Welcome to the Ad Duopoly: Google and Facebook

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s pretty obvious that the advertising marketplace in America has changed radically in the past few years.

In short order, we’ve seen the largest concentration of digital advertising converge on just two players:  Google and Facebook.  In fact, according to digital advertising research firm eMarketer, those two firms alone are attracting two-thirds of all digital ad dollars in the United States.

But this development isn’t all that surprising.  The vast bulk of Google’s ad market share results from its search engine marketing platform (paid search). As for Facebook, it dominates digital display advertising not just in America, but in many other countries all over the world as well.

And both companies are the “big kahuna” players in the mobile advertising sector, too.

What’s interesting is that, despite the shortcomings that many people recognize in both types of digital advertising – banner blindness and often ill-targeted paid search results — healthy growth in both forms of advertising continues apace.

Google’s ad revenue growth has average around 20% for more than 30 straight quarters. Its growth in the third quarter of 2017 is right on pace at 22%.

For Facebook, the growth dynamics are particularly lucrative; its year-over-year ad revenue growth is pushing 50%.

Mobile ad revenues are growing even faster; they accounted for “only” $9 billion in revenues for Facebook in just the third quarter.  And just as paid search advertising revenues represent more than 90% of Google’s total company revenues, mobile advertising accounts for nearly 90% of Facebook’s overall revenues.

With so much advertising activity, one might wonder from where it’s emanating.

One answer to that question is that the “universe” of advertisers is exponentially higher than we’ve ever encountered before. With low barriers to entry and “anyone can do it” ad development tools, “Jane and John Doe” are far more likely to be advertisers in today’s world of digital marketing than was ever contemplated just a few decades ago.

To wit: Facebook estimates that its social platform has more than 6 million active advertisers participating on it at any given moment in time.  That’s the equivalent of 2% of the entire population of America.

It’s kinda true:  “We’re all advertisers now.”

Does “generational marketing” really matter in the B-to-B world?

For marketers working in certain industries, an interesting question is to what degree generational “dynamics” enter into the B-to-B buying decision-making process.

Traditionally, B-to-B market segmentation has been done along the lines of the size of the target company, its industry, where the company’s headquarters and offices are located, plus the job function or title of the most important audience targets within these other selection criteria.

By contrast, something like generational segmenting was deemed a far less significant factor in the B-to-B world.

But according to marketing and copywriting guru Bob Bly, things have changed with the growing importance of the millennial generation in B-to-B companies.

These are the people working in industrial/commercial enterprises who were born between 1980 and 2000, which places them roughly between the ages of 20 and 40 right now.

There are a lot of them. In fact, Google reports that there are more millennial-generation B-to-B buyers than any other single age group; they make up more than 45% of the overall employee base at these companies.

Even more significantly, one third of millennials working inside B-to-B firms represent the sole decision-makers for their company’s B-to-B purchases, while nearly three-fourths are involved in purchase decision-making or influencing to some degree.

But even with these shifts in employee makeup, is it really true that millennials in the B-to-B world go about evaluating and purchasing goods and services all that differently from their older counterparts?

Well, consider these common characteristics of millennials which set them apart:

  • Millennials consider relationships to be more important than the organization itself.
  • Millennials want to have a say in how work gets done.
  • Millennials value open, authentic and real-time information.

This last point in particular goes a long way towards explaining the rise in content marketing and why those types of promotional initiatives are often more effective than traditional advertising.

On the other hand … don’t let millennials’ stated preferences for text messaging over e-mail communications lead you down the wrong path. E-mail marketing continues to deliver one of the highest ROIs of any MarComm tactic – and it’s often the highest by a long stretch.

Underscoring this point, last year the Data & Marketing Association [aka Direct Marketing Association] published the results of a comparative analysis showing that e-mail marketing ROI outstripped social media and search engine marketing (SEM) ROI by a factor of 4-to-1.

So … it’s smart to be continually cognizant of changing trends and preferences. But never forget the famous French saying: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Fewer brands are engaging in programmatic online advertising in 2017.

How come we are not surprised?

The persistent “drip-drip-drip” of brand safety concerns with programmatic advertising – and the heightened perception that online advertising has been showing up in the most unseemly of places — has finally caught up with the once-steady growth of economically priced programmatic advertising versus higher-priced digital formats such as native advertising and video advertising.

In fact, ad tracking firm MediaRadar is now reporting that the number of major brands running programmatic ads through the first nine months of 2017 has actually dropped compared to the same period a year ago.

The decline isn’t huge – 2% to be precise. But growing reports that leading brands’ ads have been mistakenly appearing next to ISIS or neo-Nazi content on YouTube and in other places on the web has shaken advertisers’ faith in programmatic platforms to be able to prevent such embarrassing actions from occurring.

