‘Go Small or Go Home’ Is the Next Big Thing in Ad Tech

[This post first appeared in Ad Age – 3/17/15 – http://adage.com/article/digitalnext/small-home-big-thing-ad-tech/297601/]

“Go big or go home” is the mantra that drives the current ad-tech gold rush. It refers to the prize that awaits ventures capable of scaling their audiences — the faster the better — guaranteeing huge ad budgets in the rapid shift from traditional to digital media.

Advertisers, for their part, were seduced by ad tech’s undeniable appeal for “predictable” marketing — devoid of quirky, error-prone human intuition. Powerful ad-buying platforms promised billions of impressions, delivered faster and cheaper than ever before.

But, as in every other gold rush, a few “unicorn” successes don’t guarantee a sustainable ad-tech industry. The recent weakness of some high-flying ventures like Say Media, which is scaling back, Sulia, which shut down, or Rocket Fuel, post IPO, reflect how underwhelmed advertisers are by the performance of “scalable” ad-tech platforms.

Their disappointment is well-founded. Ad tech’s performance paints a sobering picture, demanding a critical look at the “scale” game.

There’s rampant ad fraud driven by arbitrage incentives endemic throughout the ad-buying process.

There’s shocking low quality to all the billions of impressions delivered, frustrating advertisers’ desire for quality engagement with real people.

All these symptoms are the toxic results of the unbridled drive to scale. Ad tech confused the internet’s ability to scale technically to billions of digital nodes with marketing’s desire to reach billions of people. This colossal “bait-and-switch” scale game left advertisers deeply mistrustful of ad-tech, as all those algorithms stomped on the very human and delicate brand/consumer digital dance. This leaves us with retargeting ads that follow us relentlessly and banner ad blindness that’s more acute than ever.

It’s time to put people first

What’s going to make it right? A fundamental shift that replaces our slavish devotion to “Go big or go home” with a focus on innovation that delivers human-scaled, “people-first” digital marketing.

Believe it or not, this “people-first” vision was the foundational inspiration for the very earliest, heady internet days, circa 1996. We felt giddy at the possibility of experiencing a personal, human-scaled internet — an internet of “me.”

This was the era of Yahoo’s exuberant “Do You Yahoo” tagline with a whimsical personal portal expressing the joy implicit in its name. AOL, MySpace, Google and Amazon all glowingly promised us digital agents that could fulfill our every digital desire. Scale back then meant internet-powered individual “Judy consumers,” but lots of them, who all controlled their own experiences.

Alas, the technologies needed to deliver that noble vision were decades away. In the intervening 20 years, that personal internet vision got lost in a sea of scale.

For those of us fortunate enough to have experienced those early, wondrous internet days, we know that social, content and mobile tech can now realize the promises made so long ago of a “people-first” internet. As “Judy consumer” continues to strengthen her digital muscle, scale must expand to also include the technological expressions of human dynamics like relevancy, trust and contextual engagement.

Practically speaking, the ad-tech landscape will look quite different than today. Here are some trends that will drive the next era of ad tech:

  • The internet is a content-serving engine that, increasingly, will reward those ventures that can deliver hard-to-find niche topics integrated into local search, local commerce and hyper-topic digital communities.
  • The emergence of engagement-based private exchanges with quality, albeit smaller, audiences.
  • Metrics will evolve to be smarter around “intention” and “attention” of audiences.
  • The introduction of “pull” or opt-in marketing platforms that deliver real people ready to engage (don’t look for a billion anything in these platforms).
  • Programmatic technologies that can interpret the correct context throughout an offline/online user experience.

For those with the courage to push the redo button, “Go small or go home” will be how the next wave of ad tech will evolve into new marketing tech ventures of tomorrow. These ventures will get very big indeed.

The Marketing Measurement Maze: measuring marketing is a mess.

Judy Shapiro:

Wow – I kvetched about the marketing metric mess back in 2010. I was right back then. Alas it is far worse now. *sigh*

Originally posted on Trenchwars Weblog:

Forgive the illustrative nature of the headline  – but I had to laugh out loud about this whole thing or else I would cry.

This post is a follow up to my previous post about how fragile measuring marketing technology really is based on a real time experience I was having with Technorati regarding the authority ranking of this blog.    Unhappily, my initial concerns about marketing measurement were realized so it is worth recapping.

About a week ago, by accident, I learn that according to Technorati this blog, getting a mere 1,000 visitors a month, vaulted 4x in authority rankings to about 400 when previously I ranked about 100. For about a week, I jumped up and down a few times going between 400 and then 600 (see pictures in my previous post).I contacted Technorati and told them I think there is a glitch. I got a very polite…

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7 schizophrenic traits every startup CEOs must adopt

Originally posted on Trenchwars Weblog:

CEO PSYCHOSIS The role of CEO is often described in gauzy, glowing terms espousing passion mingled with ambition that runs deep enough to change the world. All this noble ambition belies the uncomfortable reality that the inner world of a start-up CEO is often a constant state of conflicting realities that can distract from the mission at hand.

