Welcome to the Stream

Web 2.0 is dead, eclipsed by data-driven content and 'live' feeds. Can media and marketers adapt to the Net's next phase?

The future of the Internet has a branding problem: It’s here, but no one knows what to call it.

Eight years ago, the future had a name—Web 2.0—but what that meant remains vague to this day. John Battelle (the chairman of Federated Media) and Tim O’Reilly (founder of O’Reilly Media), who have gone on to make a great deal of money from the Web 2.0™ conference they launched in 2003, took a stab at it when they said it would be about the Web becoming a “platform” for software and services. A serviceable enough definition at the time—and for eight years since then everyone has nodded their heads in agreement and said, “Yes, a platform,” as if they understood, while simultaneously shelling out thousands of dollars in conference fees to find out why they were nodding.

Many no doubt will go with the flow again this week, when Battelle’s and O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Summit (latecomer’s walk-up cost: an extravagant $4,695) takes place in San Francisco. Only they won’t be hearing about the “Web as platform” anymore. Conferences like this are trafficking in a whole new set of terms—from “the social graph,” to the “real-time Web,” to the “semantic Web,” to (of course) “Web 3.0,” to “the Data Frame”—the theme of this year’s Web 2.0 event.

It’s all an attempt to describe the ongoing shift to a “live” Web experience—where a stream of media (not to be confused with streaming media), constructed on the fly out of databases, will be tailored uniquely to each consumer. That shift has profound implications for both content providers and advertisers—no matter what it ends up being labeled.

The man who invented the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, recognizing the growing importance of data, coined the term Giant Global Graph in 2007 to describe what was going to subsume his WWW. (It has yet to be widely adopted.) Indeed, there’s so much talk about databases and the Web these days that the people writing conference materials find themselves reaching for ever more breathless rhetoric to emphasize its importance.

“We live in a world clothed by data,” the Web 2.0 Summit’s introductory statement says. “…Data is not only the Web’s core resource, it is at once both renewable and boundless. …We’ll use data as a framing device to understand the state of the Web.”

Rhetorical overreach aside, the fundamental point remains: The data-driven Net has arrived. Much of the way digital media has been built since 1994 is about to die off—starting with the idea of the Web “page” itself. Social media sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, and news-filtering apps for tablets, like Flipboard and Zite, are just the beginning of the shift to a “live” Web that streams discrete bits of data to your devices. (A long lost, early Web term for this was “push” media.)

What’s in the stream? Your LinkedIn, Flipboard, and Facebook page of today are previews.

“Every millisecond there are 800 million personalized newspapers created on Facebook,” Carolyn Everson, the company’s head of global advertising, said recently during a real-time Internet panel in New York, part of the city’s Advertising Week event.

And it’s not just on Facebook that the concept of the “homepage” is being replaced by a constantly updating window on the world that’s unique to each user, pulled in discrete chunks from sources all over the Internet. In the tablet world, for example, your iPad Flipboard app offers a story flow that can include a selection of news sources aggregated by Flipboard’s staff, windows into your own favorite media sources, and info from your Twitter and Facebook feeds. In other words,  some of those chunks might have been curated by your friends, others by professional editors, and some by machine intelligence that scans your interests and makes suggestions.

It’s no coincidence that Everson refers to “personalized newspapers”—Facebook borrows liberally from traditional media, peppering members’ windows with labels like “News Feed,” “Recent Stories,” and the “Ticker.”

In fact,  much of the material Facebook delivers—such as the stories in the News Feed—is clipped from “old media.” The irony is obvious: Old media players slammed sites like Huffington Post and Newsr for aggregating such clips, but those same players are happy to have Facebook or Flipboard, say, do it when they can cast it as a distribution play. They’ll partner on new apps and shared membership log ins while scattering Facebook “Share” and “Like” buttons (along with similar buttons for LinkedIn and Twitter and Google Plus) on their sites in the hope that those HuffPo-like snippets of content make it into users’ streams.

