Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The Web is old enough so that several generations have grown up with it at this point. For those of us who can recall that lonesome, crunchy ripple of dial-up, the wonder of Mosaic, the bustling of bulletin boards, and other artifacts of the early days of the World Wide Web, it may be hard to imagine the lives of young people who have never known what it is like to live without the Internet.

Its founding quietly took place back on October 29, 1969 with a message sent from UCLA to Stanford. According to Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It, the purpose of building such a network at that time “was not to offer a particular set of information or services like news or weather to customers…but to connect anyone on the network to anyone else. It was up to the people connected to figure out why they wanted to be in touch in the first place; the network would simply carry data between the two points.” Without a large war chest, the academics and corporate researchers behind its original design couldn’t contemplate the creation of a global network. Now that this has occurred, it’s fascinating to see that its pervasive role in connecting people to brands and services is not that different from how it worked in its infancy.

The early days of its popular use ramped up back in 1995, when by the end of the year, it had grown to a robust 16 million users. The latest data shows that there are over two-and-a-quarter-billion global users today—or about a third of the world’s total population.

The impact of the mobile web, social media, and social TV that represent networks within a network have expanded its eco-system beyond the affinities, communities, and other nodes of specialized interest that grew out of the original capabilities of the Internet. The potential to knit together networks for brands and marketers presents a compelling, new non-linear business model.

It is so much a part of our lives that we sometimes forget that the Internet is a network of networks. Its use now extends across social networks, the mobile web, landing pages, and RSS broadcast (among others), and each new extension should remind us that the power of the Web lies not just in the common URL, but in the way that it radiates from site destination points to expansively "cast a net widely".

Network Conceptualization of Twitter - http://www.cytoscape.org

Directing eyeballs to a single web site is an expensive and consuming venture. While there are certain goliath brands like Amazon and eBay that have established themselves as islands in the data stream, we are moving back to the future in a sense, from the destination orientation of the web to a radial network model. What exactly does this mean for marketing?

When a client comes in and characteristically asks for “a new web site” that is blue and has flowers, what they may be really asking for is a functional hub inside a multi-channel, branded eco-system. This a hub is at the center of a hybrid digital and traditional media wheel that has multiple spokes (or channels) which expand on a conversational journey outward, around, and looping back. If effective, these pathways have the eventual effect of creating a dynamic platform by linking to various targeted nodes of influence and driving users, consumers—an audience—back to the mother lode at the web site home. With consumers favoring multiple media channels, it is important that brands reach out to them wherever they are and on whatever medium they favor. We are no longer living in a world where the all-too familiar address of www. has a lemming effect.

Social media blackbelt and integrated marketing strategy Technoratisaurus Rex, Liz Gebhardt, formulated a depiction of the multi-channel universe in a blog post written over three years ago about product modeling, which I affectionately have called "The Gebhardt Brand Mandala" ever since:

At the core of any network is the hub that establishes its identity and center of gravity. Gebhardt’s model is more relevant than ever—especially as video platforms converge with traditional broadcast and short-form content. Even so, mainstream television and cable broadcast networks have for years now had to rely on watermarks that float on the lower third of the screen in a feeble attempt to claw at some remaining identification. This is not easy when TV brands are whipped up and feature ever redundant programming in the 500+ channel universe blender. With the addition of Internet and mobile television to the mix as well as behavioral trends like social TV and the rise of “binge viewing” (see my next blog post), the whole concept of the video “broadcast network” is being reinvented and up for grabs.

If YouTube is any indication, today’s average web user is videocentric, searching for constant novelty with a cannibalistic fervor, and beset by a short attention span—two-minutes and forty-three seconds to be exact. It’s also a short-form video world after all on the Internet, with 55% of bandwidth being hogged globally by some form of video—at any given time, it’s 30% BitTorrent with YouTube playing catch-up at 25%. What does this volume mean for brands, services or products in search of an audience?

Primarily, it means that if the common language of the world is now visual, then you would be wise to “speak” video to get your message across. Back in the day, Yahoo had what they called the “Three-Second Rule”, which admonished internal developers to deliver on value within that time-frame or risk losing the user forever. This was a far more dire prospect than the days when the TV remote control ruled and broadcasts had to engage viewers or else—another network was only a click away. Today, we are overwhelmed with the choices that clicks can offer us, and the order of the day is to grab attention through immediacy, interactivity, personalization, community, freemium, and other methods of creating value for the end user. All of these elements should inform how a brand platform or network is created.

