Web of wonder

By The Drum, Administrator

January 26, 2007 | 10 min read

The internet is changing and the loons are now running the asylum. Encouraged by the vast improvements in online technology, and by ever-increasing broadband access and speed, social networking sites are booming. Web 2.0 is here at last – and the marketing community is sitting up and taking notice.

Following the recent International Consumer Electrics Show (CES) and the subsequent launch of even more advanced hardware and software by Microsoft and Apple, the relevance of online-driven marketing activity continues to heighten. But according to Richard Kelly, digital marketing manager at Dog Digital, the technology behind the sites which are driving this change reached a tipping point about 12 months ago.

“The boom in social sites based solely on user-generated content – such as YouTube and Flickr – is huge,” he says. “And it goes without saying that the networking side of this – take MySpace, for example – has also been a huge driver.

“However, it’s important to recognise that technology is not truly at the heart of this growth – it’s ideas and innovation. To succeed, these sites need not only to encompass new technology, but be supported by an idea that creates a useful new service, an easier way of doing things or fulfils a need people didn’t realise they had. If the sites don’t do this, users won’t adopt them. And without user contribution, these sites are just empty shells.”

The modern-day consumer strives for simplicity within new technology, says Curious Group’s Dan Kersh. “Online communication now [with broadband uptake in the UK exceeding eight million households] offers easier access to learn about new technology. As long as online communication focuses on simplicity, the technology it uses will continue to help online communication to grow.

“Technology creates widescale appeal. Effectiveness and accountability in society remain the definitive ways to measure a site’s success and failure. However, with the online audience growing at such a rapid rate, there is an argument to suggest that these results may soon be no longer the key to growth.

“It is important, though, that the consumer understands the technology. Digital technology gets twice as powerful every 18 months and is predicted to continue doing so for the next 20 years. As we progress we tend to forget that one part of the revolution hasn’t gotten any more powerful – and that’s the mind of the user.”

However, with connectivity and the “digital home” dominating this year’s International CES, and with the unveiling of the iPhone and the massive uptake of high speed broadband by home users, there’s no doubt that new technology is influencing the growth of online communications. This is changing the very way in which the public now interact with their media, argues Tony Muldoon, head of digital marketing, Connecti.

“New technology and innovation has led to a sharp rise in the number of online users and a significant change in how we use the web,” he says. “It’s no longer just take, take, take.

“Although it’s a rather macabre side of this change, we’ve recently seen how news networks all over the world dumped official footage of the Saddam Hussein hanging in favour of mobile phone footage that was uploaded to YouTube. This shows a radical change in online communications. Where once the network was the provider and the government the censor, technology has allowed the user to bypass both. As a consequence, the networks were left reporting not on the actual event and its implications, but on the use of technology and online communications shaping how the world saw the event.”

Recent studies showed that four percent of companies are planning to apply user-generated content to their websites in the next 12 months; with 23 percent using it already. Although 55 percent of the teen generation actively contribute to sites such as MySpace, this phenomena does not only apply to young people. Nearly half [46 percent] of MySpace’s US-based visitors in September 2006 were aged 35 and older, up from 38 percent a year before. New media platforms continue to gain in popularity.

“Podcasting is also becoming increasingly widespread,” says Storm ID’s Bella Cranmore. “Research shows that 33 percent of companies are planning to use podcasting in the next 12 months; 18 percent are using it already, with more than 10 percent of the UK adult population having already downloaded a podcast in the last six months.

“For this reason, accessibility continues to be a key requirement, especially within the public sector and increasingly in the private sector where businesses are becoming more and more community conscious. However, good design and accessibility requirements are not mutually exclusive – sites can be both accessible and visually engaging.”

Technology and innovation are driving growth in online communications in two ways, says DC Interact’s planning director Jeremy Crowe. “Increasing consumer appetite for technology generates pull, while increasing advertiser interest generates push.

“The push and the pull are related, of course – advertisers’ interests are largely dictated by consumer trends – but sometimes the reasons are different. Factors such as accountability and disintermediation are also powerful drivers for advertisers.

“New technology can make the web more effective. Faster, more pervasive broadband creates rich media opportunities for advertisers that simply weren’t practical two to three years ago. Innovations such as Ajax – although strictly speaking it’s a technique rather than a technology – create opportunities for organisations to develop more effective user interfaces. If it’s poorly implemented though, any benefits in effectiveness could be offset by limitations in accessibility and search engine readability.

