Are there fewer (but more relevant) ads in our future?

A new theory in the MarComm field is the notion that the future of advertising is one where people are confronted by less advertising – but the ads that are presented to them will be more relevant to their interests.

I’m pretty sure about the second part of that … but not so sure about the first bit.

Certainly, “fewer, more relevant ads” don’t appear to be what’s happening at the moment.

Think about the plethora of digital screens these days – not just smartphones and tablets and such, but also the ones on gasoline station pumps, in taxis, on airline seatbacks, in kiosks and on the sides of buildings – and it’s pretty clear that many more ads are being displayed to more people in more places than ever before.

Of course, many of these ads are selling products or services that are of little or no interest to most of us. Some people respond by blocking ads on their own personal devices, doing what they can to mitigate the onslaught.

As well, people seem to like the idea of commercial-free TV to the degree that quite a few are willing to pay for video-streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video that provide content to them without all of those pesky ads embedded within.

It’s also true that advertising and media platforms are becoming ever “smarter” and more data-driven, giving them the ability to replace mass-reach ads with ones that are customized to some degree so that different people see different ads. It isn’t a stretch from there to the notion that because these ads will yield better results for media platforms, total ad loads can be reduced while still increasing consumer engagement.

This idea is leading some people to predict that in the coming few years, consumers will experience significant change in how many ads they see and how relevant they’re likely to be.

In response to that, I have two counter-thoughts. The first is that with all of the buying choices that people have today — more than ever before — brand loyalty is being eroded.  And with less brand loyalty, advertisers need to stress “recency” – being the last message a consumer sees before purchasing a particular product or service.  This leads to the compulsion for advertisers to “be everywhere all the time” so that theirs is the last message the consumer sees before taking action.  It’s hardly in line with “fewer, more relevant” ads, unfortunately.

The other issue pertains to the basic economics of advertising. Fewer ads will happen only if their increased relevance is accompanied by a commensurate increase in their price.  I don’t see that happening anytime soon either, unfortunately.

Besides, heightened ad “relevance” isn’t really enough to overcome the issue of audience aversion and avoidance. On that score, fundamental attitudes have never changed:  The consumer’s relationship with advertising has always resided somewhere between “passive ennui” and “managed hostility.”

Today, of course, consumers can do more to “manage their hostility” to advertising than ever before, creating even more of a challenge on the ad revenue front.

What do you think? Are we indeed moving to an era of “fewer, more relevant” ads … or will we continue to deal with merely a more contemporary version of “all advertising, all the time?”  Please share your thoughts with other readers below.

Blogging and social media in B-to-B marketing: Continually falling short.

As a MarComm specialist and head of a marketing firm for several decades, I’ve worked with my share of marketing tactics — the tried-and-true ones as well as the “next new things.”

Along those lines, working with numerous B-to-B companies in their attempts to turn social media and blogging into significant sources of new business, the track records have been more often ones of failure than of success.

I think the issue boils down to something pretty fundamental: Unlike consumer products, where customers can fall deeply “in love” with particular brands, or at the very least develop feelings of brand affinity, in the world of business products and services, the brand dynamics are seldom “emotional.”

The reality is, business buyers are looking for products and services that will solve their problems and also provide all-important CYA peace of mind. Few B-to-B buyers are truly “excited” about these purchases, and they aren’t personally “invested” in the brands in question, either.

Instead, they’re looking for solutions that work. Ones that deliver on a checklist of criteria, and ones that don’t risk unpleasant developments down the road.

In such a world, the notion that buyers are waiting around to read the and interact with the next blog article or social media post that’s published by a supplier is fanciful at best.

News flash: The target audience doesn’t care about things like that.  Business buyers don’t have time in their busy schedules to read the posts.  The few times they will is when they need to satisfy a business need and are looking for information to help them make an informed buying decision.

But of course, it’s precisely then when content needs to be easily findable on the web. Brands that have published deeper and more relevant content than their competitors are going to be the ones that show up on search engine results pages (SERPs), because those are the websites the search engines reward with higher rankings based on the perceived “relevance” of the web pages in question.

