Imagine, if you will, that Google and Facebook were not the benevolent, philanthropic institutions that they are (ahem…). Imagine the power they could wield over your digital opportunities. If they were so inclined, they could raise their rates, dilute your efficiencies, or change the rules of the game arbitrarily to suit their own ideas of what the industry needs or what provides revenue for them. Is that so hard to imagine? There are reasons that some more cautious marketers won’t use Google Analytics or avoid overreliance on Facebook as they cling to their site or microsite strategies – they don’t want to share too much data with a vendor or become dependent on a platform they can’t control.
I’m not disparaging Facebook or Google. These are great businesses that earned their market dominance with ingenuity and smart investment, which is what their shareholders rightfully expect, but as a customer you are using their technology, platform, and reach to satisfy certain business objectives. You have a right to ask for certain assurances of continuity in business practice that will not interfere with your ability to compete. You do not have those assurances.
Unlike traditional marketing channels, the dominant digital players can make changes well beyond a simple price or product change that might drive you to a waiting competitor. In fact, they have (mostly) taken price out of the equation by making bid-based buying the norm. And there are no credible, waiting competitors. Any change in Google’s ranking algorithm, SERP listing opportunities or ad offerings or Facebook advertising, page layouts, or recommendation engines have a profound effect on your results in their system but also have a cascading effect on your other digital efforts. Usually with no warning we are thrown into a tizzy of activity to understand and respond to changes in tactical environments to make sure our programs continue to perform and that we can still support the underlying business objectives. The recent Panda pandemonium, the latest acquisition that layers in more data sharing, and other frequent changes are examples of business evolution that have deep and disruptive impacts on customers. Still, we are drawn to these opportunities because we don’t have good alternatives.
Effective competitors that offer close to Google- or Facebook-size opportunity, scale, or reach have not yet evolved and the obstacles to enter that arena get harder to overcome with each day. These are strong, smart, nimble, well-funded, and competitive entities that can buy or squash most new threats that might offer advertisers an option. It won’t always be that way. Innovation happens both within the current platforms where customer activity becomes more anchored with each conversation or experience and from left field with new platforms and opportunities. Twitter and Foursquare, for instance, brought new reasons and new ways for consumers to congregate and were rewarded with massive response that backed a sustainable business model.
It’s hard, impractical, and probably stupid to wean yourself off the largest and best ROI opportunities in the industry, so we learn to live with the uncertainty and the frequent discomfort. Our deal with the devil(s) allows us to cautiously move forward with good digital marketing opportunities while protecting the long-term options for ourselves and all advertisers.
The cautious road:
- Manage and maintain your own customer files. This much you can control absolutely – how you communicate, how often, and in what manner should be totally independent of your paid advertising programs or any external platform.
- Curate minority players in the space if you have options. Support new players with your dollars and test budgets. Participate in betas, respond to demo requests, take the plunge, and be a first case study once in a while.
- Wean yourself from only the highest ROI expenditures. This may be difficult to explain to bosses and clients but consider it insurance against future business disruption. You may find new veins of opportunity or customer pools by expanding your thinking and the ROI may equal or approach that of incremental budget spent in your current programs once the easy pickins are gone.
- Diversify your search efforts to include Yahoo/Bing and some of the specialty search offerings, where applicable.
- Don’t play the victim. Insist on fair treatment within the rules as they currently exist. If you are a good and sizable customer, you should be able to get a rep that knows your business and can help you navigate the inevitable interruptions with minimal impact. If you are a small business, stay on top of your programs and have a plan B in place.
All change brings some level of chaos, and we certainly would not be happy if our partners stopped innovating. Here’s hoping that those guys and gals in a garage somewhere continue to hope, dream, and disrupt the marketplace to challenge the current status quo and provide new contenders.