If you stood up on the top of a mountain and looked out over the vast digital landscape unfolding in front of you as far as the eye could see, you would see on the horizon, which is the furthest point the eye would be able to see, a stake in the ground proclaiming the beginnings of the basic internet. That year would be 1958. And the stake driven into the ground by ARPA, an agency set up by the Department of Defence of the Government of the United States of America. The agency had been formed to set up communications between the different divisions of the US Armed Forces. The communications network they set up was the basic internet.
If you then let your eye draw closer, zooming out, you would see at different stages the development of the first mouse, the first email system, the establishment of the TCP/IP protocol which today is the basic driver of the internet, the coining of the term www by Tim Berners-Lee, the launch of the Mosaic browser, the launch of the earliest search engines (Webcrawler and Lycos), and the appearance of the first banner ad and the first ecom transaction. You would have moved in from 1958 to 1994 at this stage. And you would think to yourself, that’s a heck of a long time they took to get all those rudimentary blocks in place. Of course, you would think that keeping in mind the speed at which things move today. But for that era, that was a good pace of development.
The next five years would see a flurry of activity with some of the rudimentary blocks acquiring more mainstream status and also serving as building blocks for newer products and business models. The period 1995 – 2000 saw the launch of Amazon.com, eBay, Craigslist, the Internet Explorer browser, RealAudio, Yahoo, Google, Pay for Performance Ads and of course the giddying heights that NASDAQ reached.
The peak didn’t last very long and soon the great dotcom bust happened that saw a lot of businesses biting the dust. Some were bigger companies, some were overnight sensations, some simply those with a wild idea in their minds and dollars in their eyes…. They all crumpled when the stocks on NASDAQ came tumbling down. Of course there were some who survived, and still soldier on today. And then there were those that were born when the dust cleared and things settled down. These were the new kids on the block, the mavericks who had ideas more outrageous and wackier than their predecessors. They came up with ideas and concepts that had not been seen before. From the chaos that had gone before came about Social Networks, Blogs, content sharing platforms and the concept of community and user-generated content. Web 2.0 loomed up larger than life over the digital landscape. And hundreds upon hundreds of new sites and platforms sprang up. This was the period that saw the coming of age of Wikipedia, iTunes, Technorati, Mozilla, MySpace, Google AdSense, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and on and on …..
Before coming on off down the mountain after surveying the digital landscape and timeline, we can for a moment, step back and take a moment to survey the eco-system that is the Internet. It’s easy to get caught up in the in-your-face buzz which is the World Wide Web with all its accompanying applications and solutions and equate it with the Internet. Which is what a lot of folks tend to think. If you were to consider the Internet , you would have to look at each of the components that go into making up this eco-system.
The core of the system would be the ISPs and the backbone networks which are the underlying data superhighways and highways and controlling stations. Then you would need to consider the hardware providers that contribute all the hardware that goes into making up the internet. The IT Consulting and Solutions companies and the Software Companies are also part of this family, as they provide the processes, know-how and the software that drives the internet. The Web Hosting, Caching and Content Delivery companies provide the platforms on which all the sites are hosted and made available to the consumers. The Search Engines and Portals and the Content sites provide all the content and the means to search and engage with it. The Software/Platform/Infrastructure as a Solution companies provide convenience for businesses looking for hassle-free ways of conducting their business on the internet. So too the Application Service Providers. The marketing pool is made up of the Ad Agencies, the Ad Networks, the email marketers, the Internet marketing agencies, the advertising and design and development agencies along with the e-commerce marketers and the B2B marketers. The eco-system seen in this light puts in perspective what we know as the Internet.
So what about all the people who traverse the vast interconnectedness of this vast digital landscape? The ones who breathe life into it, engage with it, provide the very reason for its existence? Who are they and where do they come from? And how many of them are there? Starting from a few thousands in the early days of the World Wide Web, their numbers today have swelled to close to 2 billion users worldwide. China leads the world with 360 million users, followed by the USA with 220 million, Japan clocking in third with 96 million, India coming in fourth with around 81 million users, Germany being fifth with 54 million. These are the top five countries in the world today, things could change tomorrow with the penetration and the dynamics of usage changing.
