I’m Done With These Uncertain Times

I need a break from all the heartfelt feelings and hypocrisy.

Watching television – primarily via Hulu – is becoming an emotional chore, one that needs to be prepared for and managed as if I were running a marathon or dealing with extended family. The reason? The ads.

Commercials, of course, are few people’s favorite part of the viewing experience. It’s possible to not be a big fan while also recognizing the role paid advertising plays in supporting media and such. But now these are becoming especially hard to stomach.

That’s mostly because of how the commercials have become exercises in seeing how emotional they can make audiences feel by referencing the current Covid-19 pandemic and how the business has adjusted operations as a result.

Inserting coronavirus-themed messaging into the commercials means viewers may not be getting the full effect of the break from pandemic-related news they so desperately need.

The phrases have become familiar and pervasive. “In these uncertain times…” or “As we go through this difficult period…” or “As we all try to make sense of the world around us…” Whatever the terminology, the message is largely the same: The company behind the ad has instituted contactless curbside pickup, or has given their workers a bottle of hand-sanitizer and some gloves so they can keep doing their jobs. All of it is an effort to make sure that the consumer feels doing business with them will be safe and that it treats their workers respectfully.

Sometimes these are funny. More often they’re somber and serious. In some cases they’re thinly-veiled recruitment ads.

Frequently they’re outright hypocritical. Retailers of various kinds running ads about how much they are protecting their warehouse and store workers while the news reports on how those companies are denying people sick leave and failing to track the outbreaks happening in their locations is a pretty remarkable thing to watch.

Whatever the case, there are more and more of them, now accounting for some 20 percent of TV advertising. That means nearly every commercial break now has at least one, often with a narrator speaking in soft, calming tones.

And while there are certainly more pressing matters in front of the world right now, I’m done with them. In fact, I reached my breaking point *because* there’s so much else going on. We all need to give our minds a rest from the constant deluge of terrible news and updates, and these reminders that society has been upended in substantial ways are exhausting.

Oddly, I haven’t seen many commercials talking about how we will get through these uncertain times following the police killing of George Floyd. I’m sure there’s a reason for that.

In the meantime, I could use fewer reminders that things are so uncertain. I know. Every time I go get gas and put on a mask, I remember. Every time I open Twitter, I remember. It’s just that the rationale behind them is so blatant and frequently obnoxious I can’t take much more.

It should be stated that there is one exception to this, the latest Arby’s commercial, which pokes some fun at the reality of the current situation.

Less Of Your Marketing Matters Than You Thought

There’s a standard in the marketing/advertising field that someone has to be exposed to X number of messages about your product or brand before they choose to make a purchase. In some cases that’s up to a dozen instances of what’s called “effective frequency” in others it’s as little as three. A good chunk of the content marketing industry is based on that premise, since putting more material out there to either pushed to the public or available to them via search.

There may be some truth to that, but a new study shows less of that marketing may be influential than previously thought.

At least that’s the conclusion that can be reached after reading a new study showing people don’t use as much information in their decision making processes as they claim to. What the research found is that people tend to overestimate how deeply they ponder or evaluate factors and new inputs to appear smarter and more prone to deep contemplation and evaluation. Instead, the actual decision is made early on and is predicated largely on an emotional reaction to the first instance they’re exposed to.

To coin a phrase, first impressions matter.

Think about that the next time you’re considering a campaign that has as a central tenet reaching the same audience a dozen or more times. Everything beyond those first couple of ads or messages hasn’t done much at all to change someone’s feelings or opinions of your product or service if they’ve already elicited a negative emotional reaction in the audience.

Advertisers and marketers are used to that old adage “Half my ad budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half,” an expression of the frustration felt over not having insights into which parts of a campaign actually changed people’s minds. This study would suggest that it’s whichever half is devoted to repeatedly putting the same message in front of the same segments. Such repetition isn’t reinforcing anything, as the decision was likely made well before the campaign got to that point.

