In response to my little post about describing the past and present, Jim, who reads the blog, emailed me to say it could be referred to as an “atemporal present,” which I thought was a good turn of phrase. I googled it and ran across this fascinating Guardian piece explaining their decision to get rid of references to today and yesterday in their articles. Here’s a pretty large snippet:
It used to be quite simple. If you worked for an evening newspaper, you put “today” near the beginning of every story in an attempt to give the impression of being up-to-the-minute – even though many of the stories had been written the day before (as those lovely people who own local newspapers strove to increase their profits by cutting editions and moving deadlines ever earlier in the day). If you worked for a morning newspaper, you put “last night” at the beginning: the assumption was that reading your paper was the first thing that everyone did, the moment they awoke, and you wanted them to think that you had been slaving all night on their behalf to bring them the absolute latest news. A report that might have been written at, say, 3pm the previous day would still start something like this: “The government last night announced …”
All this has changed. As I wrote last year, we now have many millions of readers around the world, for whom the use of yesterday, today and tomorrow must be at best confusing and at times downright misleading. I don’t know how many readers the Guardian has in Hawaii – though I am willing to make a goodwill visit if the managing editor is seeking volunteers – but if I write a story saying something happened “last night”, it will not necessarily be clear which “night” I am referring to. Even in the UK, online readers may visit the website at any time, using a variety of devices, as the old, predictable pattern of newspaper readership has changed for ever. A guardian.co.uk story may be read within seconds of publication, or months later – long after the newspaper has been composted.
So our new policy, adopted last week (wherever you are in the world), is to omit time references such as last night, yesterday, today, tonight and tomorrow from guardian.co.uk stories. If a day is relevant (for example, to say when a meeting is going to happen or happened) we will state the actual day – as in “the government will announce its proposals in a white paper on Wednesday [rather than ‘tomorrow’]” or “the government’s proposals, announced on Wednesday [rather than ‘yesterday’], have been greeted with a storm of protest”.
What’s extra interesting about this to me is that it’s not just about the time you’re reading that story, but also the space the web inhabits. We’ve been talking a lot at Percolate lately about how social is shifting the way we think about audiences since for the first time there are constant global media opportunities (it used to happen once every four years with the Olympics or World Cup). But, as this articulates so well, being global also has a major impact on time since you move away from knowing where your audience is in their day when they’re consuming your content.
I’m sure you’ve all seen this quote. It’s attributed to Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, and goes something like: “Advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.” (I was reminded of it most recently reading Josh Porter’s blog, Bokardo.) It sounds good and, at first blush, correct, but it’s not for lots of reasons.
Broadly, the line between advertising, marketing, branding, and communications has always been a blurry one. Depending on who you talk to they have a very different definition. For the purposes of the quote, let’s assume when Stephens was talking about advertising he was specifically referring to the buying of media space across platforms like television, magazines, and websites.
With that as the working definition, there are lots of complicated reasons big companies advertise their products. Here are a few:
- Distributors love advertising: If you’re a CPG company you advertise as much for the supermarkets as your do for your product. The more money you spend the better spot they’re willing to give you on the shelf (the thought being that people will be looking for your product). I don’t think there is anyone out there that would argue shelf placement doesn’t matter. At the end of the day supermarkets are your customer if you’re a CPG company, so keeping them happy is a pretty high-priority job.
- Advertising is good at making people think you’re bigger than you are: Sometimes a company or brands wants to “play above its weight,” making people think they’re bigger than they’re actually are. When we see something on TV or in print, we mostly assume there is a big corporation behind it. Sometimes that’s more important than actually selling the product.
- Sometimes you’re not selling a product at all: There are many companies who advertise for reasons wholly disconnected from their product. GE, for example, isn’t running TV commercials about wind turbines to solely try to communicate with the thousands of people who are potentially in the market for a multi-million dollar purchase. A part of why they do it is to communicate with the public at large who is both a major shareholder for the company and also the end consumer of many of their products (many planes we fly on run GE engines and our electricity probably wouldn’t reach our house without GE products). How remarkable their products are has no bearing in this case, since we would never actually be in the market for the vast majority of the things they produce.
Broadly, though, the point I’m trying to make is that while many write off advertising as having no purpose (or being “a tax”), it’s just not true. What’s more, as advertising becomes a more seamless part of the process of being a brand in social, I think this will only become more true. If you see a piece of content performing well on Twitter or Facebook why would you not pay to promote that content and see it reach an audience beyond the core? At that point you’ve eliminated the biggest challenge traditionally associated with advertising (spending tons of money to produce something and having no idea whether it will actually have an effect on people). Seems to me if you’re not willing to entertain the idea you’re just standing on principle.