This list reflects my personal experience as the CEO of a social commerce startup. I can tell you – the dual reality can be disconcerting at first but after a while it gives you a certain edge that makes you tougher and smarter the longer you stay at it.

1) Your vision must be out there enough to generate investor interest but not so out there so as no one knows what you’re talking about. We’ve heard it from the pundits a lot – be different, don’t just iterate on another idea. Gotcha but then…

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Top 8 tech terms marketers love to hate.

Nothing rankles the ire of any marketer with even a tad of experience more than those highly touted “new” tech terms or concepts positioned as silver bullet answers to, heretofore unsolved, marketing   problems. And to those of us who’ve been around the marketing block a few times, these new terms resemble a toddler’s early attempts at speech – cute but a phase they’ll grow out of. depression

Unfortunately, though, some of these usually harmless little word experiments “stick;” taking on a larger-than-life meaning that does a disservice to everyone.  My plain hope here is to put these concepts into context so they can be practically applied in the day-in-day-out business of marketing.

1. White labeling:

The history: It started life decades ago in the tech world referring to the practice of re-branding 3rd party technology as your own so it can be resold at a higher price.  This was worked well for many tech platforms like CRM or email service providers because the “resellers” were often system integrators or tech companies themselves.

The impact: When the practice began to be applied to the marketing industry, i.e. an agency white labeling a tech platform, it translated poorly because a marketing company is poorly skilled to take on the management of a tech platform.

Why I hate the term: The term shines a spotlight on the bigger disconnect between the business models of tech platforms versus advertisers/ agencies. White labeling is no solution for anyone; agencies have to fake it, tech companies get no credit for their innovation and brands are sold “black boxes” – a sure recipe for problems down the road.

2. Native ads:

The history: This term was recently coined by Fred Wilson in 2011 as “native internet marketing model” and “native monetization systems” (Fred Wilson’s 2011 talk on this topic). This concept was picked up by a social media tech platform and morphed into meaning advertising that’s consistent (a.k.a. native) with the environment around it.

The impact: If only Fred had asked any marketer, he’d have learned we had a term for that concept; alternatively called advertorials (1980s), sponsored content (1990s) or custom content (2000s). And just like in years past, the trust issue about separation of “content church” and “advertising state” plagues the effectiveness of today’s “native ads.”

Why I hate the term: Tech platforms can push demographically accurate “native advertising” but that doesn’t make it trusted advertising, (disclosures notwithstanding). Experienced marketers know that advertising that is not trusted is not worth doing. Tech ventures are climbing that steep learning curve.

3. Growth hacker:

The history: Somehow this term evolved as an awkward mash-up of the terms “hacking,” the ability to use tech wits to achieve results usually at “low/ no cost,” and “marketing growth.”

Ugh! This pairing spawned a Frankenstein child capable only of crude brute tech force that is ultimately unfit for the delicate business of marketing.

The impact: I don’t think anyone has a real clue what a growth hacker really is. I do know that anyone who is actually hiring marketing folks snickers at the phrase.

Why I hate the term: Some things seem obvious and yet require saying nonetheless. For the record, no marketer wakes one day to say; “Let me spend the most money possible to create the least result possible.” Marketing is about getting the most bang for the least buck.  That’s not “growth hacking” – that’s the marketer’s job description.

4. MVP (Minimum Viable Product):

The history: The “when to ship” decision remains probably one of the most excruciating decisions every tech CEO must make. Investors, eager to reduce their risk, push CEOs to ship the least offensive product possible a.k.a. the MVP (Minimum Viable Product).

And they’re not kidding when describing it as “minimum viable.” This virtually guarantees that almost immediately, iterations are needed to adapt to market feedback. Problem is, in this context, MVP and the “iteration” model (deserving a place on this list in its own right) fails marketing practitioners.

The impact: The MVP problem lies in the fact that a constantly “iterating” marketing platform can mess up the very delicate and time consuming sales conversion process with just a single interruptive interstitial here or badly retargeting ad there.

Why I hate the term: MVP encourages a UE race to the bottom with more and more users getting more and more frustrated. Worse, it seems the MVP concept has become a “get out of jail free” card to excuse a tech platform’s particularly bad results or awkward UE. “Iterations” offer little salvation, actually exacerbating the problem (more on that below).

5. Iteration:

The history: Software development is a process of creating, testing, fixing, testing, fixing a.k.a. iterations. This “agile” process has evolved over the years but it is always based on some machine-based process of trial and error.