“Meanwhile, new applications, from Flickr to Google’s new corporate applications, provide individuals and organisations with functionality previously restricted to commercial applications.”

“The biggest shift we’ve seen recently is in how innovative use of technology is empowering businesses to interact more meaningfully with their client or customer,” adds Fiona Proudler, creative services director at Realise. “More than ever, we have two-way communication: businesses can deliver information in a more dynamic, focussed and immediate way, while audiences want to get involved through message boards and other forms of participation such as adding comments to news articles. In terms of a brand wanting to generate loyalty, the interactive nature of new technology is very powerful.”

This has led to battlelines between the consumer and the advertiser becoming somewhat blurred. “A new synergy seems to have been successfully struck between the consumer who is looking for new and interesting content, the advertiser looking to push related products and services, and the provider who is rewarded for producing content,” says Net Resources’ Sara Dodd. “In some ways it’s almost like a return to the cottage industry model, which kicked off the industrial revolution.”

In other ways, however, the lines are a lot clearer. “Despite marketers’ claims in the past that we could accurately profile potential customers, the truth is that we don’t know for sure exactly who watches Coronation Street or Trisha,” says Muldoon. “What we do know is that if they are on a hill-walking website, there’s a very high chance they might need some boots or maps.

“Content networks such as Google’s have allowed marketers to be far more effective. The beauty for the advertiser is that if the site user isn’t interested in your content-driven adverts, you don’t pay. It’s a formula that has US television networks quaking in their boots.”

“The internet is mass-market and clients are excited by the big audiences,” agrees Lisa Bell of Chunk. “And they’re particularly excited as people are moving away from traditional media consumption, like watching the TV, to watching content on demand through BBC’s iPlayer or Channel 4’s On Demand, for example. It’s still got to be effective and accountable, but clients are happy that it’s easier to measure.

“Response to a brand increases when it’s integrated across different channels and gets deeper into a consumer’s life. People form perceptions of brands based on their cumulative experiences – the better the experience across the board the more effective it is. Not many budgets can straddle more than a few channels though, so it’s important to pinpoint what has the best reach for a client’s audience and integrate them well.”

NetResources’ Dodds agrees: “People use the internet primarily to access information and data, but they also use it to assess and analyse organisations and gauge their status. We all make judgements about how good, big or professional a company or organisation is on the basis of their website. And our acceptance that what is presented online is true does create a wide-scale appeal.

“Investing in an online strategy is fundamental to building a web presence to increase rankings and traffic. Continual updating of site content, implementation of web standards and accessibility best practice, with analysis of actual conversion rates and ROI will all work together to build – and keep – an audience.

“With proper site management you may also be able to attract new audiences, building a position and brand in different markets. We are currently working with two clients in highly competitive markets who have seen real increases in traffic of clients with a high level of intent through focused SEO and on-going SEM.”

James Jefferson of Equator says: “The web is an ultra-competitive environment. We are all more fickle than ever before and have the choice of services from all over the world, not just from our high street. This competition is what is driving increased effectiveness in all areas. Website owners create new technology to help understand browser behaviour, personalise content and deliver new marketing opportunities and treatments to satisfy our exponentially growing lust for the new.

“As we all get more literate when it comes to consuming advertising, avenues for more ambient and subtle advertising are being created. The web is a great environment for this. The big change here is the importance of creating desire for your brand and acquiring brand ambassadors who can bring up your product in user-generated content sites around the web. It’s less about creating one big idea for a campaign, and more about creating an ongoing discussion with customers, ultimately developing a strong relationship with them.”

Ambergreen’s technical director Grant Whiteside agrees that competition in the new online frontier is fierce. “With rising click costs, tougher competition and higher entry levels, people have to be more competitive than ever before,” he says. “The longer companies avoid addressing the online marketing issue, the further they are being left behind.”

But he’s quick to point out that digital and online marketing, like any other form of corporate communication, should be an investment, not a quick fix. And for that reason, it should not be carried out in isolation.

“Search, for example, doesn’t work in a vacuum,” continues Whiteside. “Most campaigns perform more effectively when there are a few strings to the bow. However, different online industries have matured at different rates. Early adopters such as gambling and financial sectors have a tendency to use more platforms as there is a higher level of marketing awareness and competition.

“It’s interesting to see how search has changed. Approaching a search marketing programme from a research and strategy point of view, as opposed to the tactics of old, has highlighted to businesses that search doesn’t work in a vacuum. And as businesses have come to understand this more and more, the synergy between on and offline marketing has developed, and an increased strategisation has developed.”

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