Unless you’ve avoided Facebook or news sites for the past six months, you already know about the Federal Communications Commission ruling to repeal net neutrality.
The Dec. 14 decision -- spearheaded by the guy above, FCC head Ajit Pai -- has inspired headlines claiming it could “destroy internet marketing.” But how is this panic relevant to marketers and business leaders? How much will the reversal adversely affect digital marketing trends?
First, Let’s Get You Up to Speed …
If you’re new to the net neutrality discussion, this section will catch you up. If you already know the score, scroll down to “How Losing Net Neutrality Affects Everyone.”
What’s the debate over net neutrality? This analogy is helpful: Should all drivers share the same highway, or should drivers be able to pay more money to access less-congested lanes?
Net neutrality went into effect with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since then, internet service providers (ISPs) have been subject to rigorous federal regulation due to their classification as a Title II telecommunications entity — a legal designation that prohibits ISPs from:
- Intentionally slowing broadcasting speeds
- Blocking certain sites
- Prioritizing certain sites over others
The Open Internet Order of 2015 drafted by President Barack Obama’s administration reinforced that an internet provider can’t offer preferential treatment to any websites or implement any bias with regard to internet accessibility or quality.
Now and Going Forward
The FCC’s Dec. 14 hearing and decision renewed the outpouring of public opposition to repealing net neutrality.
It will take weeks for the repeal to go into effect, so consumers will not see any immediate changes. That didn’t stop the fight from starting immediately.
- Web-based companies, public interest groups, and concerned citizens have put pressure on Congress to overrule the FCC.
- Numerous lawmakers have called for a bill that would re-establish the rules.
- Several state attorneys general and public interest groups have said they would file a lawsuit to stop the change.
Any legislative action seems far off, however.
How Losing Net Neutrality Could Affect Everyone
ISP lobbyists have spent heavily to promote their stance that net neutrality is another form of government overreach and restricts freedom to invest. If you’re staunchly against government oversight and in favor of anything touted as pro-business, you’ll probably be OK with the ruling.
It’s worth noting that major telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast have promised consumers that their online experience would not change with them. If major companies do intend to leverage the repeal, it could look like this:
They could change the way you pay for website access. Without net neutrality, an ISP’s pricing, in theory, could legally be structured like this:
- $50/month for Facebook, Google, Twitter, and MSN
- $75/month for the sites above plus second-tier sites
- $100/month for all websites
The changes would also open the door for ISPs to demand more money from you for better app quality.
ISP giants with bottomless wallets could allow wealthy businesses to pay higher premiums in exchange for faster loading speeds, disrupting the equality of the digital business. The FCC would rely on ISPs to self-report on their practices and behavior — something that gives most Americans cause for concern.
Major ISPs could start directing users to their own apps instead of the most relevant or popular ones. Larger businesses could eliminate their smaller competition by partnering up with ISPs.
How Losing Net Neutrality Affects Digital Marketing Trends
Some net neutrality detractors actually believe this situation would increase competition, improving and in some cases introducing broadband access -- a pain point in rural America. For digital marketing, this would mean faster delivery of content (though likely for a fee).
Whether an uptick in user accessibility would happen is debatable.
Companies and marketers often lead consumers to content through organic search or through an ad. When small or medium-sized business register a website, they need the help of digital marketing agencies to compete with nationwide leaders like Amazon.
Net neutrality stimulates competition between businesses of all sizes. This free-flowing -- yet fair -- battle has created a high demand for SEO, pay-per-click, and other services.
Search engines rank websites based on content authority, keyword usage, and semantic linking. Today, businesses win online because of superior:
- Quality of products and services
- Inbound marketing know-how
If certain advertisers have the ability to simply throw cash at their consumer shortage, content quality and authority becomes less relevant.
A few months from now, business might instead get ahead based on:
- An unbalanced system
The digital marketing industry will have a harder time influencing online traffic — with potentially rough results for smaller businesses, until those marketers find a new route to success.
(DON’T-FREAK-OUT-DISCLAIMER: Are you only competing against small and medium-size businesses? You’ll probably be OK. More on that in a sec.)
New business will likely have it hardest -- the cost of getting any initial momentum online could be daunting.
“Smart and scrappy advertising becomes even less impactful, and brand dollars will mean everything.”
-- Anisha Naik, account director for digital performance agency Fetch
Such a result could force online marketers to spend more on sites with greater traffic.
Take video marketing as an example. Nearly 2/3 of website visitors are more likely to buy from an online retailer after watching a video. That requires a fast connection — if a video stalls while loading, 80% of the audience will click away.
“If the web becomes a pay-for-performance utility, then it will force marketers to invest more in channels that they control, such as their own websites.”
Not Competing with the Big Boys? You’re Probably OK
Smaller companies typically don’t have enough web traffic to be greatly affected by this repeal. If you’re not competing with a giant, you probably need not worry about Verizon charging consumers more to reach your website. No offense, but Verizon has bigger fish to fry.
Still, no matter the company size, over the next few months, savvy online marketing companies will already be rethinking how they provide content and at what price.
What’s Next for Marketers … Another Overhaul?
Online marketers will be watching to see how the battle turns out. The key for them? Whether they’ll soon need to find new ways around some major obstacles. The internet once transformed marketing -- soon marketers may need to transform how they use the internet.