By now, everyone who doesn't live under several rocks has heard about the Federal Communications Commission's 3-2 vote in December to repeal net neutrality. The consequences of this decision will affect everyone in America -- and marketers are no exception.
In a nutshell, net neutrality required internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon to treat all internet access equally. The rule classified internet service as a Title II utility, which forced ISPs to abide by a few rules regarding access and usage. The repeal of net neutrality frees these companies to treat internet traffic differently.
Proponents, such as the ISPs, argue that decreased regulation will fuel growth. Critics, including tech companies like Google, say internet providers will use their newfound power to pad their bottom lines at the expense of users.
The FCC's decision isn't exactly the last step in the process, however. Some members of Congress plan to force a vote, and several states have already announced plans to sue the FCC. While all this goes on, marketers who use the internet (so, all of us) are left to wonder: "What does this mean for us and our audiences?"
Post-Net Neutrality Marketing
Marketers on both ends of the political spectrum will feel the same effects of this repeal. When ISPs are free to favor some content and block the rest, you'll need to do things differently to continue to speak to your audiences at the right times and in the right places.
Internet "fast lanes" allow ISPs to give some content priority over others. A popular example is streaming services: Customers who pay a streaming fee could enjoy Netflix at the levels they do today, while others who don't pay the fee might deal with buffering, lags, or blocked access altogether.
Now, most ISPs likely won't risk angering their customers with such a blatant cash grab, but small examples like this could complicate several other areas of audience reach and engagement, such as online advertising, native content, and content distribution and promotion tactics.
Marketing on the Deregulated Internet
The repeal of net neutrality will cause dramatic shifts in the ways marketers use content to reach their audiences. To stay competitive online in 2018 (and potentially beyond), you should prepare for the changes by taking these three steps:
1. Increase channel and media flexibility.
Without net neutrality, marketers will no longer be able to rely on their tried-and-true tactics to reach their audiences. Everything from ad purchases to onsite content to guest posts will look different in the deregulated future.
To avoid losing ground, revisit your content strategy. Start working with a wider variety of publications to contribute guest content, and diversify your PR efforts. If your usual sites get blocked or slowed by an ISP, your audiences may not see your content, which kind of defeats the purpose of content marketing and PR.
Produce new content in a variety of media. Video content could cost more to publish or host in 2018, and if you rely a lot on video, your overhead could rise next year. Keep this in mind on social media, too -- sites like Twitter and Facebook could be limited by these changes, but even if they're not, some content on those sites might be.
2. Prepare to spend more money.
Major brands with massive budgets might be safe, if they land on the right side of the ISPs. Smaller brands, on the other hand, could struggle to grow (or even maintain) their online presences without shelling out more money in the process.
Even nurturing an audience and hosting a website could cost more. Third-party service providers, such as certain influencer marketing platforms or CMSs/CRMs, might encounter steeper charges to host their services, and those costs could very likely be passed on to you, their customer.
Where will this increased budget come from? Plan for potentially higher internet service charges and lower rates of client engagement from people who don't pay extra to their ISPs. Identify which areas to cut if new growth can't cover the expected budget requirements.
3. Design content experiences that can handle disruption.
Slow connections or higher prices for existing content could disrupt -- or completely eliminate -- parts of your content strategy. Video and interactive content that depends on high-speed internet will be especially at risk.
When that happens, audience interactions with your brand online will likely change. What happens if your audiences can't see your videos anymore, or if your content takes too long to load? Will those changes affect the strength of your relationship and how your audiences feel about your brand? Diversify your content offerings to limit potential losses of audience attention from existing channels.
The effects of the repeal of net neutrality could take many forms. It's up to legislators, the courts, citizens, and ISPs to shape that future. Regardless of what happens, marketers should prepare for all possibilities.