The researchers ran several tests in a variety of environments to come to their conclusions, and it may be worthwhile for marketers to devote time and resources to conducting their own testing about how much frequency actually moves the needle on interest or intent.

Here are some question to ask:

  • Is the audience’s intent substantively different after the second or third repetition compared to after the 10th or 12th?
  • How are you altering the media mix to reach different segments instead of the same one or two over and over again?
  • Can you increase interest or intent by reaching the same segment with markedly different messages each time instead of the same one repeatedly?

There are more, of course, that can go into your message testing, but having some idea of how repetition truly changes people’s minds has the potential to help you make more informed media placement decisions. That means you’re getting more return on spending, something that should be a priority for every marketing professional around.

“Brand Safe” Has Never Been a Thing

Last week AT&T made headlines when it was revealed it would once more be advertising on YouTube, something it hadn’t done in two years after discovering to its great dismay and shock that those ads might be appearing alongside offensive – or at least questionable – material. The company had decided that YouTube had addressed those concerns and assured it those ads would receive more favorable placement.

At the same time, those same concerns about content on Instagram aren’t dire enough to result in advertisers leaving that platform anytime soon as they still want to reach the audience there.

These conversations are the same ones that have been around since the early days of social publishing, as brands at one point were concerned about their Google Adwords ads showing up on offensive blog posts. There’s always been a fair amount of hand-wringing about online advertising and consumer-generated media. The fear is that if your ad shows up alongside some piece of neo-Nazi propaganda it might harm your band reputation.

It’s worth considering, though, just which platforms or media outlets may by any stretch of the imagination be called “brand safe.”

In the last few years we’ve seen a number of instances where advertisers have been pressured through boycotts to stop advertising on various Fox News shows featuring Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingarahm and others. Those shows regularly feature all sorts of white supremacist talking points, nationalist rhetoric and lots more of what could generally be considered hate speech. Many of those stoppages have been short-lived, though, with either the original advertiser returning or new ones coming in to fill the void.

While those are extreme examples there’s plenty on TV or radio that could be considered controversial or too edgy for brands to want to be any part of. Yet you rarely hear about that sort of concern being expressed. The reach and influence of those media platforms, just like Instagram is now, too great to spur companies to take actual action.

There’s always a fair amount of risk involved in any marketing. Sometimes that means your ad or other message is going to be seen during or along with content you may not wholly approve of. Two main differences are in place now, though.

First, it’s no longer just large companies producing the ad-supported media, even if they are still the ones providing the publishing platform. Advertisers aren’t placing their ads alongside YouTube’s video, for instance, they’re placing it against PepeICE4Evah’s video that’s hosted on YouTube, which is very different.

Second, the ability to pick and choose where and when ads are displayed is much more granular. YouTube and other platforms have introduced tools along advertisers to whitelist or exclude certain content or producers because of what they’ve put out in the past. So the advertiser has more control over the situation than they did when mass media was the only game in town.

Put together that means the amount of risk that brands even have to consider being comfortable has diminished to some extent. When it does become an issue, then, they are extremely sensitive to even the slightest threat, pulling ads from Fox, YouTube or whomever else as long as the math of “whose loyalty or trust will we gain” and “whose loyalty or trust will we lose” works out in their favor.

And there’s the key to this. No platform or outlet contains material that’s 100 percent safe to advertise against. This is all extremely situational, depending to a large extent on whether there are dollars to be gained or lost by taking one or another action in any given situation. When a platform is considered “brand safe” it means they have decided their corporate reputation will incur minimal damage, not that they necessarily approve of the content the ads appear within. It’s simply a pragmatic calculous being used, not an indication of brand values.

Those Systems Don’t Know Us, But Pretend To

I’ve certainly had experiences similar to what’s described in this much-shared story from a few months ago about the way the algorithms that push suggestions and notifications at us all day long are never exactly right but are also never exactly wrong. Spotify, for instance, continues to insist I’m going to enjoy Hall & Oates based on my other listening habits but, while I’ll certainly sing along when a song comes on the radio I don’t have any desire to explore the rest of their catalog.

