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Marketing: The Internet Dream

Simon Pitt | Internet | Monday 11th January 2010

In the first part of this series on Marketing, I looked at how social networking and the Internet forced everyone to adopt commercial marketing tactics to make themselves noticed on the Internet. In real life, you're rarely standing in a room with several billion other people all shouting to get your best friend's attention. On the internet, things are rather different.

At the cliffhanger to the last part, I had just suggested that the inevitable result of this marketing is that your website, or twitter feed or blog, will gradually become less about what you originally intended, and more to do with what is popular and what generates traffic. This process of turning all websites into a series of keywords and headings is called "Search Engine Optimisation".

Once you discover that most of your traffic comes from search engines, you start to do whatever you can to make your sites "optimised" for them. I simplified this when I suggested it was all about stuffing pages full of keywords, but the principle is there. Google sees pages in a rather different way to humans. When I last checked, though, planet Earth was populated by people, and not by search engines. Nevertheless, it's increasingly popular to spend much longer optimising for search engines than it is for humans. I'm not, of course, the first person to point this out:
In our great frantic headlong rush to accumulate users at any cost, many of us were all too quick to sacrifice anything that stood in the way of search engine optimisation
[Matt Kelly, quoted in The Guardian 02/12/09]

The way to "reverse the damage we've done to ourselves in the last 15 years of the internet", says, Matt Kelly, now the head of Trinity Mirror websites, is to "build sites that perform well for humans, not search engines". The problem, of course, is that while you're doing that other people are building sites that appear before yours on Google. It's all very well having a site that is wonderfully easy to use, but if it's on page 137 of Google, no one is going to find it. The Internet, in creating the largest repository of human knowledge ever, has turned us all into marketers.

We've become desperate for attention and feedback. That's why seemingly every site now has a "comments" box, or a "have you say". The site owners are desperate to be noticed. Who cares whether the feedback is positive or not, as long as someone has read the stuff. On Facebook now, you can comment on comments, or on Amazon you can "like" or "dislike" reviews. You can provide feedback on the feedback as the people who comment on sites are, themselves, desperate to get some sort of comment back about their own comment.

As well as beginning to market ourselves, we've also become fascinated with marketing in general. The Metro, London's free, throwaway newspaper even has a weekly column called Behind the Idea where they examine pieces of marketing. We're inspired by people like Mark "I-built-facebook" Zuckerberg and Biz "My-real-name's-Isaac" Stone, part-creator of Twitter. It's like an American High School Drama where the geek becomes incredibly rich by inventing a hugely popular social media platform. We're led to think: I could invent the next Twitter, the next Facebook, MySpace, or Blogger. And if we're not clever enough to do that, we're led to believe we can change things by using these networks. The Heanes family who said that their son had been carried away by a balloon did so as a marketing stunt in the hope they would get a reality TV show.

Then take the 2009 Christmas single (that holiest of Yuletide traditions). This year's No 1 single was Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine, after Jon "buy-a-song-you-don't-want-to-spite-someone-you-don't-know" Morter started a Facebook campaign. On paper, this sounds like a wonderful victory for the little man, but it isn't. As previously reported, Morter had tried last year to get Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up to number 1 and failed. The main reason he succeeded this time was because the marketing behind his campaign was better (the key moment was Peter "how-do-you-spell-my-second-name" Serafinowicz tweeting it).

The thing is, while these may seem like victories for individuals, they're not. They're victories because of the mass marketing power of big media. The Rage track only became number 1 after a major comedian tweeted it and then it got picked up by the media (the story was covered by The Guardian, and mentioned on the television and in interviews). The Heanes' only got the high level of publicity because of the TV coverage of the balloon.

Years ago, you marketed a product to sell it and make money. These days we market things for no reward. Marketing has become the international pastime. Every individual who runs a blog, a web-comic, a website, a Twitter account, a messageboard, wants to be the next big thing: the Belle de Jour of the toothpaste industry, or the Stephen Fry of Digg. They want to be an Internet celebrity.

If the noughties are to be remembered for anything, other than the decade that's referred to by a silly name, it'll be for our disproportional love of social networks. It's like the Elizabethan Ruff; everyone raved about it during its era, but afterwards it was regarded as a bit silly. We're also approaching the death of "the Internet Dream". The second death really; you'd have thought we'd have all learnt after the dot com bubble burst. The dream was that anyone could become hugely popular, successful and rich overnight through the marketing power of social networks. Unfortunately, it's a myth. And while we all rush to become marketers in an attempt to realise that dream, we lose the very thing the Internet was: a level platform on which material was judged on merit. Instead, we all rush to create bland mass-appeal content. We've become stereotypes of ourselves, all in the hope of gaining a little bit of internet celebrity. And for what? So we can become like the guy who did the Evolution of Dance video? Or any number of other "Internet personalities".

Perhaps this is no different from any walk of life, where the clamouring masses yearn to appear on X Factor or Britain's Got Talent. We're led to believe that being popular on the Internet will somehow lead to great riches, to bikini-clad women throwing themselves at us and a life of unadulterated pleasure. It won't, it will lead to pursuing hits and page views through marketing for no gain. The only winners here are the social networking sites that get all of their value through our attempts to market ourselves. And how did they become so big and popular? Through marketing of course.

SP



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