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.

Where traffic is the most terrible …

How many of us have attempted to travel around metro Los Angeles by car at 10:00 am or 2:00 pm, marveling at just how much traffic there is – “always and everywhere”?

If you suspect that LA has the worst traffic gridlock of any American metro area, you’d be absolutely correct.

And we have the data to prove it. INRIX, Inc., a transportation analytics firm, has released its newest annual “traffic scorecard” for 2017 that ranks the U.S. cities with the most traffic congestion.

The listing below shows the ten most “challenging” cities for commuters, ranked according to the average time wasted per commuter during 2017.

[“Wasted time” is defined as the amount of time spent in traffic above and beyond what would have been required had traffic been moving at the posted speed limits.]

#1. Los Angeles – 102 hours wasted per commuter in 2017 (average)

#2. New York – 91 hours wasted

#3. San Francisco – 79 hours

#4. Atlanta – 70 hours

#5. Miami – 64 hours

#6. Washington, DC – 63 hours

#7. Boston, MA – 60 hours

#8. Chicago, IL – 57 hours

#9. Seattle, WA – 55 hours

#10. Dallas, TX – 54 hours

Indeed, Los Angeles tops the list with more than 100 hours of time wasted in traffic. That’s the equivalent of two and a half work weeks.  Ugh.

Several other cities clock in at exorbitant rates as well, although not as high as LA on the “time wasted” scale.

Having driven or been a vehicular passenger in 9 of these 10 cities, none of these figures comes as a surprise to me personally — although I might have placed DC and Boston above Miami and Atlanta based on my own personal experience.

How about you? Which cities rank as your “personal worst” traffic-wise?  And are there any cities which you think should be in INRIX’s “worst of the worst” listing?

Consumer reviews are important to online shoppers. So, are more people participating now?

Based on new research, the time-honored “90-9-1 rule” may no longer be accurate.

The 90-9-1 rule states that for every 100 people active online, one person creates content … nine people respond to created content … and 90 are merely lurkers – consuming the information but not “engaging” with it at all.

But now we have a survey by ratings and reviews platform Clutch which suggests that the ratio may be changing. The Clutch survey finds that around 20% of online shoppers have written reviews for some of their purchases.

That finding would seem to indicate that more people are now involved in content engagement than before. Still, when just one in five shoppers are writing and posting customer reviews, it continues to represent only a distinct minority of the market.

So, the big question for brands and e-commerce providers is how to encourage a greater number of people to post reviews, since such feedback is cited so often as one of the most important considerations for people who are weighing their choices when purchasing a new product or service.

A few of the ways that businesses have attempted to increase participation in customer reviews include:

  • Make the review process as efficient as possible by requesting specific feedback through star ratings.
  • Provide additional rating options on product/service performance sub-categories through quick guided questions.
  • Offering incentives such as a contest entry might also help gain more reviews, although the FTC does have regulations in place that prohibit offering explicit incentives in exchange for receiving favorable reviews.
  • Providing timely customer service – including resolving products with orders – can also increase the likelihood of garnering reviews that are positive rather than negative ones.

This last point is underscored by additional Clutch results which, when the survey asked why online shoppers write reviews, uncovered these reasons:

  • Was especially satisfied with the product or service: ~33%
  • Received an e-mail specifically requesting to leave feedback: ~23%
  • Was offered an incentive to leave feedback: ~5%
  • Was especially dissatisfied with the product or service: ~2%

For companies who might be concerned that negative feedback will be given lots of play, the 2% statistic above should come as some relief. And even if a negative review is published, the situation can often be rectified by reaching out to the reviewer and providing remedies to make things right, thereby “turning lemons into lemonade.”

After all, most consumers are pretty charitable if they sense that a company is making a good-faith effort to correct a perceived problem.

Smartphones go mainstream with all age groups.

Today, behaviors across the board are far more “similar” than they are “different.”

Over the past few years, smartphones have clawed their way into becoming a pervasive presence among consumers in all age groups.

That’s one key takeaway message from Deloitte’s 2017 Mobile Consumer Survey covering U.S. adults.

According to the recently-released results from this year’s research, ~82% of American adults age 18 or older own a smartphone or have ready access to one. It’s a significant jump from the ~70% who reported the same thing just two years ago.

While smartphone penetration is highest among consumers age 18-44, the biggest increases in adoption are coming in older demographic categories.  To illustrate, ~67% of Deloitte survey respondents in the age 55-75 category own or have ready access to smartphones, which is big increase from the ~53% who reported so in 2015.

It represents an annual rate of around 8% for this age category.

The Deloitte research also found that three’s little if any difference in the behaviors of age groups in terms of how they interact with their smartphones. Daily smartphone usage is reported by 9 in 10 respondents regardless of the age bracket.

Similarly-consistent across all age groups is the frequency that users check their phones during any given day. For the typical consumer, it happens 47 times daily on average.  Fully 9 in 10 report looking at their phones within an hour of getting up, while 8 in 10 do the same just before going to sleep.

At other times during the day, the incidence of smartphone usage quite high in numerous circumstances, the survey research found:

  • ~92% of respondents use smartphones when out shopping
  • ~89% while watching TV
  • ~85% while talking to friends or family members
  • ~81% while eating at restaurants
  • ~78% while eating at home
  • ~54% during meetings at work

As for the “legacy” use of cellphones, a smaller percentage of respondent’s report using their smartphones for making voice calls. More than 90% use their smartphone to send and receive text messages, whereas a somewhat smaller ~86% make voice calls.

As for other smartphone activities, ~81% are sending and receiving e-mail messages via their smartphone, ~72% are accessing social networks on their smartphones at least sometimes during the week, and ~30% report making video calls via their smartphones – which is nearly double the incidence Deloitte found in its survey two years ago.

As for the respondents in the survey who use smartwatches, daily usage among the oldest age cohort is the highest of all: Three-quarters of respondents age 55-75 reported using their smartwatches daily, while daily usage for younger consumers was 60% or even a little below.  So, in this one particular category, older Americans are actually ahead of their younger counterparts in adoption and usage.

The Deloitte survey shows pretty definitively that it’s no longer very valid to segregate older and younger generations. While there may be some slight variations among younger vs. older consumers, the reality is that market behaviors are far more the same than they are different.  That’s the first time we’ve seen this dynamic playing out in the mobile communications segment.

Additional findings from the Deloitte research can be found in an executive summary available here.

Welcome to the Ad Duopoly: Google and Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook attempts to shake the “Fakebook” mantle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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