‘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.

Top 5 social media marketing mistakes clients most often make (but can be avoided)

Companies are quickly ramping up to integrate social and digital media effectively into their marketing plans. Unfortunately that has been a tricky proposition given the already complex and fluid landscape of the technology behind digital media. And a recent Forrester study confirms how tough it really is; “The complexity of the interactive landscape is creating a fragmentation of interactive agencies, which in turn is creating a whole new set of challenges to marketers,” said Forrester analyst and the report’s author Sean Corcoran. “Interactive marketers should prepare their organization for even more agency partners…” http://www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=118779.  

This reality makes the already steep learning curve even steeper with lots of perils for marketers. In my experience, here are the top five typical mistakes marketers make (present company included) that absolutely can be avoided.    

1) Assume that great content alone will create buzz and go viral. This is such a typical mistake and yet it is probably one of the easiest to avoid. First, no agency should promise that content alone can go viral, it happens so rarely that I bet the odds are better at winning the LOTTO. So don’t fall for the “your content will go viral” promise. You are setting yourself up for disappointment.  

2) Put all your buzz eggs in one social media basket. The expectation that people have about social media is way out of proportion to what it can deliver. No self respecting marketer would put all their media weight in just one vehicle for one day (unless maybe we are talking Super Bowl – but even then). Yet, so often I hear that an entire digital marketing plan just includes a Facebook promo. Digital and traditional media work similarly in one important way – you need a diversity of outlets to achieve critical mass in reach and frequency to break through. Diversification is the hallmark of well developed digital plan.    

3) Diving into social media without a clear monetization plan. When I talk to business colleagues who are starting social media programs, I ask them, “What are your goals for the campaign?”  The typical answer is “Oh I want buzz…” Then, when I poke at that and ask, “Well what does that do for your business”, the answers get quite fuzzy quite fast. I wonder why it seems acceptable for social media to be held to a different set of performance standards than traditional tactics. Any seasoned marketing pro understands that marketing programs need clear performance benchmarks whether it be an email campaign or a new site. Why is it that marketers do not demand similar performance objectives for their social/ digital efforts?  Don’t fall for the buzz hyperbole. Instead be clear about what you want the campaign to do.   

4) Expect immediate results. Here too social media seems to live in a parallel universe where the rules of common sense marketing principles are suspended. No one expects traditional media plans to work overnight, yet people hope, even expect, social media to magically launch a brand overnight from a cold start because it can go viral. It does not work in any marketing program and social media programs are no exception.  

5) Be sure your agency walks the walk and does not just talk the talk. Here’s a true story that just happened to me a few weeks ago. The CEO of a large IT company was telling me how his social media agency included him as their case study right there on the agency’s blog which was featured on their home page. Way cool I thought. So I decided to comment on the case study on their site. Ya’ know what – I submitted the comment on the agency blog only yo see that it was posted a full month after being submitted. It left me scratching my head. I don’t expect an agency to spend all day long managing their blog – but I do expect that if they bother to have a blog then it should be managed as a reflection of their philosophy to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.    

It’s all too easy for companies to be convinced that social media is some magical marketing mystery. It’s not. In fact, much of what applies in traditional applies in social media too. Keep that in mind the next time you are seduced by some “sick” social or digital marketing tactic; feel free to fall in love – just don’t lose your business head in the process.   

Judy Shapiro

Community Casting

I am just back from DigitalHollywood show. There was one question I heard more loudly than any other no matter which session I attended; “How do we monetize content?” The question now takes on an urgent tone as more and more traditional media struggle to answer that question before it’s too late.

And coincidentally, the dialogue at DigitalHollywood seemed a real world extension of the Ad Age article I had written that just was just published; Why Charging for Online Content (Mostly) Won’t Work. The article outlined why trying to monetize content is really hard and the better approach is to create unique user experiences, like a robust community, that then lets you create upsell opportunities. By the kinds of responses I got on the article, I seem to have hit a note. Many people wrote extensively about how current models don’t work.

And as in my article, the conference betrayed a gnawing sense of angst since no one anymore doubted that the old model was broken, but no one was clear about what will replace it.

We all knew we were on the precipice of something big, new, unknown and undefined. We were excited, inspired, and cautious.

We also knew we were all making it up as we go.

Yet even from within the doubts, one could see innovation all around. There are a lot of great tech companies offering lots of versions of video streaming platforms … from PPV to satellite to distributed networks. There were other great companies who had really interesting audience engagement models from the citizen journalists of AllVoices to MomTV who look to create meaningful interactions with Moms. Despite the cool technology we all saw at the conference, the chase for the content monetization answer trumped most others.

The Ad Age article seemed prescient to the conference’s theme because I actually answered that question directly by drawing on the experience of Paltalk, a profitable web 2.0 company. Paltalk’s monetization engine uses content to attract audiences but then creates end user value in offering real time, interactive video visitor engagement within our communities. Once the user is committed to a community, then there are interesting upsell opportunities possible.

This is what “community casting” is about. It is about creating and nurturing a community with real time community interaction with video and chat.  This is what will emerge as the new content monetization engine.

It is, in fact, already working now. Watch this space.

Judy Shapiro

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

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