Effects of Net Neutrality on Digital Marketing

Posted on Wed, July 25, 2018 in GRAYBOX News, by Jon Love

Our Net Neutrality Opportunities and Challenges series has discussed a number of likely changes that will result from the recent rollback in Net Neutrality restrictions. As a part of that multi-part series, this installment will talk through the likely impacts -- both challenges and opportunities -- to how we market ourselves and our companies on the web.

Over the past 25 years, a thriving ecosystem has developed around digital marketing, allowing companies to reach current and potential customers in personalized and specific ways that were historically challenging. Through a combination of tools, services, and strategies, digital marketers are able to precisely target and relevantly communicate with their desired audience. These tactics have evolved within the existing internet neutrality framework, and in most ways their success is predicated on the continued existence of that ecosystem. The rollback of Net Neutrality regulations has the potential to drastically upend this market space in a number of foundational ways.

SEO and PPC May Become Irrelevant.

Google is great. They offer a single place to easily look across most of the internet to find a thing. Anything. They offer really clear guidelines to website operators on how best to be the thing that’s found: be the best answer to the question being asked, or be the best and highest paid ad related to what’s being searched. Google has built a healthy business around these core concepts, aligning people who want to find a thing with people that want to be found for that thing.

What happens if users no longer have access to Google, because they only bought Social Media and Streaming Content Economy Bundles through their ISP?

For a user blocked from Google or other search engines, the notion of your website “organically ranking” in search results becomes irrelevant. Similarly, Paid Search is only effective if users are searching for something. If a sizeable portion of internet users are opting for (or can only afford) lower tier restricted access internet access, one of the main strategies of digital marketers may quickly begin to run dry. Websites may still be a relevant way to create engagement with your brand, but how your site is found may change dramatically.

This can present great opportunities for the savvy digital marketer who deeply understands your user personas and target market. Take, for example, a brand targeting a younger audience who has largely chosen Social Media and Streaming Content access plans. Your users are still on the internet, they’re just somewhere else. This opens doors to new creative means of engagement, such as video content, streaming content ads, targeted social paid spend, influencer campaigns, etc. The customer need still exists, and the customer is still engaging in a digital medium. It’s incumbent on the digital strategist and marketers to understand that need, and meet the customer where they want to be found with a form of message that resonates and (ultimately) converts.

It seems far-fetched that we wouldn’t use a search engine to find something across the internet, but when compared to our other forms of media, Google’s simplicity and effectiveness is really the outlier. It could also be argued that the existing approach of most ISPs and Content providers favor a disjointed approach rather than one as ubiquitous as Google. Let’s say you wanted to know all about Pink Floyd’s The Wall. A search on Google would return results about the album, the band, the movie, documentaries about the movie, and tribute songs & videos about all of the above. Compare this to your home media browsing experience: You’d think nothing of searching Comcast for shows, followed by Comcast On Demand for movies, then Netflix for Movies, then Apple TV/iTunes for Movies and music, then Amazon Prime for movies and music, etc. The existence of a tool like Google is, itself, predicated on open and consistent access to all forms of information on the internet. The ecosystem created and currently embraced by ISPs and Cable companies stands in stark contrast, and we would be unlikely to see a strong shift away from the status quo in the absence of net neutrality rules.

Direct and Referral Traffic May Become Obsolete.

You built a great website. It effectively conveys your brand, your value proposition, and what differentiates you from the competition. It’s won design awards, was crafted by the best agency in the industry, and elegantly ushers users in a seamless journey that ends with conversion. What value does this site provide your business if your site isn’t accessible in the ISP access plan of your target demographic?

Think of the ways in which we drive users to our websites currently:

  • Direct traffic (typing in the URL)
  • Google/Search Engine search (either organic or paid search)
  • Social Media links
  • Off-Site Referral links back to our website
  • Email Marketing
  • Business Cards, word of mouth, etc.

All of these marketing strategies are painfully dependent on a user being able to actually load your website. To go back to the analogy of cable TV where you only subscribe to the basic package, you can’t watch the latest HBO series, regardless of how popular it is, if you don’t pay for the package that grants you access to that content. Our entire digital marketing infrastructure is currently focused on an inherent truth that websites are accessible via an internet connection. If that is no longer a reliable truth, digital marketers will need to pursue other avenues to communicate their message to their audience.

Audience Segmentation and Messaging Becomes Critical.

If the strategies for digital marketers have to drastically evolve, it will likely become more critical than ever to have a deep understanding of your audience. In the current world, a marketer needs to understand their brand and how to convey the message effectively to their customer. In a post-net neutrality world, the additional facet of where the message is deliverable becomes just as important.

