Context: The Next Digital Marketing Frontier

Context screenshotFor most of digital marketing’s relatively short history, personalization has been the ne plus ultra of sophisticated marketing. Addressing the customer by name, knowing their age, gender, date of birth, purchase history – all these data points help marketers deliver messages that are more meaningful and more relevant – and that, by extension, result in higher conversations and deeper loyalty.

Personalization is now being supplanted by technologies that can drive even deeper marketing and experiential relevance. Context’s untapped opportunity is to get an extremely granular understanding of customers, then to anticipate their needs, wants, affinities and expectations, and develop unique insights to power better marketing across all devices, channels, localities, and brand experiences.

Context, in other words, takes not only the ‘who’ into account, but also the when, where, why, and how. Simply put, it’s deeper targeting and more on-point messaging.

Under the auspices of our client SDL, I recently authored a white paper, Why Context Is Essential to Digital Marketing (PDF downloadthat looks at marketing beyond the right message, to the right person at the right time. Contextual marketing goes further by considering the platform consumers are using; their physical location (perhaps, using iBeacon technology, down to the store shelf level); even real-time information such as atmospheric conditions (is it raining?) or geo-spatial movement (whether they are in a vehicle stopped at a red light, for instance).

What type of coupon should a customer receive? When, and for what type of offer? MGM Resorts makes these determinations contextually; sending offers to guests’ smartphones based on where they are on the resort property (which restaurant, shop, show, or casino) as well as in the context of their individual loyalty member status and stated interests.

Context in marketing can only be fueled by powerful, integrated technologies. Its components range from semantic technologies to machine learning and predictive analytics, customer data, product/service data, flexible, dynamic content, and journey-mapping.

Without a doubt, context is complex. Moreover it is growing in importance, not only because it’s increasingly technologically feasible and effective, but also because newer technologies (the Internet of Things and Beacons, for example) will enable additional layers of context to meet consumers’ growing expectations for contextually relevant experiences and messaging from the brands they interact with in an increasingly digital world.

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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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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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How Much Does Content Cost?

How much does content marketing cost?

Tough question, right? So let’s break the question down a bit to try to simplify it.

How much does content creation cost?

shutterstock_206842363-1920-content-marketing-man-points

There are still no easy answers, are there? Yet it’s a question marketers persist in asking, in much the same way people were asking back in the day, “How much does a website cost?” (Once, when my interrogator wouldn’t take “It depends” for an answer, in exasperation I countered with, “Well, how much does it cost to buy a house?”)

But even a website (or a house, for that matter) is much more easily quantifiable than content marketing when it comes to breaking down budgets and expenditures. It’s difficult to impossible to conduct credible research in this area due to a list of variables and mitigating factors longer than your arm.

Attempts At Quantifying Costs Aren’t All That Helpful

There’s research out there. The Content Marketing Institute, in its latest study (PDF) of content marketing budgets for small businesses, states, “On average, 30% of B2B budgets are allocated to content marketing.”

Helpful, kind of, but there’s no breakdown of that self-reported spend. What one business may be spending on a clear content marketing line item (outsourced writing or design talent, for example), another might attribute to event marketing, which has plenty of content marketing potential and traction, but is highly debatable as a line item in and of itself.

The Custom Content Council publishes research around budgets as well. Its research looks at how much its members are spending on “branded” content. This primarily translates into advertorial, which is assuming other meanings as well, e.g. native advertising, a form of converged media (content + advertising). Such nuances of meaning are barely beginning to be accepted as industry standard, so it’s unlikely they’re crystal clear to every individual survey respondent.

This isn’t to cast aspersions on anyone’s research, but to frame the discussion. Let’s consider some of the mitigating factors in the “how much does content cost” question.