This view of B-to-B audience dynamics isn’t just my personal one; survey research of B-to-B buyers reveals similar attitudes.  For instance, market research and communication firm KoMarketing publishes an annual B2B Web Usability Report, and the findings they uncover are consistent:

  • Most B-to-B buyers don’t think a blog adds much to a supplier’s credibility as a company.
  • As for social media activity, three-fourths of buyers find such platforms irrelevant to their interests and concerns.

So, what is it that buyers are seeking?

It’s more “actionable” data such as sales contact information (who to call), a list of customers a supplier serves (addressing the credibility factor), plus customer testimonials, case studies and similar reports that help buyers “see” themselves in the experiences of other customers.

That’s pretty much it.

Which brings us back to blog posts in the B-to-B realm. Informative articles that center on customer testimonials and before/after case studies provide the best of everything:  content that buyers will actually find useful, along with the “relevance” and “robust activity” that search bots are seeking in making their quasi-mysterious calculations on how high to rank a particular web page on SERP pages.

It dovetails with my typical advice to business clients:

  • Don’t publish blog posts because you expect people to read them like they would a newsfeed. Publish them for relevance and visibility when your prospect is actually seeking out information and insights — which could be months or even years after you publish the post.
  • Make sure each blog article addresses “problem –> solution” topics centered on the challenges your customers are most likely to face.
  • Twitter or Facebook? Unless your marketing have plenty of time on their hands and nothing better to do, don’t bother with these social platforms at all — because the payoff is so mediocre.

What about you? Are your B-to-B marketing experiences different?  If so, please share your perspectives in the comment section for the benefit of other readers.

Celebrity endorsements run out of steam.

“Paid product endorsements are meaningless. I want to learn about the product from experts who are advocating for it – not just some random person who happens to have a job that makes them well-known.” 

— Consumer panel participant, ExpertVoice, May 2018.

The next time you see a celebrity spokesperson speaking about a product or a service … don’t think much of it.

Chances are, the celebrity isn’t doing a whole lot to increase a company’s sales or enhance its brand image.

We have affirmation of this trend in a report issued in June 2018 by marketing firm ExpertVoice, which recently investigated a Census-weighted audience of ~500 U.S. consumers on the issue of who consumers trust for recommendations on what to buy.

The findings confirm that while celebrity endorsements do raise awareness, typically it fails to move the needle in terms of sales. In fact, just ~4% of the participants in the ExpertVoice research study reported that they trust celebrity endorsements.  (And even that percentage is juiced by professional athletes who are more influential than other celebrities.)

As for the reason for the lack of trust, more than half of the respondents noted that their greatest concern is the monetary compensation given to the people from the brands they’re endorsing. Consumers are wise to the practice – and they reject the notion that the endorser has anything other than self-dealing in mind.

By way of comparison, here are how celebrities stack up against others when it comes to influencing consumer purchases:

  • Trust recommendations from friends/family members: ~83% of respondents
  • … from a professional expert (e.g., instructor or coach): ~54%
  • … from a co-worker: ~52%
  • … from a retail salesperson: ~42%
  • … from a professional athlete: ~6%
  • … from any other kind of celebrity: ~2%

A big takeaway from the ExpertVoice research is that more people are influenced by individuals who are making recommendations based on actual experiences with the products in question. Moreover, if it’s people they know they know personally, they’re even likelier to be swayed by their opinions.

In a crowded marketplace full of many purchase choices, consumers are looking for trusted recommendations. That means something a lot more authentic than a celebrity endorser.  Considering the amount of money companies and brands have historically had to pony up for celebrity pitches, it seems an opportune time for marketers to be looking at alternative methods to influence their audiences.

Click here for more information regarding the ExpertVoice research findings.

GDPR: What’s the big whoop?

This past week, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) initiative kicked in. But what does it mean for businesses that operate in the EU region?

And what are the prospects for GDPR-like privacy coming to the USA anytime soon?

