A day late and a dollar short: Starbucks finally honors its pledge to install WiFi blocking mechanisms in its stores.

In the age of social media shaming, it’s a wonder that some companies think they can get away with failing to keep their promises.

A case in point is Starbucks Coffee. For a number of years now, there have been concerns raised by Starbucks customers and other consumers about the easy ability to access pornography websites via the free public WiFi at the company’s store locations.

You may have witnessed it – people viewing such material in full view of other customers, without regard to whether there are minors present or any other ameliorating factors.

In such matters there’s such a thing as propriety. It isn’t illegal to view (most) pornography, but there’s a time a place for everything.

What it most certainly isn’t is copulating on the beach, or viewing hardcore pornography in a public space like a shopping mall, a coffee shop an airplane.

You’d think all of this would be obvious to a company like Starbucks — seeing as how “socially aware” the company purports to be. But it took protests from 75+ groups beginning in 2014 to convince the company to block access to porn sites for people using the public WiFi at its stores.

It took two years, but in 2016 Starbucks bowed to pressure and announced publicly that it would be rolling out porn blocking mechanisms across all of its stores.

But then … it didn’t happen.

What was Starbucks thinking? In its wisdom, did it think that by simply making the announcement the controversy would blow over?  That’s either naïve or willfully arrogant.

In any case, after waiting several more years for action to occur, a new online petition in November from a group called CitizenGo quickly gained more than 26,000 signatures — inside of a week, in fact.

Commenting on the effectiveness of the new effort, Donna Hughes, who heads up Enough is Enough, the Internet safety umbrella organization representing the 75+ groups concerned about Starbucks’ lack of action, explained why the petition resonated with so many people:

“By breaking its [earlier] commitment, Starbucks is keeping the doors wide open for convicted sex offenders and others to fly under the radar from law enforcement and use free, public WiFi services to access illegal child porn and hardcore pornography. Having unfiltered hotspots also allows children and teens to easily bypass filters and other parental control tools set up by their parents on their smartphones, tablets and laptops.”

Considering the speed in which the November petition reached critical mass, social media has only grown in its reach since 2016. What took two years to obtain a (broken) promise from Starbucks to implement blocking mechanisms for its store’s public WiFi took just one week this time around.

Starbucks has now confirmed to several news outlets that it is recommitting to install blocking software for its store locations in 2019.

We’ll see how good the company is in honoring its pledge this time around. My guess is that they won’t play with fire a second time around.

When P&G cut way back on digital advertising … and nothing changed.

If you suspect that digital advertising might well include a big dose of “blue smoke and mirrors,” you aren’t the only one who thinks this way.

In fact, Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of Procter & Gamble, felt much the same thing. Back in early 2017, Pritchard complained to the industry about what appeared to him to be an unacceptable degree of waste in the digital advertising supply chain.

Among his concerns was the lack of transparency between advertisers and digital agencies, as well as the myriad ad-tech vendors that seemed to be adding more complexity that was disconnected to any defined value.

Pritchard was also concerned about the prevalence of bot traffic and the dangers to brand safety posed by risky content.

Holding the purse strings of one of the largest digital advertising budgets on the planet, Pritchard was in a uniquely strong position to exert changes in how digital advertising campaigns are handled.

And yet, even with this threat, the response from the industry didn’t go much beyond mild alarm and a bit of lip-service.

So, P&G‘s CBO put some juice behind his warning, cutting more than $100 million in the company’s digital ad spend between April and July of 2017. Pritchard noted at the time that this reduction in ad spending was designed to reduce waste.

After cutting the $100 million in ad dollars – representing a 20% reduction in P&G’s digital ad spend – what changed was … exactly nothing.

That is correct: no negative impact on ROI at all.

In fact, P&G actually experienced a ~10% increase in the overall reach of its remaining advertising campaigns.

How to explain this counterintuitive result?  Spending less but reaching more consumers occurred because extra efficiencies were harnessed by carefully pruning ineffective inventory and reallocating the remaining budget to higher-quality placements.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, another major consumer packaged goods company – Unilever – soon followed suit, reducing its own digital advertising spend by a whopping 50%.

Its move garnered the same result: no discernible ill effects on ROI resulted from the dramatic cuts.

The experiences of these two companies have poked several gigantic holes in a number of “truisms” about digital advertising.  Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Ad spending doesn’t drive value when it isn’t tied to quality metrics like viewable inventory.
  • “Quality” is something that can be controlled by taking steps like moving platforms.
  • Measuring the quantity of impressions isn’t as important as the quality of those impressions.
  • “Scale” isn’t king. Advertisers don’t need to have super-large budgets in order to drive meaningful results in the digital sphere.

