The end of an open Internet could have an effect on marketing strategies everywhere.
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The End of Net Neutrality: Should Marketers Be Worried?

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With companies like Google and Netflix shouting the loudest about the threat of ending net neutrality, it’s easy to assume that the issue at hand is one that primarily affects large companies.

While those companies would surely be affected by the regulations, it’s a grave misunderstanding to assume that Internet neutrality is a big-business problem. In truth, it’s an issue that affects all Internet users in the United States. And for all of the threat faced by multinational corporations, it’s actually small- and mid-sized organizations that could find themselves suffering the worst.

If you’re a marketer, you should be worried about what the end of Internet neutrality could mean for your job. The short answer: Things could get a lot more difficult.

Despite the considerable implications that would affect the vast majority of American consumers, many people don’t understand exactly how Internet neutrality works or how the end of this regulation could damage their company’s bottom line and its ability to generate new revenues.

It can be hard to imagine the Internet in any other state than the one we’ve enjoyed for more than 20 years: Free, open, favoring no company. But with many companies in the United States and around the world leaning heavily on content marketing to advance their company goals, the deregulation the Federal Communications Commission is considering could change your job as a marketer overnight—and not in a good way.

Net Neutrality: The Basics

Before we lay out the implications for marketers, let’s provide a brief overview of what Internet neutrality is and how it created the Internet we know today. The concept of the open Internet dictates that Internet service providers—think of big providers such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon—are required to treat all transferred data as equal, showing no favoritism or prejudice for data coming from a specific source. This prevents those companies from favoring the content of individual companies, including themselves, over other data sources, which include their own competition.

Thanks to this neutrality, all content is treated equal. When you watch a video online, the download speeds for that video are the same regardless of where you are watching it. Without Internet neutrality, a company like YouTube could pay money to certain ISPs to get favorable treatment, meaning that YouTube’s videos would load faster and play at a higher quality than competing platforms like Vimeo.

In the example outlined above, Vimeo would have to shell out huge dollars to increase their own speeds or risk losing their video audience to YouTube over time. The likelihood is that many smaller video platforms would be forced to close because they couldn’t keep up with rising fees from ISPs.

If ISPs favored YouTube over Vimeo right now, they would be in violation of FCC regulations and would likely be fined, with other punishments possible. But the FCC, led by chairman Ajit Pai, recently began a process to deregulate the Internet, which would end its neutrality and give ISPs the ability to charge different websites and online companies for favorable treatment of their data.

Ajit Pai

Image attribution: Federal Communications Commission

Although other countries treat the Internet as a utility similar to water and electricity—meaning that everyone has an equal right to use it—the United States may create a system that favors certain private companies over others. The companies that stand to benefit are few: namely, the major ISP providers that could now jack up the prices on publishers and online brands.

While large corporations could likely pay the fees, smaller companies would face a dire situation.

A Costly, Limited Future for Marketing

If Internet neutrality ends, it’s likely that two big changes will come to content marketing. First, it will get more expensive. At the same time, it will also become less valuable.

These adverse affects will likely impact companies of every size, at least in the beginning. The end of neutrality will mean that delivering content will get more expensive every time you put something online. Ad exchanges will be forced to pay fees to access faster data transfer speeds that deliver their content to ad spaces in a timely manner. Your own company website will likely have its download speeds slowed down as other, larger companies pay for faster service.

Every type of content you create will be affected. Some social networks will move faster than others based on how much they are willing to pay to ISPs. Anything that lives online is likely to get slowed down, worsening the consumer experience while increasing costs on individual businesses. With virtually every company leaning hard on digital marketing to reach their customers and generate revenue, the ability of these companies to stay in business will be directly threatened.

Man in a darkened room in front of a computer screen

Image attribution: Mark Cruz

It’s also likely that marketers will see fewer options for tech solutions and essential services like online ad exchanges. Advertisers leaning on ad exchanges will be at the mercy of whether those exchanges are willing to pay the necessary fees to keep their speeds competitive. Even if they do pay for faster speeds, the additional cost will likely be passed down to advertisers. If they don’t—as many smaller exchanges can’t or won’t be able to do—then they are at high risk of closing or selling off to a competitor, resulting in a marketplace with fewer options.

The changes would be especially punishing for brands that have built up large libraries of media-rich content like videos and mobile experiences. The cost to maintain and deliver these experiences could go so high that the content stops delivering positive ROI for the company. Instead, those companies might shift their marketing dollars toward channels where they have greater control over their speeds and their experience, which likely means bolstering their websites, filling them with published content, and leaning on other digital channels less affected by the end of net neutrality, such as email.

According to MarketingProfs, brands are likely to embrace open publishing platforms like LinkedIn and Medium, which allow contributors to publish for free in exchange for publicity and increased exposure. Such platforms could avoid higher costs while leaning on those platforms to help content find an audience. Those companies can only stay solvent by ensuring that their free content finds an online audience, so they’ll be incentivized to find workable solutions to drive traffic, while companies can at least avoid rising marketing costs in exchange for giving away some of their content.

It’s hard to fully predict how the end of net neutrality would change the world of marketing, but many experts agree that the move would be bad for both businesses and consumers—in fact, only a small handful of companies would stand to clearly benefit. Whatever does happen, marketers need to know what the changes will mean for their business. If the open Internet does come to an end, it will likely trigger a new era of marketing, and it won’t be pretty.

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Featured image attribution: Hannah Wei

Jonathan Crowl specializes in digital marketing and content creation for both B2B and B2C brands, with an emphasis on startups and technology. His past and current clients include B2B brands IBM, LinkedIn, Mad Mobile, Oktopost, BrightSpot, and Waze, as well as B2C brands Porsche, Epson, and PayPal. He lives in Minneapolis.

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