‘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.

Social Media’s the Little Engine That Can Build Awareness

Here Are Six Reasons Why It Will in 2010

By Judy Shapiro

Published in Advertising Age;  December 16, 2009

http://adage.com/digitalnext/post?article_id=141109

Remember the children’s story “The Little Engine That Could”? It told of how the big shiny engines were not up to the task of getting up over the hill to deliver the toys to the kids in time for the holidays. Instead, despite the skeptics, it was the little engine in an act of pure will, that kept telling itself, “I think I can, I think I can,” who was able to get over the big hill to get the job done.

In some ways, social media is like that little engine (and I use the term social media in its broadest sense to encompass digital and social media). Everyone is playing with social media, but there is a deeply held perception that social media lacks mass audience reach, measurability and depth to get the job done. This perception fuels the debate of whether digital agencies are “ready to lead,” which as been a hot topic even within this very forum. Some digital agencies contend that social media is mature enough to be the leading vehicle whereas big agencies stay true to the law of large numbers that traditional media reliably delivers.

But the debate about who should lead seems rather irrelevant, because the key concern should be what will work to get over that “awareness hill” that every advertiser must scale to achieve business results. Is the little social media engine ready to scale the big hill?

“I think it can” and here’s why.

When social media exploded on the scene (and I think that’s a fair characterization), it garnered attention because it held the promise of microtargeting in combination with a new level of engagement that one-way traditional advertising could never duplicate. No one doubted the value of reaching people in these highly engaged environments, but no one really knew how to do it efficiently en masse. Large agencies operated within the traditional ad model that delivered numbers while digital agencies tended to rely on the “viral” nature of their tactics to deliver large numbers. That approach was too hit-and-miss to satisfy most businesses and rightfully so.

This is why, until now, social media has not captured a larger share of big advertisers’ budgets — it seems oxymoronic that social media’s microtargeting capability can ever deliver mass audiences.

But like our little engine, I believe 2010 will be the year where the social media finally says “I think I can” to deliver large audiences because the technology pieces are coming together to create the formula for audience reach, measurability and interactivity that yield intent and business results. There is a new maturity in this space as represented, for example, by marketers who now understand that thousands of Twitter followers has no direct relevance to effectiveness or that Facebook alone can not launch campaigns.

Here’s how the social media engine can be used to deliver mass audiences efficiently:

  • Think about creating “content campaigns” to drive a focused message using a multichannel approach, e.g video, mobile marketing, social networks and even traditional media. This approach puts the value on content as an audience builder but in a very strategic way. And to help content campaigns along, there are innovative new technology companies, like WebCollage, that offer content syndication and management services to make this task very efficient on a large scale.
  • Tap into the power of your customer service organization to be your social-media front-line soldiers. It is one of the most powerful ways to achieve mass reach within current organizational resources. JetBlue is a great example here as they make it a point to respond to every tweet within minutes.
  • Create mobile apps to propel new interactions while allowing you to bake in the viral looping element. Gap Style Mixer is a great example; the app gets you in-store discounts while letting you share the discounts with friends.
  • Use behaviorally appropriate ad networks as the “carpet layer” of a social-media campaign to deliver large number of impressions similar to the old fashioned GRP (gross rating points) of TV. But to ensure that impressions deliver interactivity, weave in a diversity of behavioral targeting opportunities and retargeting programs from companies like FetchBack or SearchIgnite (this is where you re-present ad an to a target who did not respond the first time).
  • Adapt real-world social networks to extend the reach of your social media campaigns. One innovative company in this space is called HouseParty, which allows people to host real world parties for product sampling (think Tupperware parties or Avon Ladies). This company cleverly utilizes social media so they can deliver large scale numbers quickly and efficiently.
  • Introduce new tools to measure social media that focus on engagement, interactivity and intent. One great example is a company called Nuconomy, which provides new tools to understand how interactivity drives intent and sales.

