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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Micro Content, Maxi Effect — How Shifts Toward Visual Content Will Impact Marketers

The written word seems to be on the decline, at least in the online space. Articles and white papers have morphed into blog posts and status updates. Hashtags, acronyms and emoticons stand in for sentences. OTP, BRB, LMK, OK?  :-)

How low can you go? In a year or two, 140 characters — a miserly allotment now — will seem a luxury, a vestige of an era marked by logorrheic verbosity.

If you doubted it before, believe it now: a picture really is worth the proverbial thousand words. Maybe more.

Opinion? Sure. But the facts bear this out. Facebook keeps redesigning to feature bigger, bolder images. Oh yeah, and the company bought Instagram for a cool million. Videos now auto-play on the platform. Yahoo, meanwhile, snatched up Tumblr. Twitter continues to make images and videos a more prominent part of the user experience. And don’t forget the increasing popularity of Pinterest, YouTube, and SnapChat — you can easily see where all this is going.

Research, too, bears out the hypothesis that visual (and audio-visual) content is subsuming the written word. As an analyst, when I ask marketers about the types of content and media channels they’re leaning toward in the future, all forms of written content are on the decline, from press releases to blog posts.  Investment is around multimedia and images.

Content types

The chart above highlights the reason behind this shift in the we communicate online: mobile. Simply put, no one’s about to read War and Peace on a smartphone. Mobile means a lot of things, but mostly it means that screens are getting smaller. The smaller the screen, the pithier information must be in order to be comfortably communicated and absorbed by its target audience.

Ease of use is key here as well. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter don’t create content, rather they enable its dissemination — and if no one updates their status, then these platforms don’t stand a chance. Clearly, it’s a lot easier to upload that shot of your Hawaiian vacation (or delicious lunch, or mischievous puppy) than to narrate in detail why such things are interesting — especially while using your thumbs and combating auto-correct.

Content Strategy Implications

That content is becoming shorter, less verbose and more visual obviously has tremendous ramifications for content strategy. Here are three major points to bear in mind.

Please read the rest of this post on MarketingLand, where it originally published. 

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Instagram Carefully, Respectfully, Selectively, Bows Native Advertising Offering

IG Levis

Instagram Native Ad Prototype from Levis

As the company recently strongly hinted it would, Instagram today announced it will debut advertising on the platform early next month – native advertising, that is.  Aligned with the definition of the term in the research I recently published, the ad creative will be photos from the advertisers’ own Instagram accounts that appear in the feed, differentiated by a “Sponsored” notice in the upper right corner which users can tap on for deeper disclosure.

Just prior to today’s announcement, I discussed the launch with Instagram’s Emily White, director of business operations and Jeff Kanter, product manager. Their approach to monetizing the platform is so careful you could almost characterize it as curatorial. Ten brands were hand picked as launch advertisers based on the “great things” they’re already doing on Instagram: Adidas, Ben & Jerry’s, Burberry, GE, Lexus, Macy’s, Michael Kors, PayPal, and Starwood Hotels.

White says Instagrams’ users come to “be inspired,” and these brands maintain a level of quality that’s inspirational. Which is why the initial metrics for the campaigns will be heavily brand centric: recall, brand lift and awareness. “There’s a lot of value in impressions and views that may not be captured in likes or comments. Instagram will guarantee a certain number of impressions initially, which will vary by campaign. This is a premium brand advertising product. Success is brand lift over a longer period of time.”

The ads will initially appear in the feeds of U.S. users who are 18 and older with very minimal targeting by segment. No social data will be used in targeting, instead broader segments (e.g. male vs. female), “Somewhat like a magazine experience,” says White.

“We’re really focused on maintaining a high bar and will publish quality guidelines,” added Kanter, who explained that users can opt out of ads, Facebook style, on a case by case basis (but not opt out of the entire Instagram advertising experience).

While not having seen this in the wild (the ads don’t launch for another week or so), I’m impressed. We’ve mapped eight critical element for success, and Instagram is apparently conforming to each of them right out of the gate, from disclosure and transparency (that “Sponsored” link) to education (published quality guidelines for advertisers).

Next? Let’s hope we hear from the advertisers by the end of the year with a progress report, as well as lessons learned. This is new terrain not just for Instagram, but for the industry as a whole.

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New Research: “Defining and Mapping the Native Advertising Landscape”

Not since the legislative debate over spam back in the early part of the millennium has a digital marketing term been so riddled by obfuscation and misunderstanding as native advertising.

A quick search of the term on Google returns an impressive 219 million results, yet to date there’s been no real definition of what marketers, publishers, agencies, social media platforms, or any other players in the digital ecosystem mean when they bandy it about.

With so much discussion centered around native advertising, we felt it critical to define the term, assess the nascent landscape, and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of this new-ish form of advertising. That is what we have done in research published today.

