Thoughts About Marketing and Technology
The worlds of marketing and technology have converged, but acting on them involved brand, organization, and technology smarts. These blog posts help marketers understand how to navigate through those issues.
Apple and Google kicked off June with confirmed decisions to implement ad blocking of certain types of ads for Safari and Chrome respectively. For Apple, the target of blocking is auto-play video with sound, which is embarrassing or frustrating for anyone who does not work in a private office and leaves their computer’s sound turned on. They will also take aim at those creepy ads that follow you around after a site visit, by implementing a “no tracking” feature to hide web surfing from retargeters. For Google, the bad actors will be the entire web site if that domain permits any low-quality ad experiences, including auto-play video but also full-page interstitials, and flashing ads.
In the name of user experience on the internet, these are moves to be applauded. According to PageFair, 600 million mobile and desktop devices already have ad blocking software of some kind. As now-retired columnist Walt Mossberg wrote in January on The Verge, the user experience on the internet is broken, and ads are to blame.
Marketers Win, Ad Tech Loses
- The implication for ad tech is not great. The sector is already suffering from quality issues and consolidation, and publishers are combatting declining CPMs and programmatic selling disintermediating their sales force and revenue stream. These browser changes will remove bad actors, bad experiences and bad inventory from the system, which is already under pressure from Google and Facebook taking the lion’s share of spend. While retargeting has been a boon to marketers, it has been the standard of the “creepy factor” in nearly every presentation on what’s wrong with digital advertising since the approach was launched by Criteo 10+ years ago.
- The implication for high quality publishers is better. This forcing function to quality advertising will decrease competition with rogue web sites, reduce the nearly limitless supply of ad space, and shore up prices for publishers that maintain a good experience. It doesn’t completely save the ad-supported publishing model, but it starts to make good inventory more valuable.
- Lesser publishers who depend on 3rd party ads will take a hit. The publishers that have made passive money off of ad tags for the last 10 years, enjoying the revenue stream but devoting less attention to the reader experience, will suffer from not being able to woo enough customers to give the OK to them to serve ads. The long tail of content will follow the long tail of ad tech into a winnowing down of the random players.
For marketers, this is a win, with better quality placements and higher impact. To break it down:
- Digital inventory quality will improve. With firms like Vodaphone developing a white-list approach to approving sites, rather than a black-list approach to removing them, quality digital ad inventory is going to get tighter. While marketers will still negotiate on price, they will be willing to pay more to show up in clean, well-lit places, and track the impact on their business more simply.
- 3rd party ad blocker growth will slow. The sites like The Guardian, Forbes, and Ad Age that ask readers to turn off ad blocking are often met with the same ad-laden experience once they land on the site; they are not holding up their side of the bargain. But with browsers improving overall digital experiences, consumers will find more reason to keep their ad blocking to browser tools, and be exposed to ads again online.
- Decreased clutter will allow remaining ads to shine through. With publishers cleaning up their sites (encouraged by rising CPMs and better experiences reducing the impact of 3rd-party ad blockers), brands will see better results from the ads they do show. Share of voice on a good publisher site will go from 1 in 10 to 1 in 2 for sites that care about visitors having a positive content-to-ad ratio.
- Unit prices will go up, but so will business impact. Ad pricing is a constant battle for marketers, as the tradeoff between quality and volume often leads to “spray and pray” tactics. Ads that wind up on better sites, with better targeting and higher share of voice will cost more, of course. But ultimately, sales is a more important factor in digital advertising than unit price, and ROI is stronger when the “R” is bigger.
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There is nothing better than a debate amongst peers. No, this is not a post about politics. I am referring to a lively dinner that PebblePost hosted earlier this week, with some amazing Chief Marketing/Digital/Customer Officers from companies as diverse as banks, luxury goods, online megastores, innovative start ups and media brands. Get this group talking, which my colleague Rebecca Lieb did, and the conversation gets lively quickly.
The topic was centered around the return to traditional forms of media to complete the “marketing breakfast” (in other words, a well-rounded marketing meal to start your day), why that is happening, and what should come of it. Here are some key takeaways from the discussion:
The power of putting a digital spin on retro tactics. If you watch Back to the Future 2, a lot of the things that movie predicted are true today - hoverboards, a baseball team in Florida, tablet computers and easy video conferencing (think Skype and Hangouts). Digital thinking is indeed impacting the way traditional channels like TV and direct mail work. While standalone digital thinking and channels are not working as well as they used to, they are informing marketers of the value of data. Said one marketer, “data is the backbone of the process. But where it gets used is up for grabs.”
