Less than 22 years ago, the internet was unleashed on the world.
Until then the internet had primarily been a minority interest, used mainly by the military and academia. But since then it has disrupted, restructured and entirely destabilised numerous industries and touched almost every part of modern life. It was, without a doubt, the single greatest innovation of the last quarter of a century. So why is it that, in large parts of the media industry, innovation currently seems to be largely lacking?
One thing the rise of the web has done is create a perception, with a large basis in fact, that people don’t really want to pay for things online, unless they’re shopping on Amazon or eBay. This is the reason that so many tech start-ups decide on advertising as a revenue model, but it’s one that often seems to limit the very innovation that such start-ups are meant to embody.
If we look at Facebook, it seems to face a daily battle not to ‘do a MySpace’ and let its investors’ desire to see a return force it into bad decisions. For large parts of its history it has been able to keep these forces at bay; it’s the reason that its floatation was done in such a way so as to allow Mark Zuckerberg to do, essentially, what he wants, no matter what the shareholders might think.
But despite Zuckerberg’s desire to keep the start-up mentality alive, some of the recent decisions suggest that they’re finding it hard to stay innovative. Whether it’s the move to put large ads, on the log-out page, or the rumoured launch of auto-play video ads in the newsfeed, it has felt a little like the spirit of innovation isn’t coming through as much as one might hope.
In the same way, whilst Twitter has evolved through its users making things up as they go along (hashtags, retweets and the use of @ were all user innovations) its decision to go down the route of becoming an ad-funded business has caused some to question whether it can stay true to its roots.
And then there’s Pheed. It’s been described as Twitter with a business model but, with its blatant copying of pretty much every social network to have made an impact in the last decade, it feels more like Tumblr with ADHD. Innovative, it is not.
So what can we do to put innovation back into media and advertising?
Firstly, we should do all we can to stop using metrics like clicks to measure success. Such blunt tools do nothing more than force advertisers, agencies and publishers/platforms to chase lowest common denominators and to keep repeating the mistakes of the last 20 years. The first banner was sold in 1993, and it looked painfully like most of those that can still be found online today.
Those early banners were sold on their accountability (those clicks) and had amazing results to start with. Unsurprisingly, with time, click through rates have progressively declined and yet many are now selling mobile display on the basis that click through rates are better than on desktop. Hands up who thinks they’ll probably decline with time?
Secondly, we should look to those industries that are innovating, which are often the least ‘sexy’. One of the men responsible for the creation of the iPod and iPhone is now designing intelligent thermostats. The way in which he has approached this task can teach all of us something about how the intelligent use of data and design can help to create true innovations.
Finally, we should reward media companies when they do innovate. Facebook’s Open Graph allows brands to create apps that catalogue people’s actions and make them social. So far, the ones that have done so have generally been in the fitness or media sectors. But the opportunities are there for brands to create truly engaging experiences around their products, it’s just going to take a little innovation.