The Road AheadAnd Whos Driving

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There are so many metaphors to describe the future of the Internet. It’s a beehive–busy, varied, distracted, and catacombed. It’s a world within a world, a microcosm, a virtual political/social/you-name-it mirror of the world outside, with good and bad neighborhoods, with utopian egalitarian potential that may never be fully reached.

But for our purposes it may be more useful to cling to the famous original notion of the Information Superhighway. Because we are at the convergence of two roads, from dirt to asphalt. Or better, perhaps, construction is nearly complete and the orange barrels and concrete dividers will renew unfettered access. Broadband provides the speed at which this will happen, and soon there will be no limited access highways. On ramps, off ramps, who needs them? The highway is the destination.

And like all great shifts in human development, technology is the chauffeur, the bus driver, the cabbie that taxies us there. RSS, podcasting, IPTV, search, and speech recognition technologies that at the same time allow the consumer citizen to become the media and remain the media target, are the vehicles by which content syndication thrives as the revolution reaches critical mass.

Billboards pepper the road, especially in high traffic areas, and nothing will be as important to the online (sorry, highway) marketer than where their messages are delivered and who receives those messages. Not only that, it is the marketer that paves the road so all can access.

The road is built from content syndication. As consumer-generated media (CGM) is embraced as a voice and an outlet, an avenue for freedom of expression, that de-marginalized essence where every player has a stage, the marquis will hold the branding and the funding. It is of little doubt that CGM provides a targeted, permission-based message board. Marketing to someone is now a privilege, not a mandate.

Unlike traditional media campaigns, where advertisers jockey for eyeballs at a premium budget-crunching rate, content syndication, complete with on-the-mark advertising through behavioral and contextual targeting brings in a return on investment unmatched in advertising history.

Technology and Creatives Will Drive Us

The World Wide Web turned 15 years old on November 13th. Born as a research tool with the first hypertext launch in 1990, it has grown in capability from HTML to Flash to XML complete with audio and video passed along super fast broadband lines.

And what of the next 15 years?

“Very likely it will include 3D presentation capabilities, speech understanding input and perhaps even gestural inputs,” Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist and “Father of the Internet,” Vinton Cerf told Times Online’s Rhys Blakely.

“There will be billions of devices on the Internet and many of them will be used to intermediate in daily information exchanges with our friends, family and colleagues, to say nothing of billions of information appliances on the network,” he said.

While these devices are eerily reminiscent of the dubious Metaverse, as outlined 13 years ago by Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson, where the Net becomes a classist society in which the elite are represented by better avatars than their poorer counterparts, it may actually be the reverse. As the price of tech goes down, the proletariat may rise through weblogs, podcasts, webcasts and other creative media, judged on their merits.

The journalist, the musician, the artist, the indie filmmaker “yearning to breathe free,” as it were, with the technical means, if not the know-how, and the budget to create are bolstered by automatic sponsorship. Not to say that all are worth their salt, but the great content providers have that rippled out viral effect that works so well.

They grow through technological advances like the recent “machinima” phenomenon. With a computer, a broadband connection, and $50 software, a next-generation creative can produce video-game animated movies, upload them to sites like Heavy.com, and have them branded and presented and spread within hours.

Hours was all that was needed for Hollywood Undead, a rock band that uploaded their music to MySpace.com, which in October became the 3rd most visited domain on the Internet. Thousands heard their music before the end of the day and boosted them to the top of the charts. That scored the band a record contract through MySpace Records, an offshoot formed through a deal with Interscope Records.

Where once the Web was scattershot and disjointed, difficult to navigate and find relevant content, search technology, RSS, and other platforms for organizing and monetizing content make this new world manageable.

“User-driven media today is similar to where user-driven retail was before eBay. With thousands of disconnected, individual shops, it was hard to find the stuff you wanted; if you found it, you didn’t know if you could trust it; and

if you decided you could trust it, you couldn’t comparison shop,” said Tom Gerace, founder and CEO of Gather.com, a website where publishers submit content and users promote by recommendation.

iSeeTV is another company banking on the convergence of traditional and consumer media. Users become broadcasters by preparing video and uploading to the site. The company provides targeted advertising tiles along the edges of the video. The advertising is present without obstructing or obscuring the content.

“iSeeRadio (a division of iSeeTV) gives us a great opportunity to delve into a new world and offer our advertisers something that is cutting-edge. We’re really capitalizing on this huge wave of Internet advertising and taking it to that next level-not just audio but a visual medium. The possibilities are endless,” said Stephanie Donovan, Clear Channel’s Director of Non-Traditional Revenue in a testimonial about transitioning a morning radio show to the Web.

Reaching The Destination

For marketers, the implications of these advances in Web technology and CGM, therefore, are huge. Syndicating content in this way is less expensive than traditional syndication, more targeted, and yields better returns.

As with anything, there are slings and arrows of fortune to be aware of. When consumers are in charge of content, by default the control of messages within that content are out of the hands of traditional media and advertisers.

Rumor mills pop up as soon as one blogger utters a disparaging word and other bloggers dogpile on the assailed. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or false. Damage is done.

With more media at their disposal consumers will have more ways to say what they want (which is good, for the most part), and larger audiences to present to. A few companies have developed software, like IBM’s Public Image Monitoring Solution, to address that very issue. Public Relations just got higher tech, and whole new realm of image management is sure to arise with the rise of CGM.

The Web is a hypocritical space with users demanding the courtesy of advertisers, requiring their consent to be marketed to, but without the related courtesy of benefit of doubt. But many feel the increased vigilance in managing a public image is a reasonable price to pay for the precise targeting they’re looking for that will bring results.

“The key is to reach consumers with the right information in the right format, getting them to raise their hand and request to be marketed to,” said Jere Doyle, President and CEO of Prospectiv, an e-marketing company.

But, once you’re invited in, you’ve built the trust necessary to continue. Like sellers on eBay who are consistently held accountable for any perceived misdeeds, companies advertising on the Internet of the future will be held accountable in similar forum. And most will understand that reputation is earned and exponentially expanded with time and loyalty. One blogger on one day can’t dismantle it.

Pollyanna? It sure is. But the future is rosy for the ones who know how to drive the road ahead.

The Road AheadAnd Whos Driving
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