About Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb, digital advertising/media analyst at Altimeter Group, is globally recognized as an expert on digital marketing, advertising, publishing and media. An author, and sought-after speaker, she's the former vice president of Econsultancy's US operations. She was VP and editor-in-chief of The ClickZ Network for over seven years. For a portion of that time, Rebecca also ran Search Engine Watch. She consults on content strategy for a variety of brands and professional trade organizations. Earlier, Rebecca held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services consultancies, including Siegel+Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Until recently, Rebecca taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Her book, The Truth About Search Engine Optimization, published by FT Press, instantly became a best-seller on Amazon.com. It remains a top-10 title in several Internet marketing categories. Content Marketing publishes in Fall, 2011.

Native Advertising Disclosure and Transparency: Who’s Responsible?

display-ads-ss-1920-800x450We can all pretty much universally agree that with native advertising comes the obligation of disclosure and transparency. That means clearly and unambiguously indicating that yes, this is an ad, and it was paid for by Acme Corporation.

Yet how to provide disclosure remains a murky area, hardly surprising given how quickly an extraordinarily wide variety of native advertising products have emerged on all sorts of platforms ranging from traditional publishers, to in-app and in-game ads, recommendation engines, display units and a host of other formats.

As the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) puts it in a newly released white paper on the topic, “the key principle is one of transparency.” Readers and consumers have the right to know (in WOMMA’s language) “when the content was written by or placed by a marketer, or someone acting on behalf of or at the direction of a marketer, rather than the publisher of the editorial content in which the sponsored content appears.”

And, as WOMMA correctly points out, the FTC has been issuing guidelines on disclosure dating back as far as the 1960s (advertorial) and as recently as search engine advertising (in this millennium).

WOMMA is calling for clear and conspicuous native advertising disclosure, as has the IAB. Yet WOMMA’s paper, while correctly flagging that native is clearly an evolving and therefore difficult to define sector, also asks an interesting question: who is disclosure incumbent on? The publisher? The brand? The marketer, agency or the “widget” (which can be interpreted as ad unit or vendor, but appears to refer to recommendation engines, e.g. Outbrain and Taboola)?

WOMMA has a distinguished history of working for ethics and disclosure in innovative forms of digital marketing, but in this case I’m not sure I agree with the question. In my view, the “who” is “everyone above,” but there’s one item on the list that bears the overwhelming burden of responsibility for ensuring disclosure guidelines are clear, transparent, unambiguous, and enforced, and that party are the publishers upon whose properties native ads appear.

Ethical publishers have always had advertising policies, standards and practices (as have broadcasters). This legacy of traditional publishing needn’t change significantly in digital channels. Additionally, these same publishers have long upheld church-and-state guidelines that govern how, when and sometimes, even if the publishing side of the house can interact with editorial (and vice versa).

The problem in native advertising now is that publishers, desperate for native advertising dollars, are too often adopting an “ads first, policies later” approach to the medium. In the process, the baby is at risk of being tossed out with the proverbial bathwater.

While WOMMA is to be commended for calling for more transparency and disclosure in native, it must be noted that the organization counts zero publishers as members. Overwhelmingly, it’s brands that comprise WOMMA’s membership. They’re to be applauded for the effort, but the rubber hits the road elsewhere.

The IAB does count lots of publishers among their members and that body has issued (only) two native advertising disclosure guidelines.

  • Use language that conveys that the advertising has been paid for, thus making it an advertising unit, even if that unit does not contain traditional promotional advertising messages. 

  • Be large and visible enough for a consumer to notice it in the context of a given page and/or relative to the device that the ad is being viewed on.

Research my team and I published on native advertising goes further. We also recommend that disclosure be provided in a link that provides deeper information, as well as access to a channel for consumer inquiry. We also maintain that publishers establish, before (not after) native advertising products are developed and sold, clear church-and-state policies, something many, even the venerable New York Times have – quite shockingly – not yet addressed.

Setting transparency and disclosure guidelines for native advertising isn’t something anyone’s waiting for the FTC to do. The FTC last year called hearings on the topic, routine operating procedure. Just as they’ve done with email, search and word-of-mouth marketing, these hearing are a signal to the industry: “Regulate yourselves, or we’ll do it for you.” With the exception of email (which was already headed to Congress for legislation, the CAN-SPAM Act), this has been a clarion call for trade organizations to rally and set standards.

