The great thing about digital marketing is that there's always something new. In fact, you can bet real money that somewhere out there, someone is beta testing "the next big idea" that is certain to be a must-have for your marketing plan. But digital veterans know that the next big thing often turns out to be next year's flop, fail, or forgotten idea.
The smart money looks at these promising objects for what they are -- emerging technologies that may, or may not, emerge into something bigger. Rather than buy into the hype, savvy marketers play with these platforms and run small experiments, just in case that bright and shiny object becomes a bona fide rock star. But the key to these experiments is actually discipline. Marketers who can learn without succumbing to the hype are best positioned to take advantage of the cutting edge without going over it.
The challenge is finding perspective in a world that moves at internet speed. So we thought we'd help by taking a look at some big ideas from the past that didn't end up being all they were glorified to be.
Are they links, or are they ads? Actually, they're both. For a brief moment in 2009 it looked like in-text ads might gain some serious traction. In-text ads, to be sure, had been around for a while -- long enough to even spark some serious controversy. But in 2009, with marketers looking for greater accountability in the face of shrinking budgets, some advertisers thought in-text was the way to go. In fact, the platform even drew a favorable comparison to search -- the granddaddy of all marketing platforms.
"It is the similarity to search that gained Sequoia's attention," AdWeek reported when Kontera, one of the largest providers of in-text ad inventory, secured more than $15 million venture funding, at a time when that kind of capital wasn't easy to find. "While search has proven a tremendous system for harvesting demand, most of the Web consists of pages where users are not declaring their intent. In-text advertising serves as an additional way to show contextual ads that could be relevant to user interests."
At about the same time, Vibrant, another big provider of in text-ads, heaped praise on brands like Volkswagen and IBM for "fully [leveraging] the power of hyperlinks to deliver user-controlled and relevant advertising."
These days, in-text ads are still with us. And believe it or not, in-text ad providers like Vibrant are still innovating (and trying to solve the problem of errant clicks and mouse-overs). But while the technology remains, and some publishers see it as a solid way to squeeze a few more dollars out of their content, there isn't much of a push to get marketers on the in-text bandwagon. And that's probably a good thing.
Some people called them desktop apps, but back in 2008 you couldn't talk about online marketing without hearing about widgets. The idea was that the web had become so vast that the best way to break through the clutter and cement your brand's relationship with the customer was to live on their desktop in a small app that provided either a branded message or some utility -- hopefully both.
But while marketers were pointing out the untapped opportunity presented by widgets, and how to succeed with these tiny pieces of software, some in the industry were boldly claiming that widgets were the future of marketing. We all bought into the hype, but we should have been following the money -- and I don't mean the venture capital. As GigaOm pointed out in the middle of the widget hype, venture capital was pouring into the space, despite the fact that most widget makers really hadn't seen much revenue.
So what happened to widgets? Well, for one thing it's not clear that advertisers jumped on the widget train as hard as the widget makers would've liked. I know I downloaded an ESPN widget and then kind of gave up on the whole thing. But at the same time we also moved away from a desktop-centric view of marketing as other platforms came online. Still, there's value in the widget story. Just ask anyone who believes in permission-based marketing. Brands that experimented with getting users to download an app and interact around content and utility were probably better positioned to take advantage of the social web than those that didn't.
It's always been easy to raise an eyebrow -- or suppress a giggle -- when marketers talk about engaging in virtual worlds like Second Life. That's probably because virtual reality marketing never really got beyond the evangelist phase to become a full-blown buzzword. But one brand did go all in. That brand was IBM, which seemed keen to use Second Life every which way it could. IBM opened its virtual doors back in 2006, and over the years there were numerous virtual initiatives from the company.
At times, marketers took notice of IBM and talked about best practices and even metrics for working in virtual worlds. But virtual reality marketing never really got over the skepticism, even if those skeptics were the same ones who turned around a year later to offer tips for breathing life into your brand's "Second Life."
But last year, Joseph Jaffe, one of the early proponents of Second Life, wrote about the value of helping Coke experiment with Second Life, and what that experience can teach us today about the current trend of brands working with startups.
"These days, brands have become enamored with the next bright and shiny object, namely conducting tests or experiments with startups," he wrote. "Collectively, they represent value propositions or utilities that disrupt norms, challenge conventions, and move markets. Only they won't get to realize their vision -- their proof of concept -- if brands continue to hold them at arm's length, dispatching their agency minions to negotiate the impossible: Big ideas at scale."
But as Jaffe explained, brands shouldn't be put off by a startups' inability to achieve reach. That is, after all, why you're still in the experimental phase.
"My message to brands is very simple: Don't be turned off by a startup's lack of reach," Jaffe wrote. "In fact, this should turn you on! You're dealing with the most fertile real estate, untouched, and unspoiled by the masses (even your competitors). You have the incredible opportunity to help them achieve their path to reach with your brand dollars, talent, resources, and media. You have the unique chance to join forces with them at the earliest possible stage to co-create and own that big idea."
Have you ever used your smartphone to take a picture of a QR code? I haven't. In fact, I've never even had a friend mention QR codes, either by name or description. What is that weird image on that poster that looks like a Rorschach test?
QR codes are dead, replaced by easier to use technologies that aren't so damn clunky. But for a while, QR codes were a big deal. Fast Company gave you 13 creative ways to use QR codes for marketing. Not to be outdone, we gave you 20 -- count 'em, 20! -- ways to use QR codes correctly. And we even went so far as to ask: Why isn't everyone using QR codes? But even at their height, QR codes were being misused -- if they were being used at all. In fact, Business Insider found no less than 15 QR code fails.
As a concept, the combination of social, mobile, and local is totally valid. But it's also something of a buzzword, which means there was a time when it was on everyone's lips, and there's now a time when using it will mark you as out of touch.
Still, SoLoMo hasn't completely gone bye-bye.
As Seth Fiegerman put it in Mashable, SoLoMo isn't going anywhere. He's probably right. Recently, eMarketer used the term to describe a 2012 Samsung marketing campaign for the company's Smart TV product. Meanwhile, Wired went as far as to describe it as a SoLoMo movement that's changing how we think of neighborhoods. But despite its continued use, SoLoMo is no longer hot, as in, so hot I gotta have it now!
Can you use it? Sure. But if you're planning on a SoLoMo slide in your next PowerPoint, you may want to spell it out as social, mobile, and local. Otherwise, your audience might just start singing "Kokomo."
Here's a hot marketing platform that could very well be in the process of self-destructing even as you read this. Snapchat, for the uninformed, is an app that lets users send photos to their friends. But unlike with Twitter or Facebook, where photos -- especially the embarrassing ones -- live forever, Snapchat's default is to delete content. With a proliferation of stories out there about the wrong photo somehow going viral, it's easy to see why Wall Street is in love with Snapchat. After all, Snapchat solves a real problem for today's internet users, particularly the young and the foolish -- who tend to post first and think never. But how could Snapchat possibly be of value to brands?
Well, it turns out that advertising isn't a hypothetical question. Recently, Mashable asked if Snapchat was the next frontier for marketers when a New York frozen yogurt chain began offering virtual coupons that had to be redeemed in 10 seconds or less. Meanwhile over at Snapchat, they're rolling in venture capital. But the real story is that Snapchat is using some of that dough to build a massive sales force. That's right. Snapchat wants to pitch your brand on the next big thing -- disappearing marketing. Better hurry up and leverage this opportunity before the whole platform vanishes.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
"Row of burned-out matched over he white background" image via Shutterstock.