The recommendations we see on Spotify, Pandora, Facebook, Twitter and every other modern media platform are based on tracking and categorizing. Each one either on its own or in conjunction with some subset of other players, collects all our activity and spits out what its algorithm believes is a solid prompt to put in front of us to encourage even more activity. They want us to keep engaging, locking us ever tighter into their systems, the better to sell ads that themselves are delivered based on our stated interests and previous activity.

What’s disturbing, though not necessarily surprising, is that nearly three-quarters of American internet users, according to Pew Research, don’t know that Facebook in particular is maintaining a list of their interests and activities in order to better target them with “relevant” ads. It’s not just the actions *on* Facebook that’s captured but what you do on a startling number of other websites as well. The reason it’s not shocking people don’t understand the depth of the metrics tracked is that most people don’t even know Facebook’s News Feed is filtered and not a firehose of updates.

One passage from Pew’s recent study jumped out at me:

A majority of users (59%) say these categories reflect their real-life interests, while 27% say they are not very or not at all accurate in describing them.

This gets to the heart of the problem. While overly-invasive tracking is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed on many levels, the whole system is based on a faulty premise; That what one does online is both wholly representative of who they are and that nothing ever changes.

Algorithms and AI don’t do nuance, so those systems aren’t going to know that while you might prefer Coffee Brand X, you also enjoy mixing it up with Coffee Brand Y once a week just because. They just know you’ve liked Coffee Brand X’s profile or page and so will serve you ads and recommendations based on that as if that’s the only possibly opinion you could have. Or they don’t understand that while you did like that page eight years ago, you’ve since learned about the horrible way they treat their workers and no longer drink their coffee.

The assumption that everything is locked in stone is part of the reason these platforms don’t offer any sort of reset button, an idea proposed a while ago by Kurt Wagner at Recode. Everyone’s interest and friends lists get messy over time, resulting in plenty of instances where you ask yourself “Wait, who is this person” when you see an update from them in your feed or come across them on your list of connections. A quick and easy way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh would make management so much easier, but it would also impact all that data that’s being accumulated on you, which would negatively impact how much they can charge for sponsored posts or placements. It’s always a good rule of thumb to remember that if an idea sounds like it would be good for users, it’s likely to be bad for the company and therefore won’t be implemented.

One of the primary reasons given by myself and others for why RSS never caught on with the masses is that education was difficult. Most people never quite understood how it worked or how they could use it and so it was shunted to the side as a niche technology, especially when social media began its ascendence.

Social media, though, has thrived *because* people have never been fully educated on how it worked. Every “#DeleteFacebook” uprising has been spurred by reports of how it has invaded and abused the privacy of those who use it, but none have ever amounted to much because that all sounds really complicated and the societal costs of removing one’s self from the network are too high.

Help isn’t coming from on high, either. The repeated appearances by Mark Zuckerberg and other tech media executives have shown time and again that lawmakers don’t understand how these systems work, or even how to ask the right questions about them. Nor do many in the media, which leads to situations where both parties are aghast in disbelief when someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez correctly points out how algorithms and AI are filled with bias problems.

This isn’t a situation that’s going to get better until there are more like Ocasio-Cortez who are both informed and in a position to effect meaningful change. All the campaigns to get people to ditch Facebook or stories of Spotify leaking personal data won’t amount to much because the public doesn’t know what that means for them. It’s the same thing we see with the climate change debate. Only when they’re held accountable in real meaningful ways will we see the actions of these companies improve.

AR is the New QR

Walmart, according to Sarah Perez at TechCrunch, has begun adding AR to its in-store experience, with tags on select items that add price and other details to shoppers using the story’s mobile app.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s only a slight variation on what was promised years ago when companies and marketers were slapping QR codes on everything that didn’t run away from them. In that case the experience offered was slightly different, with users told they could access additional information about the product being displayed or advertised simply by scanning the code.

