The New Media Meritocracy

When the World Wide Web debuted more than 20 years ago, one problem that immediately became obvious was that this open network lacked any functional mechanism for evaluating the quality of content placed upon it. While armies of human curators – including Yahoo’s legions of editors and About.com’s teams – worked mightily to achieve this goal throughout the 1990s, it was only with the arrival of Google that machine intelligence began to be effectively applied to the problem, thus heralding the dawn of a true media meritocracy.

Simultaneously, Wikipedia became the de-facto standard source for almost any bit of information one could possibly want, relying on the “wisdom of crowds” and a self-correction system that worked even better than its precursor, DMOZ.org. Wikipedia remains one of Google’s favorite domains.

Google’s fundamental values are deeply meritocratic. The fundamental assumption of Page Rank – its algorithmic cornerstone – is that web pages with more links to them have more merit than those lacking them, and should therefore be accorded better organic visibility on results pages. Similarly, on the paid side, Quality Score strongly influences the rank of a given ad by factoring in expected click-through rate, ad relevance and landing page experience, causing “better” PPC campaigns to run more cheaply. Lately, Google’s merit-seeking algorithms have been joined by those of social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even Reddit. While the social algorithms work very differently from PageRank, they are designed to surface content – both paid and unpaid – given the stamp of merit in the form of Likes, follows, shares, or time spent viewing.

Visual forms of content enjoy a particular advantage in the digital marketing ecosystem. Witness the surge in popularity of infographics. “Infographics utilize visual stimulation, breaking through the clutter and giving the textual content a greater chance of being read,” says Justin Beegel, founder and president of Infographic World. “The SEO value and social media value of a great infographic are a significant added benefit.”

Obviously, there remains a yawning gulf between the goals of such a meritocratic system and the market reality. Big brands continue to enjoy inherent advantages in the battle for users’ attention. They benefit from the billions sunk into historical brand-building campaigns, from unrestricted PPC budgets that let them (temporarily) ignore the dictates of Quality Score, and from their capacity to field content marketing efforts employing top-tier edit, design, and tech talent. The merit-seeking algorithms haven’t been powerful enough to kill the brand advantage or create a truly level playing field; what they have done, however, is make this battle less one-sided than ever.

This has three important implications for marketers and non-marketers alike:

1. Meritocracy is the Flip Side of Transparency

It is no longer possible for any brand, big or small, to hide what it actually does behind clever ad campaigns and aggressive PR agencies. Eric Schmidt’s famous quote on privacy – “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” – applies equally to individuals and corporations. This kind of radical transparency is both new and deeply frightening to many because it forces all of us to be accountable for our actions, in the boardroom (Sony), the bedroom (Ashley Madison), and just about everywhere in between.

On Yelp, TripAdvisor, GlassDoor, BBB.org, and countless other social media sites, private business activities, especially their impact on consumers, aren’t private anymore: they are the public’s business. The good news is, if your product is excellent, your customer service flawless, your tactics ethical, and your employees beyond reproach, you have a better chance of rising to the top than at any prior time in human history.

2. Your Ads – And Your Entire Sponsored Experience – Can’t Suck

Any message or ad creative that doesn’t earn its way into view has no chance of burning its way into your customer’s consciousness. If your ad is annoying, interruptive, irrelevant, or natively inappropriate, you will alienate your prospects and annihilate your chances of creating any positive affinity. Worse, you won’t even be able to measure the damage until it’s too late.

3. You Need to Think Holistically

Linear marketing thinking, such as AIDA and storytelling, hasn’t been made obsolete, but its conceptual limitations are becoming more observable as we learn more about how human beings actually use the Web. Prospects don’t always follow a purpose-driven, rational journey to your products and services through a funnel. They browse and scan, hunt and peck, and wander hither and yon. Prospects neither have the time nor the inclination to delve deeply into your brand story, however good it is, for more than a few microseconds.

Raw marketing power and blunt force interruption doesn’t cut it anymore. To make an enduring impression in the new media meritocracy, you need a holistic strategy – from your logo and tagline, all the way through your 4Ps and power keywords – that gives you an edge across all media, whether it’s paid, earned, or owned.

Whether it’s an overall marketing strategy, the latest SEO plan, or an individual piece of content, just like Wayne and Garth, ask yourself, “Am I worthy?” If not, don’t expect stellar results.

This article was originally published on ClickZ.

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