Local TV news viewership continues to decline … even as stations ramp up their news coverage.

How’s this for an ironic twist: The Pew Research Center is reporting that the local TV newscasts if ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC affiliates across the United States are continuing to show viewership declines, even as stations are increasing the amount of the local news content they broadcast.

According to Pew, which analyzed Nielsen results for its report, “late” news (10 or 11 pm) suffered an 11% decline to 20.3 million viewers across the United States during 2016.

Early evening news (5 or 6 pm time slots) lost ~9% in viewership, dropping to 22.8 million viewers.

Morning news? It didn’t fare any better, falling a similar ~9% to just 10.8 million viewers.

But despite these continuing declines, there’s scant evidence that local station executives see local news as a losing proposition.

Instead, they appear to be doubling down on it, figuring that local news is one of the few remaining points of differentiation against online news sites that usually don’t provide very much in the way of in-depth local coverage.

Underscoring this, according to a survey conducted by the Radio-Television-Digital News Association and Hofstra University, local TV stations averaged 5.7 hours of news programming per weekday during 2016, which is up slightly from 5.5 hours in 2015.

Stats aside, one has to wonder how much longer local news can continue to be a differentiating factor for local TV stations? Those very same stations are creating their own competition by operating robust websites of their own.  And of course, many people have become quite adept at punching their own zip codes into weather apps to obtain “micro-local” weather information.

Sports? There are thousands of websites and apps available that provide fingertip results and stats down to the most minute level of detail.

Furthermore, as the older population “ages out,” the notion of sitting down at a prescribed hour every day to watch the news on television is likely to go the way of newspapers.  Which is to say, an inexorable slide into irrelevance.

It just isn’t how the world operates any longer … even if one is 60 or 70 years old.

More statistics from the Pew Research Center report can be accessed here.

Good news: Online advertising “bot” fraud is down 10%. Bad news: It still amounts to $6.5 billion annually.

Ad spending continues with quite-healthy growth, being forecast to increase by about 10% in 2017 according to a studied released this month by the Association of National Advertisers.

At the same time, there’s similarly positive news from digital advertising security firm White Ops on the ad fraud front. Its Bot Baseline Report, which analyzes the digital advertising activities of ANA members, is forecasting that economic losses due to bot fraud will decline by approximately 10% this year.

And yet … even with the expected decline, bot fraud is still expected to amount to a whopping $6.5 billion in economic losses.

The White Ops report found that traffic sourcing — that is, purchasing traffic from inorganic sources — remains the single biggest risk factor for fraud.

On the other hand, mobile fraud was considerably lower than expected.  Moreover, fraud in programmatic media buys is no longer particularly riskier than general market buys, thanks to improved filtration controls and procedures at media agencies.

Meanwhile, a new study conducted by Fraudlogix, and fraud detection company which monitors ad traffic for sell-side companies, finds that the majority of ad fraud is concentrated within a very small percentage of sources within the real-time bidding programmatic market.

The Fraudlogix study analyzed ~1.3 billion impressions from nearly 60,000 sources over a month-long period earlier this year. Interestingly, sites with more than 90% fraudulent impressions represented only about 1% of publishers, even while they contributed ~11% of the market’s impressions.

While Fraudlogix found nearly 19% of all impressions overall to be “fake,” its fraudulent behavior does not represent the industry as a whole. According to its analysis, just 3% of sources are causing more than two-thirds of the ad fraud.  [Fraudlogix defines a fake impression as one which generates ad traffic through means such as bots, scripts, click-farms or hijacked devices.]

As Fraudlogix CEO Hagai Schechter has remarked, “Our industry has a 3% fraud problem, and if we can clamp down on that, everyone but the criminals will be much better for it.”

That’s probably easier said than done, however. Many of the culprits are “ghost” newsfeed sites.  These sites are often used for nefarious purposes because they’re programmed to update automatically, making the sites seem “content-fresh” without publishers having to maintain them via human labor.

Characteristics of these “ghost sites” include cookie-cutter design templates … private domain registrations … and Alexa rankings way down in the doldrums. And yet they generate millions of impressions each day.

The bottom line is that the fraud problem remains huge.  Three percent of sources might be a small percentage figure, but that still means thousands of sources causing a ton of ad fraud.

What would be interesting to consider is having traffic providers submit to periodic random tests to determine the authenticity of their traffic. Such testing could then establish ratings – some sort of real/faux ranking.

