The Digital Doppler Effect

The Doppler effect is a principle of sound and light waves moving at a great speed. Check out one of my favorite pictures of it.

A familiar example is the sound of an ambulance traveling as a high pitch coming toward you, and as a lower pitch traveling away from you. Oh, and when the ambulance is closest, your ears feel as if they’ll be damaged forever.

When thinking about rich media, viral, podcasting, video, Flash, and all the other fun, exciting things you can do, think about where you and your marketing efforts stand in respect to the Internet’s speeding ambulance.

Every day, something new and innovative happens online. In online advertising, change is the norm. Embracing that dynamic is only the first step in making it work for you. The rest is a little harder.

The digital Doppler effect is about being too early or late for a digital trend or technology. A lot of marketers, whether using online for the first time or for the 10th year running, are sometimes bewildered by how to do it right.

Finding where you stand in the continuum is where it gets a lot harder to figure out.

What does being too early for a digital trend look like? Take the instance of mobile phones in 2001. An over-exuberance for the technology combined with a financial depression and the lingering interoperability (define) problem led to a stall in mobile’s expected growth. Even today, people tout its second coming, yet some of the same barriers still exist.

Examples of too-late scenarios are marketing tactics such as seeding message boards. Anyone who thinks this is a viable marketing ploy should have his head examined.

Most advertisers and marketers use data to educate their marketing decisions. Online provides lots of data, sometimes more than you can understand without a brain augmentation. That data can help you use your gut to decide what concept or innovation you should move forward with. But beware: too much data could hurt someone, or at least really confuse him.

The digital Doppler effect is about data and how it plays with a trend’s vibe. The past 10 years have taught us not every cool online innovation is cool after all. A lot of the new and cool usually dies or morphs into something a little more useful.

Take podcasting. Today, it seems everyone is doing it. The iPod is in everyone’s hands, music is no longer part of the physical world, and old VJs are taking credit for being the father of podcasting. But is it really that big?

Looking at the stats, podcasting seems like the new growth trend. But thinking about it in terms of the Doppler effect, it’s a good thing to do now and not such a good thing in a year or so when people run out of personal podcasting time. There’s a limit to how much one can listen to an iPod in a day.

What about online video? There isn’t a sure sign that video is over, but clearly there will be a glut of online video. Once it gets to that point, video will be scaled back. Another new thing will come along.

This pattern demonstrates how the industry is shaped: things coming at you too fast, others receding slowly. This principle relates to how CEOs, CMOs, and the like ask their direct reports to “do something cool” on the Web. Simultaneously, the online public uses new technologies, such as blogging, podcasting, and SMS (define), all places where ads have yet to make a salient appearance. It’s obvious users move much faster than the great sea of marketing managers can catch up with.

In the end, marketers walk a fine line between being trendsetters and wasteful trend followers. Keeping an eye on data is necessary, but keeping both eyes on the data is akin to Internet blindness. If you really want to be on the cool, recent end of the digital Doppler spectrum, take a look at how people really use their digital devices. Then, consider how your message will fit into their world.

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