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.

The latest newsroom employment stats aren’t pretty — and unfortunately not “fake” either.

For people who might be hoping for a turnaround in the news industry that could take us back to a world more like the one we once knew – you know, with actual journalists writing primary-sourced stories and conducting formal fact-checking – those days seem less likely than ever to return.

In late July, analytics firm MediaRadar reported on the latest stats for print advertising in the United States – and they’re continuing a long slide by falling another 13% between January and April of 2018.

Even worse:  Most of the companies that stopped their print advertising during the period didn’t migrate their ad dollars over to digital. Instead, they stopped advertising altogether.

This by now numbingly-familiar trend in advertising is directly related to the financial well-being of the news media, as advertising has traditionally bankrolled the lion’s share of newsroom activities.

But with revenues dropping relentlessly, it’s having an outsized impact on newsroom employment. The Pew Research Center has just released stats on the number of employees in American newsrooms – and those figures aren’t pretty, either.

According to Pew, in 2008 America’s newsrooms collectively had approximately 114,000 reporters, editors, photographers and camera personnel on staff. As of 2017, the number had plummeted to around 88,000.

That loss of ~27,000 people represents nearly 25% of all the newsroom jobs that were existed in newspaper, radio, TV/cable and other information services in 2008.

Not surprisingly, the biggest decline was experienced in the newspaper segment – down a whopping 45% to ~39,000 jobs. The digital-native sector was something of a bright spot, with job numbers increasing by nearly 80% over the same period to reach a level of ~13,000 jobs in 2017.

But digital news personnel growth hasn’t been nearly enough to make up for the job losses suffered by the other newsrooms.

What’s more, even digital newsroom jobs aren’t particularly secure, with frequent restructurings being the order of the day thanks to the unsettled nature of the industry as it attempts to adjust to ever-evolving news-consumption preferences.

How are news media organizations responding? Give them credit for trying all sorts of gambits – from membership programs to paid newsletters, premium news paywalls and in-house content studios.

But how many of those efforts have proven to be financially robust enough to shoulder the costs of running a “legitimate” newsroom?  Whatever the number, it hasn’t been sufficient, because whether we like it or not, most people have become conditioned to expect their news and information delivered free of charge.  And while many may lip service to favoring traditional journalistic practices, most aren’t willing to put up their own money to pay for it as part of the bargain.

Meanwhile, the hollowing out of traditionally structured newsrooms continues on, with no end in sight.  I wonder if there even are other financial or business models that could stop the hemorrhaging of jobs in newsrooms.

Does anyone have any other suggestions?

Is the future of printed books written in disappearing ink?

Considering the spread of digitization into seemingly every nook and cranny of our lives, how are book-reading practices changing?  The Pew Research Center looked into this question recently, and it found that those behaviors are definitely changing.

First, what hasn’t happened is a wholesale flight from printed books.  According to Pew’s January 2018 survey of ~2,000 American adults age 18 and older, fewer than one in ten respondents reported that they’ve pulled the plug completely on reading printed books.

But it turns out that ~30% are reading both digital and printed books.

As for the rest, nearly a quarter of the respondents reported that they don’t read books at all – in any format.

That leaves around 40% who report that they read books in printed form only.

It seems that we’re in the midst of a technologically driven change in behavior. A few short years ago the percentage of Americans reading any books in digital format would have likely been in the single digits.  But now just about half the population of book readers are doing so at least in part using digital technology.

I suspect that we’ll see continue to see a shift towards digital books – and likely at an accelerating pace.  Even though speaking personally, I tend to read “better” when I’m not in front of a screen because I find it easier to absorb the more extensive paragraphs that are more typical to long-form writing.

But that’s just me.  What about you? Are you still reading printed books exclusively, or have you gravitated to digital?  And do you see yourself going 100% digital eventually?  Please leave a comment for the benefit of other readers.

Social media platforms navigate the delicate balance between free speech and censorship.

Everyday Americans weigh in with their views.

The past few months have seen people like Mark Zuckerberg doing mental acrobatics attempting to explain how social media platforms like Facebook intend to control the spate of “fake news” and “hate speech” posts, comments and tweets that are so often the currency of interactive “discourse” online.

And now the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute is weighing in with the results of a survey in which ~1,000 Americans were asked for their opinions about the challenges of monitoring and controlling what gets published for the world to see.

The survey, which has been conducted annually since 1997, gives us insights into Americans’ current attitudes about censoring objectionable content balanced against free speech rights.

Asked whether social medial companies should remove certain types of content from their pages in certain circumstances, sizable majorities agreed that companies should do so in the following cases:

  • Social media companies should remove false information: ~83% agree
  • Social media companies should remove hate speech: ~72% agree
  • Social media companies should remove personal attacks: ~68% agree

At the same time, however, when asked whether the government should require social media sites to monitor and remove objectionable content, those opinions were decidedly mixed:

  • Strongly agree with having government involved in these activities: ~27%
  • Somewhat agree: ~21%
  • Somewhat disagree: ~20%
  • Strongly disagree: ~29%
  • Don’t know/not sure: ~3%

So the key takeaway is that Americans dislike objectionable content and think that the social platforms should take on the responsibility for monitoring and removing such content. But many don’t want the government doing the honors.

A mixed result for sure — and one in which governmental authorities could well be d*mned if they do and d*mned if they don’t.

More information about the survey findings can be accessed here.

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.

America’s “Always On” Dynamics

It’s natural to assume that these days, pretty much all Americans go online regularly. And indeed, that is the case.  According to a survey of ~2,000 Americans age 18 and older conducted recently by the Pew Research Center, more than three in four respondents (~77%) reported that they go online at least once each day.

Compare that to the far smaller cohort of people who don’t use the Internet at all, which is only around 10%.

But even more interesting perhaps is another finding from the Pew survey: More than one in four Americans (~26%) report that they are online “almost constantly”.

That proportion is up from one in five just a couple years ago.

Even for people who go online but don’t use a mobile device, nearly 55% report that they go online at least daily, although just 5% of them report being online continually.

Looking further into the Pew findings, the “always on” population is skewed younger … better educated … ethnically diverse … and with higher incomes:

Gender

  • Men: ~25%
  • Women: ~27%

Age

  • 18-29: ~39%
  • 30-49: ~36%
  • 50-64: ~17%
  • 65 or older: ~8%

Education Level

  • High school degree or less: ~20%
  • Some college: ~28%
  • College degree or more: ~34%

Race

  • Non-white: ~33%
  • White: ~23%

Income Level

  • Less than $30K annual income: ~24%
  • $30-$75K annual income: ~25%
  • $75K or higher annual income: ~35%

Location

  • Living in urban areas: ~32%
  • Living in suburban areas: ~27%
  • Living in rural areas: ~15%

Regarding location, one explanation for the lower “always on” characteristics of rural dwellers may be that interconnectivity isn’t as simple and easy as it is in urban environments.

Or perhaps it’s because rural areas offer more attractive options for people to spend their time doing more fulfilling things than being tethered to the online world 24/7/365 …

Which is it? Your thoughts on this or the other dynamics uncovered by Pew are welcomed.  You can also read more about the survey findings here.

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.