Indeed, P&G and Unilever have proven that a media strategy that focuses on context and quality rather than brute force can get a lot done for significantly less outlay.

Programmatic ad buying in the B-to-B sector: The adoption rate grinds to a halt.

Each year, Dun & Bradstreet publishes its Data-Driven Marketing & Advertising Outlook report.  The report’s findings are based on a survey of marketers in the business-to-business sector.  Among the questions asked of marketers is about the advertising tactics they utilize in support of their sales and business objectives.

A look at D&B’s annual outlook reports over the past several years, an interesting trend has emerged: The adoption rate of B-to-B companies being involved in programmatic ad buying has plateaued at somewhat below 65% of firms.

In fact, you have to go back to 2015 in D&B’s reports to find the proportion of companies involved in programmatic advertising running significantly below where it is now.

That being said, those firms that are involved in programmatic ad buying are planning on allocating additional funds to the effort. The most recent survey finds that ~60% of the respondents involved in programmatic advertising plan to increase their spending in 2019.  That includes ~20% who plan to allocate a significant dollar increase of 25% or greater.

Another interesting finding from the 2018 survey is that there appears to be slightly less interest in display and video programmatic ad placements – although display remains the most commonly run ad type.

Where heightened interest lies includes one category that should come as no surprise – mobile advertising – as well as several that might be more unexpected. Social media advertising seems like it wouldn’t be a very significant part of most B-to-B ad buyers’ bag of tricks, but two-thirds of respondents reported that programmatic advertising in that sector will be increasing.

Another interesting development is that ~17% of the respondents reported that they’re stepping up their programmatic buying for TV advertising – which may be an interesting portent of the future.

Lastly, the survey revealed little change in the types of challenges respondents face about programmatic ad buying – namely, how to target the right audiences more effectively, how to measure results, and the need for better technical and operational knowledge for those charged with overseeing programmatic ad efforts inside their companies.

More information and findings from the 2018 D&B report can be viewed here.

Print vs. online newspaper readership behaviors don’t look promising at all for media properties.

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson

From the New York Times on down, leading publishers are telling us that print versions of their newspapers will eventually disappear.  The only question is how soon it will happen.

But what are the implications of this pending shift to all-digital? Will online news consumers be as strongly engaged as they have been with the print newspaper product?

We now have a window into answering this question by looking at the experience of The Independent, a UK national daily paper.  Two years ago, The Independent made the shift to become an online-only publication.

And the result was … no measurable increase traffic shifting from offline to online. That finding comes from a before/after analysis of the publication’s performance as conducted by European communications industry researchers Neil Thurman and Richard Fletcher.

What they learned is that shutting down the print property didn’t drive those news consumers to print-like consumption habits on digital devices.

Instead, these customers became like other digital readers. That is to say, in the words of the researchers, “easily distracted, flitting from link to link, and a little allergic to depth.”

Let’s drill down a little deeper. At the time it ceased publishing a print edition of its newspaper, The Independent had a paid print circulation of approximately 40,000, along with ~58 million monthly unique visits on its digital platform.

That a humongous chasm … but the researchers found that the publication’s relatively small number of print readers were responsible for more than 80% of all time spent consuming all of The Independent’s news content – print and digital.

That is correct: Considering engagement on all of its digital platforms, all of that added up to fewer than 20% of the time collectively spent reading the print publication.

The chart below shows what happened to readership. All of the time The Independent’s print readers spent with the paper seems to have simply disappeared when the company ceased publishing a print version.  It didn’t transition to independent.co.uk.

Even more telling, the researchers found that half of print recipients had read the newspaper “almost every day,” whereas online visitors read a news story in The Independent, on average, a little more than twice per month.

While print readers typically spent from 40 to 50 minutes reading each daily edition of The Independent, online readers spent, on average, just 6 minutes over the entire month.

Here’s the thing: Whereas print newspapers usually have few if any competitors in their immediate space, online there are an unlimited number of competing sites to attract (and distract) the reader – all of them just a mouse-click away.

Even if we discount a measure of exaggeration on the part of respondents in terms of how much time they actually expend on their reading consumption versus what they reported to survey-takers, the print/online dynamics reveal stark differences. As researcher Thurman reports:

“By going online-only, The Independent has decimated the attention it receives. The paper is now a thing more glanced at, it seems, than gorged on.  It has sustainability but less centrality.”

There is one silver-lining of shifting to an all-digital platform, at least in the case of The Independent.  That shift has resulted in increased international reach by the publication.

