‘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 making of marketing miracles

“What is a marketing miracle?” you ask. In my world view, a marketing miracle is when a small entrepreneurial company can “out brand” the largest established companies in their space – without breaking the bank in marketing and advertising costs. Or a miracle can be the launch of a company that was considered as dull as watching paint dry become a poster child for the prosperity of the dot com boom. Some miracles have a David versus Goliath feel to them, others are miracles of timing. It’s useful for marketers to recognize marketing miracles because if you are lucky enough to be in on the ride, it is always exciting and rewarding on many levels in one’s life.  

Does it happen a lot. No, which kinda of explains why it is called a miracle. But they do happen and I know because I have been lucky enough in my career to have seen two, spread over a dozen years.  

Why I got so lucky to have a ring side seat not one miracle but two – who knows. But I know a miracle when I see them and I am always in awe. It restores my faith in the possibilities of what marketing can really do for a company. It is restorative and inspiring which is why I want to share it with you.

 Miracle #1

My first miracle was when the Lucent brand was launched. (As a side note – Lucent rise and fall of Lucent was in my opinion a case when marketing was actually better than the products the company had to sell. It was only a matter of time before the product realities overwhelmed our ability to create a compelling brand message. But that’s another story L )

Anyway, I was an AT&T employee at the time, and I was drafted (literally) to go to the equipment side of the company, yet unnamed. I was not happy. I wanted to stay with AT&T but an ex-boss of mine convinced me it could be fun. “I’ve never actually launched a brand” I said. He said, “we’ll learn”. We did and fast. I became part of a small core team who had the full responsibility to launch the Lucent brand. My role was corporate brand management and I had to deal with all sorts of rebranding requirements – from buildings to stationary and everything in between. I was responsible for product naming and worse I had to enforce a set of corporate marketing communications guidelines across 11 very very independent business units who all had their own idea of how to market their brands which often did not adhere to the greater Lucent branding good.

And yet, after just 12 months, the brand was awarded a best-in-class brand by the American Marketing Association. We continued to win that award two more years. Stock had gone up a lot. After 18 months, we won the APQC Branding award (American Productivity and Quality Council). Harvard did a case study. In other words, we made boring telecom equipment sexy – to employees, to customers, to partners and most importantly to investors – big and little ones. In fact, we overtly targeting individuals to invest in Lucent as individual investors tend to “buy and hold”. After two years, a stock that had started at about $5 had risen so much it had split.

So what was the miracle? The miracle was that we were able to market Lucent to reflect the optimism the emergence of the Internet was having on the collective psyche. The miracle was one of being able to capture the core essence of society’s imagination just at that moment in time.

Miracle #2

I admit it. I was a non believer. I was almost (gasp) blasphemous. The CEO of Comodo in June or July of 2006 set what seemed to me to a highly optimistic goal regarding the number of installations of our consumer firewall solution.  I was not sure the number was even possible. We were after all starting from a cold start. The first 6 months or so were slow. We celebrated when we hit the 1,000 mark with great glee. But then, we got our viral marketing engine into gear. Forums were set up, web pages were SEO’d and so forth.

In about 15 months since launch we had reached download rates that I thought were unattainable. After 20 months, I realized how right the CEO was. In just under 24 months, we have just launched the first of a line of identity management solutions for end users starting with a new No Worry Warranty. No one else in PC security comes close. The sales goals have been set. They are optimistic. But this time I do believe. We will achieve it – sooner rather than later.

Which leads me to miracle #2.

The power of this strategy has resulted in Comodo being more searched on the Internet than the $3B company VeriSign. All on the fuel of emarketing. It’s not free – but it doesn’t cost $80/ barrel either.

Do you believe in miracles?

Judy Shapiro

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