And just like in the old print publications world, traffic providers that won’t consent to be audited would immediately become suspect in the eyes of those paying for the advertising.  Wouldn’t that development be a nice one …

If there’s a drumbeat among B-to-B marketing professionals, it’s grousing about cross-channel marketing attribution.

If there’s one common complaint among business-to-business marketing professionals, it’s about how difficult it is to measure and attribute the results of their campaigns across marketing channels.

Now, a new survey of marketing professionals conducted Demand Gen (sponsored by marketing forecasting firm BrightFunnel) shows that nothing has particularly changed in recent times.

The survey sample isn’t large (around 200 respondents), but the findings are quite clear.  Only around 4 in 10 of the respondents believe that they can measure marketing pipeline influences. As to why this is the case, the following issues were cited most often:

  • Inability to measure and track activity between buyer stages: ~51% of respondents
  • The data is a mess: ~42%
  • Lack of good reporting: ~42%
  • Not sure which key performance indicators are the important ones to measure: ~15%

And in turn, a lack of resources was cited by nearly half of the respondents as to why they face the problems above and can’t seem to tackle them properly.

As for how B-to-B marketers are attempting to track and report their campaign results these days, it’s the usual practices we’ve been working with for a decade or more:

  • Tracking web traffic: ~95%
  • E-mail open/clickthrough rates: ~94%
  • Contact acquisition and web query forms completed: ~86%
  • Organic search results: ~77%
  • Paid search results: ~76%
  • Social media engagements/shares: ~60%

None of these hit the bullseye when it comes to marketing attribution, and that’s what makes it particularly difficult to find out what marketers really want to know:

  • Marketing ROI by channel
  • Cross-channel engagement
  • Customer lifetime value

It seems that a lot of this remains wait-and-wish-for for many B-to-B marketers …

The full report from Demand Gen, which contains additional research data, is available to download here.

ESPN: What the heck just happened … and who’s to blame?

Last week, ESPN announced the layoffs of some 100 staffers, most of them on-air talent. This comes after layoffs of ~300 other personnel in 2015, but since those were behind-the-scenes employees, the news didn’t seem as momentous.

There are several factors coming together that make life particularly difficult for the sports network. One big problem is the commitment ESPN has made to pay top-dollar for the right to air professional sports events, particularly NFL and NBA games.

These financial commitments are set in stone and are made well into the future, which means that ESPN is committed to high long-term fixed costs (broadcast rights) in exchange for what’s turning out to be declining variable revenues (viewer subscription fees and advertising).

This isn’t a very good financial model at all.

Which brings us to the second big factor: declining subscribers.

Since 2011, the network has lost ~15 million subscribers. So far in 2017, the network has experienced an average loss of ~10,000 people per day.

The financial impact of these losses is significant. All of those lost subscribers amounts to more than $1.3 billion per year in money that’s no longer going on ESPN’s books.

Sports journalist Clay Travis predicts that if the current trajectory of subscriber losses continues, ESPN will begin losing money in 2021. (And that’s assuming the subscriber base losses don’t accelerate, an assumption that might be a little too rosy.)

The fundamental question is why so many people are no longer subscribing to ESPN. The predictable answer is because services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, with their on-demand services, are squeezing cable/satellite TV and its subscription business model.

One way Disney (ESPN’s parent company) has attempted to maximize viewer subscription revenues over the years has been by bundling the network with other, less lucrative Disney media properties like the History Channel, Vice, Disney Junior and the Lifetime Movie Network. In the Disney constellation of channels, ESPN has been the acknowledged “driver” of subscription revenues all along, with die-hard sports fans being willing to subsidize the other Disney channels – often never watched by these subscribers – as the price of access.

But something else is happening now:  ESPN itself has begun to lose viewers as well.

According to television industry publication Broadcasting & Cable, ESPN’s viewership rating has declined ~7% so far this year.  ESPN2’s rating is down even further – an eye-popping ~34%.

Percentages like those aren’t driven by “sidebar” incidental factors. Instead, they cut to the core of the programming and the content that’s being offered.

If there’s one programming factor that’s tracked nearly on point with ESPN’s viewership declines, it’s been the explosion in “sports-talk” programming versus actual “sports game” programming at the network. As Townhall opinion journalist Sean Davis has written:

“If you talk to sports fans and to people who have watched ESPN religiously for most of their lives, they’ll tell you that the problem is the lack of sports and a surplus of shows featuring people screaming at each other. The near-universal sentiment … is that the content provider sidelined actual sports in favor of carnival barkers.”