For Procter & Gamble, for instance, it has meant that the number of product brands the company has shifted away from programmatic advertising and over to higher-priced formats jumped from 49 to 62 brands over the course of 2017.

For Unilever, the shift has been even greater – going from 25 product brands at the beginning of the year to 53 by the end of July.

The “flight to safety” by these and other brand leaders is easy to understand. Because they can be controlled, direct ad sales are viewed as far more brand-safe compared programmatic and other automated ad buy programs.

In the past, the substantial price differential between the two options was enough to convince many brands that the rewards of “going programmatic” outweighed the inherent risks.  No longer.

What this also means is that advertisers are looking at even more diverse media formats in an effort to find alternatives to programmatic advertising that can accomplish their marketing objectives without the attendant risks (and headaches).

We’ll see how that goes.

Advertisers “kinda-sorta” go along with FTC guidelines for labeling of native advertising placements.

In an effort to ensure that readers understand when published news stories represent “earned” rather than “unearned” media, in late 2015 the Federal Trade Commission established some pretty clear guidelines for news stories that are published for pay.

The rationale behind the guidelines is that the FTC wants advertisers to be prevented from presenting paid content in ways that mask the fact that it’s a form of advertising.  Essentially, it wants to avoid leaving the erroneous impression that the advertiser did not create — or influence the creation — of the content, or that it paid a fee in order for the news to be published.

But what native advertising content developer Polar has found is that the explicit disclosures the FTC wishes advertisers to include as part of their stories tend to have a negative impact on readership.

… Which is precisely what native advertising is trying to avoid, of course.

After all, the whole point of these articles is to appear that they’re published due to their inherent newsworthiness, rather than because advertisers wish to push a sales message disguised as “narrative” so strongly, they’re willing to fork over big bucks for the privilege.

In its evaluation, Polar analyzed ~140 native placements across 65 publishers, and found that only ~55% of them used the term “sponsored” as a way to label the content.

As for the term “advertisement” or “advertorial,” the incidence of usage was far lower; less than 5% of the native placements identified their content as such.

Correlated to these findings was that more euphemistic terms like “partner content” tend to perform better in terms of reader engagement than do more explicit disclosures of an advertiser relationship.

“Promoted” was found to be the best performing term, garnering a 0.19% clickthrough rate as compared to “sponsored,” with just a 0.16% clickthrough rate.

[Interestingly, on desktop devices “sponsored” marginal outperformed “promoted,” whereas on mobile devices it was just the opposite.]

More broadly, the Polar investigation also found that nearly one-third of the pay-to-play native advertising placements it evaluated failed to comply at all with the FTC guidelines (as in zip/zero/nada) – which brings up a whole other set of issues at a time of heightened awareness of the “fake news” phenomenon online.

The disappearing attention spans of consumers.

Today I was talking with one of my company’s longtime clients about how much of a challenge it is to attract the attention of people in target marketing campaigns.

Her view is that it’s become progressively more difficult over the past dozen years or so.

Empirical research bears this out, too. Using data from a variety of sources including Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Facebook and Google, Statistic Brain Research Institute‘s Attention Span Statistics show that the average attention span for an “event” on one of these platforms was 8.25 seconds in 2015.

Compare that to 15 years earlier, when the average attention span for similar events was 12.0 seconds.

That’s a reduction in attention span time of nearly one-third.

Considering Internet browsing statistics more specifically, an analysis of ~60,000 web page views found these behaviors:

  • Percent of page views that lasted more than 10 minutes: ~4%
  • % of page views that lasted fewer than 4 seconds: ~17%
  • % of words read on web pages that contain ~100 words or less: ~49%
  • % of words read on an average web page (around ~600 words): ~28%

The same study discovered what surely must be an important reason why attention spans have been contracting. How’s this tidy statistic:  The average number of times per hour that an office worker checks his or her e-mail inbox is … 30 times.

Stats like the ones above help explain why my client – and so many others just like her – are finding it harder than ever to attract and engage their prospects.

Fortunately, factors like good content and good design can help surmount these difficulties. It’s just that marketers have to try harder than ever to achieve a level of engagement that used to come so easily.

More results from the Statistic Brain Research Institute study can be found here.

Facebook attempts to shake the “Fakebook” mantle.

There are a growing number of reasons why more marketers these days are referring to the largest social media platform as “Fakebook.”

Back last year, it came to light that Facebook’s video view volumes were being significantly overstated – and the outcry was big enough that the famously tightly controlled social platform finally agreed to submit its metrics reporting to outside oversight.

To be sure, that decision was “helped along” by certain big brands threatening to significantly cut back their Facebook advertising or cease it altogether.

