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Audience-building is going to be more important than ever

The excellent Rob Lennon, a fascinating commenter on generative AI, recently claimed that “ChatGPT and its competitors will upend digital marketing this year”. He pointed out that Microsoft estimates that 50% of search queries could go to chat instead of search, and for anyone whose main customer acquisition strategy (or business!) is SEO, that could be a devastating outcome.

Rob argues that there are several trends that will take hold this year. Firstly, we’re going to see more content that isn’t openly available online, to keep it away from web scrapers and the AIs. Private email lists and communities will grow.

Secondly, we all know that the current AI models are great at returning results that look correct, but may be wrong. Automated fact-checkers could become a significant new tool.

The return of someone else’s audience

Monetization from search traffic will no longer be an option for many publishers and creators, and there’ll be a big shift to paid subscriptions. Many newspapers fall into this bracket. Rob predicts that “websites that have been staples of information for the last two decades will be forced to close or sell.”

Interestingly, all this suggests that paying to access someone else’s audience will become powerful again: while the last 25 years may have all but killed off third-party ‘trade publishing’, there’s a chance that it could rise again. In many categories, ‘influencers’ could become more valuable.

The conclusion: search and SEO won’t die, but it’s about to see some of the biggest changes in its short history. Audience-building is going to be more important than ever, and if we don’t invest in that, we’ll need to be prepared to start paying money to those who do.

There’s a great Twitter thread on this here, not least because Rob has taken the time to reply to many of the commenters.

Nobody knows where this is all going to end up, certainly not me. Cory Doctorow believes that Microsoft is heading down the wrong path, and it’s just typical of Google’s lack of ideas that it’s choosing to follow. I guess we’re at the earliest stages of the Gartner Hype Cycle!