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An Aye for an Aye,
the online click storm

Online it’s like for like, follow me follow you… but what does this have to do with influencing genuine consumers and quality? The Internet, led by Google and Facebook, was once touted as a force for good. What happened?

Hong Kong, November 2017

Google office at Mountain View California - how Internet giants are reshaping our world, for the better or worse...

Google office at Mountain View California. The Internet giant is an inspiration for young minds and would-be inventors. But where is it leading us?

THE quantity vs quality equation is an age-old conundrum. As out-at-elbow students devouring cheap stomach roiling buffets that had us floating to the ceiling each night bloated with gas, the logic against small savoury meals served on clean china, was simple. Quality is expensive. Like the guns-and-butter dialectic, it continues to perplex everyone from seasoned economists who swear by the logic of markets, to lemming-like retailers who, also believing in the market, go with the flow and hope for the best come cliff or high water.

In the Internet age where everything from mobile phones to music, movies and news is now apparently free, and people follow trends more than ever before, the discourse has taken a perverse turn.  ‘Quantity’ is very much in the ascendant for advertisers and brand purveyors despite the lip service to quality, luxury, and ‘carefully curated’ this that and the other…  

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese

The increasing dominance of digital marketing (that drives mass clicks) and its obsession with statistics and sales (over brand value), is a key cause of the current societal decline and the demise of quality, as the world has understood it for millennia

What this really means is that in the rush for numbers, brand messages – intended to woo and seduce top-drawer consumers – are being served to indifferent (or the wrong) audiences. Many companies have seemingly dispensed with or forgotten about the importance of their brands, solely favouring bookings and clicks, something anathema to discerning spenders.

Maximising numbers can backfire. The overwhelming success of Louis Vuitton in Hong Kong and Macau with vast purchases by overseas visitors resulted in such a fashion glut (at one time Macau ballrooms were rented by designer brands simply to store their inventory) that Hongkongers began shunning LV items that were perceived as devalued with overexposure and burgeoning availability. This, in the eyes of the vexed citizenry, cheapened the product. There is more than a grain of truth here. Perceived value is based as much on scarcity as on demand.

The increasing dominance of digital marketing (that drives mass clicks) and its obsession with statistics and sales (over brand value), is a key cause of the current societal decline and the demise of quality, as the world has understood it for millennia. Top publications the world over, from newspapers and magazines to websites and blogs, are closing shutters. Why? Two simple words: Google and Facebook. They have vacuumed up the lion’s share of digital advertising, variously estimated at 70-80 percent. Mega-brands like Adidas have abandoned television to focus entirely on the Web. And then there’s the lumpen drudgery of statistics.

The Internet that once claimed to be a white knight, expanding information horizons and democratic choice for all and revolutionising human engagement, has in fact perverted economics, perhaps irreversibly, transformed naturally gregarious kids into anti-social cell phone zombies, and spilled its 4.5bn page content like slop on the floor, flooding the market, with no way to separate the salmon from the sardines.

It’s interesting that both Google and Facebook started out as starry eyed New Age concerns aimed at the betterment of society though it was not entirely clear what shape that might take. Google’s whimsical Boy Scout motto, ‘Don’t be evil’, disappeared from its code of conduct in October 2015 after new holding company Alphabet took charge. By 2016 the search leviathan had racked up a purported revenue of US$89.9 billion (US$67.39bn of that from advertising). Reflecting the spirit of their founders, and the times, these companies were young, talented, free, passionate and volubly moral.

They shunned commerce and spoke in terms of human good. In 2004 Mark Zuckerberg declared in an interview, “Anyone from Harvard can get a job and make a bunch of money. Not everyone at Harvard can have a social network”. Sergey Brin – with an estimated net worth in 2017 of just under US$47bn – had stated emphatically in 1999, “Our goal is to maximise the search experience, not maximise the revenues from search.” The duo acquired the world’s trust as a profusion of cables snaked into homes sucking out intimate details of lives, habits, interests, political and sexual preferences, and favourite foods.

Yesteryear’s hippie adventurers and windmill-tilting iconoclasts are today’s mega-business barons. This is perhaps as it must be, and is to be greatly applauded. People grow and adapt and become successful. So what’s different about this? And why have digital platforms and current marketing practices refashioned lives to the detriment of human quality?
Digital marketing largely depends on young recruits, many of them bright and razor sharp with astounding maths degrees. Alas, many of these millennials have not consumed the very luxury brands – cars, fashion, hotels – they are tasked with promoting. They may lack a reading habit or the language skills to evaluate the content in say Le Monde or The Economist, or The New York Times. What follows is equally true of a US-based operation trying to gauge the quality of a Chinese language magazine or website that appears alien.

The Internet that once claimed to be a white knight, expanding information horizons and democratic choice for all and revolutionising human engagement, has in fact perverted economics, perhaps irreversibly, and transformed naturally gregarious kids into anti-social cell phone zombies

Going against the exhortation of a famous adage, books are being judged by their covers as advertisers favour gloss, slick design, and heavy art paper over quality writing and content. For the purposes of argument, by this crude yardstick even the venerable The Economist would lose out to any glossy travel or ditzy fashion magazine that offers reassuring hernia-popping ‘weight’ and sheen. I have spent more time than I care to recall with people who pick up a magazine in their palm and look thoughtfully into the middle distance before declaring, “This feels good.” To say this is uninformed is an understatement. It is the weight of the written word, not the weight of the paper that influences minds, habits, and consumption.