Based on over two dozen interviews with  publishers, social networks, brands, agencies, vendors and industry experts, Altimeter Group has arrived at the following definition of native advertising:

Native advertising is a form of converged media that combines paid and owned media into a form of commercial messaging that is fully integrated into, and often unique to, a specific delivery platform.

In other words, we believe native advertising lives at the intersection of paid and owned media, and is therefore a form of converged media. ‘Owned’ media is content that the brand or advertiser controls. Paid media is advertising: space or time that entails a media buy.

Does native advertising overlap with established forms of sponsored/branded/custom content? Advertorial? Indeed it does. Often differentiation can entail splitting hairs. Yet the evolution of so many unique platforms and technologies has made forms of advertising truly “native.” A sponsored tweet can be native only to Twitter, for example, just as a promoted Facebook post is native only to that one channel.

Native Advertising: The Pros and Cons

Native Advertising: Pros

In addition to defining the term, our research looks at how native advertising can benefit the ecosystem players: technology vendors, agencies, social platforms, publishers, and of course, brands and advertisers. Overall, we see opportunities for all players, these being the chief advantages for each player:

For publishers: new forms of premium inventory.

For social platforms: new advertising products.

For brands: new opportunities for attention, engagement, and message syndication.

For agencies: benefits from creative and media opportunities.

For technology: new solutions facilitate and scale both the creative and delivery aspects of native advertising.

The disadvantages? Scale is an issue, and clearly there are (haven’t were been through this before) issues around disclosure and transparency.

As with all Altimeter Group reports, “Defining and Mapping the Native Advertising Landscape” is Open Research. Please feel free to read it, download it and share it.

Tell us what you think.

If you like it, we’ll create more.

Cross-posted from the Altimeter Group blog.

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Six Emerging Content Marketing Trends

Three related, clustered events constitute a trend. So, what have we here?

  • February 25: Mindshare appoints a content chief
  • February 27: Edelman names (a new, digital-focused) chief content officer
  • February 27: Facebook announces a content strategy fellowship
  • March 25: Sequoia Capital appoints a head of content
  • March 26: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt names its first chief content officer
  • March 27: Weber Shandwick launches a content marketing unit with 100 staffers
  • April 1: Havas signs a global chief content officer

Chief content officers have been de rigeur in media companies for years. Editorial web sites, magazines, newspapers, and broadcasters have them. Even Netflix boasts a chief content officer.

What’s staggering now is the alacrity with which agencies are now piling into the white-hot content marketing space. Not all of this is new, of course. Content divisions and/or practices have existed for some time at major players such as Leo Burnett, Ogilvy, and OMD. Digital shops, too, have content heads, as do (of course) the small cohort of content-only agencies.

The appointments above reveal these interesting takeaways:

Agencies that don’t have content practices are scrambling to get into the game

From the appointment of an executive with “content” in his/her title to blowing out an entire new division, both ad and PR agencies realize content can no longer be ignored. Clients expect content-related services and advisory. While mileage on the revenue models varies radically, there’s also heated competition on the PR and ad sides for a piece of the content pie. “We’re in a dogfight with the ad agencies,” is how one PR executive put it to me in a private meeting.

Content’s meaning is increasingly (if not almost exclusively) digital

It’s not as if Edelman didn’t have a content officer before appointing Steve Rubel to the role. His predecessor, Richard Sambrook, a former BBC editor, focused on editorial development. Rubel’s purview will be much broader, focusing on relationships both with digital media properties and technology vendors.

PR shops are in the media buying business

Historically, PR firms never, ever bought media. They earned it. In announcing their new content initiatives, both Weber Shandwick and Edelman have stressed that media buying and other forms of brokering will be very much part of what they do going forward. Media convergence and native advertising models make this evolution imperative.

Content is essential for startups

When one of the leading venture capital firms appoints a content head to help its portfolio companies develop and improve their blogs, social media, and video, it underscores just how essential a well-executed content strategy is to success — or failure — in business.

Hire-a-journalist: Will it suffice?

For the past several years, “hire a reporter” has been the mantra of companies eager to get a leg up in blogging or on social media channels. Now that content strategies are more technologically complex and digitally convoluted (converged media, native advertising, video, mobile) than “just writing,” it will be interesting to see what skillsets the next crop of content hires possess.

“Global” appended to content titles

This trend will become increasingly important with holding companies and larger agencies. Brands, too, are beginning to make content hires and shuffle the org chart to accommodate content strategy and execution. One of the biggest content challenges is the one facing large, multinational enterprises that must create content for a wide range of countries, languages, territories, audiences, and products. If any single cohort relies on outside content support, it’s multinationals. Holding companies possess on-the-ground global support and know that coordinated efforts can be a boon to this important new line of business.

This post originally published on iMedia Connection

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Facebook Search Graph To Impact Social Search

facebook-globe-world-200Search is the de facto way in which consumers navigate content platforms. Not just the Web via traditional search engines, but all types of platforms, from television to radio to music libraries. The fact that search has always been lacking from Facebook has long been a source of criticism and frustration.

