There’s a really well written, well argued piece by Michael Wolff in MIT’s Technology Review currently circulating around the business/tech world that considers the challenges Facebook and the rest of the web face in trying to make a viable business of enabling marketing on the internet. It misses the boat entirely.

For all its valuation, the social network is just another ad-supported site. Without an earth-changing idea, it will collapse and take down the Web.

False. Facebook is just one of multiple web-based platforms available to brands and marketers, with it’s own select set of capabilities. Any supposed “collapse,” (won’t happen) would never sink the web. The web is already hosting platforms ahead of the game Mr. Wolff describes.

Granted, all of the points Wolff makes about online advertising are probably correct. However, it treats advertising as the only web-based means to an end - that end being effective and valuable marketing for brands, the real customers of Facebook. That’s missing the “disruption” you hear so much about caused by the web, and thus Facebook, completely.

When another industry is completely overturned, it’s disruption. When it’s your industry that’s flipped upside down, it’s a disaster. The root of all problems with marketing on the web of today is a failure by brands and marketers to understand the disruption caused by the web, and thus the nature of the internet. And that nature is one of malleability. The web is the cloud. The cloud is the app. The app is the video. The video is the content. The content is the publication. The publication is the web. The web is everything - so long as everything can be digitized - plus something more. And that something more is the inherent communication capability and artifact discoverability of the web. Yet when the web showed up as a new marketing channel, marketers and brands didn’t first view it as a grand new opportunity. They saw it as something to be dealt with; Another channel through which they must push a message.  They’ve tried to treat the internet as some digital analog to things they already know. They’ve tried putting “display ads” up on websites in the same fashion as they put ads in papers. They’ve tried bookending video clips with ads like they do on television. But you can’t depend on television or newspaper analogous advertising on the web of today and expect to perform any better than if you were to depend on road-side billboards being transmitted over FM radio.

As a brand, your best marketing is your product or your service. That’s the foundation. In the age of the web, your product or service can’t be inferior. The web will know. But every product or service needs voices singing its praises, letting the world know about it. And every foundation will suffer cracks. Occasionally your beloved tablet power adapter melts down. Or your employees screw up a latte order. Or your client fires you because your team was so busy creating a greener planet it forgot to finish the project on time. Things break at scale. On the web, every business is dealing with scale. When those cracks show up, people talk. The web lets you listen. The web lets you react. Even better, the web makes it entirely possible for you to discover customers who are actively seeking your solutions. Even better than that, the web makes it possible for you to identify customers who are already dissatisfied with your competition’s solutions.  But how are you going to act on all that potential with a dependency on display ads?

The web doesn’t require more or tougher work for marketing. The web just requires different work. Is it really going to be that much more difficult to effectively communicate bidirectionally with your customers and build relationships than it is to attempt to create perfectly optimized, unidirectional campaigns across a large audience while completely ignoring the bulk of the information that those consumers willingly give to you? Seriously? The data is there! Use it! More importantly, the communication is there! Participate in it!

If you’re a marketer, this prospect shouldn’t scare you.  It will challenge you, but those challenges have answers.  Don’t put up objections over scale. Worries over scale require a solution to be scaled, and you probably haven’t even figured out the solution first. The solutions are available. The web (and by the way, the entire web is “social” these days) doesn’t just put you in the consumer’s car or home. The web doesn’t just put you in the living rooms of the world. The web puts you right in the laps or palms of the world; Right on their sofas, and in their bus seats, and their train rides, and their beds.  The web gives you reach during customers’ lunch breaks, after dinner, during the work day, mid-workout, while they’re watching TV, and before they fall asleep.  The web lets you know what those consumers are thinking. And the web is equipped with platforms to enable you to listen and respond.

All that data and all that knowledge brings great power, and great responsibility. There’s the obvious and oft-discussed matters of responsibility around privacy concerns, but there’s the less talked about matter of smart utilization too. Marketers, brands, and publishers all have tools available to them today that can and will allow them to tie together massive amounts of data, enabling them to be ever more responsive to customers.  Consider all the customer relationship management systems deployed in the world today, from small businesses to global corporations.  Now imagine all that data being tied together with offline and online audience segment data. Imagine all the knowledge you can gather about not just where to pitch your next customer, but how best to approach that next customer, how to keep her, and how to get her to do some of your marketing for you.  All this knowledge demands smarter utilization than just trying to bid for the chance to throw a few display ads her way.

That’s not to say display ads are dead. It’s just to say that relationships between brands and customers have more value than impressions.  Brands and marketers should determine what their customer acquisition and retention budgets should be, and then act on both “traditional” web advertising and relationship-based marketing accordingly.

The web, with platforms like Facebook, is the facilitator of those relationships. Facebook is a behemoth in the game of “engagement,” but it’s only one relationship facilitating platform of many.  Some platforms, like the one I’ve helped to build at Lotame, can and will allow you to tie together all kinds of data about audiences and segments across all kinds of devices and inputs, to create dream marketing scenarios like the one described above. What law is written that says that brands and marketers should only seek meaningful and valuable connections with their customers when those customers log in to look at their friends’ baby pictures?  Perhaps that B2B relationship is better built when your customer is reading an online tech journal.  Maybe you’ll do better finding that avid traveler on a web forum.  It’s just possible that some other interaction could be more valuable than a “like.”  

The web is a platform - a platform of platforms. It’s time to stop thinking of anything on the web as a “site” anymore. Nothing is “just another ad-supported site” on the web today - not for brands and marketers using the right platforms.  The organizations that come to understand that will be the organizations that flourish on the web and beyond.

Tags: Marketing, Tech