But The Independent is a national newspaper, unlike most of America’s leading papers, and so that sort of positive aspect can’t be expected to apply very easily to those other media properties.  How many people outside of central Colorado can be expected to read a digital edition of the Denver Post?

The main takeaway from The Independent’s experience is that for any paper choosing to go all-digital, chances are high that the audience isn’t going to follow along – certainly not at the level of loyal, in-depth time once spent with the print product.

Sure, the very real costs of printing and delivery will now be a thing of the past. But a significant – even dramatic – decline in reach, influence and impact will be the new reality for the publishers

Baby, meet bathwater.

Are there no alternatives for the alternative press?

The slow death of America’s alt-weeklies can’t help but feel a little disheartening.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading the so-called “alternative press.” I’ve found it a fascinating sociological exercise, where certain fringe or controversial topics and points-of-view are often aired long before they enter more mainstream discourse.

But that was before the Internet changed everything.

Before the ubiquity of the Internet, the role that alternative weeklies played was arguably one of consequence. I can recall a time where one could encounter a dozen or more papers freely available in retail establishments such as record stores, coffeehouses and head shops in any medium sized or larger North American city.

The editorial focus of these alt-weeklies covered the gamut – from alternative music, film and literature to environmental causes, LGBTQ interests and other social action priorities – not to mention various ethnic sub-groups.

Basically, any “ism” or group that was underrepresented in the mainstream press was a prime editorial focus and audience target of the alternative press.

One could chart the fortunes of cultural trends by the tone of the editorial writing in these publications – ranging from optimism and anticipation to depression or even rage – depending on the prevailing sociological or political currents of the day.

One friend of mine called it the “alt-weekly shrill-o-meter” – with the decibel level rising or falling with the fortunes of urban-progressive forces in America.

One of the foundational premises of alt-weeklies was that they should be available free to everyone, and therefore they were given wide distribution everywhere urban-aware people congregated.

The costs of production, printing and distribution were paid for through varied and frequently entertaining (of the voyeur sort) advertising.

Twin Cities-based pop music star Prince on the cover of City Pages (1980s).

Back in the late 1980s I was acquainted with a fellow who sold advertising for one such paper, Minneapolis-based City Pages.  He earned a tidy-if-modest living selling advertising space for independent restaurants, funky specialty retailers, dive bars, performance spaces and the myriad music groups that were prevalent on the Twin Cities scene.

Other regular advertisers he relied on were the ones peddling more “questionable” fare like phone chat lines (of whatever persuasion one might prefer) and other services one can euphemistically characterize as “adult.”

Some people contend that these advertisers did as much as anything to keep many an alt-weekly publication afloat in the pre-Internet days.

The point is, in their heyday the alternative press played an important role in American urban culture – even if it existed on the margins of society and played a somewhat less-than “conventionally upstanding” role in the process.

And another thing: These alt-weeklies reflected the personalities of the cities in which they operated.  Despite the inevitable superficial similarities between them, I always recognized distinct aspects of each publication that made it a true product of its place.  (Speaking personally, I found this to be the case in Phoenix, Nashville, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Baltimore, where I lived and worked from the 1970s to the 1990s.)

Unfortunately, the past 15 years haven’t been kind at all to this corner of the publishing world. With the rise of the Internet (where “anything goes” editorially is an understatement), coupled with inexorably increasing costs to prepare and distribute a paper-based news product, the business environment has turned into a classic squeeze-play for these alternative papers.

Adding to those problems is the challenge of shrinking advertising revenues. Publishers aren’t facing merely the general decline of revenues from would-be advertisers who can now publicize themselves just as effectively online at a lower cost.  It’s also the near-total banishment of adult-oriented advertising, as alt-weeklies have been shamed into dropping those ads due to changing societal attitudes about the objectification and exploitation of women (and men, too).

Because of these dynamics, in recent years the main story about the alternative press has been a predictable (and dreary) one: how these papers have been dropping like flies.  Whereas once there were a dozen or more alternative papers published in a typical urban market the size of a St. Louis or Pittsburgh, today there may be just one or two.

In smaller urban markets, there may be none at all.

The April 2, 2009 issue of the Missoula Independent.

Just this past week, the last non-student run alt-weekly publication in the entire state of Montana – the Missoula Independent – shut down for good.  Employees received this warm-and-fuzzy communiqué from the publisher, Lake Enterprises:

“This is to give you notice that we are closing the Missoula Independent as of September 11, 2018. As of that time, the offices will be closed and you are not to report to work or come into the building.”

