The recent bloodbath among online content peddlers and digital media proselytisers can be traced to two deadly sins. The first was to assume that traffic equals sales. In other words, that a miraculous conversion will spontaneously occur among the hordes of visitors to a web site. It was taken as an article of faith that a certain percentage of this mass will inevitably and nigh hypnotically reach for their bulging pocketbooks and purchase content, however packaged. Moreover, ad revenues (more reasonably) were assumed to be closely correlated with “eyeballs”. This myth led to an obsession with counters, page hits, impressions, unique visitors, statistics and demographics.

It failed, however, to take into account the dwindling efficacy of what Seth Godin, in his brilliant essay (“Unleashing the IdeaVirus”), calls “Interruption Marketing” – ads, banners, spam and fliers. It also ignored, at its peril, the ethos of free content and open source prevalent among the Internet opinion leaders, movers and shapers. These two neglected aspects of Internet hype and culture led to the trouncing of erstwhile promising web media companies while their business models were exposed as wishful thinking.

The second mistake was to exclusively cater to the needs of a highly idiosyncratic group of people (Silicone Valley geeks and nerds). The assumption that the USA (let alone the rest of the world) is Silicone Valley writ large proved to be calamitous to the industry.

In the 1970s and 1980s, evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins and Rupert Sheldrake developed models of cultural evolution. Dawkins’ “meme” is a cultural element (like a behaviour or an idea) passed from one individual to another and from one generation to another not through biological -genetic means – but by imitation. Sheldrake added the notion of contagion – “morphic resonance” – which causes behaviour patterns to suddenly emerged in whole populations. Physicists talked about sudden “phase transitions”, the emergent results of a critical mass reached. A latter day thinker, Michael Gladwell, called it the “tipping point”.

Seth Godin invented the concept of an “ideavirus” and an attendant marketing terminology. In a nutshell, he says, to use his own summation:

“Marketing by interrupting people isn’t cost-effective anymore. You can’t afford to seek out people and send them unwanted marketing, in large groups and hope that some will send you money. Instead the future belongs to marketers who establish a foundation and process where interested people can market to each other. Ignite consumer networks and then get out of the way and let them talk.”

This is sound advice with a shaky conclusion. The conversion from exposure to a marketing message (even from peers within a consumer network) – to an actual sale is a convoluted, multi-layered, highly complex process. It is not a “black box”, better left unattended to. It is the same deadly sin all over again – the belief in a miraculous conversion.
You can get them to visit and you get them to talk and you can get them to excite others. But to get them to buy – is a whole different ballgame. Dot.coms had better begin to study its rules.

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