Davis points out the flaw in ESPN’s shift in colorful terms:

“ESPN went from the worldwide leader in sports to yet another expensive network of dumb people yelling dumb things at other dumb people, all the while forgetting that the most popular entertainment of people yelling about sports stuff for several hours a day – sports talk radio – is free.”

There’s an additional factor in the mix that’s a likely culprit in ESPN’s tribulations – the mixing of sports and politics. That programming decision has turned out to be a great big lightning rod for the network – with more downside than upside consequences.

The question is, why did ESPN even go in that direction?

Most likely, ESPN execs saw the tough numbers on higher costs, subscriber losses and lower ratings, and decided that it needed a larger content pie to attract more consumers.

The reasoning goes, if some people like sports and others like politics, why not combine the two to attract a larger audience, thereby changing the trajectory of the figures?

But that reasoning flies in the face of how people consume political news. In the era of Obama and now Trump, political diehards gravitate to outlets that reinforce their own worldviews:  conservatives want news from conservatives; liberals want news from liberals.

MSNBC and the Fox News Channel have figured this out big-time.

But if you’re starting with a cross-partisan mass media audience for sports, as the original ESPN audience most certainly was, trying to combine that with politics means running the risk of losing one-half of your audience.

That’s what’s been happening with ESPN. Intertwining sports with coverage about bathrooms in North Carolina, transgender sports stars, gun control laws and proper national anthem etiquette only gets your numbers going in one direction (down).

The question for ESPN is how it plans to recalibrate and refocus its programming to truly defend its position as the worldwide leader in sports broadcasting. However it decides to position itself in terms of the delivery of its content – television, online, subscription, pay-per-view or other methods – it should refocus on covering live sports events.

Not sports talk … not debate … not politics or sociology, but the sports themselves.

At one time, not so long ago, sports were a safe refuge from politics and the news. ESPN would do itself – and its viewers – a favor if it sought to recapture that spirit.

Brand PR in the era of social media: Much ado about … what?

These days, brands often get caught up in a social media whirlwind whenever they might stumble. Whatever fallout there is can be magnified exponentially thanks to the reach of social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

When a “brand fail” becomes a topic of conversation in the media echo chamber, it can seem almost as though the wheels are coming off completely. But is that really the case?

Consider the past few weeks, during which time two airlines (United and American) and one consumer product (Pepsi) have come under fire in the social media sphere (and in other media as well) for alleged bad behavior.

In the case of United and American, it’s about the manhandling of air travelers and whether air carriers are contributing to the stress – and the potential dangers – of flying.

In the case of Pepsi, it’s about airing an allegedly controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a nondescript urban protest, and whether the ad trivializes the virtues of protest movements in cities and on college campuses.

What exactly have we seen in these cases?  There’s been the predictable flurry of activity on social media, communicating strong opinions and even outrage.

United Airlines was mentioned nearly 3 million times on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram just on April 10th and 11th.  Reaction on social media over the Pepsi ad was similarly damning, if not at the same level of activity.

And now the outrage has started for American Airlines over the “strollergate” incident this past weekend.

But when you consider what the purpose of a brand actually is – to sell products and services to customers – what’s really happening to brand reputation?

A good proxy is the share price of the brands in question. United Airlines’ share price took a major hit the week the “draggergate” news and cellphone videos were broadcast, but it’s been climbing back ever since.  Today, United’s share price looks nearly the same as before the passenger incident came to light.

In the case of Pepsi, company shares are up more than 7% so far in 2017, making it a notably robust performer in the market. Moreover, a recent Morning Consult poll found that over 50% of the survey respondents had a more favorable opinion of the Pepsi brand as a result of the Kendall Jenner commercial.

That is correct:  The Pepsi commercial was viewed positively by far more people than the ones who complained (loudly) about it on social media.

What these developments show is that while a PR crisis isn’t a good thing for a brand’s reputation, social fervor doesn’t necessarily equate with brand desertion or other negative changes in consumer behavior.

Instead, it seems that the kind of “brand fails” causing the most lasting damage are ones that strike at the heart of consumers’ own individual self-interest.

Chipotle is a good example, wherein the fundamental fear of getting sick from eating Chipotle’s food has kept many people away from the chain restaurant’s stores for more than a year now.

One can certainly understand how fears about being dragged off of airplanes might influence a decision to select some other air carrier besides United – although it’s equally easy to understand how price-shopping in an elastic market like air travel could actually result in more people flying United rather than less, if the airline adjusts its fares to be more the more economical choice.

My sense is, that’s happening already.

