Tangled web: Internet industry needs to focus on best practice

27 Mar 2017

Image: Artem Onoprienko/Shutterstock

The furore around online advertising in the past week is a reminder that the internet industry needs to return to core values and best practices, writes John Kennedy.

Know anything about UX? What are your thoughts on programmatic advertising? Are you a fan of responsive web design? Do you go mobile-first? Why not? You should …

Unless you happen to be an order-taker for an internet giant somewhere in Silicon Docks in Dublin, or an ad agency executive mooching around conferences with a mocha trying to sound authoritative, this jargon means nothing to the average business fighting to keep the lights on.

‘For the internet industry to be taken seriously, it has to be seen as the home of best practice’

The gap between ordinary companies drumming up business online and what the established internet order considers a sanctified, efficient system is widening.

Trust us, they say, we won’t be evil! Let’s be friends, they say. And yet, the gap is widening.

It is a gap that sits between foyers of fancy new buildings with free coffee and beanbags that are somehow, at the same time, bristling with security – God help you if you take your badge off – and armies of order-takers with quotas to meet. And there is no way to establish a ‘personal touch’, except through email or a call centre. And even if you can pony up for a €1,400 course with a so-called social media ninja to bring your skills up to date, there is no guarantee you will succeed.

Computer says no

A veritable industry has grown up to profit on the mystery and innuendo of data science, analytics and design, and my feeling is that the real conversation fell away just when people were getting their heads around search engine optimisation (SEO) a decade ago.

Today, you have people in careers that didn’t exist a decade ago. An SEO specialist or a talented UX designer five years out of college has a good chance of commanding a salary that is bigger than that of a lawyer or an accountant with decades of hard-won experience.

But something is being left behind, and that something isn’t just core values: it is best practice.

The mask slipped in the past week when the advertising industry developed a conscience and suddenly announced a boycott of YouTube, after it discovered that clients’ ads were appearing alongside extremist content. I mean, getting a 15pc cut for your ads appearing beside hate-filled content would ruin anybody’s mocha.

But seriously, the suddenly moral position of the ad industry cast a harsh light on the self-service nature of marketing in the second decade of the 21st century.

In its quest for efficiency and the data-driven programmatic future of advertising, the internet giants – formed by programmers who reluctantly had to turn to advertising to make a buck – forgot that all business is personal.

The original premise of advertising and marketing was psychological; the human touch, playing to aspirations and desires, giving people what they want (or telling them what they think they want).

Instead, it is a tangled web where traditional media is hurting, journalism is dying, fake news is spiralling and now algorithms, and not instinct, are shaping the advertising business.

And for programmatic advertising to work, you need scale – giant systems talking to giant systems. There is no room for minnows.

The quiet revolution that we should be talking more about

If you are at work and reading this article, then congratulations! Against a lot of odds, you may have survived the great recession that began in 2008. Perhaps you are a small business owner, and you have stayed the course; if then, even more congratulations to you.

You have probably read the headlines about 40pc of Irish SMEs not having a website, or 92pc of Irish businesses with websites that do not even have transactional capabilities.

I consider these the great forgotten of the so-called internet boom in Ireland.

You could be forgiven for thinking the internet boom has been all about multinationals. This is because mostly, it has. Google is Dublin’s biggest employer; Facebook is on course to employ thousands of people both sides of the Liffey. Born-on-the-internet companies such as Airbnb and Slack are growing fast, and every week brings good jobs news.

Even Irish tech companies have gotten on-trend with this. Last week, eShop Ireland announced 250 new jobs and fintech player Fenergo has plans to create 200 jobs in Dublin.

But what about the ordinary businesses that rely on the internet to grow, too? They are being reminded all the time that UK-based web businesses are eating their lunch, and that they must go digital. But how?

There has been a quiet revolution brewing in Ireland that doesn’t always make the national headlines or even the business pages.

You might hear about this revolution if you turn on Nationwide on RTÉ any evening, where you will learn about the surge in artisanal businesses or farms that have diversified into making their own cheeses or breads.

This weekend while out grocery shopping, I discovered a company called The Farmer’s Daughter from Kells, Co Meath, which has won awards for its gluten-free burgers. My fiancée works for a fruit and veg company called K&K Produce, which has packaged its own brand of gluten-free vegetables for shops. In my home town, a microbrewery called Brú Brewery sprung up in 2013 and has gone on to win awards all over the world for its beers and ciders, diversifying into its own chain of bars and restaurants in Dublin, Kildare and Meath. In Kerry, the Dingle Whiskey Distillery is producing whiskeys, vodkas and gins that have received global renown. These are just a few examples of the quiet business revolution that is happening in all regions of Ireland.

All of these companies are relying on the traditional business values of quality product and market placement to grow, and are fusing this with social media to get their message out there.

This willingness by new, as well as established, firms to strike out, be brave and – above all – innovate will need to be bolstered by an internet industry that they can trust and that understands their needs without waving a veil of mystery, jargon and large fees in their faces.

A return to form?

They need an internet industry that reflects their values.

That’s why it was refreshing to chat with Alex Gogan, interim CEO of the Irish Internet Association (IIA), following the publication of the IIA Strategic Review, financed by the IEDR.

The IIA is re-emerging as an industry body focused on best practice.

“The IIA has a duty of care to customers who don’t understand the business of websites and services, and need to navigate this world,” Gogan said.

What Gogan is talking about is the internet industry in Ireland finally morphing into an industry that takes pride in its products and services; one that values the quality services provided by its members, shares knowledge and lobbies to sort out real issues such as broadband.

This industry is not just a few multinationals in Dublin. Across the country, there are service providers, ISPs, data centre firms, legal firms, design firms and more, who are all a part of the complicated tapestry that is the internet industry.

As new rules such as the General Data Protection Regulation come into force – with potential hefty fines for any business that gathers data or has a website – local businesses will need a safe place to go to find best practice advice, discover service providers they can trust and, above all, learn. For the industry members, it should be about meeting standards that they can all be proud of.

The veil of mystery that was shattered last week around programmatic advertising and the self-order state of the internet industry should be a clarion call for a return to core values.

The IIA could be reborn, and play a valuable role in the resurgence of general businesses around Ireland that need a digital lens to see their future.

It is a return to the original ethos of an organisation where members including coders, designers and shop owners used to gather to figure the internet out and discuss best practice.

“For the internet industry to be taken seriously, it has to be seen as the home of best practice. The IIA should take that responsibility, be a resource and be a strong mouthpiece for the industry,” said Gogan.

The fact that even the most advanced ad agencies in the world had an issue with programmatic advertising shows that the industry needs to focus on ethos before science.

And in this little corner of the world, we have a shot at getting it right.

The tangled web of jargon, confusion and high fees may finally be about to become a little less tangled.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years