The message trumps the medium. All new channels play a role. But the creative teams need to be more creative. According to one marketer, direct mail is a great channel “despite the lack of effort to make the creative compelling. It's still a generic set of promotional offers.” Creative needs to improve to handle the challenges that true omnichannel marketing presents.
Privacy is not dead; people are willing to give it up for value.Our dinnermates agree that Millennials and younger are far less concerned about data privacy than their parents and older siblings. But they will get more concerned as they are impacted by career issues or personal identity fraud, making privacy an age-related issue. Outside of the U.S., privacy remains a big concern. And if you forgot, Facebook FB -0.53% and others are now able to listen to your conversations to make recommendations. We talked a lot about the good and bad implications of that new tool.
Are you looking back to channels of the past for your marketing inspiration (like TV or direct mail)? Let me know your thoughts.
There is no greater guilty pleasure for me than the disaster movies that build these amazingly detailed sets – of Los Angeles and New York, primarily – and then have them ravaged by earthquakes, tsunamis, deep freezes and hurricanes (my apologies to those who lived through the Northridge Earthquake in 1989, the recent Japanese tsunami, Boston's winter in 2015 and survivors of Katrina, Sandy and other big storms). Remember, the movie version is always way worse and way more dramatic. Yet the hero, the heroine, and their adorable kids always survive. If only the world were at the same time so dangerous and so forgiving.
“Ad blocking: The Movie” starts now. Technically it has been in previews for a while through browsers, and a few attempts at the story have been made for a decade. But in 2015 Apple has, first for Safari by endorsing AdBlock Plus as a popular extension, and now for mobile as a native feature for the browser in iOS9. When I surf now with the extension installed, I see the number of ads block tick by in red at the top of my browser window. For comparison, I am still using my Chrome browser with ads (to support media sites). The winner in the volume of ads blocked on day one was Hubspot, which I visited for work. When I went to their home page the day I started using AdBlock, it blocked 311 items! They must have noticed something (maybe my tweet about it?) as they seem to have a much cleaner site than they did a week ago. See the two versions of TMZ.com from my computer this morning.
The real “towering infernos” of the ad blocking business, will be the:
- Plethora of small independent publishers, for whom display ad revenue has been relatively easy money. These are content sites that serve niche interests from music and gossip to cycling.
- Mobile sites and app download purveyors that use mobile ad networks as an ad sales approach. This will hurt their chances to be visible, and to generate seed revenue.
- Mid and large sized publishers (like Nylon) that have not migrated to more strategic sales efforts that guarantee placement on the site.
How marketers can still fund media and get visibility
The protagonist in this story is the marketer that figures out how to succeed past the ravages (that may or may not come to pass) from The question has to bounce back to marketers and their media agencies, who now have to face the question of how to reach customers in an ad-blocked world on desktop and mobile sites. Their big bets, but in the aftermath of this looming disaster marketers will have to:
- Focus on transparent paid formats. Ad blockers like AdBlock Plus will not be able to block every ad on every page. For those pages that sniff the ad blocker, publishers will explicitly offer viewers two choices: to add the site to their white list, or subscribe to avoid ads. Marketers will benefit from the active decision consumers make to accept ads, and have a more engaged audience to present native content based on a higher log-in rate.
- Relook at tried and true formats. There are many channels and ad types that are immune to ad blocking, because they are presented in a customized way. Granted, consumers have ad-avoidance strategies for all types of marketing approaches, (like throwing out mail, tuning out product placements or heading to the refrigerator when TV goes to commercial), but at least direct mail and PR operate outside the automated ad blocking spectrum and have a greater chance of reaching their destination.
- Create great “owned” media sites. In the “what’s old is new again column”, marketers who have a strong desire to build an editorial voice can turn their point of view into a media and commerce site to get their message out. This could be distributed – like Disney via Machinima - or on a controlled property like the venerable J&J Baby Center, mattress company Casper “Pillow Talk” blog about sleep, Zipcar’s Ziptopia travel site, or CMO.comwhich is sponsored and managed by Adobe but independently written.
- Reconsider the native value prop. I never was a fan of the merging of editorial and promotional content. But with the rise of ad blockers, I do still want ad-supported media to live on. Native content – clearly marked, well written, and unobtrusively placed, seems much more relevant when you take all the display ads out of the picture. And for a marketer to tell their story, in context and with great copy and storytelling, makes the native proposition more palatable vs. flashy ads that push content half-way down the page.
