‘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.

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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.

Judy

A daily identity crisis – venture style.

Damn it!

You’d think that after 18 months of intense development which resulted in a live marketing platform with paying customers, we wouldn’t be having this problem.

You’d think we’d know by now.

But as we begin selling our new platform, prospects from agencies and brands, surprisingly, see us solving different problems. Agencies think of us as tech company helping them with new ideas. Brands see us as a service provider able to integrate tech enabled marketing with services. This leads to some awesome but awkward moments confusing what we are.

Generally speaking, they categorize us loosely in three ways:

  • Tech venture. Brands most typically see us as a content syndication platform able to integrate different content types within one hub. With our network of topic based communities, brands can distribute content and curate visitors towards a purchase. One can think of us as an “Open Sky” (affiliate platform) meets SayMedia (topic-based, blogger network). We add a “big data” kicker which puts us squarely in the tech venture bucket.  One of our first customers is a new ecommerce site using our tech to drive cheaper CPAs versus PPC (fingers crossed).
  • “Nextgen” agency.  Aside from my deep distaste for anything “nextgen” developed during my tenure as brand director for Lucent Technologies – I have no idea what that means.  Agencies are a fee-based services business – a decidedly human endeavor. Any variation of “nextgen” anything has a tech focus which, by definition, minimizes human intervention in favor of automation.  Confused? So am I. But we have some customers where we deliver social marketing and content syndication services. For these customers, we are an agency with a comprehensive and integrated tech approach to social and content marketing.  I don’t know if that qualifies as “nextgen” anything. 
  • The “agency’s agency.” This definition is most intriguing perhaps because it actually most closely matches what we are doing today. We planned our platform to be “agency happy” in that an agency can sell it profitably to a client. And when our first big “corporate” sale came through an agency partner, our most optimistic hopes were realized because we weren’t even in the room when the sale was made!  While this is a major milestone moment, the real work starts in the post-sale phase as the agency learns to work with our platform and processes. It’s the agency’s role to lead their clients in this initiative. It’s our role to offer the agency a safe passage on their journey through these new, sometimes murky marketing waters.

Every encounter with every prospect or partner is a revelation amplified during these early, tender weeks. Each marketer has unique ideas for how they want to use our platform – from a social learning laboratory to a content hub to a curated commerce platform.  We’ve already productized some of their ideas. There are other ideas that we could see have tremendous value. It’s so tempting to go off and productize these ideas too; a rather easier task than you may imagine since we built our platform to be a nimble, direct response-like engine – lots of modular pieces that can be arranged and re-arranged to test a multitude of marketing variables.

But as tempting as it is to go off and productize all these ideas, obviously that’s way too chaotic. Choices must be made which means I am pretty sure our identity crisis will get worse before it gets better.

This is, as a friend once told me, a high class problem to have.  Yay (I think).

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