First off, let’s review what’s covered by the GDPR initiative. The GDPR includes the following rights for individuals:

  1. The right to be informed
  2. The right of access
  3. The right to rectification
  4. The right to be forgotten
  5. The right to restrict processing
  6. The right to data portability
  7. The right to object
  8. Rights in relation to automated decision making and profiling

The “right to be forgotten” means data subjects can request their information to be erased. The right to “data portability” is also a new factor.  Data subjects now have the right to have data transferred to a third-party service provider in machine-readable format.  However, this right arises only when personal data is provided and processed on the basis of consent, or when necessary to perform a contract.

Privacy impact assessments and “privacy by design” are now legally required in certain circumstances under GDPR, too. Businesses are obliged to carry out data protection impact assessments for new technologies.  “Privacy by design” involves accounting for privacy risk when designing a new product or service, rather than treating it as an afterthought.

Implications for Marketers

A recent study investigated how much customer data will still be usable after GDPR provisions are implemented. Research was done involving more than 30 companies that have already gone through the process of making their data completely GDPR-compliant.

The sobering finding:  Nearly 45% of EU audience data is being lost due to GDPR provisions.  One of the biggest changes is that cookie IDs disappear, which is the basis behind so much programmatic and other data-driven advertising both in Europe and in the United States.

Doug Stevenson, CEO of Vibrant Media, the contextual advertising agency that conducted the study, had this to say about the implications:

“Publishers will need to rapidly fill their inventory with ‘pro-privacy’ solutions that do not require consent, such as contextual advertising, native [advertising] opportunities and non-personalized ads.”

New platforms are emerging to help publishers manage customer consent for “privacy by design,” but the situation is sure to become more challenging in the ensuing months and years as compliance tracking the regulatory authorities ramps up.

It appears that some companies are being a little less proactive than is advisable. A recent study by compliance consulting firm CompliancePoint shows that a large contingent of companies, simply put, aren’t ready for GDPR.

As for why they aren’t, nearly half report that they’re taking a “wait and see” attitude to determine what sorts of enforcement actions ensue against scofflaws. Some marketers admit that their companies aren’t ready due to their own lack of understanding of GDPR issues, while quite a few others claim simply that they’re unconcerned.

I suspect we’re going to get a much better understanding of the implications of GDPR over the coming year or so. It’ll be good to check back on the status of implementation and enforcement measure by this time next year.

What’s happened to influencer marketing?

Over the past five years or so, one of the key tactics of branding has been convincing “market influencers” to promote products and services through endorsements rather than relying on traditional advertising. Not only does “influencer marketing” save on paid advertising costs, presumably the brand promotion appears more “genuine” to consumers of the information.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work according to the textbook theory.

But let’s dissect this a bit.

Some of the earliest forms of “influencer marketing” were the so-called “mommy bloggers” who were stars of the social media world not so long ago. The blogs run by these people were viewed as authentic portrayals of motherhood with all of its attendant joys and stresses.

Mommy blogs like Heather Armstrong’s Dooce.com, Jenny Lawson’s The Bloggess and Glennon Doyle’s Momastery once held sway with stratospheric monthly traffic exceeding the million page level.  But once that volume of engagement happened, it didn’t take long for many bloggers to begin to command big dollars in exchange for product mentions and brand endorsements.

Various meetings and workshops were organized featuring these bloggers and other stars of the social media world – moms, style gurus, interior decorators, fashionistas and the like – providing a forum for consumer product and service companies to interact with these social movers-and-shakers and pitch their products in hopes of positive mentions.

Eager to jump on the bandwagon of this phenomenon, several years ago I recall one of my corporate clients attending their first conference of bloggers — in this case ones who specialize in home décor and remodeling topics.

To put it mildly, our client team was shocked at the “bazaar-like” atmosphere they encountered, with bloggers thrusting tariff schedules in front of their faces listing prices for getting brand and product mentions based on varying levels of “attention” – photos, headline story treatment and the like.

