The problem with web campaigns

I spent a little time a couple of days ago catching up on the latest winners of the IAB creative showcase. The December winner was Monopoly City Streets from Tribal DBB. Which looks brilliant – it’s some kind of multi-player version of the game played on Google Maps, and I would tell you more, but the only problem is that Monopoly City Streets has ended!

In Understanding Media, McLuhan observes that when a new medium comes along people try to apply to it the rules that govern pre-existing media (I paraphrase).

And while we’ve learned much about the nature of new digital media in the last ten years, we’re still trying to apply the rules of the old paradigm to the new one. In my opinion, this is nowhere more evident than in the persistence of the campaign, i.e. short-term, tactical and concentrated bursts of communications activity.

In a broadcast media environment these short concentrated bursts of communications activity worked well, because broadcast content was for the most part ephemeral in nature, that is to say, it didn’t persist over time. For the most part there was no publicly accessible archive.

The web is different though, perhaps most significantly because of the expression of the temporal dimension in Google Page Rank.

Google Page Rank, for those who don’t know, is the algorithmic approach to search devised by Page and Brin back in the late 1990s. Google doesn’t publicise exactly how Page Rank works and changes, however, what we do know is that Page and Brin’s major insight was that the more links a site had pointing to it, the more authoritative that site would be.

In normal circumstances the number of backlinks is a function of time – the more time a site has been around the more links it attracts. In addition, it is also thought that Google looks for other temporal signifiers, e.g. the length of pre-payment on the domain, and the length of time the site has been live (though if it does these aren’t of the same significance).

You can ‘circumvent’ some of these issues to a certain extent with seeding and SEO, however, they come with reputational risk if you’re caught gaming the social content discovery sites, etc, and indeed if you behave badly enough Google may blacklist you. Even if you get your seeding and SEO activity right, you’re still working against the grain of the Google and the web as a medium. The web has, until this point at least, rewarded persistence. The accretion of reputation becomes a virtuous cycle, which hopefully ends up in a community of interest which sustains the site or platform.

Of course, there are some things which are great overnight successes, and attract a great deal of immediate attention, however, these represent a tiny fraction of the content available on the web at any one time, so if you’ve got ‘and then it will go viral’ in your business plan, then you’d probably better think again, because it’s not really how most of the web works. The web is fungal rather than viral – it’s more like athlete’s foot than SARS.

Ah ha, I hear you say, but what about real-time search? Isn’t that changing everything. Well, yes it it is – Michael Woolf in an article for tech-bible Vanity Fair expresses the shift.

Instead of Google algorithms establishing the information hierarchy, the mass of Twitter-centric humanity—or one’s pre-selected peer group among Twitter-centric humanity—will establish what’s important and hence what comes up first in search results

(Though he uses Twitter as an example, the same applies to Facebook, MySpace, etc.)

Actually, Twitter is more like Google than this suggests – it’s just that with Twitter you select the authorities instead of leaving it to the Google algorithm, and while that means that Twitter might actually concentrate authority into the hands of a few powerful superusers, so did Google, as links from more authoritative sites weighed more.

My hunch is that social and algorithmic search are complimentary, and that Google Page Rank will continue to be an extremely important referrer of traffic. In my personal experience Twitter hasn’t changed my use of Google search, though it has impacted my use of Google Reader and the frontpages of the bigger news sites I used to visit on a pretty regular basis.

However, even if the realtime web is a better place to run campaigns, it still doesn’t deal with the problem of persistence. Monopoly CIty Streets has still ended. I can’t have a go, or pass it on or tell my friends how great it is. It ran for three months. That’s the sort of time a content-based site would spend in soft launch, before looking to seriously build traffic. It doesn’t make sense. And I appreciate that there are a lot of budgetary and logistic issues around owning platforms, but what’s the point of engaging people for a short while and then dumping them. Only to try and refind them again, 12 months later.

So what’s the solution? Well, for a start, the sensible answer is to work with the grain of the web:

Plan engagement over the long term.
Build communities and platforms.
Start and continue conversations, rather than shouting loudly for a short period and then disappearing.
Create content that persists and can be spread.

I’m not the first to say that campaigns on the web don’t work very well, nor am I saying that everyone should stop doing web campaigns because none of them work. There are lots of great examples where campaigns have been very successful. However, I do think it’s time to start working with the web and not against it. To develop more strategic, long-term thinking about how the web is used to engage people.

Start thinking fungal rather than viral. That’s my advice.

One thought on “The problem with web campaigns

  1. john says:

    It’s worth pointing out that content and experieces can and often should be ephemeral at the individual level, but should remain live and accessible to anyone who wants to access them, on a platform that persists.

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