It’s Complicated: The Social Lives Of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd, a noted researcher on teen online behaviour, is fascinating reading. I’m not mentioning it because I want to talk about teens; instead, I want to talk about the way we get the web all wrong – forcing teens to do dumb things such as pointlessly mention brands.
There’s something else you should read: an article in Time called "What you think you know about the web is wrong". It should actually be called "Everything you’ve always felt about advertising on the web but no-one’s really done anything about" – specifically, the doomed and fruitless pursuit of the click-through as a measure. As the author points out, the click as currency was invented by an enterprising direct marketer back in 1994 and vast industries have been built upon it – vast industries that are starting to collapse because, of course, no-one visits the web to merrily click on things; they’re there to do something else. Clicks are a by-product, not the point, but the perverse incentives of large advertising budgets have created a web that is optimised for the by-product. Linkbaity, buzzy media empires have been spun up by people who are good at getting people to click on things. Really good. The problem, of course, is that the clicking is not the point and, having clicked, people aren’t staying – they’re not reading, buying, watching, sharing or doing what they clicked on. The web is stuffed full of these empty calories when what we want is a meal.
The perverse incentives of large ad budgets have created a web that is optimised for the by-product
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, there is a huge pile of websites doing very nicely offering people great services that work splendidly well. They’re using the web’s vast analytical capabilities and they’re tweaking their tools and techniques to make their service even better. They deliver quickly, directly, efficiently; they don’t divert you, trick you, seduce you or monetise your eyeballs – they monetise the thing you’re actually there to do. They’ve not put their marketing on the web, they’ve put their business there.
People aren’t stupid; even teens aren’t stupid. They will figure out what we’re up to and they will use it if they want to or route round it if they don’t. The web turned 25 years old last week – we should start building with its grain, not against it.
Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service