Yesterday morning I laid in bed and watched Twitter fly by. It was somewhere around 7am and lots of crazy things had happened overnight in Boston between the police and the marathon bombers. I don’t remember exactly where things were in the series of events when I woke up, but while I was watching the still-on-the-loose suspect’s name was released for the first time. As reports started to come in and then, later, get confirmed, people on Twitter did the same thing as me: They started Googling.
As I watched the tiny facts we all uncovered start to turn up in the stream (he was a wrestler, he won a scholarship from the city of Cambridge, he had a link to a YouTube video) I was brought back to an idea I first came across in Bill Wasik’s excellent And Then There’s This. In the book he posits that as a culture we’ve become more obsessed with how a things spreads than the thing itself. He uses the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point to help make the point:
Underlying the success of The Tipping Point and its literary progeny [Freakonomics] is, I would argue, the advent of a new and enthusiastically social-scientific way of engaging with culture. Call it the age of the the model: our meta-analyses of culture (tipping points, long tails, crossing chasms, ideaviruses) have come to seem more relevant and vital than the content of culture itself.
Everyone wanted to be involved in “the hunt,” whether it was on Twitter and Google for information about the suspected bomber, on the TV where reporters were literally chasing these guys around, or the police who were battling these two young men on a suburban street. Watching the new tweets pop up I got a sense that the content didn’t matter as much as the feeling of being involved, the thrill of the hunt if you will. As Wasik notes, we’ve entered an age where how things spread through culture is more interesting than the content itself.
To be clear, I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing (I do my best to stay away from that sort of stuff), but it’s definitely a real thing and an integral part of how we all experience culture today. When I opened the newspaper this morning it was as much to see how much I knew and how closely I’d followed as it was to learn something new about the chase. After reading the cover story that recounted the previous day’s events I turned to Brian Stetler’s appropriately titled News Media and Social Media Become Part of a Real-Time Manhunt Drama.
Thank goodness someone explained to everyone why tweeting how much you’d pay for HBO Go is a useless exercise:
Think about it: Every time someone signs up for cable or satellite service, one of the inevitable perks is a free six- or 12-month subscription to HBO. And those free subscriptions are rarely, if ever, cancelled once the trial period ends.
What would happen if HBO no longer had the pay TV industry’s marketing team propping it up all the time? The results would be disastrous, and there’s no way that HBO could make up in online volume the number of subscribers it would lose from cable. Which is why, even though some users would actually pay more for access to HBO GO without all the other cable channels, you won’t see it show up as a standalone service anytime soon.
What’s more, I find the whole attitude that HBO must be stupid to not offer this to be the most obnoxious part. Are we really to believe that no one inside HBO has considered this? There are a lot of complexities to any market and the reason a company isn’t doing something that seems obvious is hardly ever because they haven’t thought of it. Or, if you don’t believe me, listen to what Dan Frommer has to say.
And actually, whenever I read anything about this topic I think back to this piece from 2007 by Joe Nocera about a la carte cable.
This post is the intersection of a few different things I’ve been thinking about lately. First is Percolate. Part of the process of introducing the company to new people is frequently recounting the story of where the product came from. James and I have probably sent each other a thousand different articles back and forth and I asked him recently for his list of top articles that really inspired his thinking in the space. The second thing is Robin Sloan’s Fish which is all about the difference between liking and loving content. It made me think about the list of the content and marketing-related articles I’ve read that I come back to frequently. This is that list. Some of these are newer and may not hold the test of time, but most of them are things I’ve come back to (at least in conversation) about once a month since I’ve read them (they are distributed over the last 10 years).
Without any further ado, here’s my list:
Stock & Flow
Not specifically about marketing, but it’s all about content. Stock and flow is how we’ve taken to thinking about content at Percolate and this is really where that idea came from. I’ve written a few things inspired by the idea and use it frequently to explain how brands should think about content (and why Percolate exists).
Many Lightweight Interactions
This is the most recent article of the bunch and comes by way of Paul Adams, who works in the product team at Facebook. It was a really nice way to explain a lot of the stuff I’ve been thinking and talking about with clients over the last five years. Specifically it talks about how the web (and specifically social) offer brands an opportunity to move from a world of few heavyweight interactions (stock in Robin’s parlance) to many lightweight interactions (flow). The one thing I’d add is that I think the real opportunity is to take the many lightweight interactions and use them to understand what works and inform the occasional heavyweight interactions brands need to succeed.
Who’s the Boss?
