Alack. For certes, enough years have passed that the advertising industry has come hither, to a place where words once common have lost their meaning. We must obarmate their continued usage, thereby obstrigillating a possible move to forsoothery!
It is natural for language to evolve. It could be said that if language isn't evolving, it might not really be a language. After all, part of the objective of using language is to communicate something about one's world or one's state of being. If language isn't changing, but the world (or possible states of being) is, the language stops working. The English language, among others, is littered with the debris of words that have been lost, retired, or have simply passed away. The preceding paragraph has six such words.
Each industry or professional discipline has its own collection of such words. It's only natural, given that each of them requires its own language to articulate its specific worlds. The online advertising industry is certainly no different.
There are at least a dozen or so words that fall into this category. Following are six words, or phrases, that were once de rigueur but are now passé. Or, at least they should be.
According to the dictionary, this is a transitive verb meaning to "convert or express in the terms of currency." I suppose this is what people see as the outcome when using the word in reference to a website's inventory, a technology, a tool, an app, or anything else having to do with the online media and marketing landscape from which one hopes to generate revenue.
But isn't it an ugly word? Doesn't it conjure up images of a bygone era of the first digital gold rush -- maybe 1999? A time when it isn't beyond the pale of possibility that a site with the name of, say, cocktailweenies.com, could raise a few million in a round of financing, based on the founders' promise of "monetizing" the cocktail weenie enthusiast audience?
"Monetize." Say it loud, and there's music playing... say it soft, and it's almost like praying.
"Monetize." It means everything from the sale of "Me by Me: The Pets.com Sock Puppet Book" to More Salad!, an app from Maverick Software that, for 99 cents, let's you make a virtual salad with a variety of virtual leafy greens and toppings. If salad isn't your thing, for another 99 cents you can get -- also from Maverick -- More Toast!, More Grillin', or More Cookies!
Let's use a different word or phrase in place of "monetize." We can try "make money" or "generate revenue." Or if we need to sound like we're smart (adding "-ize" to the end of the word is essentially to do just that; the word "use" means the same things as "utilize," -- we just think "utilize" sounds smarter), let's try "fiscally viable" or "fiscal viability."
Why do the media continue using this word in reference to the amount of traffic a particular web-related item receives? In the very ancient days of online advertising, we used "hits" to quantify traffic to a website. What a "hit" really was -- and still is -- is a single request for a single file. That means if you visited a web page that had 10 pictures showing on it, you'd generate 10 "hits." In 1996-1997, companies like NetCount LLC and I/Pro provided website measurement services. In 1996, it was conventional wisdom that the average visitor to a website triggered six "hits." Server logs from DoubleClick or Adknowledge would be faxed, and we'd all count each "hit" entry by hand. We'd add them all up and divide by the magical number of six to come up with total visitors to a site.
Please, Mainstream Media: If you are going to talk about how popular something online is, could you please use "visits" or "views"? Unless you are talking about baseball, defensive tackles, or The Beatles, stop using the word "hits."
It is possible that there are some of you reading this now who don't remember a time when push technology was all the rage. Some of you might have been getting ready for the prom when Kim Polese's face graced the cover of every tech industry magazine, including the Industry Standard -- a magazine you might also not remember. Polese had been on the team that developed Java at Sun Microsystems. She moved on from there to found a company called Marimba, a company that specialized in "push media." This is defined as online material sent to individual computers automatically, without users having to "pull" it down from websites (aka, download) on their own. In 1997, she was named one of Time Magazine's 25 Most Influential Americans.
Some of you might even have been in grade school when the original push media darling, PointCast, was in the process of turning down a reported $450 million offer from Rupert Murdoch, a move that in 1997 was hailed visionary. After all, PointCast was thought to potentially be the next Yahoo or Amazon. (If you don't believe me, check out this old article from Fast Company.)
The problem with push media is that there's nothing special about it. It really just describes a passive content experience on the web. Sort of what you have now when you set up an RSS feed to port into your email inbox, or a stock-ticker app you've downloaded onto your smartphone. The technology itself really never went away, but as a discrete "medium," push is long gone.
Anyone still using this word? Unless you are talking about your kids on a swing or buttons on an elevator, "push" as it relates to media is no longer relevant.