The impact: While machines are great at handling iteration – people aren’t. Making continual changes or iterations to a marketing platform is fraught with possible bad user experiences that can blow any marketing proforma out of the water.

Why I hate the term: Iterations have become so pervasive in an MVP world, it is virtually impossible for marketers to keep up. Facebook alone is planning an “iteration” of six ad products in the next few weeks. Iteration is chaos for marketers.

6. Earned media

The history: This term does not have its origins in tech but in PR where it referred to the additional “earned” or free media a story got. This additional “free” media coverage was in direct contrast to “paid” media coverage.

But sometime in the last 5 years, the term was co-opted by the tech world and linked to social media with unintended but harmful consequences.

The impact: The damage was done in talking about “social media” as being able to generate “earned media” – setting up the dangerous expectation that social media is free or cheap just like “earned media.”

Why I hate the term:  Any marketing practitioner knows it takes lots of time and hard work to get social media to work properly. That is not free or even cheap. The mythical “earned media” beast creates false expectations that are hard to overcome.

7. Impressions:

The history: In the old days, it was relatively easy to estimate the number of people an ad campaign would reach given the limited number of outlets; TV, magazine, radio and even movies. This diverse yet limited media was measured in terms of standard “impressions” easily translatable to a real-world audience number.

The impact:  Theuse of impressions worked with traditional media because of its tangible audience delivery numbers but it fails in today’s digital landscape that is capable of serving billions of impressions but incapable of telling us how many people were actually reached.

Why I hate the term: This term, more than any, IMHO is the root cause of a system-wide loss of trust between agencies and tech platforms; advertisers and publisher audience numbers; consumers and advertisers. This epic trust failure explains the steep decline in all forms of digital advertising interactions.

8. Engagement:

The history: The term was long used to describe great creative because it was “engaging.” Later, sometime in the 1990’s, it was applied more specifically to direct marketing because of its ability to precisely measure direct response engagement (i.e. – email or banner ads).

The impact: It’s rather humorous to watch marketing tech platforms gush about engagement as though it just hatched from the brain of the clever tech set. That would be benign enough except that a tech platform’s idea of engagement is a herky jerky set of user “twitches” and clicks instead of the elegant dance that a great engagement experience can become.

Why I hate the term: Technologists’ slavish devotion to engagement is rather shallow; lacking in the nuance to understand the profound ROI difference between just an “interaction” and true “engagement.”

The marketing tech industry is trying to respond to the continued stream of bad news of plummeting digital ad response rates. At its heart, I believe the challenges stem from the lack of connectedness between technologists’ capabilities and marketers’ requirements. Language can be a bridge connecting technology with the business of marketing. Only then can we begin to unleash all the potential.

Why did social media become so urgently important right now?

Judy Shapiro:

So much has happened in social media since this was written in 2010 and yet the operational model for how companies leverage social marketing as still as fuzzy now as then. *sigh*

Originally posted on Trenchwars Weblog:

Nowadays, I sometimes feel like the doctor who is often asked his advice “off duty”. Once I say I am in marketing, the inevitable questions begin. “How can I launch a product with just social media?” (You can’t). Is social media really free? (No). Can I be successful at social media without an agency (yes…but). This is not just mere curiosity; there is urgency to the questions I have not encountered before.

Now aside from the inconvenient truth that I am practitioner of marketing and perhaps not an “expert”; the other inconvenient truth is that there aren’t many experts to found anywhere because social media has barely been on the corporate radar for 24 months and it is very fast evolving category of marketing that is growing in importance. This expertise gap understandably makes companies scrambling for advice with a frantic energy approaching panic.

So with that perspective, let’s return…

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My itzy bitzy “told ya so” moment

Today I caught wind of a post called: The Facebook experiment has failed. Let’s go back.via @jeswin that describes how Facebook failed because it lost sight of its core mission.

Today, I felt vindicated because when I asked way back in December 2010 “Has Facebook Jumped the Shark?” I was universally derided by the tech world as being old fashioned. I was privately applauded by ad folks for having the gumption to dare and challenge the cool Facebook.

In the end, it’s kind of a hard to call a $40B company a failure. That said,  my ambivalence with Facebook continues to roll along as this image I did for a SWSX session (2011) I was asked to do expresses so perfectly.

The SXSW Image for article "Has Facebook Jumped the Shark?"

The SXSW Image for article “Has Facebook Jumped the Shark?”

Huh Twitter?

Dear Twitter –

I have trying to use your ad platform but you stump me.

You send me campaign optimization emails after the campaign is over.

You make it hard to understand how a new account can advertise.

You have a weird glitch in your mobile ad platform.

But this is almost funny. Am I supposed to learn Japanese (I think that what’s it is)??

This is the what I see on my Twitter ad dashboard.

twitter 2




Confusion abounds.



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