The problem, as I and many others have pointed out, was a lack of public education. This was the early days of mobile adoption and there wasn’t any one app or a set of clear directions on how to use the codes. Despite this, you see the QR concept being adopted by Snapchat, Amazon, Spotify, Shazam and many others, each of which has created their own proprietary code that works exclusively with their app.

It seems, though, that AR is headed in the same direction as its QR ancestor. There are so many companies offering AR experiences – each within its own app – that eventually the mobile user base is going to feel inundated by such requests and, lacking a common app through which to access them, some people will eventually choose nothing.

The only way to overcome that will be by offering the user something truly unique and helpful. It might be quick access to a deal, it might be exclusive content that actually enhances the experience they’re having, but it will have to be something they can’t find anywhere else. And it will have to be available quickly and persistently, or it will require too much heavy lifting on the part of the user.

Augmented reality advertising spending is predicted to grow significantly over the next few years, outpacing the more complex and hardware-reliant virtual reality. And the last couple years has seen some interesting experimentation with AR marketing efforts.

You can’t *make* anyone use the technology, though. If you could I’d have long since implemented rules stating everyone must be an RSS reader. All you can do is create experiences people want to have and offer content they want to consume. If you do that adequately and – and this is key – educate people on how to use it, adoption will follow.

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 10/3/17

comScore is the latest company seeking to help advertisers determine how well their ads, in this caseTV and digital, are driving physical store sales.

More shade being thrown on the cost-effectiveness of what are now called “macro-influencers,” those with huge audiences.

More ways for retailers to use Instagram’s shoppable posts are now available.

You can now add polls to Instagram Stories, getting your followers’ feedback on whatever you like.

Facebook is finally adding new tools for publishers and creators tired of having their videos freebooted, integrating third-party services into Rights Manager.

The Verge and Polygon are joining Buzzfeed in producing live video programming for Twitter.

Snap Accelerate is a new program from Snapchat to help startups who are just figuring out their advertising in general embrace that platform quickly and easily.

People Prefer Ads, But Do They Know the Trade-offs?

A new study is out reporting that 67% of U.S. adults are fine with online ads because they’re unwilling to pay more for ad-free versions of the services they enjoy. This despite the fact that 75% of adults find such ads intrusive, especially online ads that follow them around from site to site.

The way the question was framed is interesting to me: How much would people be *willing* to pay?

I have to wonder what sort of results might have been found if the question “How much are you *able* to pay?” were asked.

Personally, I’d be willing to pay up to $100 a month to not only have an ad-free experience but to opt out of ad-tracking entirely. I don’t want Google, Facebook or anyone else adding either online or offline behavior to their profile on me. I want to support media and the work they do but just can’t afford to do so right now. I’m sure I’m not the only one in that position and with that same attitude.

In this way, media companies and are exploiting those at the lower end of the income spectrum, those who can’t afford to even entertain the option of paying for an ad-free experience. These people will continue to be tracked by advertisers to an ever-increasing degree because of social media, accessed to a great extent via mobile device, is how they connect to the world. As this post says, Facebook and Google are essentially surveillance companies acting on behalf of advertisers.

More affluent consumers have the luxury of opting-out of ads when they feel compelled to do so. They have the means to do so.

Those without those means don’t have a choice, even if they have a theoretical preference. People obviously know ads are increasingly intrusive, but they may not know all the ways media companies are tracking them to help facilitate that intrusiveness.

