Jan 28, 2009

The Shelf Life of Revolutions – Part 2

The rapid growth of the web in the mid to late 90s resulted in a fundamental shift in the way products were marketed and the value we attached to them. By allowing access to a vast selection of merchandise, the companies that gave birth to what’s now known as “Web 1.0” made price a secondary focus.

The forty-year run of our Western consumer society meant that an entire generation had grown up with a steady supply of well-priced consumer goods, making their existence less of a novelty than a given. So selection was the next frontier: once we’d become accustomed to having all these goods, we wanted the exact ones we wanted when we wanted them. And Web 1.0 businesses like Amazon.com were only too happy to oblige.

This focus on selection was echoed offline as well, with the growth of superstores like Wal-Mart, who, in addition to low prices, offered an incredible selection of basic consumer goods: every kind of soap known to man (or at least to the marketing departments at Unilever and Procter & Gamble) as well as every conceivable type of consumer good right down to groceries. While low price was Wal Mart’s price of entry, their vast selection was what made them famous.

In the media, this shift to a selection-based model was mirrored by the proliferation of cable TV channels. Whereas the Price Era was defined by the three TV networks, the Selection Era, with it’s line-up of single-interest networks like CNN, ESPN and The Weather Channel told us that we could pick and choose at will from a growing array of content. Our choices would no longer be dictated to us.

That explosion, which Bruce Springsteen referred to as early as 1992, in his hit, “57 Channels And Nothing On” paved the way for the rapid growth of the internet several years later. The explosion of the web not only allowed us to buy anything we wanted, it also allowed us to read about anything we wanted, as an army of professionals and amateurs rushed to throw up content on any and all topics. On the internet, it wasn’t necessarily about quality but about choice: we were no longer limited by the confines of our local libraries or bookstores: we could read whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. Media had become all about selection.

Advertising soon followed suit as the lowly banner ad became the perfect vehicle for The Selection Era. Rather than have to sit through whatever commercials the TV networks threw at us, we were able to select the banner ads we wanted. And initially we did select: in the early days of Web 1.0 following a banner was as interesting as anything else online. It wasn’t until later, when content started to have real value, that clicking on a banner became beside the point, something advertisers are still coming to grips with ten years later.

Politically, the brief period between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks provided a respite from any real global conflict as the entire world seemed headed for freedom and democracy. This interbellum Pax Americana gave birth to the concept of “globalization,” as new markets opened up and emerging middle class societies in Asia, Africa and Latin America provided us with millions (if not billions) of new consumers for all our goods and services.

The Selection Era proved to be short lived, however, as consumers quickly grew used to being able to have whatever goods they wanted, whenever they wanted them. It was a behavior that survived both the shock of the post-9/11 landscape and the collapse of the Web 1.0 bubble. Having gotten used to the benefits of selection, consumers were looking beyond that and demanding something of more value along with their products, something more satisfying and personal.

And so began the Service Era, which will be the subject of next week’s post.

The Shelf Life of Revolutions - Part 1
The Shelf Life of Revolutions - Part 3

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