The IAB’s standards are fine, but inadequate. They simply don’t go far enough, unsurprising for a body devoted principally to advertising, not publishing. WOMMA wants to encourage marketers to lobby for publishers to uphold better standards. Noble, but unrealistic. The OPA has (characteristically) maintained a low profile. The American Press Institute held an excellent native advertising forum (at which I participated), but has issued no publisher guidelines.

As someone who has been deeply and actively involved in researching the topic of native advertising for a year and a half, this lack of response and initiative on the part of publishers is alarming, to say the least. Native advertising has many detractors and finger-pointers. Prominent and influential commentators such as Bob Garfield call it indefensible, duplicitous and unethical.

It needn’t be, and it shouldn’t be. But if publishers don’t get their houses in order, native advertising, which could be a salvation, will instead be their downfall. Publishers, after all, are the ones who create the product, and oftentimes, the content that comprises native advertising.

This column originally published on MarketingLand

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Facebook: The Paid/Organic Distinction

When Facebook announced last week that it will soon become more difficult for brands’ page posts to appear in the news feeds of their friends, fans, and followers, the outcry was predictable. This was the latest move, many brands asserted, in Facebook “forcing” them to buy ads to reach their rightful audiences.

After all, the thinking goes, news feed post appear only the in the feeds of people who hand-raised to follow the brands. So any incidence of Facebook filtering, editing, or otherwise controlling which posts are seen, and by extension, which are not, is pay-to-play statement.

On the one hand, that’s true, in part. Facebook is a business. Its monetization model is ad sales, and that’s the way it works. Of course it wants brands to buy ads.

But what Facebook also wants and needs even more than it needs ad revenues is users. Facebook researched user complaints that their news feeds were ringing too commercial and promotional. Upon probing deeper, the company learned users weren’t complaining about actual ads so much as they were complaining about the brands that they follow on the platform. Posts were too click-here-buy-now, and loaded with promotional calls to action.

So Facebook will now institute a system that requires actual humans to check the quality of brands’ news feed posts for overtly commercial, promotional content. If the human factor deems posts to be to promotional, they’ll plummet like stones in organic results.

Quality score. Organic feeds versus paid placement. If this vocabulary sounds familiar, it should. By checking feeds for quality and determining whether or not they appear prominently (or at all) in users’ feeds, Facebook has just taken a page from Google’s playbook. Google, as you’ll recall, applies this selfsame human evaluation technique not to organic search, but to ads. Actual human beings evaluate search ads based on a number of criteria such as copy, landing page, call-to-action, etc. The ads that Google deems higher in quality are positioned more prominently (i.e., higher) on the search results page.

And of course, Google famously has algorithms to determine the relevance and ranking of organic search results. In no small part, these criteria center around content that is well-crafted and well-written, relevant, useful, shared (i.e., linked to), and credible.

There’s something fascinating about Facebook doing for organic what Google is doing for ads, isn’t there?

There’s also a lesson being reinforced here, namely, there’s a difference between organic content and advertising copy. Between owned and earned media (content and social) and paid media (advertising).

Media are converging, but the medium also determines the message. It’s fallacious to blindly accuse Facebook of trying only to sell more ads because they are trying to up the quality of the news feed. The same accusation was (and continues to be) lobbed at Google when brands’ organic search results suffer: “They’re just trying to make us buy ads.”

Both Facebook and Google aren’t going to turn away your money. But the fundamental reason brands are prepared to pay money to advertise on both these very different platforms is because of the size and breath of the audiences they can deliver to advertisers; audiences they wouldn’t be able to build or maintain without a steady stream of content those audiences are eager to return to consume again and again.

The takeaway from Facebook’s adoption of a quality score (let’s just use Google’s term for it) is that brands must learn to distinguish between advertising content and content marketing content. The latter is never overtly commercial in nature. It’s pull marketing — the marketing of attraction, rather than push, the marketing of interruption. Content requires very different skill sets and strategies than does advertising.

Facebook’s decision in this arena doesn’t just do its users a service. Ultimately, it’s doing a favor for brands, too, by helping them to make this important distinction.

