What Does the Recent Net Neutrality Ruling Mean for Digital Marketing? Here’s What Our Experts Say.

Bryce Hamlin
By Bryce Hamlin

Note: This is an expert op-ed piece compiling out opinions on what could happen as we see RIFA roll out. We’re talking about worst-case scenarios. The sky isn’t falling – yet.

If you haven’t heard the news, Net Neutrality protection laws were repealed by the FCC. Who am I kidding, you’re in Digital. Of course you know. Everyone who hasn’t been stranded on a remote island and/or living under a rock knows.

The internet that we’ve known for years is in jeopardy. On the morning of December 14th,2017, the FCC Commission voted 3-2 in favor of the “Restoring Internet Freedom” Act. But don’t worry, this isn’t going to be yet another article on how hypocritical it is to name this Act in such a way, or how we want you to contact your local Government representative and voice your concerns over the unfair advantages given to ISPs. There’s already been plenty written about that – go search for it while it’s still free to do so.

We’re here to give our expert opinion on how the passing of the “Restoring Internet Freedom” Act (hereafter referred to as RIFA because even typing that out frustrates me) will affect the field of Digital Marketing. Pat and I got together and spoke to leaders in each department at Power Digital in an effort to compile their insights and how they think this will shake out throughout the industry.

I’ll start with some takes on how it’ll affect overall Digital advertising and then move into department-specifics.

Digital In General

Right off the bat, we can start by saying that overall traffic to just about any site will fall off fairly significantly by the virtue of the ‘Pay to Play’ model. You’re affected no matter what digital channel you’re in.

  • Less people will be interacting with what you put out to the world. Less people on Instagram (unless they pay for the ‘Platinum Social Media’ access package for the low low price $14.99/month!)
  • Less people reading your blog (unless your audience upgrades to the ‘Premium Lifestyle Blog’ access package for only $29.99/month!)
  • Less people reading your clients placement on Forbes (unless they upgrade to… you get it.)
  • Less people able to access your site through Organic search… or any other method

The list could go on, but you understand. By virtue of throttling internet access and effectively installing “toll booths” throughout the internet, less people will be able to get where they want to go. To my fellow Southern Californians – you’ve seen the 405 during rush hour. Imagine adding toll booths at every exit.

Yeah. Bad news.

E-commerce metrics could suffer. Attracting quality leads now has another variable – whether the potential lead has access to your site.

Speaking of additional variables, A/B tests just got less significant. If this actually develops, say goodbye to true 50/50 tests. You can no longer rely on the data showing you if a certain piece of creative resonates with a certain audience – it would only show if it resonates best with your audience who has paid for access package to your site.

If we’re going to wear our “journalist” hats for a few hours today, we may as well do this right. This isn’t all bad news for digital.

If you run a premium service that requires significant investment from your customers, the ‘Pay to Play’ model could actually help to prequalify your traffic. If they have enough money to get access, they’re more likely to have the money needed to buy your product/service.

Pat and I are both convinced that ISPs are going to sell customer package access as ‘Big Data’ to data aggregation platforms like Oracle. You could potentially target your efforts based on the ‘tier’ of internet access packages that the ISPs’ customers have purchased. Truly, truly exciting.

Lastly – this could create more natural competition within the ISP market which isn’tnecessarily a good thing, but it could be.

With all that out of the way, here’s how we see this affecting each Digital channel individually. (Shout out to Bill, Austin, Sam, Amanda, John, and Alexa for the department-level insights!)

PPC Advertising

Since we’re diving into individual channels, I figured it’d be best to start in my wheelhouse – PPC advertising. Most of what I covered earlier can be applied to anything PPC, but there are a few more specifics we wanted to share.

We’ll see more wasted clicks on ads. Let’s say you’re advertising for a community sports league and 20% of the people that click on your ad didn’t buy the ‘Local Community Site’ access package. Those 20% of people clicking on your add wouldn’t be able to access your site.

We’ll see how Google responds to this in terms of charging for wasted clicks, but this could mean wasting ad budget. I’m of the opinion that Google would either refund the cost of these similar to how they handle bot traffic or just figure out how to not serve ads to people that don’t have the correct access.

Another negative – less people getting where they want to go on the internet means less data for marketers to analyze, making it harder to optimize and perform our jobs well. Less data for Google/Facebook/etc.’s algorithms to optimize off of as well.

Any SEM worth their salt knows that data analysis is the core of what we do, and we need that data to be pure (for lack of a better term). Definitely not happy about this one.

SEO // On-Site Content

Companies that have invested in SEO (literally every company) could get killed in the organic rankings. SEO is all about User Experience, and throttling only serves to ruin that. Again, we’ll have to see how Google’s algorithm team responds in terms of showing organic listings to people that can’t access certain sites.

Smaller sites that can’t afford the ‘Premium’ packages might get edged out in the rankings by bigger sites because of the ‘Pay to Play’ model.

Lastly, any unforeseen change in organic search activity has a huge affect on an SEO’s ability to predict and optimize. Per our earlier point, they’ll have less insight into ranking factors due to traffic being segmented before they even reach the SERP. Austin and Bill both think that search trends will change drastically, and the integrity of the search trend data will diminish.

This ties right into the efforts of our Content department as well. We can write the best content in the world but it won’t mean anything if people can’t get to the site to read it. Quality content has been one of the biggest factors in SEO rankings for the last few years because it improves the user’s experience (which we already know that Google loves) and RIFA’s effect would almost definitely lessen the positive impact that content has on rank.

Digital & Traditional PR

We already kind of covered this up above, but both Amanda and Sam think that ‘Pay to Play’ across the web might stop smaller blogs from being relevant to business at all. Who wants to be covered on a blog that people aren’t reading because the blogger (or blog network) hasn’t “upgraded?”

In the same vein, ‘Pay to Play’ could restrict access to certain news sites, reducing the effectiveness of traditional/digital PR placements. Get covered on Forbes? Whoops, turns out that 40% of your target audience doesn’t have the “Business News” Access Package.

Influencers will have less people see their Instagram, YouTube, etc. pages making marketing through influencers less cost-effective. This channel might not be impacted as drastically because society as a whole is addicted to social media but… we’ll see.

Social Media

Continuing from the point above – social media platforms might see a drop in number of daily active users. That means less engagements, less social conversations, less communication with your audience.

Web Development

Web Development isn’t necessarily directly impacted, but they’ll certainly feel the ripples. RIFA could significantly slow down development processes because the firm might need the ‘Dev Toolkit’ access package to actually access certain important tools.

Development and design decisions made off of user data would always have to be taken with a grain of salt (see A/B testing point above).

RIFA could also reduce the demand for websites in general due to the increased barriers to enter the market online and reduced effectiveness of websites as a whole.

Wrapping Up

If you couldn’t tell, we view this as generally a bad thing for the Digital Marketing Industry. It shrinks our audience, skews our data, and significantly reduces the amount of control we have over the success of our campaigns.

All that being said, I want to reiterate that this article is an opinion piece about the worst-case scenario. Expert opinion, but opinion nonetheless.

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Bryce is a Paid Media Account Manager at Power Digital with experience with both Google and Facebook advertising. He attended SDSU (not too far from our office!) and has been apart of the PDM team since 2015. He's been passionate about technology and entrepreneurship his entire life and this passion translates through to his work in Digital. Out of the office, you can find Bryce at the beach, on a hike, or anywhere that has live music!