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Digital’s Second Crisis of Confidence

Underscore Marketing's Tom Hespos on The MakegoodAs other marketing and media trade publications have pointed out over the years, digital tends to be a young business.  It attracts young people with big ideas and a certain disdain for the status quo.

It’s also no surprise that with such a young talent base, perspective concerning digital’s history can be somewhat skewed toward the past 10 years and not the 10 years prior to that.  There are entire search agencies staffed by people who know nothing about the pre-Google age, and social media agencies that think social began with Facebook.

I don’t mean to denigrate the latest and the greatest – digital is also a business in which “if you’re not new, you’re through.”  But I do want to point out to some of the people who are newer to the landscape that we’ve already lived through a period where “digital” was a dirty word, and marketers looking to work with advertisers on digital programs were more often than not scornfully turned away, usually punctuated with a comment like “digital doesn’t work.”

The collapse of the first dot com bubble was well underway on the tail end of 2000.  The terrorist attacks of 2001 just compounded the blow.  Billions of dollars of market capitalization in digital-centric companies simply evaporated.  Most investors blame an “irrational exuberance” within the sector, but many of the people who lived through it understand that there was a whole lot more to it than that.  And some of the characteristics of the era might look familiar toward the end of 2013.  Here are some of them:

Arrogance

Lots of people in digital at the time simply believed that digital would supplant all other media that came before it.  And it showed in their attitude.  People who didn’t bet big on digital just “didn’t get it” and were destined to be wiped out by a broad-scale media evolution that would bring down television, radio, and everything else that came before the Internet.  Thankfully, saner heads prevailed.

Vaporware

The business climate at the time attracted lots of people looking to make a quick buck.  It was possible to put a sort of Internet veneer on a business and have investors clamoring over it before technology was fully vetted.  The landscape was littered with technologies that didn’t work for various reasons.  Eventually, a day of reckoning would come for each of these businesses and they would flame out spectacularly.  If you were a marketer with a real business watching this from the sidelines, or worse yet participating by investing in a marketing program with one or more of these companies, digital’s credibility took a big hit when company after company revealed the tech standing behind their business didn’t work or didn’t exist.

Price Instability

During the first dot com boom, pricing for digital ads was all over the place.  Highly contextual environments and sponsorships would often go to the highest bidder in negotiations with salespeople at large portal sites and search engines.  As The Wall Street Journal famously chronicled, the out-of-pocket price for a sponsorship might have been pitched at one price at the beginning of a meeting, and then double in price by the end of it.  All the while, of course, digital was dealing with its issue of seemingly endless supply, which lent yet another factor to the instability.  It wasn’t long before marketers looking to make investments simply threw up their hands in frustration, not knowing how they would predict what something might cost in the new medium.

Measurement and Fraud

Many companies, from marketers to agencies to media vendors, had claimed they had the secret sauce when it came to effectiveness measurement.  Most of us are not measuring in the same ways we were 15 years ago.  And that’s for the best – it wasn’t long before the click fell out of favor, due mostly to the fact that it was a poor predictor of success for just about any marketing objective, but also due to click fraud.

One can imagine that anyone who lived through this particular  cycle in the digital business’ history never wants to see it repeated.  But, as they say, all that was old is new again.  To avoid falling into some of the same familiar traps, it needs to be contingent on all of us who want to see a sustainable future for digital to actively seek out opportunities to steer it in the right direction.

That might mean exposing the vendor behind the fishy activity you’re seeing in your analytics dashboard, or going that extra mile to vet technology.  It might mean not chasing the new and shiny object du jour until it proves it has a sustainable business, or adopts a more friendly attitude toward its customers.  But what’s important is that everybody acknowledge the responsibility we have to one another – to ensure digital’s future.  This business has been kind to me.  Should my kids ever decide to follow in my footsteps, I’d like digital to be kind to them as well.  When you see chicanery, don’t ignore it.  Send up a signal flare.

Tom Hespos is a contributor at The Makegood and Founder and Chief Media Officer at Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs. Look for Tom’s column the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month. 

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