harry_potterOver the weekend I rented a movie for the kids, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In the trailer for the the video I noticed something I hadn’t seen in ages — a kind ancient rune, a relic of a bygone era.

It was these words: AMERICA ONLINE KEYWORD: HARRY POTTER.

Remember those AOL keywords? They used to be everywhere, somewhere back in the dark ages of the internet. That was internet marketing.

So imagine my surprise when I checked and discovered that Prisoner of Azkaban was released in 2004. That’s right, less than a decade ago.

Even then AOL was considered important enough that people who did marketing for movies felt it was necessary to create an AOL keyword to promote their flicks.

To be sure, the Harry Potter films were made by Warner Bros., which is part of Time Warner, which at the time was merged with AOL. So maybe they clung to the AOL keywords longer than other folks, if only out of a sense of corporate fealty.

Nevertheless, this made me think about how quickly things change in our brave new digital world, and how despite this, we keep acting as if whatever is popular today is going to remain popular forever.

The More Things Change

Investors do this all the time. They pump up stock prices on internet companies based on a notion of future earnings that are derived by extrapolating current growth rates into the future. By this logic, otherwise rational people convince themselves that someday, surely, a company which today has no revenues someday will be worth $4 billion, or $10 billion, or $100 billion.

Then those otherwise rational people invest at that valuation and wait for the company to grow into it, like a toddler trying to grow into a suit made for Shaquille O’Neal. A few actually make it.

Marketers are guilty of this too. Today the hot platforms are Facebook and Twitter. You can’t afford not to be on them. Every company in the world, it seems, now pays someone, or even a team of people, to produce a constant barrage of tweets.

Social stats are the coin of the realm. How many Twitter followers do you have? How many Facebook likes? This is how we (as individuals and as companies) are judged, and how we judge others. If you work in marketing and don’t spend all day on Twitter, then you might as well not exist, at least as far as some marketing gurus are concerned.

But we've seen this movie before. Remember when all the big brands were leaping on Second Life? It was the platform of the future. We were all going to live and do business in virtual worlds. IBM and Calvin Klein were using Second Life! Reuters opened a Second Life bureau to cover this amazing new world! BusinessWeek ran a cover story.

If you really want a laugh, read this fantastic (in a bad sense) white paper describing the wonders of marketing via Second Life and the reasons why every brand had to be on it, and those who didn't would be left behind.

Here’s what’s even more amazing. That white paper was published in 2007. That’s right. Only six years ago.

So What Does 2020 Look Like? 

History suggests that Twitter and Facebook will follow the same trajectory as AOL, and Second Life, and MySpace, and that the only question is how long it will take for them to fade.

To be sure, it doesn't look like it right now. Facebook will generate nearly $8 billion in revenue this year. Twitter is on track to generate more than $600 million. Their combined market value stands at $130 billion.

Invincible, right? Impregnable fortresses. The winners of the internet land grab, impossible to dislodge.

Well, keep in mind that AOL was once worth $222 billion. AOL was so huge and so powerful, in fact, that it gobbled up Time Warner, one of the biggest media companies in the world.

AOL seemed unstoppable, and yet today when you see “AMERICA ONLINE KEYWORD” attached to a movie it seems almost quaint, like someone wearing knickers.

Why do we keep believing in the permanance of platforms in an age marked by impermanence and ephemerality?

Part of it may be that so much is happening, and it’s all happening so quickly, that nobody has time to stop and think. We’re all glued to the future, hanging on to our hats. Our memories get worse and worse, our attention spans shorter and shorter. We live in the present, and have no context.

Also, a lot of people who work in social are young. Today’s 25-year-old social media manager was in the sixth grade when AOL merged with Time Warner.

When I saw that AOL keyword promo it served as a kind of reminder that tools are great, but they change, and the best you can do is try to be ready for whatever comes next. 

What will it be? Pinterest? Instagram? Vine? Snapchat? It may be that the Next Big Thing, the platform that will rule the world of marketing in 2020, hasn't even been invented yet. 

In that case we should focus our attention not on tools, but on the mission -- finding customers, listening to customers, and making customers happy.

That’s the core of what we do, and thankfully, no matter what digital tools and platforms we’re using, that mission stays the same.

Illustration: Warner Bros.

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Originally published Nov 26, 2013 2:00:00 PM, updated October 20 2016