This was written by a friend of mine 10 years ago. It’s short, but the core point is that brand’s live in people’s heads. This was what inspired Brand Tags and has colored lots of my thinking about how brands behave.
Why Gawker is Moving Beyond the Blog
Not specifically about marketing, but Denton’s explanation of why he’s moved from the classic blog format is a great explanation of how content works on the web.
How Social Networks Work
Another slightly older one, this was the first time I had read someone talked about the idea of social as exhaust data (basically our digital breadcrumbs), which seemed like a really good way to think about it (and helped explain why brands struggled). Lately I’ve been using this to help explain why brands struggle in social: Exhaust data is a very human thing. You need to consume in order to create this trail and most brands don’t do that.
How Owned Media Changed the Game
From Ted McConnel who used to be head of digital at P&G. I really liked this quote: “Recently, in a room full of advertising brain trustees, one executive said, ‘The ‘new creative’ might be an ecosystem of content.’ Brilliant. The brand lives in the connections, the juxtapositions, the inferences, the feeling of reciprocity.” This was one of those articles that really wrapped up a bunch of stuff I had been thinking about. It’s nice when that happens.
That’s it for me. What would you add? What am I forgetting?
I’m doing this “virtual panel” about content over at the new FastCo Create site. The first round is up (I’ll update this post as it goes up) and here’s a quick excerpt from my answer about what brands need to know about content:
I’m not actually sure that creating editorial content is all that different than creating promotional content, at least on a high level. Advertising is a process of combining brand outputs (look, feel, voice) with cultural inputs (insights, trends, etc.) and creating a piece of communication. The shift I see taking place is that the traditional processes around creating content for a world of campaigns break-down in a real-time content creation environment: Brands and agencies aren’t currently set up to consume culture as it happens, which is what media organizations do. I think this is a big shift we’ll start to see inside brands over the coming years. It’s not that they’ll try to model themselves on media organizations, but rather, they’re going to rearrange themselves around real-time consumption of content, data, analytics and anything else they can get their hands on to help make decision and communicate better.
Felix Salmon expands on some of the stuff I wrote the other day about brands as publishers. Specifically, he points to an interesting example I didn’t know about in the Gates Foundation. The non-profit gave the Guardian a $2.5 million grant to suppor the Guardian’s global development microsite for three years. Felix explains:
The Gates Foundation actually launched the site in 2010, spending an undisclosed sum to do so; the new grant keeps the site going for another three years. As part of the deal, every page in the site — be it blog post or news story — gets prominently branded with the Gates Foundation logo, right at the top of the column where all the editorial content goes. (In fact, the logo is significantly larger than the Guardian’s own logo at the top of the page, although the site looks and feels like the rest of the Guardian site, and lives at guardian.co.uk.)
At the end of the post Felix asks a few questions, including what does the Gates foundation get out of an arrangement like this? I’ve got a guess, which is they get more awareness around the issues. That sounds like a bit of a throwaway answer, but the Gates Foundation is an interesting position as a brand: They are a market leader. When you’re a market leader your goal becomes less about building your own position and more about building the category.
Take BabyCenter as an example. Johnson & Johnson dominates the baby category. Last time I heard their marketshare was up above 50 percent. Their objective with marketing is less about displacing the competition and more about building the market: They want parents to take more “care” of their babies by buying more products. If they take just their regular percentage of the new market it’s a big deal.
I’ve written about it in the past, but Google is one of my favorite examples of a market leader marketer. Their dominance in search makes in inefficient to try to steal share from competitors (how will they even find the small percentage of people who use Bing?). Instead, they spend money growing the category with products like Android and Chrome. Here’s what I wrote about the strategy in 2009:
What that means is everything Google does is about getting more people to use the internet more. Use Android as an example: It is absolutely in Google’s best interest to release a mobile OS that makes it easy to browse the web because that means more people using the internet more which means more searches on Google (because of that market dominance) which means more clicks on the paid ads. Voila, you’re rich.
I suspect Gates thinks about the approach in a very similar way. The more people are thinking about these issues, the more effective they can be in enacting the change they are pushing for. I’m actually surprised they bothered with the branding on the pages, though it likely makes the Guardian much more comfortable.
The broader question, which Felix seems to be getting at, is what can we learn from programs like this and is there a model here for media companies? I suspect the answer is yes, though the first thing we need to figure out is how to apply the model to non-market leaders. When you’re promoting a lifestyle, idea or category you lead, it’s easy to see how getting people to think about it more makes sense. If you’re a brand who isn’t in that situation (most), how do you build value in a similar way?
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.