This post originally published on iMedia

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The Components of a Content Engine

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What goes into creating and fostering an organizational culture of content? As an analyst that’s the topic I’m currently researching.

Broadly speaking, organizations that have fostered a culture of content have spread the importance of content beyond the marketing organization. Content education, evangelization, creation and distribution flows upwards and downwards, from the C-suite to the shop floor. Marketing gets content flowing out into the organization, but also fosters a circulatory system in which various divisions across the enterprise: sales, recruiting, customer care, product groups, etc., are creating, inspiring and leveraging content to better fulfill their roles.

We visualize this as an engine, one comprised of gears and cogs, contained in a strategic infrastructure. There are four primary components to the content engine.

Content Engine

  1. People Beyond the content or the marketing staff, people are critical to this machine’s success. Leadership understands the value of content and fosters it. People across the organization are tapped for their ability to create content (this needn’t be complicated – it can be as simple as the occasional tweet, or capturing images with a cameraphone). They understand and can identify stories that can be turned into content by other creators in the company. People can also be outsiders: agency and vendor partners, for example.
  2. Process Process involves many tactical elements – it’s what gets content done. Tools, technology, workflow and governance documents are just part of what creates process. So are editorial calendars, editing guidelines, metrics and analytics, as well as well-defined roles and responsibilities. Process also involves training, education and evangelization.
  3. Inspiration Fostering a culture of content requires inspiration, as without inspiration there can be no creativity. A core requirement for inspiration is vision, which ladders out to goals and benchmarks. Inspiration is also an understanding of both the elements for content success, as well as risks and failures. But (as one of our interview subjects so eloquently puts it), “The biggest risk is not taking a risk at all.”
  4. Content The content engine begets content, but it also ingests and distributes it, creating a circulatory system of content that can be re-used, re-purposed and re-aligned across paid, owned and earned media channels and platforms. This engine helps content to beget content: creating more of what resonates, repurposing strong content into different channels and form factors, and distributing the right content to the right people across the organization.

No two content engines look exactly the same, but we believe this to be the overall schematic model.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know, and help contribute to this research.

This post originally published on iMedia

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The Role Content Plays In B2B Social Selling

Social selling has become a hot topic.

Organizations in every industry are working feverishly to leverage social platforms and social networks for a number of reasons such as to:

  • Promote their products and services
  • Find leads
  • Connect and bond with prospects
  • Provide information
  • Generally push sales through the purchase funnel

All noble goals. Yet, the majority of organizations hoping to leverage social sales leave content strategy out of the equation. A fatal mistake.

Without “content,” all you have left in social sales is “social,” i.e., a platform, a forum or a social network. Devoid of content, all these channels amount to empty containers.

Researching social selling and working with a large global brand on social selling has helped me develop a short list of seven basic social selling content factors that can benefit any B2B (and not a few B2C) organizations.

1. Align Content To The Sales Funnel

Content can address every stage in the sales cycle, from awareness and consideration through purchase (and even post-purchase).

Assign relevant content types to each stage of the cycle and leverage content to help bridge buyer pain points and address their decision-making criteria. This might encompass comparison guides, tools and calculators or case studies and case examples.

2. Empower Staff To Curate & Aggregate

Content curation and aggregation are processes that aid in leveraging extant content in a meaningful way that’s both on-brand and relevant to campaign goals.

This can be particularly valuable if sales staff are empowered to share content with their constituencies of prospects and leads, provided they add value to the content they are sharing, and have access both to appropriate content and the tools with which to share it.

3. Listen & Respond

Social listening is a terrific way to know what kind of content to create. (And, content creation is the biggest B2B content marketing obstacle, according to Content Marketing Institute research).

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Content can be crafted to address common questions, obstacles to conversion, issues and resolutions. It also provides opportunities to jump into conversations about the brand, product or product category.

4. Apply Metrics

And not just sales metrics! Content effectiveness can be measured through each stage of the customer journey and sales funnel.

Examples include decreased cost per lead, shortened sales cycles, increased traffic, engagement (but only if you define “engagement”), or the frequency of inbound inquiries or referrals (just to name a few).

5. Build Social Sales Content Into The Overall Content Strategy

Not all, but most organizations are committing “content marketing” without first having committed to content strategy. Though the Content Marketing Institute’s latest survey found that 83% of B2B marketers claim to have a content marketing strategy, only 35% have actually documented that strategy.

