I was going to wait and talk more about Percolate a little later in the week when I had a chance, but then Felix Salmon went ahead and wrote a pretty epic post about what he saw as the future of online advertising and now I’m left with no choice but to write a response (because I found myself nodding so much, not because I disagree).
The world Felix lays out is the same one I’ve been seeing and thinking about for the last seven years. It’s a world where online advertising, mainly banner ads, has fundamentally failed brands in a crazy number of ways. The dirty secret about the business is that brands, agencies and media companies all run banners knowing that they mostly don’t work. Everyone is in on it. It’s not that they don’t care about their effectiveness, it’s just that there’s not really another easy way out there. All parties know the web is important and banners are the easiest way to check the box.
That’s never been my bag. I joined The Barbarian Group a few years ago because I fundamentally believed that for brands, earning attention was more valuable than buying it. I don’t believe there’s no place for online advertising (I’m using the word in the narrowest sense to mean the buying of placements on media sites), I just don’t believe it’s the center of a successful digital marketing strategy. Period.
I think most people point to the shift from one-to-many to one-to-one as the primary difference between the offline and online world for advertisers, but I think there’s something else at play. This morning an article I’ve been working on for a month or so came out on Adage, where I explain how I see the shift:
The idea of “buying media” always struck me as a bit odd. If anything, what brands have been doing is renting: Paying the media owner to borrow the audience’s attention for a short period of time. In the pre-internet days, rental was pretty much the only game in town and that was just fine.
But then the web came along and started to play with the economics. All of a sudden you could pay once and message continuously. (Think: Brands buying fans on Facebook.) The thing is, because of the peculiarities and rates of audience rental in traditional media, brands (and agencies) are built for campaigns instead of sustained communication.
Sustained communication is a real shift in thinking for brands (and agencies). Lots of people talk about this shift as a move from campaigns to products, but I think calling it sustained better explain the shift and value opportunity. That value opportunity is about building on top of previous success (and audience) instead of starting over every time. Microsites were probably the best example of this: Buy a bunch of advertising, drive people to a new .com, stop advertising, stop getting traffic, tear the site down, repeat.
Like Felix, I believe content needs to be at the center of a brand’s sustained communications strategy. Agencies seem to agree, bringing in content strategists en masse to work with clients on become publishers. The issue I’ve seen is that most of these strategies just aren’t sustainable. In my Adage article I put it in terms of stock and flow:
Traditionally, brands have been quite good at creating stock content in the form of ads and some of the more forward-thinking ones have found really interesting ways to translate that capability to beautiful web video and interactive experiences. While that’s great for short bursts, creating a sustained messaging strategy requires a combination of both stock and flow: longer-form, higher-quality content coupled with the quick-hit links to other interesting and relevant content on the web.
How does this look? On the extreme end it’s BabyCenter, RedBull.com or AMEX OPEN Forum, those brands are so far out ahead of everyone else from a publishing standpoint it’s just amazing. And look at the value they’ve created for themselves: Their sites are big enough that other brands want to advertise on them to reach the audience they’ve amassed. Not necessarily the most important thing for the brand, but a pretty good statement about what they’ve accomplished.
Now obviously those aren’t the most accessible examples and the two most common concerns marketers have when they hear them are 1) I don’t have the permission to speak to my audience in that way and 2) I can’t afford to build a content organization in the way that those brands have.
The idea of Percolate (you knew I’d come around to it) is to make it answer those questions and make it possible for every brand to create a sustained platform. On the permission question, it’s really just a problem with definition. Every brand with customers has permission to speak to them, they just need to find their voice. Look at the work of Weiden + Kennedy and BBH on deodorant brands if you don’t believe me and American Express is a credit card brand, that’s hardly the most exciting category on the planet. On the second point (staff & costs), it’s about a good balance of stock and flow and having the right tools in place (like Percolate) to make it all happen. The way we see it breaking down is in these three components:
- Calibration: To begin consuming, you’ve got to decide what to consume. If you’re a person, that’s easy, you’ve got your tastes and interests mapped out. If you’re a brand, it’s a little more difficult. We’ve worked out a method that we use to back out of brand/campaign strategy, and into a set of sources for Percolate to sift through.
- Algorithm: Separating the signal from the noise is even harder if you’re a brand (or an editor at a brand) than if you’re an individual. The algorithm does a lot of heavy lifting to try to get to the most interesting content.
- Publishing: The real point of all that lifting isn’t so it can display it in Percolate, it’s so the brand can find interesting content to comment on and push back out.
When you put the content produced in Percolate and combine it with the beautiful content that is an agency’s bread and butter you get a compelling publishing platform that can actually be sustained over time. Once you get that down, it’s only a short step to start thinking about what you do with the content, which is where Felix and I converge again:
It’s easy to create an ad unit which is primarily links to third-party sites; I’m sure with a bit of effort and creativity you could put one together which is even better than the Counterparties unit on Reuters.com. Start placing that ad over the web, and people will, for the first time, actually have a reason to want to look at your ad; when they see it, they’re even likely to click on it! Sure, that click won’t take them to your site — but it’s still a great measure of engagement. And they will love you for sending them to great content.
We’re not quite at that part yet, but hopefully this helps lay out the vision and explain what the hell we’ve had seven people holed up in an office on Bond Street working on for the past year.