The Marketing Bureau

Specialist Marketing & Communications Resourecs



Why The Web Loses Out To Reality

By Jonathan Salem Baskin

First Published on

The internet isn't a stand-alone experiential platform but rather a transitional or enabling tool for experience; it's for enabling actions that derive from and contribute to actions in the real world.

This means that many of the current approaches to it as an entertainment channel, or a "place" where people consume branded content, not only miss the true engagement opportunities it affords, but fail to deliver the truthfulness and utility that consumers need. Could the new killer digital app be to use the net to focus on analog reality?

Virtual dreams

William Gibson penned the term "cyberspace" in his short story "Burning Chrome," which was first read to an audience at a science fiction convention in Denver in 1981. It referenced "a mass consensual hallucination of computer networks," though beyond that he was purposefully vague about what it entailed. For most of us alive at the time, we happily filled in the blanks: He meant "virtual reality," an idea from the 1930s describing the imagined world of a live theater experience, only vividly rendered in our minds for us by advanced computer technology. While we saw this vision in countless movies (from "Lawnmower Man" to the "Matrix Trilogy"), it remained a hallucination for the next 30 years. Online experience in 2011 doesn't even remotely resemble the immersive experience we thought was right around the virtual corner.

Yet we still talk about websites as places where people spend time, and we talk about online identities, whether for businesses or individuals, as somehow separate but no less real then their real, offline corollaries. Brands exist online, and the content propagated there -- even though it's not anywhere near the compelling sensory experience we imagined a few decades ago -- has its own values and purposes. When consumers are engaged online, they're there, accessing information, trading it, and making decisions. The consensual hallucination has become a collective marketplace.

Only it's not a place, and the hallucination stinks. Online market functionality amounts to little more than more complete, efficient, and better presented price lists. Nobody visits cyberspace but rather uses it, usually in ways that fall somewhere along a spectrum from utility to entertainment. Most of the content thereby distributed is consumed, not experienced in any sense of the term anybody ever intended, and said content is invented, not real. And, perhaps most counter-intuitive to our expectations, apart from the content that arises organically from the real world, or that gets applied back to it, what's shared online isn't testament to any separate or stand-alone truths other than the presenters' ability to create it (or hire experts to do it). Today's cyberspace is less an alternate to reality and more mirror to it, and mostly it shows us that we work overtime to waste one another's time.

On and off

So much is made about the time people spend online. According to comScore, Americans spent, on average, 32 hours each month on the internet in 2010, and that number likely undercounted mobile access. Usage was higher for certain age groups, like those people aged 45-54. Nielsen calculated that at least a third of that third... so, like 10 hours each month... was spent on social networking, emailing, and gaming (the majority of the time was divided among 40 plus activities, from trolling tech forums to watching video). Our seemingly insatiable commitment to online experience is evidenced by a recent national poll that found a third of American consumers unwilling to forsake their internet connections, even in our era of economic hardship (almost everyone said they'd give up their designer coffee first).

Conventional wisdom takes these numbers as cause for putting brands online because people are so evidently there. Only they're not. Americans spend more than four times as much time in the real world as they do visiting the web. We're also asleep four times as long every month. We spend more time eating than we do clicking on social media sites. Also, usage statistics don't account for at least two qualitatively important qualities of online experience: what people are doing exactly, and what else they're doing while they do it. In both cases, the available stats suggest that online users aren't immersed in much of it (being mildly amused by a streaming video does not constitute involvement, per se, even if zillions of them are viewed or forwarded every nanosecond), and they're often multitasking (or at least consuming more than one media format, most often TV).

We're not there in the same way that I'm in my office writing this essay, or you're wherever you are right now reading it. Yet the language we use to describe our online behaviors says we are: Adding a name to a list makes someone a friend; we visit websites and join communities; when we click on a picture or video we're engaged with it; posting a comment is having a conversation. Even if these virtual descriptions were accurate, they wouldn't even come close in comparison to the depth and nuance of all of the friendships, visits, communities, and engaging conversations we have in the real world. Forget importance; they represent a blip of time out of the rest of our lives, don't they?