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A documented strategy is what must underpin all content activity. It’s comprised of a thorough content audit, playbooks, assigned roles and responsibilities, an organizational chart, as well as tool and agency/vendor partner selection. Content strategy answers the essential questions: “what are we doing, why and how?” Don’t ignore it!

6. Train

Most employees who “do” content do something else with the bulk of their time. It may be sales, PR, social media, general marketing or something else.

Take the time to train these content producers on their content marketing roles and responsibilities. They are, after all, publicly representing the company, products and brand.

Great content doesn’t just happen, especially not on a consistent basis. Ensure they understand the value and potential of content marketing in general, and social selling in particular.

7. Hire Accordingly

Content is slowly but surely becoming part of company culture as organizations mature and embrace content marketing. More advanced companies are already showing a readiness and willingness to embrace content skills (creation, distribution, listening and responsiveness) as part of all kinds of job descriptions across departments and functions.

As social selling grows in importance, sales staff with content chops will have the edge over their less content-centric colleagues.

B2B organizations that try out these basic social selling tips should discover many benefits once the effects of implementation begin to show.

This post originally published on MarketingLand

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The Four Pillars of Recombinant Content

rainbow-test-tubesNow more than ever, content must be recombinant. This means a critical component of content strategy is the ability to rapidly dissemble, reassemble, reuse, repurpose, and remodel discrete elements of digital content.

Consumers live in a multiscreen world that’s becoming more complex and multifaceted daily. Laptops. PCs. Tablets. Smart phones. Phablets. Smart watches. Google Goggles and other forms of wearables. Digital signage and digital television.

Like hummingbirds, they flit from message to message, channel to channel, screen to screen. Sixty-seven percent touch two devices daily, while 30 percent touch four devices. Regardless of how many screens, touch points and channels, 60 percent of consumers expect a consistent experience when interacting with brands.

Got that? The bottom line isn’t channel, device, or media strategy. It’s experience.

This grazing, snacking, multimedia, and multiscreen behavior is in hypergrowth mode — digital screens are now in taxis, stadiums, and retail outlets. As digital becomes less coupled with the concept of “online,” consistency of experience, of voice, tone, look, and feel are essential.

Otherwise, how are customers to recognize a brand as they (and it) travel across all these devices and media?

Advances in advertising push the envelope further still. Facebook’s revamp of Atlas, announced last week, means advertisers can achieve hitherto impossible targeting and frequency capping, regardless of the device or channels in which an ad appears. Whether an in-app in-game message on a phone, or a display ad on the web, the messages — and the creative — can be kept in sync, appropriate for the device, channel, media, as well as the consumer receiving the message.

The technological ability to connect messaging across devices and channels is a clarion call for recombinant content. Marketers require both the tools and the strategies to create content that works in multiple media and channels, that can be displayed across the ecosystem.

There are four fundamental pillars of recombinant content in this brave and fast moving new world:

Content strategy

Content strategies must be devised with a view toward the reuse, repurposing and redeployment of content. Every message must be viewed as a bundle of component parts that can be broken down and rebuilt in myriad ways. Think Lego set. Can you change the headline? The copy? Turn it into a video, a podcast, an infographic, a display ad, or a PowerPoint? You’re on the right track.

Content agility

This is part of strategy, but agility needs its own call-out. Content must be modular enough to be quickly broken down and reassembled to respond to a real-time (or near real-time) marketplace. Creation, too, is often rapid and reactive. This requires training and empowerment of stakeholders, as well as cross-functional and departmental coordination.

Content tools

All these content assets and content demands cannot be wrangled by hand. Recombinant content requires publishing tools, a digital asset management system, and a myriad of other content marketing software. Content marketing, you’ll remember, is nothing new. It’s technology that makes it accessible.

Connected technology

Content tools must work in a connected fashion to create and deploy assets across channels and media. This doesn’t just apply to owned and earned marketing channels, but also to paid media (advertising). We’re not quite there yet, but when the content technology stack starts talking to the ad stack (this will happen in about two years), it will be the real dawn of the era of recombinant content.

This post originally published on iMedia

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Orchestrating Content Marketing On A Global Scale

Content Marketing: How do we do it globally?