So what do all these people do? They come looking for information and access to knowledge sources, they come to be entertained, they come to transact online, and they come to communicate and build relationships and share with one another whatever makes sense to them. Getting more specific, they use it for email, both professional and personal, they search for anything and everything under the sun, they blog about just about anything they feel, think, do or hope to do, they comment on others work, their own work or without reason too, they post thoughts, feelings, words of wisdom, witty sayings, nonsense, and anything else they feel is worthwhile, they share photos, videos, music, references, links to information, they link to information, to others work, profiles, they upload photos, videos, music, news, stories, anything they see fit, they friend, they stream music, video etc. , they write on walls, they create and update profiles, they buy things, sell things, view things, read things, the list goes on and on.
Forrester Research has developed a Social Technographics model on user behaviour online. In a recent presentation, Understand Your Customers’ Social Behaviors – by Charelene Li and Jeremiah Owyang of the Altimeter Group, they revisited this model. They categorized users by the activity that they engage in online.
Users engaging in Curating are the ones who moderate or are heavily involved in online communities, for ex. Wikipedia, fan pages, or discussion boards; Invested in success of a product, service, or community, want to give back, or be recognized.
The ones who spend their time Producing create and publish their own content, websites, blogs, or podcasts. They want to express identity, own content, be heard, or be recognized.
The ones Commenting are the ones who respond to others’ content, comment on blogs or news stories, review or rate products; Actively participate, support, or contribute ideas/opinions
Those Sharing update status on social sites or Twitter, upload photos, videos, articles, etc; Want to share the information they have with peers, both to support others, and demonstrate knowledge
Then there are those who spend time Watching: These are the ones who visit social networking sites, read blogs, watch videos. They are the ones who seek social-created content to help with making decisions, learning from peers, or entertainment
All this is opening up new avenues for marketers to exploit. The marketing paradigm is being turned on its head. Marketing activity has evolved and will continue to evolve in ways never thought possible before. Given that the basic components of any marketing activity remain the same, it is the approach and execution that is undergoing change.
The basic marketing requirement of knowing who your customers are, which once relied totally on segmenting and targeting based on socio-demographics and relied on market research for insights in the pre-digital age, today is moving more and more towards segmenting and targeting based on consumers interests and affinities, and gaining insights in realtime.
Articulating what your brand offers and being clear about it in the pre-digital age meant one message for all consumers and situations with the advertising being created by Brand. Now theres more of different messages for different consumers and situations with the content being created by the brand as well as by the consumer.
Choosing how you would communicate about your brand was pretty much not much effort as it always was offline channels and a one-way push message. Today you have a choice of both offline and a variety of online channels with the communication being two way push and pull.
Never before has marketing had such close access to the consumer base. The possibilities that are thrown up now are mind-boggling. The accuracy with which you can now target consumers is something that was not possible in the pre-digital age.
And why is it changing? Very simply, because today you can do all of this. Today you can segment online consumers by the interests they have or the affinity they show towards subjects or communities, you can listen in on conversations, you can monitor what is happening in real-time and get insights real-time. You can have separate messages for separate user groups and ensure only they see the messages meant for them and in contexts specified by you. The content can be created by the consumers themselves as well as by you. And instead of broadcasting and shouting out your message at them you can choose to engage the consumers and stimulate conversation around your brand and leverage the relationships that exist on the net and rely on that to spread your message and awareness of your brand. All this can be done today because, well simply because it is possible today.
Are marketers today exploiting this situation. You bet they are. Internet marketing has grown at a dizzy rate and the ad revenues realized on the internet compared to other older media is close to incomparable. If you consider a figure of 20Billion USD in terms of advertising revenue, Newspapers took 127 years to achieve this, Radio 75 years, Broadcast TV 37 years, Cable TV 25 years and Online 13 years. That tells you something.
The annual spend on advertising online today stands around 25 Billion USD. According to the Annual Advertising and Marketing Study 2009, conducted by Outsell Inc, total Digital spends are poised to overtake print in the year 2010. Spends on advertising alone will climb to close to 60 Billion USD, but combining that with other investments in websites and services, the total figure will overtake spends on print.
