Is Advertising Killing the Internet?

The first time The New York Times really used the word “Internet” was on November 5, 1988 in an article by John Markoff. The article was about the author of a computer virus and contained the sentence:

“The program eventually affected as many as 6,000 computers or 10 percent of the systems linked through an international group of computer communications networks, the Internet.”

Actually, not a bad description of the Internet. It is fun to note that, already in 1988, the Internet had 60,000 computers connected to it. I don’t know how many are connected now. The closest estimate I could find is five billion devices, but that number is already two years old. But here, the Internet was only described by its physical properties: a bunch of computers wired up to each other.

The Internet, as we know now, grew very quickly, not only in that raw number of things connected but, more importantly, as a factor in people’s lives. For me, I feel that the growth of the Internet will always be intimately tied to my professional life. I got out of college (finally) in 1993 and found a job sometime later that year. A few months after I started, the IT dude came by and installed NCSA Mosaic on my computer (via a floppy disk) and that was it for me. I ended up in advertising via a modem.

(And by “modem,” yes, I mean “modem.” Twenty-eight point eight rules!)

I suppose, then, I bear a bit of the responsibility as well of bringing advertising to the Internet. Over the years, I have worked with a number of companies, large and small, creating presences for them online, as well as figuring out ways to help them achieve their business goals. I have also been writing this column for a number of years, and (hopefully) I have, by extension, helped you all bring advertising to the Internet.

It is with this in mind that I ask myself: “My God…what have I done?”

Eyeballs and Other Distractions

When we first started this grand adventure of advertising on the Internet, we used a familiar model of audiences and impressions. Content was created by talented people, and that content was placed where it could be seen. When the audience gathered, we slid in, around, and through that content, achieving a delicate balance (too many ads and no one watched the content; too few and the content wasn’t paying for itself).

That worked great and I’m convinced that advertising was truly the economic engine that propelled the development of the Internet forward. Consider this: without advertising, Google stays an interesting project. With advertising, Google is arguably the most innovative company on the planet. Those self-driving cars are the result of a lot of AdWords getting clicked.

But nothing really stands still. The Internet has evolved way past the point where content is the big thing people do. Certainly, content has exploded and we now can consume content in great quantities. The Olympics coverage is a content bonanza, for example, with every sport shown live as well as archived. Add to that the fact that an increasing amount of bandwidth is from Netflix and Hulu streaming and you have a very plugged-in and glued-to-their-screen audience.

Consider another site that has sprung up fairly recently: Kickstarter. This is a site/community where people with an idea can solicit for funds for creative projects. It’s remarkable in that it’s truly an idea marketplace. Those who post do so because they have more ideas than cash. Those who visit have the opposite problem (more cash than ideas). It enables connections to be made around a single, shared goal: the desire to see something new in the world.

A remarkable amount of traffic goes to the site, and huge amounts of cash are pushed through as well. The most successful project of all time is the Pebble watch. It raised over $10 million. The cool thing about all this is that not only are the connections made between creators and funders, but there’s a global benefit that comes out of the transaction. Having the Pebble made will help the creators, the funders, and anyone else who may want a new watch.

There is no advertising on Kickstarter. If there was, it would make the experience less compelling. Advertising wouldn’t kill Kickstarter, but it would cheapen it. Advertising (as we have come to know it) would get in the way of a transaction between the brand (creators) and the consumer (funders), in what amounts to a massive twist on the traditional model.

Advertising Must Not Kill, but Evolve

I believe Kickstarter may be the model for an entirely different type of interaction between brands and consumers. Brands formerly built something on their own, then brought that to the market with clever messaging in an attempt to get people to buy. Kickstarter begins at the raw idea level and gets people to participate.

This goes back to that original promise of the Internet. The Internet was “an international group of computer communications networks” on the surface only. It was a huge group of people using computers to do stuff together. The most compelling new sites build on that idea, be it Kickstarter or Wikipedia. And there’s no real way for traditional advertising to participate.

We need, therefore, to evolve our own thinking about what advertising is and what advertising does. Rather than thinking of advertising as presenting a message, we need to think about it as a method of building bonds between people and brands. And that’s a completely different discipline than simply finding a clever way to interrupt people’s enjoyment of content.

If we don’t embrace this evolution, I’m worried that we as advertisers will continue to seek those eyeballs, regardless of whether they have gathered to watch the Olympics or collaborate on a new idea. We must follow where the medium is taking us, and ensure that the dollars we control (that engine of creation) help the next generation of experience to build.

Otherwise, we may not actually kill the Internet, but we certainly won’t foster its growth either.

Smashing laptop image on home page via Shutterstock.

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