Think Digital

One of the things that people don’t often get about the digital world is its… well, digitalness. Everything about the Net and everything about our computers that doesn’t have to do with outputting data to paper is made up of ones and zeroes that can be manipulated in an infinity of ways.

Deep inside their silicon hearts, computers don’t give a hoot whether or not the file on your desktop is a picture or a memo – it’s all just strings of binary numbers.

How does this affect what we do every day as web marketers? Unfortunately, for many of us it doesn’t. Many people who’ve come to web marketing by way of more traditional media roles often think of the web as just another medium in which to push content at consumers. And it does let us do this. But what we often forget is that the backbone of the digital realm is data – data that can be manipulated by computers in an infinite number of ways.

The fact that we can change the content we deal with on the web using computers opens up a huge range of possibilities when you start looking at the implications. So far, with banner ads and more static types of advertising, we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

Even with the targeting abilities we’ve got with banners today, they’re still (in many cases) little more sophisticated than space ads in print. Sure, some of them can move and others allow limited interaction, but most of the time, they’re self-contained units that exist in limbo after their creation.

How much more could they be doing for us? A lot more. Think for a moment if we combined the most rudimentary of direct mail hacks… “insert name here” personalization… with targeted banners.

Instead of having a banner that just shows up at the right time and place, we could be generating banners on the fly, personalized in a way that would speak directly to the audience.

Instead of a “click here for HotJobs.com” banner showing up on Yahoo, the banner could dynamically display current jobs from the HotJobs database relevant to the keyword that brought up the banner in the first place. Generic becomes specific and (I’d suspect) much more effective.

But that’s just an idea I don’t know if anybody’s doing it yet. But I do know of two companies that really get the fact that the world is going digital and are developing technologies to take us there. LightningCast is an Alexandria, Va.-based company working to become to streaming media what DoubleClick is to banner ads. In a nutshell, its technology allows streaming media companies to dynamically insert targeted advertising into their streams – something that no one else’s doing yet.

The implications for advertising are huge – right now, over 25 million folks are listening to streaming audio, and almost none of them are hearing ads except through “simulcast” radio broadcasts, which are rarely from their local radio markets. LightningCast gives these stations the ability to insert relevant ads into their media streams, effectively giving them unlimited ad inventories.

An expatriate listening to a San Francisco radio station in London will hear ads for British products, a homesick Texan tuning in to an Austin station from Minnesota will be regaled with local cheese ads, and a Norwegian listening to Norwegian radio even as he swelters in Miami will get local Miami ads.

Putting advertising in streaming media might seem pretty obvious, but the huge range of applications possible doesn’t really start to come at you until you start thinking digitally about the concept. While the main application for LightningCast’s tech is advertising, think about what else you could do if you had the ability to mix and match audio content on the fly:

  • Ad-supported, downloadable MP3-delivered albums.
  • Audio “portals” that dynamically combine audio content from all over the web.
  • Personalized books on tape.
  • Local weather reports inserted into national broadcasts.

You get the idea. Once you realize that today’s technology gives us the ability to play with whatever data we can get our hands on, the possibilities just start popping up right and left.

Another company that’s getting the digital thing and re-inventing a thoroughly analog business is Versient. With its roots firmly in the printing business, Versient is taking printing into the digital age, creating systems that allow companies to effectively outsource their most irritating content management and printing needs – business cards, for example – to a third party for management.

When Versient works with a client, that client effectively becomes part of its intranet, providing a one-stop shop where employees can view standard company print materials, customize them for themselves, preview them online, then order and print them. In a day or so, the new business cards (or letterhead or brochures… again, you get the idea) are shipped to them ready for use.

Noosh and ImageX are currently offering similar products that focus on digital outsourcing and on-demand printing.

If you want a glimpse of what the digital future might bring, check out CafePress and marvel. Essentially, CafePress lets anybody set up their own digital printing “store” with their own custom products. Users create an account for themselves, upload artwork, decide what to sell (either T-shirts, mugs, or mouse pads) and put out their shingle. Customers go to the site, select what they want, enter their credit cards, and CafePress does the rest: printing and shipping and taking a cut of the proceeds.

Does it work? Heck, yeah! I’m using it right now to sell some tongue-in-cheek promotional items for StreetTech, one of the sites my company publishes. Go check out our store at http://www.cafepress.com/streettech/.

It’s all pretty cool stuff, but I think we’re only now beginning to scratch the surface. Think digital and see what happens.

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