Opinion » Cybernaut

Back to the web?

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Find a marketing strategist with a full head of hair these days and you've made a rare find indeed.

It used to be simple — newspapers, magazines, TV, radio. Then the Internet came along and for a while it was all of those things plus banner ads.

But now? Companies are in the position where they have to chase their markets deeper and deeper into the abyss that is social networking, and get more and more creative in order to catch and hold people's attention amidst all the digital noise. They stage elaborate events, try to create news and the next viral sensation, and do what they can to have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, LinkedIn, Vine, Google Search, Google+, YouTube, Reddit, Digg, Huffington Post, whatever the new MySpace is, mobile apps, and so on.

But every time they think they get a handle on things the people seem to leave and go somewhere else — probably because they're fleeing the relentless marketing machine that's hot on their heels, looking for a place that's free, social and private, where they're not being marketed to around every corner.

On Facebook, some people I know use their accounts strictly for marketing themselves and whatever products or services they're being paid to sell. On Twitter, I'm snowed under by the media companies I follow that feel they need to post every single story they write (I'm looking at you Vancouver Sun and Twitter) in a bid to improve their Twitter Grade, draw webpage views and draw in more money.

Hashtags, while making it easy to find things you need, also provide a backdoor for people to sell and promote just about anything. And Google is most definitely watching you, so much so that there's a number of people that are officially unhooking from everything Google, killing Gmail accounts and using alternative browsers.

In a way, it's the natural evolution of the web. A web page used to be a more or less static presence, a kind of digital brick and mortar store that was easy to find and had information organized in a logical way. Then we had Web 2.0, where enterprising web developers looked at ways to make the web useful. For example, Google Docs gave people the ability to write documents and make spreadsheets over the Internet, while half a dozen sites let you organize and edit your photos.

Now we have something like Web 3.0 where every website has a traditional version, a mobile version, integration with all that company's social media platforms, and maybe an app that does all the same things though not quite as well. (Given the choice between downloading a company's app and using its website on my phone, I'll pick the website every time for pinch zooming and logical layout.)

The big question is what's next for marketers? Are people just going to keep flocking from one social network to another, with marketers in hot pursuit? Will Hulu and Netflix go free, and start airing commercials with the content? Will all the game consoles and digital streaming players provide a new network for the marketers to invade? Or is Amazon's model — offer cheap tablets and pack them with ads — going to become more common? (E.g. "buy this $600 iPhone for $200 if you agree to this ad banner.")

It's really, really hard to say and I don't envy marketers these days. My own personal feeling is that we're going to turn the clock back a step and start focusing on websites once again, with social networking and other distractions built in where it makes sense.

There are a few reasons I believe this:

1. The HTML 5 standard opens up a lot of new possibilities, including a rich web browsing experience that's virtually identical on phones and tablets. It's easy to integrate every aspect of a business's marketing outreach — Twitter, Facebook, etc. — under a single roof, using social networking to draw people into the website.

2. Many top websites are already being based on blog platforms like Wordpress, which integrate things like social networking very well, letting businesses cover all their bases from a single command centre.

3. The recent success of paywalls for leading newspapers like the New York Times and the Globe and Mail suggests that people, finally, are more willing to pay for online content than they have been in the past. That's also good news for advertisers because they can support traditional media like newspapers, and get added exposure from online readers.

4. Because it has to be this way. Companies are spending huge resources trying to keep up to a market that's relentlessly fickle, and for the most part it's not working — or pissing people off. You need to be online to succeed these days, that's a certainty, but there's no need to split the marketing budget into 100 small, ineffectual pieces and follow every single trend.

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