Ready for an uneven playing field: Marketers prep for a post-net neutrality world

Does the end of net neutrality mean communicators will have to work harder to get their message out? Or will it be a boon in disguise for PR agencies?

The end of net neutrality doesn’t just mean worries about slower downloads and streaming. It could also limit the ability of small businesses to break through and capture their share of voice in a media landscape dominated by entrenched media brands and social platforms, according to experts.

After considering the issue for months, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to terminate Obama-era protections that ensured internet service providers can’t block or throttle traffic or offer paid fast lanes.

For marketers, "distribution will become a bigger factor," says Morgan McLintic, founder of Firebrand Communications. He adds that major "opinion-forming sites" that can afford to pay for quality bandwidth service will have more accessible content than smaller competitors.

"The general concern from a comms perspective is an impact on the access to a plurality of opinion," he says. "Anything that impacts access to information is going to impact comms campaigns, because a smaller number of outlets will be controlling a larger amount of influence."

Entrusting ISPs with that power could benefit the largest media companies and social platforms, says Michael Fauscette, chief research officer at G2Crowd. For instance, providers could give preferential treatment to their own content or charge a service fee for the fast lane, limiting the viability of smaller players that can’t afford those costs.

"We know how [ISPs] behave when they’re left to own devices," Fauscette says.

Facebook cofounder Andrew McCollum made the same point in an op-ed for The New York Times. The internet TV company he oversees, Philo, is built on live video, which "requires more bandwidth, a reliable connection and low ‘latency,’ (how long it takes information to travel through a system)." He writes that its service is vulnerable to throttling and unfair prioritization.

"Even worse, because Philo directly competes with all of the largest internet providers, which offer their own live TV services, these providers have a strong incentive to put their thumbs on the scale," McCollum writes.

Comcast reportedly throttled p2p connections in 2007 and 2008, which resulted in a $16 million class action lawsuit settlement. In 2011, Metro PCS rolled out a low-cost plan with YouTube as the only video service offered.

Some worry about future instances of ISPs prioritizing their own content after Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo and its properties this summer and AT&T’s planned acquisition of Time Warner, though the Justice Department is trying to block the latter deal.

Slow speeds create a poor experience for high-bandwidth content, such as video, which publishers and brands are increasingly relying upon to capture more audience, McLintic says, adding that owned content would also be put at a disadvantage if those channels are throttled. That could force the brand publishing the content to reallocate marketing funds toward using another ISP. Or it could push those companies to pursue an earned media-focused approach.

As a small business owner himself, Aaron Gordon says his PR shop, Schwartz Media Strategies, would be affected by net neutrality, as would the vast majority of U.S. businesses that are considered small (fewer than 500 workers).

Theoretically, an ISP could force consumers to browse certain websites at higher speeds to access their information "to create an uneven playing field," he says.

"It could put them out of business, because the internet has been their pipeline to customers," he explains. The FCC’s ruling could also make it more difficult for grassroots campaigns and small businesses to break through.  

However, Gordon explains that could boost his shop’s value proposition as an agency equipped to build campaigns and leverage the internet in the same way social media did.

"A client may put more stock in a communications firm because they see a firm like ours as a pathway to cut through the clutter," Gordon says.

The FCC ruling will not go into effect immediately. The government will make final revisions to the policy in the coming weeks. The rules will appear on the Federal Register in a few months, according to The Verge.

Ed Zitron, CEO of EZPR, predicts most PR pros’ day-to-day activities will not change, though those with media, app, and public affairs clients could be affected. He also acknowledges it’s early to make predictions.

Zitron adds that the industry’s trade associations and agencies should have rallied against the FCC’s ruling and contends the public will become more interested in what clients agencies are taking on.

"The PR industry is quiet; they’re always overly positive or quiet," he says. "I want to be overly negative here. This is a point where the PR industry could’ve come together."

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