  • If 18-35 year old men tend toward ISP packages that focus on social and streaming content, I should not worry about targeting them with SEO and Paid Search campaigns, and instead should focus my message to them in social and streaming content channels.
  • Similarly, if 35-50 year old men want a similar message, but tend away from social and streaming services, and instead lean heavily into news and productivity packages, I need to ensure my message also reaches this audience in this channel via ad services, PR activities, and referral link building campaigns.

The layered and potentially complicated matrix of message and medium becomes increasingly important in this world.

Negotiating with ISPs for User Access Becomes Critical.

In some cases, a fully developed website is still the best way to bring your message to your target audience. If an abbreviated Facebook or Yelp! profile is insufficient as a marketing tool, companies and digital marketers will need to find other ways to ensure traffic continues to find its way to their websites.

In this case, the role of a digital marketer may expand to include negotiations. Being included in various ISP data packages, either as an unblocked content type or by having your site’s data excluded from the calculation on a zero rating list, could both open the door for marketers to leverage traditional websites to engage their audience, and provide an incredibly competitive advantage to those companies who get included. If Coke and Pepsi are competing for eyeballs, but only one has digital content easily accessible to Time Warner subscribers, that company is going to enjoy a significant mindshare advantage.

Does Email Marketing Die?

Despite the occasional claims to the contrary, email marketing is alive, thriving, and effective. With better metrics and higher conversion rates than non-digital mail and outreach methods, email marketing continues to provide positive ROI for marketers, and is a healthy part of an effective omnichannel marketing strategy. It provides another channel through which you can have a digital conversation to engage your audience, and most statistic show, regardless of demographic, device, and interest, that email is an effective and valuable part of that communication strategy. However, emails consume data. The average email is only about 75kb -- not much in the scheme of things, especially compared with the average size of a modern web page. But what they lack in size, they make up for in volume. At a high level think of it like this:

  • There are about 200 billion emails sent each day- lots of that is spam (about 70%).
  • People have habits for what they keep and what they discard (tending to quickly discard spam, and keep relevant emails).
  • Despite the average email only being about 3% the size of the average web page, emails that users have downloaded and stored in their inbox are about 3x the file size of the rest of the internet.

This all means that email faces a headwind as a competitive marketing channel if the bandwidth required to access that email becomes either scarce or expensive. Business is still largely dependent on email, which would likely result in corporate ISP plans inclusive of that data type. But individuals can more easily shift their personal conversations to apps, social channels, etc., putting B2C email marketing in greater jeopardy.

Much like the potential erosion of SEO and Paid Search, a declining use of Email Marketing would be (1) very quickly measurable and (2) would need to be offset through outreach to your target audience via other channels. Existing tools like Hubspot / Marketo / MailChimp that have been built on intelligent email campaigns would necessarily have to evolve their offerings into intelligent omni-channel campaigns leveraging other digital avenues to reach their audience where they are at.

Reliability of User Feedback May Decline.

Recall back to our earlier post discussing the impacts to web development, including the potential refactoring or slimming down of Analytics tools. Those tools (such as Google Analytics, A/B testing tools, heat mapping tools, etc) operate by feeding data about the user’s session back over the internet to a third-party platform, which is then accessible via the internet to analyze and incorporate into your marketing plans. In a post-net neutrality world, if these tools become more challenging to incorporate into our sites, the eyes and ears of digital marketers may be diminished.

Take, for example, Google Analytics. This tool has been in use for years by most websites as a way to communicate how many users are visiting your site, where they’re coming from, and what they’re interacting with while they’re on your site. A few interesting bits for consideration:

  • If the user is on your site because your site is included in a zero rating plan (access to this site does not count against their data limits), is the call out to Google Analytics included in that package? The user doesn’t care about your analytics metrics, and neither does the ISP. It’s technically a data usage flowing over their network, which they may be incentivized to penalize or prevent.
  • Are external 3rd party tools (such as Heat Map analysis) allowed to exist and communicate data in a restricted ISP plan? If they are blocked because their access is not included in the ISP plan, then their inclusion on a whitelisted site may cause user experience problems.

There are potentially very interesting and very tangible problems that may arise for digital marketers if their eyes and ears are taken away. Likely this would result in pulling some old tricks out of the bag (ie: user focus groups, in-person user studies, surveys, etc). But much of the optimization and fine tuning digital marketers rely on today could be greatly impacted. 

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