The internet has evolved naturally from the mass communication technology that came before it – including print, radio, telephone and television. So it makes sense to look at the history of those forms of technology to explain the growth and map the future of digital communications.

The world of digital communications and culture is changing fast. Access to the internet has spread to approximately 40% of the entire global population as of 2014, and is still growing at around 9% per year. A great deal of that growth is due to the breathtaking proliferation of smartphones and their supporting technologies. In many countries throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, mobile devices are now actually the “first screen” rather than the second screen, accounting for more time in a consumer’s day than the time he or she spends looking at a television. (Source: Mary Meeker’s internet trends 2014).

In some ways, this kind of technology proliferation and mass adoption feels unprecedented. Even if on a national scale, the telephone and television spread faster than we might think in the US, on a global scale, the seismic shifts in communications we’re seeing today probably are of a different order.

Facebook first emerged in 2004 and then created its first official products for brands in late 2007 with what were then called “Fan Pages” but we now know as company or brand pages. Today there are over a billion monthly active users on Facebook. Imagine if you had access to the entire audience who watched the 2011 India vs. Pakistan Cricket World Cup Final – on the same platform and as active users – all the time. There has never been a single common platform that immediately and
instantaneously reaches such a wide swath of the global population. This is mass communications on a much different level.
But one thing certainly hasn’t changed: people. The audience, the marketers and creators — their needs, desires and experiences — are all still and will always be at the center of marketing and communications relationships. Even though the changes we are seeing feel monumentally different from what has come before, it’s foolhardy to think that there aren’t important lessons to be gleaned from almost a century of mass print, telephone, radio, and television. Here are three to think about.

Channels will persist long after the age of dials.

For a long time in radio and television history, you chose what you wanted to see or hear by turning a dial that had numbers on it. Position 10 (one network) on the dial was different, programmatically speaking, from Position 12 (another network). We now choose our programming electronically, by pushing buttons and using a more metaphorical navigation to tune to what we want to see or hear. But the networks still exist and matter and are part of how we make sense of it all and decide what to watch.

This is a powerful metaphor and it will continue to persist for digital marketers. The era of the internet and the World Wide Web introduced the notion of “home pages” and sites, and the social media era brought in an undifferentiated feed or stream of content all mish-mashed together. Facebook’s controversial news feed algorithm has changed the way billions of people “tune in” at first each day, but it hasn’t disrupted the way they understand appointment viewing, the classification of information and programming, and in-depth exploration. When they find something they really like, they follow it to the source and build a relationship with that creator or publisher. If after consuming enough bits, they decide that it is not really for them, they stop seeking that content out. This is the channel mentality still at work.

It is entirely possible and crucially important to take advantage of the psychology of channels even in that sea of undifferentiated status updates and search results. In order to attract and maintain an audience, brands need to think like TV and radio stations and create and fulfill expectations just like channels do.

Brands have been storytellers for a long time already.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that brands have been active in both creating and supporting the creation of content for many years. In some cases, they have supported content only loosely related to their area of specialty, on the basis of shared values or an audience they would like to engage with. Soap operas famously got their name from the soap brands whose dollars made this form of entertainment possible. While they advertised on these shows, they also funded them in a very real sense.
Those were the days when the content was the content and the ads were the ads. People tuned in because the show had repeat value for them. Today brands sponsor pieces of creative content in a multitude of ways, but it’s not often that you see a brand in the title of a show. It would be a very expensive endeavour today to sponsor an entire TV show to an extent that would earn the brand naming rights as well.

However, brands continue to serve as true benefactors to high profile creators and achievers. On a small scale, take a look at GE’s Six Second Science Fair on Vine that creates and curates engaging science experiment videos. On a grander scale, think about Red Bull’s famous Felix Baumgartner space jump in 2012, the first ever dive from the stratosphere down to Earth. Red Bull not only provided the funding and exposure, but also served as an active partner in supporting Baumgartner’s pursuit.

Brands that understand this bigger picture and use their resources wisely to go beyond product and service marketing to playing a role in the landscape that their target audiences care about, will continue to thrive — today and tomorrow. Kraft’s Director of Data, Content and Media, Julie Fleischer, says brands should not publish content just because it’s free to do so. Instead, she talks about the need to relentlessly pursue value:

“The days of free organic reach are rapidly coming to an end. If you wouldn’t spend money behind it, then why do it? It’s shouting into the wind without making a sound. How many of us are guilty of being slaves to a calendar or posting cadence?”

Technological innovation drives marketing innovation, and quickly.

We take this for granted today, but even a small change to the ecosystem can have huge effects on the day-to-day role of digital marketing. Just a year ago, Twitter rolled out the capability for users to see images and videos in the timeline as a preview image. While images were already a significant part of what Facebook had built, once Twitter and Facebook converged on this, there was a sweeping shift in marketing tactics to feed the image beast on both platforms. Today, all brands are expected to not just be strong and ongoing participants in text-based conversation, they are expected to be adept at manipulating words and images together into static and animated assets.
Looking back at the history of mass marketing, you can see the same dynamic taking place over and over again. At the turn of the twentieth century, the adoption of halftone printing for images touched off a similar tactical shift in magazine advertising. This should sound familiar:

“The introduction of the halftone technique for photographic reproduction in 1892 provided human-interest characters with more ‘naturalness and greater emotiveness’ than previous line drawings and woodcut engravings could (Presbrey 1929, p. 382). Advertisers thus began to make wider use of human-interest trademarks, especially adorable child characters, to appeal to children and women (Hornung and Johnson 1976)”

This sounds a lot like more recent content trends sparked by changes to the platforms. When there’s a new tool available, marketers have always been there, in a hurry. As a new feature, platform, or tactic gains support, it’s typically already a part of the marketing vocabulary as it has been beta-tested and pre-sold to high-value brands and marketers before launch.

There are bigger changes and more innovation coming up. I am paying close attention to the Oculus Rift, the Virtual Reality platform recently acquired by Facebook. Futurists have been talking about VR for a long time, but computing and visualization power is now at a point where it’s not hard to imagine it in real life. It’s already becoming a part of the gaming landscape, and seems to hold a lot of potential for the marketing one as well.

Imagine being able to see a rock concert from any point in the audience, and explore the full concert hall as if you were there. Some parts of that experience would translate just as well to traditional media such as video clips and stories, with the VR component creating all sorts of new opportunities.

With these and other exciting avenues to explore, it makes sense that marketers keep an eye on and prepare for what’s on the horizon. However, it is also a good idea for them to keep the past and all its lessons squarely in their rearview vision as they forge ahead.

Dave Coustan is Senior Vice President of Content Strategy and...