January 4, 2019

Online marketing from a print perspective


I find analogies useful when trying to understand and dissect an issue. It is helpful to look at online marketing using print concepts, because print already has a well-established way of going about things.

Print (magazine and newspaper advertising) has been around since 1704, when a real estate ad ran in the Boston News Letter. Publishers, advertisers, and writers have had several hundred years to work out the kinks. So there is now a good understanding of what print advertising is and what it can accomplish.

The first online advertising of any kind was a spam email sent in 1978 on the "first Internet." The first banner ad appeared in 1993, but the idea of banner advertising really took off in 1994 with the first online magazine, Hotwired (1994-1999), which was the digital version of Wired magazine. So, at the outset, online and offline advertising were close relatives.

By 2000, the Internet was crazy. I quit a good job and went to work at a dot com. I was out on my ass within weeks when the dot com bubble burst. We just couldn't wrap our heads this new technology, which seemed like a combination of voodoo and particle physics. Everyone was scrambling to create big ideas without connecting those ideas to moneymaking. So investors pulled out and the whole thing crashed.

This was less than 20 years ago, which is an eternity in the world of technological innovation. But you have to ask yourself what exactly does technological innovation change, and how deep does that change go? Faster is not different, in the sense that vanilla is different from chocolate. And even then, both vanilla and chocolate can be ice cream. So trying to organize and make sense of ideas requires a framework, and that is precisely what online marketing is missing.


I think of Google as a giant and fluid publication filled with the work of guest authors (websites). In the print world, this would be called an "anthology." But Google changes constantly, whereas anthologies can sit on a shelf and collect dust for eons.

Google and anthologies need good authors. Anthologies are put together by human editors who sift through the crap and give you the good stuff. Anthologies are always focused on a theme, so you don't need to worry about getting an article on botany when you are interested in 17th century poetry.

The online world is pure chaos. Imagine 4.65 billion pages tossed up in the air and little robots running around trying to organize them and give the right pages to 1.67 billion people, all at the same time. Worse yet, all those millions of pages are like little monkeys chattering to be noticed and scratching each other's eyes out whenever they can. So it's a system, but just barely.

Nonetheless, Google's system is good enough that people use it, at least for now.

Follow The Money

If you want to understand something, follow the money. Google makes its money by running ads. So do print magazines and newspapers. If the right consumers don't see those ads, advertisers won't buy them.

In the print world, this dilemma is solved by making sure the content around the ad is targeted to the right kind of consumer. Because print reading is a slow process, consumers can't help but notice eye-catching display ads.

Newspapers and magazines supported an entire infrastructure of journalists, printers, and advertising sellers (ad agencies) who made this possible. People valued the information in newspapers and magazines enough to pay for them. And, many people bought newspapers just for the classified section because this was where they could find jobs, homes for sale, personals, and used items. Newspapers didn't die due just to free news on television and Google. They also died because Craigslist decimated up to 70% of their revenues.

Television follows a model similar to print. Different shows target different types of people who buy different products. Daytime soaps got the name because they ran laundry soap commercials to housewives. Beer commercials run during sports events. Again, the television industry has had a lot of practice in figuring out what works and what doesn't.

Both print and television are relatively controlled, static media with limited choices. When you turn on the television, you know what show you will watch. When you type something into Google, you are never quite sure what you will get. Google tries to make the best of it with it's "I'm feeling lucky" search option. But it's a serious problem as far as advertisers are concerned because there is no straightforward way to control when and where an ad will appear, or what content will be next to it. If you run a PPC ad for your pool service company, that ad might be surrounded by websites run by your competitors. That is not cool, in my opinion.

The print industry published its own content and sold its own space. Television does the same thing. Google, unlike traditional media, only controls half the equation. The sell the ads, but they don't publish the content. Instead, they rely on millions of undisciplined, unregulated publishers who work for free. The algorithm has the job of cleaning it up, but Google is pitting the focused minds of several thousand brainiacs against the self-serving interests of millions.

Google tries to fix this situation in various ways. It constantly tightens up on its robot editor (algorithm) to deliver more relevant content. It only charges for ads that are clicked. And it allows those clicks to take the visitor directly to your website, where they may or may not see a really convincing page (depending on how good you are at marketing). The system works well enough for sophisticated retailers with money to burn. But small businesses just can't handle the complexity well enough to achieve a strong ROI. An article in Street Fight Magazine admits Google has been working on the problem since 2011 without success.

Why should Google care about small business, anyway? Again, follow the money. Small businesses make up 98% of the business economy. They produce a huge chunk of the content on the Internet. If small businesses and small bloggers give up on their websites, or use them just as calling cards, the Internet would thin out dramatically. Google would be far less valuable to people like you and me because there would be little variety.

But small businesses are finding it incredibly hard to compete in organic (free) search with big brands, more established brands, and sites like Amazon. And they don't have the time, money, or expertise to fight back using SEO. Instead, small businesses with ad budgets are shifting their money to social media advertising, followed by print. Small businesses without ad budgets are using free social media and email. Many small businesses say they don't get their leads online anyway.

The Middlemen

There are always marketing professionals. In Rome, there was a stonecutter somewhere who chiseled "Flavio's Togas" into a marble column. Traditional media spawned a whole industry of traditional media experts, from copywriters like myself to media planners.

The arrival of the Internet disrupted that model. Old people like myself had to reinvent ourselves. Other folks stepped into the vacuum to offer their digital expertise. We are all middlemen in a transaction between a seller (Google) and the buyer (the advertiser). That transaction is still amorphous and unsettled. So, you have many middlemen trying to define what Internet marketing really is and how to do it.

For example, first we had SEO. Then we had content marketing. And now we have content curation. Ideas seem to pop up, catch fire, and then fizzle as Internet marketers try to define and find order in a new technology of communication. If there was any solid ground, someone would have stepped on it by now. But right now, despite the official-sounding jargon and the mincing of data, no one really knows how to control the Internet, not even Google. Take content curation... that gets right back to the idea of anthologizing content. It is a mirror process. Why bother with it? Because the creation of original content like this post is incredibly laborious. It is largely an act of love, not good business sense. Working for free to create content for Google is just too expensive, yet that is how the system works – and why the price paid for content is abysmally low.

I see a lot of scrambling

My prediction is the monied publishers will create walled gardens where they can control both the content and the advertising. And they will erect barriers of some sort to ensure users are qualified consumers for the products being advertised. This is purely a print business model, regardless of the actual technology. Google will have to affiliate with these publishers, which will reduce them to being what they really are: a technology platform.

Small businesses will migrate to local platforms that are affordable and focused; they are already using social media (mainly Facebook) in this way. As far as middlemen like myself go, well I have no idea where we will end up.

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