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Who's In Control?

  |  February 3, 2006   |  Comments

Neither marketers nor consumers can claim sole ownership of the modern media experience.

Remember back in the boom years when Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy famously said, "You have no privacy -- get over it."?

Today, the same can be said of control, particularly if you're a marketer or a content provider. No, marketers don't have "no" control, any more than consumers have "no" privacy. But the degree to which you control your brand, advertising, messaging, Web site, even your offline media, is rapidly eroding.

You're going to have to learn to deal with it.

Certainly, consumers are seizing a great deal of the control marketers once had. So are a motley crew of bad guys: click-fraudsters, spammers, identity thieves and that ilk. And no, consumers aren't "in" control, but they're calling a lot more of the shots. It seems every new piece of hardware or software takes just a little more control away from marketers and grants it to consumers. And that's to say nothing of online user reviews on everything from Amazon.com to local search sites. Meanwhile, viral and consumer-generated media runs the gamut from blogs to full-motion, high-production-value video.

The erosion of marketers' control on the Web begins with the fundamentals: the browser and email client. Browser functionality has made great strides in recent years. Browsers can block (or delete) cookies, block pop-ups, scripts and even ads. Firefox has a nifty option called "clear private data" that offers users the option of wiping plenty of other things, too.

E-mail, meanwhile, whether read in a standalone client or on the Web, is screened, filtered, spam-foldered and image-blocked by default, even without third-party filters and plug-ins. Anti-spyware apps kill cookies, and by extension, meaningful metrics and behavioral targeting.

In preparing for a speech at a conference on new technologies and new media advertising law this week, I've been thinking a lot lately about control.

Mark Kingdon's recent column on viral's long tail prompted a look back, too. It was back in September, 2004 that someone discovered the Bic pen was mightier than the high-end Kryptonite lock. Remember?

Well, search 'kryptonite lock' on Google today. Only the top two search results are for the company's Web site. Below that, it's almost all lock-hack, all the time. Search 'kryptonite lock pen' and you'll turn up a staggering 72,800 results. (Similarly, a search for 'Volkswagen polo suicide bomber' returns 111,000 results (click the link if you don't recall that viral scandal).

That's a whole lot of control -- over a very long period of time.

Advertisers want to engage consumers. Engagement is precisely what can lead to disruptive behavior. Remember how Subservient Chicken was hacked almost as soon as it launched? Engagement, and passion, can create some great studies in brand, such as California schoolteacher George Master's brilliant iPod Mini ad. I'm sure Apple appreciates that one a whole lot more than the more recent (and topical) Broke Mac Mountain. But they'll probably let it go. It seems the company learned its lesson after the fallout it suffered when it tried to sue a blogger.

This is, of course, pure Web 2.0, a concept that's been around for a while and one too few marketers really understand. As Tim O'Reilly points out they're mired in the "'90s notion that the Web was about publishing, not participation; that advertisers, not consumers, ought to call the shots; that size mattered, and that the Internet was increasingly being dominated by the top Web sites as measured by...Web ad scoring companies."

The Internet is increasingly dominated by consumers and the technologies they embrace. If they use Greasemonkey to wipe out all the ads on a publisher's site -- or to change the text color from blue to orange -- there's little you can do about it. The same goes for site registration bypass, using RSS instead of a browser, or perusing classified ads or news with an aggregator.

If all the above weren't enough, marketers are rapidly losing control of the channel via which they spread their messages. Content can be shifted more or less effortlessly between DVRs, mobile phones, portable audio and video devices and the Web. Sophisticated marketers know this and they're leveraging the trend. Why else would MSN, Yahoo, Comcast and Budweiser all make Super Bowl ads available on-demand the day of the big game? And why else would CBS.com sell "Survivor" episodes just after airtime?

Control is long gone and its only replacement is a combination of acceptance, flexibility and mutual respect between consumer and marketer.

Respect, of course, must be earned. In this new and changing media landscape, engaging in participation and dialogue is the way to earn it. To do so successfully, marketers must be knowledgeable. The more you know and understand about the media environment you're operating in, the more you can control the messages you send...and receive.

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Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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