Facebook Search Graph

There’s a lot of content on Facebook. Until Graph Search was announced by the company last Tuesday, there has been very little way to find or use it. It’s been impossible to search actual content, aside from given names or perhaps classmates.

Graph Search not only enhances Facebook’s functionality, it also makes the entire platform more useful. It has the potential to significantly increase user engagement as well.

While there are not yet any formal products or features for brands or marketers accompanying the launch; rest assured, there will be in the not too distant future. A much more robust paid search advertising product(s) is almost a given. So is functionality linked to Facebook’s API. The company will be in possession of even deeper and richer user data than it already possesses as users’ search history forms part of their profiles, indicating interests, affinities, purchase paths and purchase intent.

While commercial products linked to Search Graph are in the (not-too-distant) future, brands and marketers should start considering their Facebook presence in the context of search today. There’s no time like the present to prepare for the potential impact of Facebook search on the content of branded Facebook pages.

Read the rest of this post on MarketingLand, where it originally published.

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Yes, There’s Fraud Online. Deal With It.

Breaking: everything you see and read on the internet isn’t true.

Hope you were sitting down for that surprising revelation.  I know, I know, it’s not that big a surprise, but that’s why it’s constantly surprising that people are…surprised by it.

A reporter from one of this country’s leading metropolitan dailies contacted me recently about the late-summer revelation from Facebook that some 83 million (or 8.7 percent) of its user accounts are fake. Facebook is, after all, a platform based on the value proposition that its users are behind real identities.

Doesn’t this blow Facebook’s value proposition out of the water, the reporter wanted to know. Isn’t this an incredibly high number of fake accounts? How could they allow this to happen?

Relax. The problem is hardly endemic to Facebook. Fake accounts, whether malicious in nature or not (Facebook estimates only c. 1.5 percent of active accounts are, in fact, malicious – the others are mostly duplicates, users under the age of 13, your dog, etc.) come with the territory – online or off.

Facebook is working to identify and disable fake accounts just as the search engines are working to combat click fraud – for years now. As ISPs work to block oceans of spam.

Oh, and did I mention fake online reviews?  Yelp has resorted to a sting operation aimed at shaming businesses that are caught trying to game their ratings system. They’re posting “consumer alerts” on those businesses’ pages, and exposing the emails they send to hire favorable reviewers. (TripAdvisor is also participating in its own version of the walk of shame.) So widespread is the fake-review practice that Gartner estimates by 2014, 15 percent of all online reviews will be fake.

Companies running online sweepstakes often encounter fraud, fakes and undesirable metrics in short order. A few years back, I looked under the hood of several soft drink sweepstakes aimed at males aged 12 – 24 (Coke, Sprite and Mountain Dew, to name a few of the brands). I asked Hitwise (now Experian Hitwise ) to crunch the data. They clocked the overwhelming majority of entrants as low-income females…over 45. They weren’t clicking on ads, but rather on a link on contest-aggregator site Sweepstakes Advantage.

Blame the Internet – Or Human Nature?

Somehow, when fraudulent, misleading or even unintentional things happen online, “the internet” is to blame. Or Facebook. Or Google. Or the dating site that was a 14 year old girl’s first step into a bad situation – never mind that a 14 year old had no business being on the site in the first place.

No one seems to be stepping back and saying things like, “Contests are overwhelmingly popular with low-income, middle aged women. Is it wise to run a sweepstakes to reach young men? If we do elect to go that route, how can we ensure we reach the target audience?”

Just as retailers account for “shrinkage” in financial forecasts, digital marketers must account for wasted clicks and impressions. Comes with the territory. There’s always going to be clickfraud. Chihuahuas and Yorkies will continue to update their Facebook newsfeeds (or, even further violating Facebook’s TOS, allow others to do this for them.) People who aren’t 100 percent neutral (like maybe the owner’s mother-in-law) will review restaurants and hair salons – favorably or unfavorably, depending.

Offline Corollaries are Much Worse

While the media are quick to blame “the internet” for a multitude of crimes related to fraud, companies like Facebook, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, Bing, Yahoo, and all the major ISPs get little public credit or acknowledgement for their efforts to combat said fraud. Much of the knowledge we have of online misconduct was revealed by these companies themselves. It’s transparency and disclosure.

Not so their offline bretheren. A quick search of “inflated circulation” results in a veritable rogues’ gallery of news stories indicting companies like Time Inc., News Corp, Newsday and other major publishers of being caught in the act – not openly revealing they are combatting a problem.

Forbes recently indicted USA Today for padding hotel bills to the tune of $82 million annually for those unwanted, untouched copies of the newspaper in front of your door in the morning (nearly one million copies per day that you probably don’t read, and probably are billed for).

Online fraud? Yeah. It’s a problem. It will always be a problem. Just like in the real world.

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