If you want to understand Internet Marketing, then you need to understand culture, and the evolution of culture. Some of the most important insights I have ever gained into the internet landscape came not from marketing experts, but from cultural experts. I have learned more from the history of the Aztecs, the Eskimos, the Ainu, Old Europe, the Deep South, Hoodoo, the Greek Mystery Traditions, and other expressions of culture and cultural evolution than I ever learned from “How To Internet Marketing” guides.
The internet is the intersection of Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology with Technology. Technology may change quickly, but humans change very slowly. Humans with iPods and Facebook are not very different from humans with Reed Parchments and Mud Bricks or humans with Stone Arrowheads and Cave Paintings. The mind and brain of a child born today is virtually identical to the mind and brain of the very first human child, whomever that may have been. Culture therefore follows very similar courses, despite superficial differences, at any point in human history. There is no great leap between Lip Discs and Boob Jobs, between Epic Poetry and Television, between Chieftains and Presidents.
Culture is, essentially, a set of norms, customs, regulations, best habits, etc… for managing human social life on any scale. In societies with Clan structures, even extended family units develop a culture of their own. Just ask the Hatfields and McCoys. Culture develops like a living thing, passing through various stages which are as predictable as the development from a fetus to an infant to an adolescent to an adult. There are several theories about how to divide the various stages of cultural evolution, but in the case of Internet Marketing, I believe the most instructive comes from the Philosophers of Science, who speak of an evolution of rational thinking.
The earliest stages of rational thought are often called “Magical Thinking”. Internet Marketing in its early days was dominated by magical thinking. SEO’s and Social Media Marketers promised clients “First Place on Google”, “Twenty Thousand Followers and Ten Thousand Reshares”, etc…, using techniques which, like any good magician (or bad magician, for that matter) they kept “up their sleeves”. Keyword stuffing, Link buying, Linking schemes, low-quality but highly-searched content, AdSense-optimized blogs, and such chicanery proliferated because it could, the way Snake Oil Salesmen once thrived in the frontier areas.
Magical Thinking passes into the stage of Protoscience, and it isn’t always easy to tell where one begins and the other ends, except that in the Protoscientific Stage there begins to emerge an awareness that there is a real and comprehensible method to the madness. Once that awareness spreads and becomes systemic, we enter the Scientific Stage. In the Scientific Stage, there is an increasingly open exchange of methods and findings, with each “scientist” building openly on the works of those before them. Albert Einstein once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Einstein was a great scientist, but would probably have made a lousy magician.
The Scientist does not horde their knowledge. They recognize that to do so not only will not make them stronger, it will make them and everyone else weaker. If they are to be paid for their work, it is because of the work itself, not because of the knowledge gained thereby, which should and must be shared freely. Internet Marketing is finally, with more than a little cajoling from a couple of animal-named Google updates and better social media spam control, entering the Scientific Stage. The marketers themselves are more openly sharing their findings, building on each other, warning people against trusting marketers who make promises based on “secret formulas”.
There is, however, at least one more stage necessary in the evolution of the culture of Internet Marketing: Artistic Science. In the end, marketing still comes down to the imperfect “science” of understanding your fellow human being, which requires the talents of the artist: storytelling, intuition, empathy, insight, creativity, context, and in some cases wild experimentation. Internet Marketing is approaching this tipping point, and it is long overdue. After all, you’re not selling your product or service to Google or Facebook, you’re selling it to the people those things can help you reach. You may have perfectly mastered how to trick a Search Engine, but tricking people is not only harder, but is ultimately bad for your business and reputation.
2014 may be the year that the tipping point is reached. The Search Engines and Social Networks are on a trajectory towards removing as much spammy and low quality stuff as possible, or at least causing them to vanish into an echo chamber. Many will not survive this transition. The profession will narrow to far fewer players, each focused on a higher quality of marketing based on an understanding of psychology and culture combined with the best “scientific” knowledge available.