Friday, 6 August 2010

The premature announcement of the death of the web

Wired, The Wall and the Huffington Post have all pronounced the web on its last legs. Wired appears to believe that because there's a popular new way of interfacing with the internet – apps – the web has had its last hurrah. Huff's Josh Silver bases his pronouncement on the news that Google and Verizon have done a deal that may make it possible to have a privileged access scheme for content providers disseminating video to customers.

This latter is the one I think has least relevance. Why? Well, although this time round it is different inasmuch as the faster access is paid for by the content provider rather than the content consumer, there's little difference in practical terms between the tiered access dictated by bandwidth, ISP quality and client technology and the tiered access posited by the new deal. Silver's argument that Google's universal access volte-face signals some kind of tipping point, one that will see content delivered only to the wealthier subscriber, to me seems no different to the gradient we've always suffered. My first forays onto the internet were hampered by the fact that no-one made modem software for Macs at the time. Did it destroy the web or limit its potential for democratised information? Clearly not.

Perhaps we won't see the web become a public access TV channel after all as a result. But then, to the extent that it could it already has. YouTube is gargantuan. Will Hollywood or Bollywood stop making feature films for free distribution on the web? Did anyone really expect them ever to really do that? The web is a medium, a set of protocols, and people all over the world will use it freely to do what they always wanted to do with it. Capitalists will find ways to make money from it. Anti-capitalists will use it to subvert. People will continue to use it to grow this unfettered global conversation

And coming back to apps, they are simply an abbreviated interface to the internet, just as the web is. Perhaps one day there will be a better interface that comes along that is so revolutionary that the whole idea of HTML and hyperlinks is relegated to history, as happened to the revolutionary precursor protocols that saw us Gophering before the web took off (though Gopher's demise was hastened when its owner started charging for it, something that no-one is suggesting can or will ever happen to the web). Apps are cute, cool, capitalist by design, and ephemeral.

Actually the best apps seem to be built in HTML. The web is alive and well and only just coming of age. Long live the web.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

That ol’ email technology

Email marketing is awesome. It’s one of those things that has relied on a confluence of circumstances, shifts in attitudes, and technology to flower, but now it has. Just in time, in fact, for brands like Ben & Jerry’s to declare it dead and hop on to social media.

Some years ago a few people in the digital marketing world decided to see if by applying brand marketing principles to email, we might have the medium for proving that online had real, measurable commercial value. Spammers clearly thought the same, and could demonstrate it worked. But around ten years ago spam started being effectively controlled by technology solutions built into our email applications. Brands that wanted to send email to their customers had to get emails white-listed. Branded emails became credible.

At the same time consumer use of email became pretty much universal. As an elective medium it genuinely had power – it’s only there when you open your email programme. But if you’d given your favourite brands, or simply the place you bought your stuff from, permission to say hello, it had legitimacy. The email newsletter suddenly had currency.

In 2003 a few people decided to see if there was room to apply Direct Marketing principles to email. I was so keen I went on a three month hunt for an email bureau that could run segmented campaigns. Finding none (or at least none I could afford) my agency built its own system. To be honest, it was great in theory, but we could never quite get it to work properly. Live re-segmentation based on recipient behaviour was laudable as an aim, but every time we fixed a bug in the technology we tickled another and everything fell over.

Slowly along came fantastic, robust technology providers - the kind that love to fix broadcast problems at two o’clock in the morning - and we were saved. Email marketing became eCRM, everything got segmented, and we started to play with behaviour-based targeting. Fantastic. So fantastic in fact that last year The Sun’s Dream Team Fantasy Football saw a 93% rise in revenues from digital - in three months!

What we’ve learned from all this emailing is that you can track people from start to finish. You can find out how their attitudes change over time, both through inference based on observing their behaviour, and through outbound validation using email and online surveys. We can, as we did with FMCG giant McCain Foods, cross-validate against the real world, benchmarking brand consideration and watching how it changed over six months of precision emailing (up 11% as it happens).

Then a brand like Ben & Jerry’s (whose product I love but at my age can no longer scoff until it’s empty) goes and abandons email for social. I’m sure social is another link in the customer tracking that needs to be incorporated into the strategy. And in fact until recently that was the one thing you couldn’t do. Yes, buzz tracking posited sentiment, but you couldn’t keep your eye on a person, or a segment.

Well, technology is changing. Now there’s the desire to complete the journey outside of email and into social, following people around their digital lifestyle as it were, we finally have the technological capability to do so. We’re incorporating social into eCRM strategies, and we can audit the journey from first contact to sales revenue. It’s a hit. ECRM is no longer confined to email, SMS and landing pages. Technology has set us free.