What were you doing in August 2005?

What lessons can content marketers learn from the latest online phenomena?

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If you need a memory jog, it was the month that James Blunt sat atop the UK music charts with his warbling hit “You’re Beautiful”, England’s era-defining Ashes series with Australia was just under way and I was learning about the pitfalls of chasing a large chicken nugget meal with a strawberry milkshake during every shift worked at McDonald’s that summer.

The month also marked the inception of one of the most significant projects in modern marketing history – albeit the specifics and excitement around it have been largely forgotten as the sands of time have passed through a Twitter and Facebook prism.

A struggling British student looking for financial support for his impending undergraduate degree, Alex Tew stumbled upon the idea of selling space on his personal website. A remarkable marketing fire sale was the result – landing him a cool million dollar payday.

The concept was relatively simple – Tew divided his page into one-pixel chunks, auctioning each off in blocks via his eBay account for the princely base sum of $1.

The model had hidden layers of nuance – Tew priced his product in dollars to take advantage of a significantly bigger US market and, with the pound strong against the dollar at the time, used the currency switch to entice as many potential advertisers to his front door as possible.

In many ways he exposed and exploited the lack of digital understanding that was still in circulation five years after the Dotcom bubble burst in 2000. Many advertisers didn’t even consider linking up their hard-won ads to a company website – registering minimal benefit from the enterprise as a result.

Getting out at exactly the right time, Tew sold his final pixel in early 2006 and built a successful career elsewhere (without completing his degree) leaving his brain-child to slowly diminish in influence and significance.

The Million Dollar Webpage has, it must be said, aged poorly – nearly half of the links it advertises are now dead or defunct and the whole page is reminiscent of the sort of pop-up your web browser might automatically filter in 2019.

However, the concept is more than just a lesson in opportunism and the ability to leverage demand while minimising individual risk.

How do you like your eggs in the morning?

Though the Million Dollar Homepage project has long since been consigned to the dustbin of history, the basic model remains in rude health.

The Instagram Egg – an account currently causing a ruckus both in marketing circles and beyond, lives on a familiar principle to Tew’s opus – taking a simple concept and leveraging interest – be it ironic or genuine – to create significant noise.

Whilst the egg is dealing with eye-watering engagement numbers far beyond what the MDH was able to trade in (Instagram likes on one post exceed 50 million), monetising the brand is proving a little trickier. 

Stop the rot

The ultimate challenge presented by the Million Dollar Homepage – and perhaps where Tew’s product was weak – is balancing up-front success with a desire to reduce the ravages of time on your content strategy.

All MDH advertisers were promised a minimum of five years of exposure on site, but by 2009, the page had dropped from a global Alexa traffic rank of 127 to a slot outside the top 40,000. Additionally, 40% of advertisers on the page are now suffering from link-rot.

The biggest issue is to try and understand where your current strategy might age poorly, and while this might prove a fool’s errand with fresh technology emerging at every turn, there are often clues available to help understand how to mitigate long-term reputational damage.

Indeed, it’s one of the few areas in which B2B marketers are likely to reach the promised land before their more moneyed B2C cousins, such is the obvious inefficiency of a poorly defined user pool that might not include your target audiences. It’s surprising then that the quality and veracity of audience frequently often avoids proper scrutiny among many agencies and clients.

Content producers should still attempt to capitalise on the mood of the moment to unearth projects like the Instagram Egg or Million Dollar Homepage, but dare not sacrifice those long-term projects that deliver quality and longevity to a focused audience.

Cameron Sharpe, Head of Insight, Progressive Content