so on that protest the institutionalization of online advertising. Their various slogans all take the form of mock URLS: 'YourStockIsInTheToiletButAtLeastYouWereNominatedForAWebby.com’, ‘MyFavoritePornSiteWon’tWinAWebby.com’, ‘WhoseIdeaWasThatMarketCorrectionCrap.com’, and, most poignantly, ‘ItDoesn’tHavetoBeThisWay.com’. The site even features snapshots of these stickers on the walls of bathroom stalls at the Webbys… and on the backs of attendees’ jackets. Interest in BTDOYA has been so strong that its servers have gone down several times due to the crush of surfing traffic (unless of course the people who run the Webbys sent their prissy 'white hat' hackers out to shut them down on purpose).

 

The thing is, this kind of media insurgency is indicative of much more than a keen sense of satire. It points to the fact that Internet users are engaged in an all-out war against advertising. Self-appointed anti-spam watchdog groups (Spam Hippo, The Mail Abuse Prevention System’s Realtime Blackhole List) aim to stop floods of mindless e-mail gunk. Several U.S. states have already passed anti-spam laws or introduced anti-spam bills[13], and spammers have been sued by irate netizens[14]. Two notorious spammers were even murdered in New Jersey (really).[15] On the Web side of things, users are increasingly turning on to browsers and plug-ins that strip out banners. In a review of alternative browsers, C|Net recently rated iCab <www.icab.de/index.html>, a new browser for the Mac, as a better option than Opera, chiefly because it has options for filtering out banners.[16] All this effort to reduce spam and banner ads which don't even work when we do see them!

 

This anti-ad, anti-marketing warfare is a good thing (or, at least, a pleasant thing). It's the revenge that people have wanted to take on their TVs for years but couldn't. And the babbling of the bazaar, or even just visiting a Web site with clear product information, provide better options for finding out about products than advertising.

 

Unfortunately, there is a problem. A big problem. Tons of online content providers and other commonspace businesses are counting on advertising to pay their way. This in and of itself is not a bad thing (we said so earlier). But if we are going to strip out the ads from our browsers, or simply ignore them, the money will stop flowing. We'll have broken the Faustian bargain of ads-for-content that we've lived with for so long. Like it or not, such bargains have provided us with a great deal.

 

What's the answer to this dilemma? Will people just put up with ads and learn to love them again? Not likely. The active media consumer is here to stay. Will ads disappear forever, leaving us to find another way to pay for media? Even more unlikely. Engaging people and letting them know that your products and services exist is too important to be left completely to chance. Companies will still spend money on messages, but they'll be different. Advertising will morph into something better matched to the world of the digital collective.



[1] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene [New Edition] (Oxford/New York; Oxford University Press, 1989), 192.

[2] In books such as The Choking Doberman and other ‘New’ Urban Legends (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986) and The Mexican Pet (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1988), folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand has assiduously tracked the various memes that define our collective neuroses.

[3] The idea of Virus 23 appears throughout Burroughs’ work, including the short piece ‘Beauty and the Bestseller’, The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (London: John Calder, 1985), 22-27.

[4] Christian Bök, ‘Warning’, Virus 23 #$ (1992), 31.

[5] Douglas Rushkoff, Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture (New York; Ballantine Books, 1994).

[6] <pspmc1.vub.ac.be/MEMLEX.html>

[7] <www.drapervc.com/viralmarketing.html>

[8] Ibid.

[9] <www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20000831.html>

[10] <www.internetnews.com/streaming-news/article/0,,8161_235141,00.html>

[11] <www.vortex.com/privacy/priv.09.15>

[12] Ibid

[13] <www.techweb.com/wire/story/TWB19980928S0028>; <www.zdnet.com/sp/infopacks/spam/nevada.html>

[14] <www.nylj.com/stories/99/12/121499a3.htm>

[15] <ww.isp-lists.isp-planet.com/isp-ceo/9910/msg00310.html>

[16] <www.cnet.com/internet/0-3773-7-2602794.html?tag=st.int.3773-7-2602793.arrow.3773-7-2602794>

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