That’s not marketing, it’s the Mafia.
If you work in web design or online marketing you’ve probably heard about Net Neutrality. (I’m leaving out Web developers and programmers because, fortunately, many of them are already passionate about the subject).
We’ve written before about the corporatization of the Internet and how things are getting harder for (early stage) start-up’s and mid-sized businesses. With the FCC now proposing to reverse position on Net Neutrality, this topic seems like a logical segue.
Online marketers are always under the gun. You feverishly measure your site’s KPI’s, work hard to meet objectives, and — just when you’ve reached them — the bar is raised and you must begin again. You need to be creative, but in the confines of an operating business. And that’s not easy. What’s more, online competition, for views, visits, sign-up’s or sales, is fierce, and growing with every passing day. But you already know that.
The point is that if you’re a good online marketer, you are likely too busy (or too stressed) to learn very much about Net Neutrality or to study the issue. You need to drive business. Your work and dedication ultimately pays everybody’s salaries! But it may surprise you to learn that Net Neutrality, or lack of, could have a substantial impact on the Web as it exists today, and could change online marketing conventions in enormous ways. So, it’s an issue all of us need to become more aware of.
What is Net Neutrality?
The most basic definition of Network Neutrality is “the principle that all Internet [network ]traffic should be treated equally.” (Source, Wikipedia, attributed to Matthew Honan, MacWord)
What this means is that your Internet Service Provider (AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, Time Warner, Verizon, etc) must deliver Internet data into your home equally, on what can be described as a “first come first served” basis. With some minor, and some quite necessary exceptions, this is how broadband Internet service operates today.
Net Neutrality Examples
The content site of a large media conglomerate cannot pay ISP’s for its content to be “delivered” to your home faster than a small media start-up company, or even the Internet hobbyist operating a teeny website via shared hosting. It’s really important to realize that faster online content and applications are judged more favorably by consumers and are more engaging. For web business, faster = more successful.
Large, corporate websites already utilize faster equipment, redundant servers and content delivery networks (CDN), so they already are faster than smaller websites or services. And that’s fine – that’s capitalism pure and simple. But if access into consumers’ homes, the so-called “last mile,” becomes subjected to pay-to-play schemes, the Web and the Internet would begin to look very different than it does today.
Let’s take another example: Netflix cannot pay ISP’s to stream its video content more quickly than competing services like Blockbuster On Demand or Amazon Instant Video, therefore giving it a leg-up against its competition. Remember, if NetFlix pays to speed up its streaming, the streaming of other services is consequently slowed down, even if unintentional – bandwidth is a finite resource.
For a third example, ISP’s do not block access to bit torrent or other sharing services where consumers might download content that essentially competes with cable television content they package sell via expensive monthly cable subscriptions. With the exception of egregious bandwidth violations such as hosting a large website out of your home, ISP’s do not control what online services you can use. But they’d sure like to. Do you think AT&T would like to stop, or at least extort Skype? Hmmmm.
Finally, let’s take some hypothetical’s: imagine telemarketing companies could pay your phone company to have their calls ring more loudly in your house, vs. calls from family or friends. Or what if NBC could pay your cable company to have its content display in High Definition, while Fox and CBS were broadcast only in Standard Definition? Both of these are of course not legal. But similar protections for the Internet are still up for grabs.
Net Neutrality and Online Marketing
So what does all of this have to do with the online marketing community? Lots.
At the most basic level, the loss of Net Neutrality unevens the playing field for websites overall. If you’re a local or mid-sized business, you couldn’t possibly pay AT&T or Verizon to serve up your site’s content as fast as a national or multi-national corporation.
Of course larger entities already have a number of built-in advantages over smaller competitors when it comes to online marketing: they have PR teams to engage with prominent bloggers, they have deep pockets for paid search advertising, the have social media agencies or in-house staff, they have large budgets for content development, email marketing, etc, etc and so on.
And, again, I can’t argue that it’s not natural for big companies to have more marketing muscle at their disposal — do-do-do, do-do-do, do-do-do: that’s just the way it is.
But if they were able to essentially shut-out competitors — if consumers could barley access their competitors’ content vs. their own, well that’s not marketing, it’s the Mafia.
Net Neutrality for Marketers – Potential Scenarios
You’re in one of my favorite things, a futuristic dystopia. The year is 2016 and the FCC has completely gutted the principal of Net Neutrality in the United States. As an online marketer, you’re in contract to oversee the design and then market a new website for, say, a regional pest control service. This isn’t sexy, I know, but pest control services need marketing too.
The site looks great and you launch it using a major web host. You’ve used a common back-end and followed all best practices, but the site just isn’t loading fast. The same goes for your marketing emails – the engaging graphics consumers have come to expect aren’t loading! Your expensive paid search campaigns are generating clicks, but your site’s bounce rate is exceedingly high — potential customers aren’t sticking around waiting for your site to load fully.
It turns out that Terminix, the largest pest control corporation in the world, has happily entered into contract with AT&T, Verizon and several other major ISP’s to receive preferential treatment. They are paying each of these telecoms $100,000 / year for its websites and content to be delivered much faster into the homes and businesses of millions of consumers.
How can you compete with that? It’s Internet Plutocracy. You can’t.
Perhaps you’re new to online marketing — you’ve landed an internship with a regional PBS affiliate to help drive awareness of all of their wonderful children’s programming. That is so cool!
You create an online marketing plan to raise online viewership of PBS programs like Curious George, Sesame Street, Wild Kratts and WordGirl. These are highly engaging videos that kids (and parents) love. Your create marketing programs for mommy blogger sponsorships, email to local contributors, regional SEO enhancements, some paid search support and more.
Months later, you’re surprised and saddened to see all these efforts have barely moved the needle. Meanwhile, the less educational Disney Junior shows have skyrocketing viewership and fans.
It turns out that, just like Terminix, Walt Disney Corporation has paid all major ISP’s for preferential access into peoples’ homes. Of course PBS needs every cent to devote to content creation and just staying afloat. You can’t outbid Disney to pay for access, and no amount of savvy online marketing is going to level the field.
These are just two theoretical scenarios I dreamed up in minutes. Now insert your daily work and devotion — whatever company or brands you happen to be working for. Imagine your much larger national or multi-national competitors could pony up to essentially shut you out just by writing a check. Not only are you unable to compete, but ultimately all of us who market for small to mid-sized organizations are out of a job — there’s simply no place left on the Internet for our clients — the web has become like cable television.
I’m not saying that ISP’s, which should be treated just like utilities in my opinion, have no control over the data they carry. They already work to help stop spam and malware from being distributed, for example, and that’s super. Those actions save them money in addition to making the Internet better for everyone. They also control how much bandwidth an individual user can use, keeping access as fast as possible for all of their users. Terrific.
But for anti-Net Neutrality groups, typically reactionary organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity in addition to the big ISP’s, using the above examples as precedents to allow media conglomerates faster access into consumers homes is, well, a bit of a stretch.
As responsible online marketers, it’s up to all of us to get involved and work to keep the Internet open and fair to organizations of all sizes. Let’s do it!
For more information visit www.savetheinternet.com. For starters, you can sign the petition on the homepage.