Yet, if you do not have time to read, or cannot understand the language, you might be tempted to do the same. Glitter sells. It’s easier to plump for a gleaming Rolls-Royce (with no engine) than a humble Nissan (with a trusty workhorse engine). With no one looking under the hood and content evaluation at a minimum, the only yardstick available is statistics, numbers that can be crunched and spun out to impress the boss. Numbers are indeed impressive. But they tell only a fraction of the story. And they are no substitute for market experience, knowledge, and intuition.

Path-breaking computer scientist and MIT professor, the late Joseph Weizenbaum, once said tellingly, “The computer programmer is a creator of universes for which he alone is the lawgiver. No playwright, no stage director, no emperor, however powerful, has ever exercised such absolute authority...”

With Facebook and Google, the dominance of quantity over quality has become absolute. Excellent communication channels have been eliminated, in the process giving rise to a mediocracy, an unintended consequence perhaps of mass muscle. Nowhere is this more apparent than in travel, where search results are dominated by booking engines and online travel agents who have pushed out brands and what they represent. And with dropping product awareness has come a lowering of rates because customers won’t pay for something they do not fully comprehend or value.

In a recent reader poll by sister magazine Smart Travel Asia, the ‘biggest obstacle to travel’ was not a lack of retail options but, “too much emphasis on booking and not enough on product insights.” The second biggest hurdle was “fake or paid reviews.” Ads that stalk readers are another constant peeve for Web surfers.

Facebook and Google gloss over the fact that ‘likes’ and ‘clicks’ do not necessarily equate with ‘consumer quality’. Facebook algorithms militate against unpaid reach forcing many to opt for sponsored posts where again despite the attractively low costs and seemingly monstrous reach, the ‘engagement’ is spectacularly passive and padded with useless bumf (like clicks to ‘see more’ text). Web-link clicks to drive traffic are negligible.

Again, whatever countries you might pick for your ‘targeted’ promotion, Facebook will tend to serve the ones that offer the highest response. If you pick a basket of Asian countries for instance, Indonesia may be the only country brought into play by FB as it has a vast and responsive Facebook community with teen bloggers who claim millions of followers despite not having lived long enough to have convincingly acquired them.

Advertisers follow them – and their imaginary cohorts – at their peril. As ‘click farms’ get into the act, encouraging bored housewives and penurious students to earn money simply by visiting websites and clicking on advertising, fake clicks and fake traffic have emerged as hidden icebergs waiting to sink the biggest advertising behemoths. It is all fuelled by the unparalleled demand for clicks. And who could resist four dollars a click? Google has refunded advertisers for fake click traffic but does not see this problem as endemic.

Fake clicks and fake traffic have emerged as hidden icebergs waiting to sink the biggest advertising behemoths. It is all fuelled by the unparalleled demand for clicks. And who could resist four dollars a click?

It is worth remembering, that kids are clicky, bankers are not. Luxury travellers – unlike budget airline passengers – have an army of people to sort things out for them, and arranging a CEO chinwag (with the wife coming over for a weekend’s shopping) needs human face time, not a random click. People need to dream about ownership. Brands are built by creating aspiration – dreams/desire = demand = deals.

Google knows a great deal about your search words, but no matter how clever an algorithm, it is never going to uncover true intent. This is because just the English language for one, is riddled with red herrings and misleading idiom intended to flummox even the most linguistically limber. There are endless interpretations for common words too (‘biggest press boobs’ is one innocent query that can result in a plate-smashing fracas if your wife spots the lively results).  John Battelle’s seminal and readable 2005 book, ‘The Search’ wrote presciently about the ‘database of intent’ and the wizardry of math but overlooked human unpredictability.

From Cleopatra to Chanel, the world’s best brands have always been sold on the basis of desire and feelings, intangible emotions that are impossible to quantify. Empires have been won and lost on the strength of brands. With rare exceptions in practical communities we suppose, people marry because it feels right, not because an algorithm determines the odds are good.

Internet giants are reshaping minds, social patterns, politics, and age-old habits, based on arcane undisclosed formulae written by statisticians, not economists, scientists, philanthropists or sociologists. Search rankings, heavily dependent on sponsored posts and clicks, are altering perceptions of quality based on trite page-one results. It is all-pervasive, invasive, entirely revenue driven, and dangerously unregulated. And it has wrongly elevated ‘quantity’ and mob rule to star status as we waltz unquestioning into a fake new world.

'Video killed the radio star', as The Buggles sang out in 1979. The Internet is killing everything else.

Meanwhile, the ayes have it.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines and when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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Rob Mansfield (12 November, 2017) – Australia
I do not advise giving too much information to online platforms. The risks are far too high if you are concerned with your security. These social media platforms get hacked and contents leaked and information once on can never be really deleted.
rupa bhasin (2 November, 2017) – india
i really enjoyed this article. i work in the digital marketing area and never really look at this perspective.
Felix Chan (2 November, 2017) – Hong Kong
Facebook is quite useless as a marketing platform. You are right. It aims at the lowest mass category of user which may be great for events and parties but not for luxury cars and hotels. Building quality engagement online is the biggest challenge for marketers today.
Rupert (2 November, 2017) – USA
A very well written and argued expose of how the Internet has shifted its focus and become a corporate cash crunching machine.

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