Marketers live in a world built out of technology. It’s the medium in which much of our communication exists. Because of this, it’s important that we revisit first principles from time to time and make sure we are building on a sure footing. Now, more than ever, you need to make sure that you are building your brand (and your business) in such a way that you are able to create and maintain as much value as you can. That means making sure it’s yours, and that it’s built on your foundations – not something that might shift and send things toppling.
If you were going to put up a new building, would you just plop it on a piece of land based on the landowner’s friendly say-so? You’d want assurances that what you invest in the building could not be lost due to some change in circumstances. You’d want to own the land yourself. You’d consider anyone who didn’t nail down the underlying issues before building to be taking wild, unnecessary risks with their long-term outcomes.
In today’s virtual environment where everything seems to be connected, shared, and fast-moving, it can be easy to forget where the boundary lines are drawn, and who owns what. The very terrain of this virtual landscape keeps appearing and morphing before us. It’s hard to keep up with it all, much less have a solid understanding of everything. But in order to do our marketing communications, we must build within this landscape. This involves significant effort and expenditure, and we then rely on what we build to act as the means for people to find and do business with us. We are building virtual versions of that building. But on what foundations?
I have recently encountered (online, and in real-life) terrible stories of people who had erected key elements of their business on foundations that they abruptly came to realize were not theirs. The discovery came when the landscape suddenly shifted, and now they have eaten the bitter fruit that the upheaval has brought them. I’m specifically thinking of businesses who had a heavy reliance on organic search engine traffic coming through Google. Over the last decade+, Google has become nearly synonymous with search. Many business owners who have built their businesses online have created models that rely on getting traffic from Google. Because of its popularity, they have come to see Google and its traffic to be a natural part of the virtual environment, like air, gravity, or sunlight.
The problem is that Google is very different from the base substance of the ’net. While individual companies own individual parts of the hardware (cabling, electronics) that make up the internet, it is a diverse patchwork designed to be open and freely accessible, with no individual entity owning it. Not so with Google. Google search is made freely available, but the nature and existence of the experience is wholly controlled and owned by a single, autonomous company. While this distinction may sound purely philosophical, the harsh reality of it has been visited on people who have not carefully considered the ramifications.
Over the last year and a half or so, Google has been making significant changes (Google Panda, and now Penguin) to their algorithm – their special sauce that determines page ranking and thus, traffic. Terrible stories have surfaced about people losing their traffic (and income) overnight. Some have sought to petition Google, but these efforts show a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on. Google is not like representative government that is by, of, and for the people. It’s a business whose job it is to improve their value for their customers. The important takeaway here is that as a website owner who wants good traffic to your site, you are not Google’s customer. But – (and this is really the most important bit), even if you were, they are fully autonomous and free to do as they please with their products and services.
For those who thought that things would remain as they always were, and then built their businesses on foundations they didn’t own, this is a painful (even show-stopping) shift. But if we look back over the history of digital technology, we see one constant, and that’s change. In the early days, IBM was the big dog of the computing world. Then Microsoft overtook them. Now Apple is bigger than Microsoft. In the early online world, communities like Compuserve were the king of the hill. Then upstart AOL came in and took over. Now, AOL is a relic. On the web, in just the last 10 years or so, communities like Geocities were crushed by the monster popularity of Myspace, and then experiences like Friendster began to undermine Myspace, and now Facebook is reigning supreme.
The key lessons are these: When you are building your brand online, your center of mass should be in your website – a property that you fully own and control. The fact that the site and domain are completely owned by you and under your control, able to fully exemplify your brand as you see fit, is critical. Additionally, you should use a diversity of means to bring people into relationship with your business. SEO is one, but so is social media, so is blogging, so is building an email newsletter following, so is good old-fashioned person-to-person networking. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Especially if you don’t own that basket, and it isn’t easily replaceable.
Additionally, on the subject of social media, it’s worth making sure you don’t make the same mistake as the folks who built everything in reliance on Google, only you do it in social media. Currently, social media is very hot. In some places, it has reached the levels of irrational exuberance that the dot-com era did. People are selling all kinds of nutty ideas about it. The fact is, social media is another channel. It can be powerful and important, but it’s not the center. It’s another means to draw people to the center of your marketing communications (your site – hopefully with integrated blog). Getting fans, followers, and the like is a good way to reach people, but remember, social media platforms (just like Google) are companies. Things can and will shift, so you need to build on foundations that you own. Smart players are using these channels as ways to drive engagement to their sites with content marketing.
Be sure that you are building value and equity such that it is unquestionably yours. Use the different tools and techniques in ways that benefit you and take advantage of trends, but don’t make the mistake of confusing where the property lines are drawn. Build on your own foundations so that you can retain the fruits of your labors. We call it Web-Centric Marketing Communications.