Why It’s More Difficult Than One Might Think

• Salaries: The overwhelming majority of organizations don’t yet have dedicated content roles or staff, but instead source content from a wide variety of internal sources: marketing, product leads, customer service, senior leadership, etc. When considering content costs, are content contributors’ salaries broken out in terms of time spent, or the percentage of their time dedicated to content?

• Freelance Creation Fees:  Unlike staff only partially dedicated to content, freelance fees are a much clearer line item. But if images are commissioned for advertising, then used in content (or vice versa), where’s the budget attribution? What about those press releases that were outsourced? Is it communications or PR, or is it content ? Even when outsourced, the lines blur around content budgets – or lack of same.

• Agency BillingsIf you accept the definition of content marketing that it’s owned media and therefore precludes a media buy, you can deduct media spend from content marketing budgets straightway (Or can you? We’ll get into that below.). That leaves agency creative, which is subject to the same blurred lines as are freelance creation fees.

• Software/Hardware Are marketers including their investments in the tools of the trade in their content marketing budget breakdowns? If so, which ones? The ones around creation? Measurement? Syndication and distribution? Recent research I just published breaks down eight use case scenarios for content tools, yet I don’t know that any of these are included (or not) in content marketing budgets or costs (amortized or not).

• Paid and Earned Media If you build it, they may come. Then again, they may not. With so many marketers jumping on the content marketing bandwagon, more and more of them are finding it necessary to invest in paid (advertising ) and earned (social and PR) media to draw attention to their content efforts, at least at the beginning to foster awareness. Where do these costs fall in the budget: content, PR, social, advertising, or all or none of the above?

• Converged Media While we’re on the topic of paid, owned and earned media, it’s clear the three are intermingling to form new types of marketing and advertising. We define native advertising, for example, as content + advertising (or owned + paid media). You can immediately see where the lines blur when content is created modularly for different types of media channels, or used in converged channels that create multiple attributions.

• Events (And Other “Generated” Sources Of Content): A corporate event, a conference, a trade show, a customer showcase – these are all marketing and sales line items, but they generate content, too. It’s not unusual for a single speech, for example to be blogged, tweeted, Slideshared, YouTubed – you name it. All are forms of content marketing, yet the core intent of the content wasn’t necessarily content marketing. Another content budget grey area – and yet one more reason why the cost of content will remain highly nebulous for a good, long time to come.

 

This post originally published on MarketingLand

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No, Social Advertising Isn’t “Over”

Murky research collided with lazy journalism last week to create a torrent of #socialmedia + #advertising = #fail link bait. Headlines in publications generally deemed respectable, and journalistically responsible, heralded the end of social media marketing.

“Social Media Fail to Live Up to Early Marketing Hype” trumpeted The Wall Street Journal. “This Is the New Stat Facebook Should Be Worrying About,” tsk-tsked Time. “Tweets, Likes, and Shares Don’t Make Us Buy Stuff, Americans Say,” echoed Bloomberg Businessweek. “Advertising On Facebook And Twitter Barely Even Works” came from Business Insider, and most pithily, Valleywag added, “Social Media Ads Don’t Do Shit.”

The root of this social-media-don’t-work brouhaha was a Gallup report entitled “The State of the American Consumer.” It professed that 62 percent of U.S. consumers do not believe the major social networking platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+, affect their purchase decisions. Additionally, Gallup claims 48 percent of Millennial shoppers are uninfluenced by social media when it comes to buying stuff.

So much for the $5.1 billion advertisers spent on social advertising last year (not to mention billions more on social media marketing programs).

The lone voice of sanity in the media was a well-reported piece in Adweek, pointing out that not only is Gallup using data from late 2012 to make this dubious point, but worse, the data are self reported. No brand or agency would ever in a million years rely on self-reported data to assess or measure ad effectiveness. Self-reported data are near-worthless.

Google the term, in fact, and you’ll come up with results such as: “Self-reported studies have validity problems” and “notoriously unreliable.”

