When All Media Are Just Media, What Happens to Advertising?

Fast-forward: not only did I finally get cable, I worked in cable. I held senior marketing positions at a handful of networks before leaving television — both the profession and the connection — behind for the brave new world of digital.

Or so I thought. Suddenly, there’s ever less discernable difference between television and online programming. The options are as dizzying as the satellite multiverse: Netflix, Hulu, Netflix, Hulu, Roku, Amazon, Chromecast, and Apple TV. Last week, NBC streamed the Super Bowl (free) for the first time to all comers.

CBS launched All Access, a standalone streaming service delivers hit shows and the back catalogue for $5.99 a month, and HBO is poised to go well beyond its cable-bundled HBO GO streaming service by delivering a standalone service this April.

“It is time to remove all barriers to those who want HBO,” said Chairman and CEO Richard Plepler in a statement, “All in, there are 80 million homes that do not have HBO and we will use all means at our disposal to go after them.”

Television isn’t going away any time soon, but its delivery method is changing at warp speed. According to one study cord-cutting exploded from 25,000 unsubscribers in a 3-month period in 2013 to 150,000 in that same period last year. U.S. broadband-only homes are currently at roughly 10 million.

Sony, DISH, and other providers are racing to bring broadband-based television platforms to market. Their goal is not only to attract cord-cutters, but the legions of households that will never have had cable or satellite to begin with.

Bottom line: the screens that television are delivered to in the very near-term future will be no different from the ones used now for the web. Screens are screens, and programming is programming. It was mildly amusing to hear reports last week of filmmakers at Sundance holding out for “real” studio deals rather than sign with Netflix or Amazon.

Because really, what’s the diff?

Television won’t go away, nor will feature films. But when we experience them on digital screens, small or large — the same ones connected to our computers, gaming systems, smartphones, tablets, and even the Internet of Things, things will change — rapidly.

All advertising will be digital, therefore addressable. Brand experience will fragment across a multiplicity of devices, necessitating tight content strategies and unity of voice and tone, look and feel, in order not to deliver fragmented, discordant messaging. Media choices will become harder because there will be ever more channels and form factors. Personas will multiply — this week, Lexus is launching more than 1,000 videos on Facebook, each tuned to a different target.

Very soon, almost before you know it, advertising to television audiences will differ only very slightly from advertising on the web. Audiences won’t recognize the difference between the channels, nor will they care.

This post originally published on iMedia.

My Path From Film Critic to Digital Media Analyst – An Interview

Pivot_RebecaLieb-01Todd Wheatland just published a very in-depth audio interview with me that he conducted for the Content Marketing Institute late last year.

It’s not like me to post an interview with myself on my blog, but this one’s unusual in that I open up quite a bit personally, and discuss my path from film critic to digital media analyst.

You can give it a listen here (since I can’t figure out how to embed it).

Seven Takeaways From This Year’s #BrandBowl

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.35.15 AMAnother year, another line up of very, vey expensive ad spots on very, very expensive TV inventory.
As staggering as the numbers are: $4.5M for a 30-second media buy (most spots are 60 seconds), creative, production and A-list celebrities (did Carnival have to pay JFK’s estate or is that speech in the public domain one wonders?), there are layers upon additional layers of digital marketing investment associated with Super Bowl advertising. Web sites, app development, war rooms, social media investments, “making of” and other additional video assets.

The mind boggles.

Herewith, some takeaways from this year’s #BrandBowl.

RTM Goes Dark: The Super Bowl and real-time marketing have been synonymous since the game two  years ago, when the lights went out and Oreo’s infamous tweet went viral. This year afforded brands no such opportunity, but consumer real-time reactions were overwhelming dark and directed at Nationwide. According to Amobee, there were close to a quarter of a million social mentions – the overwhelming majority negative – about the spot featuring a dead little boy reflecting on all that he would never grow up to do. So negative was the sentiment that the company issued a statement the following morning defending the spot, saying it wanted to “start a conversation” about safety.

The Art of the Tease: $4.5M is a lot of money to pay to air an ad that, effectively, has a broadcast life equivalent of a fruit fly. One obvious strategy that has become de rigeur in recent years is to accord the spot perpetual life – and views – on YouTube. Budweiser went one better this year by sharing its hyper-adorable “Lost Dog” spot before the big game, scoring close to 30M views on Facebook and YouTube before Sunday.

Far from losing by giving it away, the earned media buzz was palpable. You could almost hear America collectively shhh-ing one another Sunday night, “Quiet, you guys – you have to see this one!” #Win. Thanks, social media.