As Terry Kawaja, the Internet consultant and investment banker who hosted the panel where Everson appeared, put it—reaching back to the hoary ’90s analogies of the Information Superhighway—content providers see services like Facebook as “on-ramps to get content to the people where they’re living.” If that sounds like the rationalizations offered during that era for content providers signing deals with AOL, the “Facebook is the new AOL” analogy is quickly becoming its own cliche.

What’s more startling is to hear advertisers adopt their own news-oriented language and approach to their task. Pepsi made a small splash last year when its Gatorade division launched a “Social Media Mission Control Center” that attempts to bring real-time reactions to the advertising messages for their products. In a setup that looks very much like an editor’s slot at a newspaper—or a TV news division—employees sit before a bank of monitors. Some have live TV feeds, others views of posts using brand-related hashtags, others analytics of traffic on the company’s various Web presences. In one example, when a Gatorade TV ad featuring a rap song started trending on social media, the Gatorade Mission Control team ordered up a longer version of the ad to try to capitalize on it, a Gatorade marketing director told Mashable last year.

Jeff Bernstein, who runs the San Francisco office of Universal McCann, has set up something similar for a select group of the agency’s clients.

“We started to notice in our research that the advertising was becoming less and less effective, not only online but on TV and everywhere, especially for people under 35,” Bernstein says. With TV often functioning as merely background noise for the younger crowd while they were on their Net-connected PCs (and, increasingly, tablets), Bernstein says the agency needs to find new ways to make its advertising “pop” with the audience.

“Different things have become media that weren’t media before,” he adds. “Where they used to be flipping through a magazine for five minutes, they’re looking at Twitter or playing Angry Birds. News and entertainment are becoming very mobile, and people are filling in gaps in the day that never used to be media time.”

In response, UM has put in place processes to make live changes in display ads on a day-to-day and even hour-to-hour basis. For one client, the agency is changing copy on the fly while leaving the art the same. For another, a financial services client, Bernstein says UM reacts to daily market action. “We have different copy and creative ready, depending on whether the market’s up or down. It’s scenario planning around conditions,” he says.

It’s important to note that this is different from the audience targeting and automated buying of inventory that have been introduced into the digital marketplace in recent years. “We can leverage real-time buying,” Bernstein says, “but there’s another level beyond that. We’ve taken the leap from buying audiences or buying behavior to buying trends.”

“If you think about e-commerce,” says Will Price, CEO of ad tech firm Flite, “the architecture has been developed by category—shoes vs. books vs. TVs, with different filters put on the content.” Those vertical silos have had mostly static pages designed to be easily crawled by Google and its search competitors. But how, Price asks, do advertisers target “recommendations and other dynamic filters?”

Flite’s answer is a technology platform for agencies (including UM) and their clients that lets them better manage the process of changing Web advertising on the fly. “You can’t be running brand creative that’s based on a plan that’s six months old,” Price says, dismissing the traditional way of building a campaign as too risky. “It’s like saying we’re going to come up with the next hit movie, or the next iPhone. If the systems are really good, you don’t have to put as much pressure on yourself to be a hit maker.”

In the real-time world, he suggests, there’s a reason display ads are doing such a poor job of delivering brand messages—they haven’t yet adapted to being part of the customer’s ever-changing stream. Being active and agile, he says, is more likely to produce work that makes a brand resonate.

When Price starts to explain how one large consumer goods client and its multiple agencies plan to use Flite’s software to coordinate their efforts on this new frontier, he too starts to sound like a content guy.  “The constant curation has an editorial voice, a temporal voice, and, of course, the audience’s voice,” he says.

But do advertising agencies, let alone clients, have the sort of talent to be able to do this sort of curation and real-time rewriting of brand messages? Bernstein admits that the process is far from mature at UM’s end, and finding people who can both understand the analytics (all that material cropping up on the multiple monitors in the Gatorade Mission Control) and then execute on it is a challenge.

“We’ve identified people within our San Francisco office who have those proclivities. There’s a definite skill set that’s emerging,” he says.

Now if we could only agree on a label for what they’re applying that skill set to. Web 4.0, anyone?