Enterprises are only just beginning to integrate content marketing into their mix — and they are quickly realizing that content must permeate the organization. This applies globally just as much as it does regionally.

The need for content is universal, yet each region, country and locality in which a brand operates has diverse and specific needs unique to language and culture. Fundamentally, these needs can be divided into three buckets: Teams, Tools and Channels.

Creating a global content strategy is exponentially challenging, but absolutely essential, as so many of my clients are realizing.

Without orchestration, time and money are wasted, employees become frustrated, efforts are duplicative, and customer experience suffers, as do consistencies in brand and messaging.

Teams

Creating content marketing teams and governance is essential. Last week, I discussed the topic with a team of real experts: Michael Brenner, formerly of SAP, now with Newscred; 3Ms content lead Carlos Abler and Kyle Lacey, ExactTarget’s Director, Global Content Marketing & Research.

We unanimously agreed that content marketing requires centralized leadership, but also local authorities. Michael aptly likened this to the editorial model of a news organization’s Brazil desk, London desk, etc.

Tools

The content marketing software landscape is rapidly evolving and shifting. Selecting tools comes with additional concerns when they must serve global teams.

Do they support multiple languages? Diverse alphabets? Can they handle country specific barriers, such as firewalls or local privacy regulations? Will licenses differ on a country-by-country basis?

Research on the content tool landscape I recently conducted found 40 percent of marketers cite a lack of inter-departmental coordination as leading to investment in disparate, incompatible toolsets. And that’s just on a domestic level.

Channels

What content should be created? Where should it be published, and in what form, and for which audience? Publishing on Facebook isn’t the same as engaging with audiences on VK.com, Line,  Mixi or Weibo.

Then there are regional holidays, local sporting events and festivals, superstitions, news events – ignore these differences and you’re an outsider, not a credible source of information or a potential partner.

Local input, local knowledge and an injection of local culture are all essential. It’s not nearly enough to translate content into a local language, or to push content created at headquarters out into regional divisions.

In fact, often the content surfaced in far-flung markets can bubble up into fodder for HQ, or for other markets.

Content is a team sport, and running content on a global scale is a bit like running the Olympic games.

Each regional must have teams, those teams must have captains, and they must be equipped with training, an understanding of the universal rules of the game and be equipped with the necessary equipment to play the game.

Yet at the same time, each team flies its own flag, and continues to wear its own colors.

This post originally published on MarketingLand

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Beware Parochial Content Marketing

Content marketing is hot — finally! It’s the term du jour in digital marketing and advertising, getting its figurative place at the table and its own literal track at every marketing conference of note. Content is even getting its own dedicated conferences now — several of them.

With great power comes great responsibility, as well as a not-insignificant number of “me too” arrivals at the party.

Enter the age of parochial content marketing.

What’s parochial content marketing? It’s a trend we’ve seen in the past when new marketing channels suddenly erupt into prominence, most recently social media.

Five years ago, every email marketing solution was suddenly a social media company. Every search engine marketing vendor was suddenly a social media solution. If digital video was the offering, it was a digital video for social media providers. I think you get the drift.

Now all those email companies, search vendors, video providers, and so on down the line are — you guessed it — content marketing solutions. Even one of the largest social media platforms has begun a major marketing initiative for its content marketing product.

There’s a good side to this. It means content marketing is maturing, mainstreaming, and that its importance is finally recognized. But there’s a not-so-great darker side too.

The dark side is a parochial approach to content marketing, the view that “content marketing” means screwing search, or email, or video, or blogging into a container labeled “content marketing” and ticking that box off the list of “must-do marketing tactics.”

Yes, vendors struggle to remain relevant — often a tough job in a landscape in which tactics such as email and search and site design couldn’t be more relevant, but have also been relegated to wallpaper status by virtue of the fact that they have aged out at a ripe old decade of service mark. A couple of years ago, I interviewed more than 50 Fortune 500 marketers on the content marketing channels they were using. One cited search. Zero cited email. (Ha! As if!)

Email is a container for content. Search has nothing to find if there isn’t any content. Ads are filled with content — it’s just called “creative” in that channel. There simply is no marketing without content.

Smart marketers know that, and they know that the best content begins with a strategy. Not with a channel.

This post originally published on iMedia Connection.

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