Now comes another interesting wrinkle. According to Facebook’s statistics, the social network claims it can reach millions of Americans across several important age demographics, as follows:

  • 18-24 year-olds: ~41 million people
  • 25-34 year-olds: ~60 million people
  • 35-49 year-olds: ~61 million people

There’s one slight problem with these stats:  U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that the total number of people living in the United States falling in the 18-49 age grouping is 137 million.

That’s a substantially lower figure than the 162 million people counted by Facebook – 25 million (18%) smaller, to be precise.

What could be the reason(s) for the overcount? As reported by Business Insider journalist Alex Heath, a Facebook spokesperson has attributed the “over-counting” to foreign tourists engaging with Facebook’s platform while they’re in the United States.

That seems like a pretty lame explanation – particularly since U.S. tourism outside the country is a reciprocal activity that likely cancels out foreign tourism.

There’s also the fact that there are multiple Facebook accounts maintained by some people. But it stretches credulity to think that multiple accounts explain more than a small portion of the differential.

Facebook rightly points out that its audience reach stats are designed to estimate how many people in a given geographic area are eligible to see an ad that a business might choose to run, and that this projected reach has no bearing on the actual delivery and billing of ads in a campaign.

In other words, the advertising would be reaching “real” people in any case.

Still, such discrepancies aren’t good to have in an environment where many marketers already believe that social media advertising promises more than it actually delivers.  After all, “reality check” information like this is just a click away in cyberspace …

Free-speech “confusion-in-advertising” continues unabated.

Sparring over the guarantees and limits of free speech seems to be growing rather than abating.

How controversial? The advertising rejected by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as being too political for public display.

The most recent indication of just how much confusion there is on the topic of free speech comes in the form of a recently filed lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) – a public agency popularly known as the DC Metro.

The issue sparking the lawsuit related to a number of ads which the WMATA refused to display due to concerns over the advertising content being “too political for public display.”

Countering WMATA’s efforts to avoid “offending” its customers, the ACLU chose to sue on behalf of itself as well as three companies and organizations that includes:

  • Carafem – a healthcare network specializing in birth control and medication abortion
  • Milo Worldwide, LLC – the corporate entity behind the libertarian political advocate and “extreme commentator” Milo Yiannopolous
  • PETA Foundation (aka FSAP – Foundation to Support Animal Protection) – an animal rights/welfare organization

The lawsuit claims that WMATA refused to display advertising from these organizations for fear of offending some of the people who use its transportation services.

In announcing its intention to defend itself against the ACLU suit, a WMATA spokesperson stated:

“In 2015, WMATA’s board of directors changed its advertising forum to a nonpublic forum and adopted commercial advertising guidelines that prohibit issue-oriented ads, including political, religious and advocacy ads. WMATA intends to vigorously defend its commercial advertising guidelines, which are reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.”

On the point of whether the advertising in question is “issues-oriented,” there is sharp disagreement.

Gabe Walters, manager of legislative affairs for the PETA Foundation, emphasizes that “the government cannot pick and choose who gets to speak based on their viewpoint – no matter how controversial.”

A spokesperson for Milo Yiannopoulos echoed the PETA Foundation statement: “On this issue we are united:  It is not for the government to chase so-called ‘controversial’ content out of the public square.”

Considering the ads that were rejected, a case could be made that they’re hardly “controversial” on their face:

  • The Milo Worldwide ads featured a photo of Milo Yiannopoulos.
  • The Carafem ad copy stated simply “for abortion up to 10 weeks.”
  • The PETA ad showed a pig with the caption, “I’m ME, not MEAT. See the Individual. Go Vegan.”
  • The ACLU ad stated the First Amendment language verbatim.

The ACLU suit contends that none of the advertising in question negates any kind of fundamental right to free speech. Moreover, the abortion pill provided by Carafem is FDA-approved as well as accepted by the American Medical Association.

Even more problematic for the WMATA’s defense, at the same time the agency was rejecting the PETA ad, it approved one from Chipotle promoting a menu item made with pork.

The only difference between them according to the ACLU? The Chipotle ad sends the message that it’s good to eat pork, whereas the PETA ad says the opposite.

Looking at the contours of the lawsuit and the facts of the case, I think the WMATA defense is on pretty shaky ground, and for this reason, I’m pretty sure that the ACLU lawsuit is going to succeed.

Indeed, it’s somewhat distressing that such a suit had to be filed at all, because its point is the First Amendment and what it’s all about: protecting everyone’s speech.

That people are having to re-litigate the issue of free speech in 2017 speaks volumes about the level of confusion that has been introduced into the public sphere in decent years.

It’s time to clear the air.