Originally published in Mediapost, July 13, 2010
At first glance, marketers might see Google's acquisition of ITA Software and Twitter's foray into e-commerce with Earlybird, as a good thing. With Earlybird advertisers have a new way to promote special offers making Twitter, arguably the most effective promotional tool ever developed, even more effective. And ITA could dramatically improve Google's search results, a boon to travel marketers.
But beware. Earlybird and the ITA deal are wolves in sheep's clothing. It's part of a disturbing pattern of marketing platforms cannibalizing their community in the interest of short-term profit.
A little bit of history: Once upon a time, Google, Facebook and Twitter were start-ups. They were praying their platforms would catch on and gain followings. They offered the best experiences they could. Fast load times, user-friendly design, access to engaging content, convenience, community and public APIs all wooed developers and consumers. As the platforms caught on, marketers started using them to drive traffic, build brand engagement, sell product. Together, users, advertisers, and developers created valuable and attractive ecosystems. But then the platforms got big, influential and greedy. All of a sudden, they started using their platforms for financial gain at the expense of the people paying the bills, marketers.
Google: In the good old days, organic search results were populated only by third-party websites. As a result, websites let themselves be indexed by Google and even optimized themselves for platform. In exchange, Google sent them massive amounts of traffic. Fast forward to today. Between Google News, YouTube, Knoll, Google Local and a myriad of other Google services, much of Google search results point to other Google properties. Google "weather 11201" and you get a Google-provided weather report for my office. No need for Weather.com. In the near future, when you use Google to make travel reservations, ITA's data will likely pop up making non-Google travel sites irrelevant. The same thing could happen to real estate, health and every other conceivable vertical. When the web becomes just a big search box, free traffic will be increasingly difficult for brands to come by.
Facebook: Facebook redefined social networking by creating an incredible set of APIs and an ecosystem of third-party developers. There's not a marketing campaign that exists that does not leverage Facebook in some way. But Facebook continues to evolve, often at the expense of the developers that made Facebook what it is. For example, once Facebook developed its own payment system, Facebook Credits, it required Zynga, one of its most valuable third-party developers, as well as others to use it exclusively, per TechCrunch. Sudden platform shifts like this one can undermine marketer efforts. Brands should be wary of behavior like this no matter how much they love the traffic from the platform.
Twitter: The newest must-use marketing environment has taken platform cannibalization to a new level. Twitter has already gone the Facebook route and put a few third-party developers out of business with the development of its own URL shortener and iPhone app. But now, it's decided to compete directly with marketers for traffic by directing users to its own promotions-oriented Twitter feed. Imagine a future where @Earlybird is joined by @EarlybirdTech and @EarlybirdTrips. Why bother following @DellOutlet and @JetBlue when Twitter's own feeds aggregate deals for an entire category? @earlybird already has 35,000 followers. With Twitter's ability to promote its feed on its home page and search results, it will quickly be able to make this one of the largest feeds in the Twitterverse. Marketers just can't compete, and soon they'll have to start paying to promote themselves to users.
In the end, no matter how effective marketing platforms are for advertisers -- and Twitter, Google and Facebook are all great platforms -- the platform holds all the cards. You don't own the platform, they do. And they alone determine what the future holds. The recent moves of the big three underscore how important it is that marketers control their own destinies. Reliance on platforms is not enough. They need real relationships with consumers that they fully control. This means email communications and direct traffic to their own apps and web properties. Because no matter how much Twitter, Google and Facebook may change in the future, nobody can take away a marketer's valuable database of customer email addresses and the millions of people who directly visit their sites.