Surprise is the only constant for marketers and media

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Digital marketing is a fast-moving game and today's top contenders can easily become tomorrow's has-beens. Marketers face a constant battle to identify new trends in time to capitalize on them, and surprise seems to be the only constant.

For example, take a look at Google's 2006 Year End Zeitgeist. Who on earth could have anticipated that Bebo - a social networking site - would have been the top-ranked search term for the entire year?

Well, you wouldn't have been able to anticipate this, had you relied on the press to tell you what's hot. And yet, there are enough people who are passionate about Bebo to have caused it to rank No. 1. Is Bebo.com destined to dethrone MySpace.com as the social networking site of choice among the young set?

How about MetaCafe (the fourth most popular entry)? While the pundits were all busy talking about YouTube, MetaCafe crept quietly up the Zeitgeist list. Is MetaCafe poised to take out YouTube, for which Google laid down $1.65 billion a few months ago? Is this where you should be putting your money to reach today's young influencers?

It's very dangerous to make predictions about the future, and very dangerous to place bets on companies running Web media properties, because the whole world of media is becoming so incredibly unstable.

Users are inherently fickle, and are always itching to find the next coolest spot to hang out, watch and/or upload videos, chat, talk, and otherwise establish a virtual "nest."

But these nests are temporary, and as soon as something better, faster, cheaper, or cooler comes along, these same users will be gone. And, as we all know, there are no real barriers to entry in this game: there are kids all over the world now cobbling together Web-based applications aimed directly at the properties run by Fortune 100 companies. These kids don't care whether "cool" companies like Google or "uncool" companies like Fox run their targets.

All these kids care about is building something cool, and they're working round the clock doing it, instead of going home at 5 p.m. Many of them don't even care about whether these projects make money: they're just doing it for the thrill and peer prestige of crafting something that's great.

As marketers, we have to be aware that today's sure bet may be tomorrow's losing bet. We can't get comfortable with any marketing medium, because that marketing medium is quite likely to disappear, or, in a "tragedy of the commons" scenario, become overloaded with competing marketers in the blink of an eye.

What we can do is watch what's happening closely, build nimble teams, and place our bets as sagaciously as we can with our advertising dollars, all the while knowing that all our decisions are provisional in a dynamic marketplace that grows more unstable every day.

Still, the opportunities are so rich, and the potential so vast, that we gladly face the challenges of today's digital marketing environment, which more closely resembles white-water rafting than piloting a steady ship on a steady sea.

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