As in our story, when the little engine scaled over the hill, it gleefully said “I thought I could, I thought I could.” Perhaps 2010 will be the year when the social media is able to say the same.

Judy Shapiro

The real lesson to be learned from Mister Splashy Pants

Like many of us – I use Twitter as a good filter for all the stuff that I should read about but would never, ever find on my own.

Anyway, one little bit caught my eye; “How to make a splash in social media”. It was one of those hyper fast – 4 minutes presentations presented at TED/ India, featuring Alexis Ohanian of Reddit with a clever bit about how Greenpeace used social media to halt whaling. Good cause. Great message.  http://www.ted.com/talks/alexis_ohanian_how_to_make_a_splash_in_social_media.html

His opening, “Lots of consultants make a lot of money talking about this stuff.. I’m going to try and save you all the time and money and explain it 3 minutes” was the beginning of a clever and catchy presentation on the power of social media.

I was hooked, that is until he revealed the story’s main theme. Somewhat stunned I heard him conclude that social media was largely free. I was disappointed to hear yet another digi-rati so in love with technology that he failed to be objective. I was surprised that Reddit’s CEO, Alexis, clearly a thoughtful man, fell into the trap so easily.

It seems, therefore, left to us real world practitioners to set the record straight. My message is very simple. Social media is not free – but the myth is perpetuated because capturing its costs is harder than traditional media.

So let me repeat – social media is NOT free and I will use Alexis’ case study of Mr. Splashy Pants to introduce reality to his ever sunny and youthful telling of the story.

The presentation itself condenses the uplifting real world experience of a Greenpeace program that wanted to stop whaling. They introduced a grass roots promotion to name this initiative to garner attention. One quirky name, Mr. Splashy Pants created a groundswell, among the community; including the Reddit team which helped Greenpeace achieve its noble goals. The whales win, Greenpeace wins, social media wins and Reddit too.

His quotable quotes reinforce the “social media is free” theme and included a wealth of digital “truisms” such as:

  1. “It costs nothing to get your content out there”
  2. “The content distribution platforms are free so it only takes a few minutes of your time to distribute…
  3. “All links are equal …”
  4. “And the cost of iteration is so cheap…”
  5. “We {at Reddit} got behind it ourselves,.. we changed the logo …

Now all these “ism’s” sound great until you actually think about each one critically. So let’s do just that and you’ll see why Alexis, earnest though he was, succumbed to the myth like so many before him.

“It costs nothing to get your content out there” .  Who does he think is writing all this content that;  ”costs nothing to distribute”- content fairies with some pixie dust?

“The content distribution platforms are free so it only takes a few minutes of your time to distribute…” And since when is time, even “a little time”, free? And what if you are not as tech savvy as Alexis? Would it in fact be “just a few minutes” for most people?

“All links are equal …” How can he say this with a straight face unless he means all links are, quite literally, created equal? But anyone in the real world knows that even a 1,000 links with little traffic has very little value versus one site with lots of traffic. Getting quality links is the point and that is not really free to get.

“And the cost of iteration is so cheap…” This principle has caused more money to be wasted than perhaps any other ill conceived corporate mantra. Take it from real world experience – iteration borne of a lack of preparation (e.g. research) is rarely profitable. The ideal is to get it roughly right … but that takes upfront planning time which is definitely not free.

“We {at Reddit} got behind it ourselves,.. we changed the logo …” This little point sounds innocent enough and it is. They felt it was a worthwhile cause to get behind by creating a logo and giving it support. Well done. But tell me how many companies can count on that type of support which surely helped? Would that cost nothing too?

Time is money – even in the social media world. Maybe the reason this myth is a hard one to beat is because no single social media activity takes a lot of time. But when you add all the pieces together, you have a “content campaign” which is a time investment that most definitely is not free – but it does seem invisible.

That’s why Alexis fell victim to the “social media is free” trap. Don’t you fall for it too.

Judy Shapiro

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