Even more eyebrow-raising were the price tags attached to these purportedly “authentic” endorsements – often running into the thousands of dollars.

Quite the gravy train, it turns out.

It would be nice to report that when the bubble burst on these types of blogs, it was because their readers wised up to what was actually happening.   But the reality is a little less “momentous.”  Simply put, blogging on the whole has stagnated as audiences have moved to other platforms. The rise of “mobile-everything” means that consumers are spending less time and attention on reading long-form blog posts.  Instead, they’re interacting more with photos and related short, pithy descriptions.

Think Facebook and Instagram.

Along with that shift, product endorsements have reverted back to something more akin to what it was like before the time of social media – product promotion that feels like product promotion.

Look at blogging sites today, and often they feel more like classified advertising – more transactional and less discursive. Photos and video clips are the “main event,” and the writing appears to exist almost exclusively to “sell stuff.”

Many consumers see through it all … and it seems as though they’ve come to terms with the bloggers and their shtick.  With a wink and a nudge, most everyone now recognizes that bloggers are “on the take.”  It’s a job – just as surely as the rest of us have our 8-to-5 jobs.

Still, it’s an acceptable tradeoff because in the process, useful information is being communicated; it’s just more transactional in nature, like in the “old days.”

So where does this put influencer marketing today? It’s out there.  It still has resonance.  But people know the score, and few are being fooled any longer.

It’s certainly food for thought for marketers who are thinking that they can use influencer marketing to replace advertising.

They still can … sort of.

Clueless at the Capitol

Lawmakers’ cringeworthy questioning of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg calls into question the government’s ability to regulate social media.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill, April 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

With the testimony on Capitol Hill last week by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, there’s heightened concern about the negative side effects of social media platforms. But in listening to lawmakers questioning Zuckerberg, it became painfully obvious that our Federal legislators have next to no understanding of the role of advertising in social media – or even how social media works in its most basic form.

Younger staff members may have written the questions for their legislative bosses, but it was clear that the lawmakers were ill-equipped to handle Zuckerberg’s alternatively pat, platitudinous and evasive responses and to come back with meaningful follow-up questions.

Even the younger senators and congresspeople didn’t acquit themselves well.

It made me think of something else, too. The questioners – and nearly everyone else, it seems – are missing this fundamental point about social media:  Facebook and other social media platforms aren’t much different from old-fashioned print media, commercial radio and TV/cable in that that they all generate the vast bulk of their earnings from advertising.

It’s true that in addition to advertising revenues, print publications usually charge subscribers for paper copies of their publications. In the past, this was because 1) they could … but 2) also to help defray the cost of paper, ink, printing and physical distribution of their product to news outlets or directly to homes.

Commercial radio and TV haven’t had those costs, but neither did they have a practical way of charging their audiences for broadcasts – at least not until cable and satellite came along – and so they made their product available to their audiences at no charge.

The big difference between social media platforms and traditional media is that social platforms can do something that the marketers of old could only dream about: target their advertising based on personally identifiable demographics.

Think about it:  Not so many years ago, the only demographics available to marketers came from census publications, which by law cannot reveal any personally identifiable information.  Moreover, the U.S. census is taken only every ten years, so the data ages pretty quickly.

Beyond census information, advertisers using print media could rely on audit reports from ABC and BPA.  If it was a business-to-business publication, some demographic data was available based on subscriber-provided information (freely provided in exchange for receiving those magazines free of charge).  But in the case of consumer publications, the audit information wouldn’t give an advertiser anything beyond the number of copies printed and sold, and (sometimes) a geographic breakdown of where mail subscribers lived.

Advertisers using radio or TV media had to rely on researchers like Nielsen — but that research surveyed only a small sample of the audience.

What this meant was that the only way advertisers could “move the needle” in a market was to spend scads of cash on broadcasting their messages to the largest possible audience. As a connecting mechanism, this is hugely inefficient.

The value proposition that Zuckerberg’s Facebook and other social media platforms provide is the ability to connect advertisers with more people for less spend, due to these platforms’ abilities to use personally identifiable demographics for targeting the advertisements.