And, if this analysis is even close to correct, why do we insist on describing online experience in such lofty terms? Wouldn't it be more accurate to describe it as an impromptu channel for actions -- watching, sharing, inputting -- and, if so, wouldn't we want to it reconsider what content brands put into it? In a sentence, if online experience isn't a place we need to fill somehow, could it be a trigger for actions that precede and follow it?

Tempest in a teapot

When we stop talking about online experience as an entertainment medium, and trying to find value in delivering it, something very interesting emerges: reality. Only 4 percent of online social behavior focuses on consumer complaints (according to TextWise), but those posts and follow-on responses are among clearest and oft-cited ROI measures for brand presence in online communities. Many of the most celebrated social campaign successes are promotional and involve sales discounts (computer hardware, airline tickets, and giving fans early access to new music are examples). Companies use social platforms to share information on business operations with stockholders and analysts, and host private communities to develop IP. Users trade fixes for problems. In non-business circumstances, online experience is often used by political groups to prompt protests and meetings, and first responders use it to locate victims (Haitians tweeted their locations after the earthquake hit in 2010). Non-profits effectively use it to solicit donations.

Reality is the common denominator for these activities, either as the source of content or the uses for it, and it makes the metrics immediately tangible. Customers who buy tend to buy more, or buy more often. Higher stock prices. Better products. Bodies in attendance at meetings, or rescued from the rubble. People using real things to do real things.

Yet the vast majority of effort and money spent by companies online has nothing to do with these activities, which you could accurately characterize as truly peer-to-peer -- people talking to each other, not collectively being spectators. Instead, brands create entertaining content intended to capture consumers' time online, and pursue a marvelously convoluted logic that basically says that they tell you something when they tell you nothing. This expenditure is still classified as "digital marketing and advertising," however, and amounted to something near $120 billion by U.S. companies last year, according to Outsell. That's a hell of a lot of funny videos and popularity contests, and a model overall that despite its aspirations of language still amounts to a belief that consumers want their time wasted... and therefore the opportunity is to show people unmemorable stuff and hope that they'll remember it.

The return to reality

Do you remember the early days of web pages? They used to be so complicated and rich with media (when possible), which made them impossible to experience in the ways in which they were intended. People just didn't have the bandwidth, not to mention the patience for images to load, clicks that got them lost on other pages, etc. Over time, we learned that simpler approaches, especially combined with utilitarian purposes, won out over the complicated expressions of brand: Amazon became the most used and then copied design paradigm, as its glory is in how well it uses real world content (books and reviews) to prompt real world actions (purchase). It isn't sexy as a medium, but it works as a tool.

If you go back further in time, similar media innovations went through evolutions from complex to simple, and from being detached from reality to getting integrated with it. Books used to be heavy, ornate things kept behind locked grates by the wealthy before they were printed on cheap paper and sold for next to nothing. Radios and televisions were first huge pieces of furniture that required viewers to plan their days around program times, while now they go anywhere and you can watch and listen to what you want any time. Movies had literal palaces built to show them.

In each instance, what was first considered a "place" morphed into a somewhat invisible "tool" for transmitting information. The experiences of those technologies went from that of being alternate or separate realities, to being a part of real-world experience. I'm stretching the comparison a bit -- movie content remained purely entertainment -- but my general point is that as internet technology gets more embedded in our everyday lives (mobile, augmented reality, etc.), I think it will change the substance of what businesses chose to use it for. But the input and output of real things is what's already powering its most meaningful uses.

There's nothing stopping you from acting on this return to reality right now, though. Could more of your online interaction be built on real people sharing real bits of information or content that matters to them, not to your marketing department's vision of your brand? Might you identify new ways your customers can use the internet to make better or easier decisions? How could you stop talking about content and start talking about purpose instead, especially when it comes to creating stuff to put online?

Virtuality isn't parallel experience or place, but mechanism, and the time people spend online is an exception to their daily lives, not the defining experience of it. You should honor it, not try to waste it. What makes you different isn't how you go about casting your brand online, but what you do offline that garners that differentiation when repurposed online, and how it's used thereafter. Meaning -- not entertainment -- is the killer app, and the place it's proven isn't digitally but in analog reality.

Seen within the context of the rest of the truly real experience that bookends (and dwarfs) it, the only consensual hallucination today is of marketers who pretend that online experience is something separate, different, or more. What matters is here and now.


Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist and author of "Histories of Social Media."



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