And in the case of Pepsi, the Jenner ad is the biggest nothing-burger to come down the pike in a good while.  The outrage squad is likely made up of people who didn’t drink Pepsi products to begin with.

Still, as an open forum, social media is important for brands to embrace to speak directly to customers, as well as to learn more about what consumers want and need through their social likes, dislikes and desires.

But the notion of #BrandFails? As often as not, it’s #MuchAdoAboutNothing.

More raps for Google on the “fake reviews” front.

Google’s trying to not have its local search initiative devolve into charges and counter-charges of “fake news” à la the most recent U.S. presidential election campaign – but is it trying hard enough?

It’s becoming harder for the reviews that show up on Google’s local search function to be considered anything other than “suspect.”

The latest salvo comes from search expert and author Mike Blumenthal, whose recent blog posts on the subject question Google’s willingness to level with its customers.

Mr. Blumenthal could be considered one of the premiere experts on local search, and he’s been studying the phenomenon of fake information online for nearly a decade.

The gist of Blumenthal’s argument is that Google isn’t taking sufficient action to clean up fake reviews (and related service industry and affiliate spam) that appear on Google Maps search results, which is one of the most important utilities for local businesses and their customers.

Not only that, but Blumenthal also contends that Google is publishing reports which represent “weak research” that “misleads the public” about the extent of the fake reviews problem.

Mike Blumenthal

Google contends that the problem isn’t a large one. Blumenthal feels differently – in fact, he claims the problem as growing worse, not getting better.

In a blog article published this week, Blumenthal outlines how he’s built out spreadsheets of reviewers and the businesses on which they have commented.

From this exercise, he sees a pattern of fake reviews being written for overlapping businesses, and that somehow these telltale signs have been missed by Google’s algorithms.

A case in point: three “reviewers” — “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” — have all “reviewed” three very different businesses in completely different areas of the United States:  Bedoy Brothers Lawn & Maintenance (Nevada), Texas Car Mechanics (Texas), and The Joint Chiropractic (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina).

They’re all 5-star reviews, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” won’t be found in the local telephone directories where these businesses are located. That’s because they’re figments of some spammer-for-hire’s imagination.

The question is, why doesn’t Google develop procedures to figure out the same obvious answers Blumenthal can see plain as day?

And the follow-up question: How soon will Google get serious about banning reviewers who post fake reviews on local search results?  (And not just targeting the “usual suspect” types of businesses, but also professional sites such as physicians and attorneys.)

“If their advanced verification [technology] is what it takes to solve the problem, then stop testing it and start using it,” Blumenthal concludes.

To my mind, it would be in Google’s own interest to get to the bottom of these nefarious practices. If the general public comes to view reviews as “fake, faux and phony,” that’s just one step before ceasing to use local search results at all – which would hurt Google in the pocketbook.

Might it get Google’s attention then?

When people think “search,” they still think “Google.”

… And they might say it, too — thanks to the rise of voice search.

Over the years, many things have changed in the world of cyberspace. But one thing seems to be pretty much a constant:  When people are in “search” mode online, most of them are playing in Google’s ballpark.

This behavior has been underscored yet again in a new survey of ~800 consumers conducted by Fivesight Research.

Take a look at these two statistics that show how strong Google’s search popularity remains today:

  • Desktop users: ~79% of searches are on Google
  • Smartphone users: ~86% use Google

The smartphone figure above is even more telling in that the percentage is that high whether users are on an iPhone or an Android system.

But here’s another very interesting finding from the Fivesight survey: Google’s biggest competition isn’t other search engines like Bing or Yahoo.  Instead, it’s Siri, which now accounts for ~6% of mobile search market share.

So what we’re seeing in search isn’t a shift to other providers, but rather a shift into new technologies. To illustrate, nearly three in four consumers are using voice technologies such as Siri, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana to supplement their traditional search activities.

Some marketing specialists contend that “voice search is the new search” – and it’s hard not to agree with them. Certainly, voice search has become easier in the past year or so as more mobile devices as well as personal home assistants like Amazon Alexa have been adopted by the marketplace.

It also helps that voice recognition technology continues to improve in quality, dramatically reducing the incidences of “machine mistakes” in understanding the meaning of voice search queries.

But whether it’s traditional or voice-activated, I suspect Google will continue to dominate the search segment for years to come.

That may or may not be a good thing for consumers. But it’s certainly a good thing for Google – seeing as how woefully ineffective the company has been in coming up with any other business endeavor even remotely as financially lucrative as its search business.