Podcast (and podcasting)
It's widely believed that the term "podcasting" was born near the beginning of 2004. In a February 12, 2004, article for The Guardian about online radio and the digital distribution of audio content, Ben Hammersley inadvertently gave us the word. Wondering what one should call the creating, distributing, and listening to of audio content, Hammersley mused, "But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?" Podcasting is what stuck, a contraction of "iPod" and "broadcasting."
Does the word really describe what it's been attributed to? What is done with the content isn't really "broadcasting," if you take the word to mean "casting broadly." And the "pod" part of it -- well, the iPod's unit sales peaked around the end of 2008. Although there are still lots of them, and they are still being sold, a pod is no longer the device du jour.
"Podcast" is a word that, I think you'll all agree, has had its day and should now move on to a designation better suited for describing a historical movement in technologically driven media. Like the "rich" in rich media, however, I suspect it will stick with us for some time, still used for lack of another signifier.
Eeeuck. Just reading it makes one end of my lip curl up in concert with the corresponding nostril.
I know that MBAs, the business press corps, and the stakeholders in tools that facilitate groupthink all love to a) use the word "crowdsource" and b) have a kind of Marshall Applewhite faith in the power of ideas and thinking that come forth from the human collective. But let's think long and hard about the wisdom of crowds.
The idea that people in groups are better at accurately predicting the outcome of events or better at coming up with solutions to problems when in aggregate versus when left on their own has been around for a while. But it was with the publication and subsequent success of James Surowiecki's book, "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations," that an unfettered enthusiasm for the brilliance of the many found itself an axiom.
There is ample evidence that a large group of people can be better at coming up with the correct answer to a question regarding a specific data point than a single individual might be. The example Surowiecki opens with is that a crowd at a county fair came up with the correct weight of an ox when their individual answers were averaged, coming closer even than those guesses from livestock experts. The problem here is that not every question can be answered through quantification. What if the question relates to the causes of World War II? Or what is going to be the next Tickle Me Elmo or Silly String craze?
I think of all the great crowdsourced and crowd-driven movements in history: the Salem witch trials, McCarthyism, National Socialism, China's Cultural Revolution, Cabbage Patch Kids, the tulip bulb frenzy of 1635, the real estate frenzy of the 2000s, Pet Rocks, the Birthers, the gold rushes of 1849 and 1897, the dotcom bubble 1.0, miscegenation laws, "Dancing with the Stars" -- the list of crowdsourced errors is long. This is not to say that good -- even great -- ideas can't come from anywhere, or that taking advantage of that circumstance does not require scale. But maybe the crowd isn't always the best place to seek answers. Whether product development or the authoring of history books, sometimes the expert is better than the crowd.
The long tail is related to the crowd that is referenced when talking about crowdsourcing. The long tail is a distribution of niches -- a long, thin line of population probability plotted along an axis of likes and dislikes.
Popularized by Wired's Chris Anderson in an article for that magazine, and later elaborated on in his book, "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More," the phrase "long tail" came to represent the business concept made possible by crowds that are facilitated by social networking platforms and the embarrassment of niches that the internet has become. The idea was embraced by the online advertising industry and digital business. Creating and distributing content is cheap, cheap, and cheap. Any enthusiasm can find a means and a forum for expression. Because online is both a medium for communication and a means of distribution, I can sell through to these micro-audiences. And I can sell only a small number of units, just the right number to meet the wants or needs of that micro-audience, keeping my costs of production and carriage low. And there are thousands of these little audiences! At scale, I'm selling "more" to "less."
The problem is this: In the years since, the scale part of the equation hasn't really borne any fruit. To borrow and twist the Warholian chestnut: In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people. And 15 people, unless collected into a much larger crowd of 15, does not a market make -- not as buyers and not as an advertisable audience.
To make a business of selling less of more, you have to not only have access to the "more," but a whole lot of the "less." The returns on 100,000 different product categories being sold to only a handful of people don't turn out to be very good. The cost of distributing content might be very low, but at scale it is not. And the cost of distributing product only goes so low, regardless of scale. The occurrence of "long tail" in our conversations has been steadily decreasing since 2006 -- the year Anderson's book was published. It's been a while since the long tail has wagged the dog. It's time to let this sleeping dog lie.