Friday, September 17, 2010

The serpent.

Ever since the first feisty, breathless utterings of the Cluetrain Manifesto, the digital disciples of marketing’s Age of Aquarius have been certain that the internet would level the playing field between the consumer and the corporation once and for all. Marketplaces, they intone, will become conversations, and we, the consumer, will get what we want rather than what corporations are trying to sell. When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, the malls of the world will glitter with brands that are accountable, transparent and authentic. Meanwhile, for marketers, consumer behavior will finally be objectively measurable at practically the atomic level. Everybody will win. It will be paradise.

Well, it could be. But it isn’t. Not yet, anyway.

This was my bleak conclusion as I sat with a former student of mine earlier this week and listened as he explained how people use technology to inflate their Twitter follower numbers. I’d always wondered how it could be that obscure “social media consultants” could have bigger follower numbers than, say, the Ford Motor Company. I’d put it down to some kind of early adopter dividend, but it turns out that it’s just some kind of game for them. Nor are they alone in seeing the digital marketplace the way a pickpocket sees a crowded boulevard. When I interviewed Wired’s founding editor John Battelle for Consumer Republic, he described certain elements of the corporate and media worlds “fiercely gaming the system” to improve their search ranks, while Google fights to stay ahead of them – and essential to them - by constantly updating their algorithm. And this chicanery is not so new. I remember how in the web’s very earliest days, site owners would sell their traffic numbers to the uninitiated by reporting “hits”, conveniently leaving out the detail that one page view can produce dozens of hits depending on how many elements are on it.

There was lots wrong with the old way of doing commercial media. They were fat oligopolies, and they depended on an undemocratic marketplace to prosper. Still, if you bought a commercial spot in a prime time television show, the audience size got measured by a third party (usually Nielsen, for television), and the price you paid turned on their verdict. Print circulation numbers were audited, at least for the paid publications. There was some accountability there. The one question you generally never had to ask was whether you were getting the reach you paid for. It was a regulated commodity. Past that, a brand won or lost on its persuasive merits. That particular baby would be a shame to toss out along with the wasteful bathwater of 20th century media.

Every new frontier attracts its share of carpetbaggers, every paradise its dubious fruit vendors. But what’s made this one especially fragile is that the tools for cheating are so accessible to the producers, and so opaque to the rest of us. It’s so easy to cheat, and so hard to get called on it, and that adds up to overwhelming temptation. While the average consumer may never figure out exactly why she can’t trust what she sees online, her instincts will ultimately be, as they have always been, unerring. And if it comes to that, I don’t know where marketing would go next. If consumer choice came to equal risk rather than power, it would simply be game over for the whole damned system before its rennaissance ever really had a chance to get off the ground.

Measureable doesn’t mean honest. Data doesn’t mean truth. I think digital marketing ethics are the next thing we need to talk about here in the garden of branding, while we still can. There sure hasn’t been much conversation about it up to now.

I know. I Googled it.

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