The advertising scenario in India on the other hand is still a small fraction of the overall ad spend. TV is the largest chunk with around 52%, followed by print at 27%, with the Internet making up around 5%. These are figures reported by Webchutney and Juxt Consulting in their annual report Digital Media Outlook 2009: A Study of the Indian Digital Marketing Scenario. The report further goes on to give a breakdown of the areas of online spending that this money is spent on. The development and maintenance of websites accounts for 30% of this spend. Ad Networks / Search advertising receive 17%, followed by 16% being spent on display and banner advertising, Social Media taking up 15%, email marketing 14%, Viral advertising 6% and Mobile Internet advertising 2%. The low amount spent on online brand building could probably be attributed to the perception of the marketers. The report states that 50% of the marketers surveyed saw Lead Generation as the primary function of the internet. 30% saw it as being useful for brand building and creating awareness and 20% saw the usefulness of using it to engage the consumer.
So whats the playfield like? Where all these consumers are at play in the fields of the Lord – the Lord here being the consumers as a collective. The digital landscape offers tons of opportunity. Getting down to specifics and mentioning some of the leading players that make up this cosmic playfield:
Leading the way, the number one social networking site in the world – Facebook. With 400,000 million members (as of Feb 2010) and 12.4 million users in India. Facebook is a tremendously popular social networking site. Its massive reach provides compelling opportunities to connect with customers, both current and future, through fan pages, news feeds, groups, and throughout the site. Facebook is great for engaging people who like your brand, want to share their opinions, and participate in giveaways and competitions. Facebook Brand Pages are great for brand exposure. You could jump-start your brand exposure through the ad-platform, or hire digital media consultants to help you grow your brand presence.
Twitter, a micro-blogging platform, has quickly become a popular platform for consumers and advertisers alike. For brands looking to communicate with customers in real time, the micro-blogging service is a great way to carry on conversations in 140 or fewer characters. Twitter likes to call itself a “real-time information network”. It has 75 million users worldwide and 1.8 million users in India. This is a site where users share and discover whats happening right now. This is a platform that can be used for Customer Communication, it can be used for keyword search monitoring through a program such as Hootsuite, TwitJump or Radian 6 to track what people are saying about you and your competitors. In terms of Brand Exposure it Offers unique opportunities for website integration and engaging with customers in a viral way, helping your company stand out from the masses.
Digg is a social news site where users can discover and share content. Digg offers opportunities that are huge, especially for promoting objective press/blog coverage of your brand.. Another great advantage of Digg is in driving traffic to your site. Regarded as the grandfather of traffic spikes, Digg is a good place to become active in the community Its also very good for SEO because even if your story does not become popular, then your page will still be indexed quickly. If your story does become popular, this is likely the best site in terms of getting linked to by bloggers.
YouTube, a video sharing platform on which a well executed video with the right title and content, can have huge viral impacts for your brand, especially if your video reaches the most viewed pages. There are also numerous other ways to optimize your videos, but coming up with an interesting concept and being aware of title, tagging, and thumbnail image, need to be key components of your strategy. Whether you seek to entertain, inform, or both, video is a powerful channel for quickly engaging your customers, responding to complaints, and demonstrating your social media savvy. YouTube is one of the most powerful branding tools on the web when you build your channel, promote via high-traffic sites, and brand your videos.Its also very good for building links back to your site because videos rank high. Also a tried-and-true way for your brand to gain exposure.
Slideshare, a platform on which you can share presentations can be used for strategically tagged and titled SlideShare presentations that can serve as a good contact point with customers. Events and groups are also avenues that can be used for increased exposure on the SlideShare site.
So, now onwards on to …where? What direction is technology going to take? How will this impact the Internet? Marketing? Online Consumer behaviour? Engagement Models? Questions. Will have many answers. And points to debate over. Its going to be a long and rapid progress that we will see. And if you go up that mountain again and look out over the digital landscape that stretches into the future, you are going to be looking out over one that stretches forever.