I spent the last two weeks in (somewhat) closed-door events tailored to marketers and innovators. The more private events were events hosted by Ascendant Network, who held their Summits for rising Retail and Digital leaders. The semi-private event was VentureBeat’s first GrowthBeat Summit, aimed specifically at the CMO crowd. At these events, execs discussed the challenges they face circa 2015, and the their approach to tackle them. While the past year or two was steeped crafting a digital strategy, the several types of disruptive convergence they face capture the latest theme best:
- The convergence of online and offline shopping. Back in 2012 I predicted our collective arrival in an era of post-digital marketing, in which cross-channels strategies trump digital channel-specific efforts to match customers’ behaviors. Shopping is now facing a similar fundamental shift. Take the example of Google Express or Amazon Same-Day Delivery. Should they be counted as online sales because that is where the transaction is initiated? Or are they actually offline sales, because the goods are bought and delivered from physical stores?
- Consumer media behavior cuts across screens, not within them. On a similar note, what is TV today? SlingTV delivers the TV stream and related ads to either a big TV screen or an iPad in a controlled experience, but it is not officially a linear TV stream. Does that count as digital or linear advertising? Does mobile video support a digital ad unit, or should it counted as video? Add in the display or pre-roll ad on a mobile device, and the discussion quickly shifts to a debate on the definition of TV vs. video. And for the record, I think its time to ignore Mary Meeker’s “time spent” valuation of media (see slide 16 of her presentation), and focus on where the cost of advertising and the resulting engagement and action, not time. Otherwise the 20 hours that consumers spend on Facebook would indicate that the company should be able to swallow TV budgets whole, but that is not the case.
- The issues of data privacy and security. One big debate that blew up twice over dinner conversations at the aforementioned events was the issue of security vs. privacy. While they may be separate issues – security is technical and describes the protection of private data, while privacy leans towards the rules that govern the active use of data – consumers don’t know or care about the difference. In a recent Pew Internet study, they found that 93% of consumers state that being in control of who can get information about them is important, and 90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important. Yet it was the security breaches where credit card terminals were hacked at Target that brought an end to the tenure of a number of execs at the retailer.
- The perception challenges of targeting and personalization. The “creepy” factor of retargeting and highly personalized advertising is going through a similar convergence. Defining an experience that is intentionally valuable to unique consumers is the role of new personalization tools from start-ups and the tech establishment alike. But the issue of privacy goes on high alert when the targeting strategy that is appealing and action-inducing has to simultaneously not be overt or overstep privacy bounds.
Building a Convergence Strategy I can’t say that these issues were resolved over dinner or these conferences. And oft-mentioned issues like staffing and measurement are foundation elements that are the cost of entry for making more complex strategies successful. Here are some of the actions that presenters offered as solutions to this converged new world:
- Rebuild the business starting with the consumer. Two well-known multichannel retailers showed this small audience their plans for turning the entire company -- including store operations, supply chain, and marketing -- on its side, shifting from silos of marketing and merchandising to strategies defined by customer sets, then executed by each channel with appropriate marching orders. Regardless of product set, starting with the customer and their sensitivities, needs, and receptiveness to messages is a great way to cut down on the clutter and risk of a misstep.
- If it's a big idea, it requires guts and a plan. Convergence is going to happen, because consumers do not divide their decisions by technical or operational limits. Taking a risky bet, whether that is to go 100% programmatic with media buying, removing check out counters from a store or covering the walls with RFID-laced paint to track consumers in and around the dressing room, even using augmented reality to engage the audience, helped these companies leapfrog competitors with a blend of traditional and digital-only thinking. To make these bets requires confidence, a model for how to monetize the investment in data, and a plan for how to handle unintended consequences. For example, when it comes to data protection, PwC insists that CMOs get more involved in the discussion of how to balance the benefits with the risk factors.
- Staff convergence with change agents. Toeing the party line makes change slow. Brands and stores that need to take a strong stand to rejuvenate their brand need to be bold to get marketing activations to cross the threshold of online and offline actions. One brand I met rethought the role of content for their company, using the journalistic metaphor of a newsroom to accelerate the timeliness of their messages – shifting the pace to minutes, not hours or days. This effort, led by marketing and media executives and teams of young ideators, allows the brand to be on top of any event related to their brand on local or global scale.
Is convergence an issue for your company? Where are you seeing worlds collide? Comment here or add to the conversation on Twitter @minicooper