Want to find people who enjoy doing DIY projects but who live just in areas where your company has local distribution of your products? Through Facebook, you can narrow-cast your reach by targeting consumers involved with particular activities and interests in addition to geography, age, gender, or whatever other characteristics you might wish to use as filters.

That’s massively more efficient and effective than relying on something like median household income within a zip code or census tract. It also means that your message will be more targeted — and hence more relevant — to the people who see it.

All of this is immensely more efficient for advertisers, which is why social media advertising (in addition to search advertising on Google) has taken off while other forms of advertising have plateaued or declined.

But there’s a downside: Social media is being manipulated (“abused” might be the better term) by “black hats” – people who couldn’t do such things in the past using census information or Nielsen ratings or magazine audit statements.

Here’s another reality: Facebook and other social media platforms have been so fixated on their value proposition that they failed to conceive of — or plan for — the behavior inspired by the evil side of humanity or those who feel no guilt about taking advantage of security vulnerabilities for financial or political gain.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg interviewed on the Today Show, April 2018.

Now that that reality has begun to sink in, it’ll be interesting to see how Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook — not to mention other social media business leaders — respond to the threat.

They’ll need to do something — and it’ll have to be something more compelling than CEO Zuckerberg’s constant refrain at the Capitol Hill hearings (“I’ll have my team look into that.”) or COO Sandberg’s litany (“I’m glad you asked that question, because it’s an important one.”) on her parade of TV/cable interviews.  The share price of these companies’ stock will continue to pummeled until investors understand what changes are going to be made that will actually achieve concrete results.

Amazon’s Spark that Fizzled …

Amazon Spark: Less like a sizzle … more like a fizzle.

It’s now been more than nine months since Amazon launched its social media platform Spark … and so far, it’s hardly sizzled.

In fact, it’s made barely a ripple in the market.

There are plenty of people who contend that the last thing the world needs is yet another social network. But others would like to see new alternatives to the recently beleaguered Facebook platform.

As for its trajectory, it looks as if Spark is following the former rather than the latter path. The question is, “Why?”

Very likely, the answer lies in Spark’s questionable underlying raison d’etre.  Essentially, Spark is a social feed of photos and other images. That makes it similar to Instagram … sort of.

One difference between the two platforms is that Spark is open to exclusively to Amazon Prime members.  That limits the potential number of Spark users pretty severely, right from the get-go.  [It’s true that non-members can view Spark feeds — but they can’t post their own content. And what’s a social platform if you cannot interact with it?  It isn’t one.]

Another difference with Instagram may be even more of a fundamental problem. The rationale for Spark is to focus on products that Amazon sells.  Spark is directly “shoppable,” which differentiates it from Instagram and other social networks.  It also makes it less like a true social network and more like a garden-variety e-commerce site.

In other words, rather than being an interesting and engaging social platform, Spark is boring. Informative – but boring.

It isn’t that Amazon/Spark allows brands themselves to post content there; posting privileges are granted only to people it dubs “enthusiasts” or “onsite associates.” Brands must seek out “regular people” [sic] who are members of Amazon Prime to post content on their behalf about their products.

And I’m sure that’s happening – along with varying levels and forms of compensation flowing to these supposed “enthusiasts” in return for the product plugs. But can anyone imagine less compelling content than what results from this kind of commercialized “AstroTurfing”?  No wonder people are ignoring this social media platform.

Andrew Sandoval, a group director for media planning agency The Media Kitchen, summarizes Spark’s predicament by noting that lifestyle-focused people tend congregate on Instagram — a place that shows people living their lives through products. By contrast, “Amazon Spark is mostly just talking about your products, which is the hard-sell.  Ultimately, the e-commerce social experience is a little too far from the social experience,” Sandoval opines.

Have you interfaced with Spark since its July 2017 launch? If so, do you see redeeming qualities about the platform that the rest of us might be missing?  Please share your comments with other readers.