Moreover, as Adweek pointed out in a long voice-of-reason article on the topic (disclosure: I’m quoted), Gallup’s data were collected close to two years ago — a near eternity in internet time, and to top that, some respondents were polled by snail mail, a strange channel indeed to select for research on digital influence.

Looking beyond the dubious self-reported data, the digital equivalent of saying, “Sure, I saw a commercial on TV but didn’t buy the product so advertising doesn’t work,” some of the questions Gallup posed are strong indicators that social channels are indeed powerful platforms for persuasion and influence. The questions below indicate, aside from the obvious social connections, consumers spend time on social sites to share knowledge, research companies (and by extension, products), find and/or create reviews and product info, etc.

Even Gallup admits as much:

“However, companies can use social media to engage and boost their customer base. Consumers appreciate the highly personal and conversational nature of social media sites, and they prefer interacting in an open dialogue as opposed to receiving a hard sell. And companies’ use of social media to provide timely responses to questions and complaints accelerates brand loyalty and, eventually, sales. When it comes to social media efforts, businesses stand to benefit when they utilize a more service-focused approach rather than one dedicated to simply pushing their products.”

Yet this statement from Gallup seems not to be tied to any specific data from the survey.

Murky research conclusions and methodologies aside, Gallup’s deeply flawed research, and the editorial properties that piled on with link bait headlines, really did do a disservice.

We know that social platforms influence consumer buying decisions. The problem is, headlines in The Wall Street Journal, even erroneous ones, influence CEO decisions, too.

This post originally published on iMedia.

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Say Hello to the Content Marketing Stack

You know about ad stacks, right?

Get ready to say hello to the next big thing in content marketing technology: the content marketing stack.

Content stacks aren’t here yet, but they’re coming. In the next couple of years, I expect we’ll see offerings from the big enterprise players: Adobe, Oracle and Salesforce.com. (IBM has a lot of catching up to do if it’s to become a player in this space.)

There are many factors driving this latest phase in content marketing evolution, not the least of which is a tangled and complex content marketing vendor landscape. There are well in excess of 110 content marketing tools on the market today, with more appearing all the time. Most are point solutions.

Acquisitions Everywhere

M&A activity is rapid and accelerating. Content marketing vendors (as well as adjacent companies, such as email marketing, social media marketing software and marketing automation software providers) are being acquired by the three large enterprise players that all hope to integrate them with their larger marketing clouds. Already, they’re beginning to use terms such as “content alignment” and “converged media” in sales collateral and value propositions.

Converged media, the blending of paid, owned and earned media, is also contributing to this trend. With content at the core of advertising, social media and PR, as well as a brand’s owned media channels, content must be unified with the ad stack, as well as with social media software.

Content stacks are necessary to consolidate the eight content marketing use cases identified in research we’ve just published on the content software landscape. No use case is an island. As organizations mature and become more strategic in their content marketing initiatives, it becomes imperative to seamlessly link execution to analytics, or optimization, or targeting, for example.

Media Convergence Drives Stack Evolution

Because content feeds paid and earned media, so, too, do use cases bleed into converged media. This is why content stacks will link with ad stacks and form the core of what we’re today beginning to call marketing clouds.

Content Tool Stack Hierarchy

Who will win the race to build the first content stack? Currently, it’s Adobe’s battle to lose. With their Creative Cloud, they’re far ahead of the game, and they have announced long-anticipated plans to integrate the Creative Cloud with the Marketing Cloud.

The Integration Challenge

But integration is easier (and faster) said than done. It must be noted that the Creative Cloud today is comprised of tools for publishers, decidedly not for marketers. Competitors Oracle and Salesforce.com are aggressively acquiring marketing-oriented software. Meanwhile, smaller, more vertical players such as Percolate, Content.ly, Kontera and ThisMoment (to name but a very few) are attracting partnerships and investment.

It’s going to be a very interesting couple of years to sit back and watch how the content marketing software vendors stack up.

This post originally published on MarketingLand

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