In a now-familiar story line, closing Montana’s last remaining alt-weekly publication came down to a simple calculation of revenues vs. costs. (It probably didn’t help that the magazine’s staff had voted to unionize earlier in the year.)  And adding insult to injury, Lake Enterprises has also shuttered the publication’s archives – all 27 years of it.

Suddenly, it’s as if the Missoula Independent never existed.

This alt-weekly publication’s experience is similar to numerous others. Lee Banville, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana, had this to say about the Missoula Independent’s fate after the previous owner sold the publication to Lee Enterprises:

“There was – almost immediately – a pretty good chance this was going to happen. Other alt-weeklies that have been purchased by paper chains have been closed.”

Indeed, it’s a scenario that’s been playing out all over the country: An alt-weekly begins to struggle; new owners move in with the objective of saving the publication, only to cut staffing to near-zero or shut down completely when the old (or new) business model cannot be sustained.

The final issue of Baltimore City Paper (November 1, 2017).

During 2017 it was announced that the 40-year-old Baltimore City Paper would be publishing its last issue by the end of that year.  That’s exactly what happened — by early November as it turned out.

And in fact, no publication is immune – even an iconic brand like New York City’s The Village Voice.

Earlier this month, the world witnessed the effective demise of that vaunted alt-weekly – a publication that some people consider the best exemplar of the genre.

The March 17, 1992 issue of The Village Voice.

Village Voice publisher Pete Barbey, who acquired the media property in 2015 and turned it into an online-only publication in 2017, has now shuttered the publication completely barely a year later.

“Today is kind of a sucky day,” Barbey reportedly told Village Voice employees in a phone conference call.  “Due to, basically, business realities, we’re going to stop publishing new Village Voice material.”

At least in this case, a veritable treasure trove of Village Voice archival material will be digitized and remain available in cyberspace.  Approximately half of the publication’s employees are being kept on for a period of time to carry out that mission … but no new Village Voice journalism will ever again be produced.

As anyone who knows me personally can attest, I don’t come out of the “counter-culture” movement – nor would I consider that many of my personal or political views reflect those that are typically espoused by the writers and editors of the alternative press.

And yet … I can’t help but empathize with the comments of freelance writer Melynda Fuller, who has opined:

Melynda Fuller

“The loss of alternative weeklies feels particularly personal. They act as mirrors for the complex lives lived in the cities where they publish.  As more outlets are bought up, shut down or prevented from operating at full capacity, a much-needed connection is lost between that city’s culture and its residents.   

Media is in the communications business. In a fractured time in our history, every connection counts.”

How about you? Do you feel any sense of nostalgia for the alternative press?  Is there a particular favorite publication of yours that hasn’t been able to survive?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Grunts and groans in the e-mail sector.

Want to work as a drone for middling pay? Then a job in e-mail marketing may be right for you!

There’s an oft-repeated axiom that success in business is 20% inspiration and 80% perspiration.

If that’s the case, then the field of e-mail marketing is proving the rule – in spades.

Recently, e-mail service provider MessageGears surveyed workers in the business-to-consumer e-mail enterprise space. All survey respondents worked in companies that deploy 10 million or more e-mails per month.  More to the point, two thirds of the respondents worked in companies that send more than 50 million e-mails monthly.

So, we’re talking about companies that are on their game when it comes to the e-mail discipline – presumably aware of the latest operational and analytical tools to make their businesses as efficient as possible.

Here’s what MessageGears discovered in its survey:

  • More than 90% of respondents that have purely strategic roles in e-mail marketing are “very satisfied” with their jobs … and ~81% would again choose the e-mail discipline as a career.
  • More than two-thirds of respondents who are unhappy with their jobs spend 50% or more of their time on operational work tasks … and half of those would choose a different career if they were starting over.

Clearly, the creative and strategic parts of e-mail marketing are more popular than the operational aspects. Indeed, respondents rated the following job tasks the most fulfilling ones personally:

  • Designing customer-centric e-mails
  • Creating e-mail content
  • Devising new ways to engage with customers via e-mail communications

On the other hand, the lowest marks were recorded for these tasks:

  • E-mail testing
  • Analytics
  • Data segmenting

Unfortunately, it’s these latter types of tasks that take up the majority of daily job responsibilities for many workers in the e-mail sector: According to the survey results, nearly half of the workers spend more time on testing, analytics and data segmenting than they do on anything else.

MessageGears claims that there’s a direct link between the heavy proportion of operational tasks and the lack of creativity and strategic thinking in the field of e-mail.

Whether this linkage results in a loss of efficiency may be open to question … but what it does suggest is that working in e-mail isn’t the most personally fulfilling path for a marketing career – at least for most people.

More about the MessageGears survey results can be accessed here.

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.