What calls-to-action? Superficially, it looked like the #HashtagBowl, but Salesforce.com’s Jeff Rohrs published some excellent comparative statistics on the decreasing calls-to-action in Super Bowl spots. Fifteen years ago we were shaking out heads when Super Bowl advertisers didn’t bother to insert an URL. This year, as Jeff points out, when there was a call-to-action such as a hashtag in a spot, it tended to appear on the screen for a mere second. That advertisers can be so nonchalant and fiscally irresponsible when it comes to engagement, amplification, and moving consumers down the funnel into other brand touches boggles the mind.

The Short Purse-strings Approach Rather than advertise, many brands chose to be there to maintain relevance and relationships with their audience during the big game. M&Ms knows it can’t top two years ago for a while, at least, but still engages via Twitter. AT&T responded to users mentioning rivals (and advertisers) Verizon and T-Mobile during the game.  The most notable brand exploiting the Super Bowl with zero media buy may have been PETA, with an animal rights Twitter comment on every spot and game moment. The organization compiled these into a blog post Monday morning.

Here’s some intel I’m still waiting for from this year’s game:

Cord-cutter stats: NBC allowed PC and tablet users to stream the game this year, but that meant not seeing the ads, or at least seeing them on a separate page just after their aired on broadcast. The Super Bowl is a pretty social event, but it would be illuminating to see how many viewers stream, and how that stream swells, in coming years. Streaming will change the game. It’s hard to multitask on a tablet, cumbersome to watch and tweet and Facebook even on a computer (my personal viewing experience last Sunday – some of us are deeply grateful for the football-free experience). It should be noted that NBC did not allow phones to stream the game.

Squarespace’s Dreaming with Jeff campaign: The year’s most baffling spot, and one of the few that sent viewers to a web site (rather than encouraged social media resonance). Wonder how many people visited, and bought the album?

What you could get elsewhere for $4.5M? The WSJ has a sobering take.

This post also published on the Altimeter Group blog

Four Digital Media Trends to Follow This Year

Content strategy and content marketing are where a great deal of my time and attention are focused as an analyst. Last month I discussed the trends in that sector that my research indicates will expand in 2015.

But wait — there’s more. Not only around content marketing, but around technology, channels, media and advertising, that bear watching this year, either because they are at the beginning of the disruption curve or about to hit its peak. Here’s what I, as well as many of my colleagues, will be watching this year with interest and curiosity.

Internet of things (IoT)

There’s plenty to be fascinated by in this emerging sector: wearables, smart devices, new equations of interoperability and integration, and of course lots and lots of new types of data. I’m also having many fascinating conversations with my colleague Jessica Groopman about her ongoing (and soon to be published) research on the IoT related to use cases for connected devices, and to a lesser extent, what kinds of content surround and are generated by the IoT. This represents the tip of a very big iceberg that will garner much attention this year — and for the next decade, at least.

The ethics of big data

Again, credit due to a colleague here.  Drawn from her inspirational TED Talk, Susan Etlinger is researching an important and too often overlooked aspect of big data: its ethical implications. From data collection to communications (remember Target telling the father that his daughter was pregnant based on her buying pattern data?), Susan has pinpointed six broad categories, each with a host of specific areas, in which brands will be challenged with unprecedented ethical choices and policy issues. As more data stream in from areas such as the IoT, big questions will continue to swirl around big data.

Native advertising

In late 2013, I published the first research on the topic of native advertising. Native is still new and still disruptive, but this year we’ll see it normalize. Every major and reputable digital publisher and social media platform now offers native advertising products, and more formats are rapidly being developed. At the same time, policies, guidelines, ethics and technologies are not just springing up, but are also maturing. I predict that this year, native takes its place at the table as a critical and permanent component of digital marketing and advertising.

Channel convergence

A couple of years ago, together with then-colleague Jeremiah Owyang, I looked at how paid, owned and earned media are overlapping and combining to create new forms of media that, to consumers, are just…media. Distinctions between advertising, content, and social are blurring, if not dissolving. The same is beginning to happen with media channels. Is it radio? TV? Digital? Print? Is it projected or is it streaming, and do consumers care? (My hypothesis is that they don’t.) When all media can be consumed on all devices (large or small screens, phones, billboards, watches), what are the implications for media? Entertainment? Advertising and marketing? Mobile is TV is digital is audio is news is visual — portable, mutable, large and very, very small.

Those are the four trends I’ve got an eye on this year. What are yours? Let me know in the comments.

This post originally published on iMedia 

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.

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

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