The brand network model should be customized, but its essential look is planetary with marketing channels orbiting like satellites around the brand hub:

In taking a non-linear approach, we are only mimicking nature, where radial models dominate and networks abound. Chinese Taoist philosophers called the rivers and waterways of earth its circulatory system and the planetary water cycle bears this analogy out as science. Theodor Schwenk’s Sensitive Chaos is a classic study of patterns in water flow that can be seen as inspiring the classic phrase that “water seeks its own level”—an adage that is also an apt description of social network behavior.

The idea of reoccurring patterns in nature, their evolution in time and their configuring and reconfiguring to enhance movement is the basis of a field called constructal law. One of the designs in nature that it studies is branching. Lightning, water, cardiovascular systems—all have evolved treelike architecture because it is a efficient way of moving currents. Constructal law also extends to organization in business, politics, science and other fields where hierarchy and flow create patterns. 
The brain is famously a neural network and the web of life can be seen as a vast set of nodes that are self-organizing. Why should its mirror in the Internet be any different? And the creation of a brand platform network is an organic expression of its capabilities.

The history of successful networks and cable channels is that they have been branded by a defining show or personality, which encapsulates a broadcast entity’s mission and identity. Early television networks ported over successful radio personalities as a way of not only bringing along their loyal audiences, but as a way of defining their program offerings—whether it was comedy, drama, soaps, game shows, and other familiar formats. Though it started in 1948, the ABC network really established itself in the 1970s as differentiated from its predecessors, CBS, and NBC, with the introduction of innovations like “Monday Night Football” and the Sunday Night “Movie of the Week”.

Later in 1986, when Fox arrived, it distinguished itself as the “18-34” demographic network through younger skewing, slightly more risqué shows like “The Simpsons” and “Married With Children” that took familiar formats to new extremes. MTV was not on the map until it broadcast “Remote Control”, its own version of a game show that turned a storied format on its head and broadcast to both audience and advertisers that this was not your parent’s network. Successful branding by Emeril Lagasse established the Food Network with a larger-than-life, chef character.

The idea of personalities defining networks is as old as Ed Sullivan, Walter Cronkite, and Dan Rather branding CBS, Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby branding NBC, and Roseanne and Barbara Walters branding ABC. Audiences like to identify with personalities and characters. A nascent network program development strategy should be informed by an active search for talent and defining show concepts that can attract viewers, differentiate its value proposition, and compel advertisers to invest.

The emergence of watermarks on broadcast and cable television during the 90’s was no accident. In a cluttered landscape of multiple brands with often-redundant program offerings, it became an essential feature to help audiences know what entity they were actually watching. Whether a new network undertakes long or short-form programming, it needs to be packaged in a way that is clearly branded. This is particularly the case for any web-related or mobile video. Current effective tactics for syndicated and seeded web video content branding include end plate, white-wrap, and vanity URL techniques to ensure tracking of traffic directly related to video campaigns.

The diversity of media choices to connect brands with consumers has never been greater. The challenge presented by this opportunity is how to integrate the real with the digital world, and to make a strategic assessment of which channels represent the optimal means of reaching audiences wherever they are. The media and marketing networks of the future will be integrated. Brands will all be broadcasters.

While it is still early—especially with networks and agencies learning the hard way about paid blogging and in-your-face tweeting—organic growth and behavioral change will fuel the eventual integration of platforms. Movies did not replace radio and either did TV. The Internet did not kill television, as many web evangelists in its late 90's go-go years predicted. Social media will not replace prime time programming. On the contrary, several IPTV startups are looking at permanent integration of Twitter. Putting chips down on all of these new marketing channel markers is strategic, but allocation of resources and investment needs to be measured, given that ROI, SROI, and analytic models are still evolving. Traffic is still a key indicator, but is no longer enough of a metric; measuring influence is another step in the right direction.

Every new medium defines its own market at the same time that it forces extant media to redefine their own market share. Survival depends on companies and creative talent being able to recognize and optimize the unique value that differentiates one from another, and to provide the appropriate content accordingly. The marketing networks of the future will identify the best means to reach their intended consumers to create value and an optimal, personalized experience with their respective brands and content. They will also ensure that consumers are empowered with information and enabled through the multiple channels they provide to be active participants in evolving brands to be better. 

In the future, brands should be more persuaded by the words of poets, than by marketers. Or in the words of Emily Dickinson: 
                                                    Tell All The Truth
                                            Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
                                            Success in circuit lies,
                                            Too bright for our infirm delight
                                            The truth's superb surprise;

                                            As lightning to the children eased
                                            With explanation kind,
                                            The truth must dazzle gradually
                                            Or every man be blind.

We are all nodes on the network of all networks now. Or to let Shakespeare have the final word, "'Tis true, there is magic in the web of it." 

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