There need to be protections in place to guard those who are at the most risk of serious exploitation but least in the position to do something about it themselves. Without those safeguards, they’ll continue to be inundated by ads that are more and more finely-targeted to the point that companies running those ads know intimate personal details about the individual than anyone else does. That’s a system ripe for abuse in various ways, something we’re already seeing.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The YouTube Advertising Kerfluffle Is The Latest Hand-Wringing Over Content

Yesterday, after weeks of ad agencies and media buyers airing their grievances through the press, YouTube announced some tools to help advertisers ensure they’re not placing ads against violent, hateful and otherwise blatantly offensive videos. As I followed this saga through media stories about it (I don’t have any skin in this game) it seemed to me that this was the result of a very new conversation but it’s the latest iteration of a very old topic.  

The new conversation is around advertisers social responsibility to not encourage hate speech. That seems like a big burden to put on companies, who are also feeling pressured to take public stances on social topics. It’s no longer permissible, it seems, to just buy as much ad inventory as possible however blindly and then turn around and crow to the client about the reach of the campaign. ]

That used to be socially acceptable, even if it was always morally squishy. It was alright to place ads on all sorts of videos and websites because hey, it’s business folks. And the search for reach was so all-encompassing and all-important that it trumped any concerns about the kind of content that was being supported by those ad buys. Sure, there was a bit of hand-wringing about this or that specific execution, but it never lead to any systemic changes in the industry. The rise of ad networks, including recent developments around programmatic buying and other technology that takes human consideration out of the equation, only exacerbated the problem.

Now, though, there’s real concern about the damage that can be done to a corporate reputation by advertising on the wrong site or video. It’s no longer just the kind of nail-biting and furrowed brows that were prevalent back in the days when blogs were ascendant and people worried about how Google AdSense was going to put ads for your company alongside unedited consumer-generated content that might be a bit offensive. That has evolved to the point where there are legitimate concerns about big brand campaigns running on – and therefore financially supporting – sites and videos that espouse white nationalist and other viewpoints that honestly haven’t we quashed these by now?

This is where the advertising industry needs to be a bit more appreciative of the work that’s done by the PR side of the marketing world. It’s those PR practitioners that are concerned *all the time* about where a message is appearing, what the context is and what impact the big picture has on corporate perception and reputation. The fumbling way the advertising industry has handled the recent uptick in conversations around placing ads on fake news sites, hate-filled videos and more shows how much they have to learn about how to engage in two-way conversations, having grown too comfortable with just pushing things out in a monodirectional way.

The advertising industry went way too far in the direction of “dumb” ad buying, leaving everything up to algorithms and automated bidding systems that took away a great deal of accountability from the buyers themselves. Now that’s come back to bite them as they find themselves responsible for doing reputational damage by allowing ads to run on hateful content. Hopefully, those in power can find a way alter the system to one that still allows for the kind of mass reach that was achieved but doesn’t get a brand into hot water for being seen as financing Nazis and other bad actors.

Marketing Madness in 60 Seconds: 7/31/09

static5Advertising/Marketing

The upfronts are finally beginning to move forward and the networks are finally starting to log some sales. It’s not like commercial time is flying off the shelf though, and the take for networks might be in the $1 – $1.5 billion range, down from over $9 billion last year – even though they’re not conceding as much on pricing as buyers were initially asking them to. Networks have still, though, only booked 25 percent of their inventory and the Fall season is only two months away. Declines in CPM rates have not been as great as buyers were hoping for but still more than the networks were angling for.

I actually don’t think the call by some publishers to do away with ad networks is about anything other than them wanting to stop blogging from being profitable, thereby eliminating the new media competition they see biting their heels.

Spending on word-of-mouth marketing efforts reached $1.5 billion last year according to PQ Media and is expected to grow over 10 percent this year. In-game ads also continue to grow.

The next big thing in the marketing industry is the connecting of consumer’s offline behavior with what they do online. All of this is over and above, of course, what people are voluntarily sharing about themselves on social networks and blogs.

Media

The AP thinks its copyright infringement anytime there’s a link and a headline to its content, whether that means in a blog post or simply the results of a Google search. Rex Hammock points out why this argument is completely insane on a number of levels and Danny Sullivan realizes that, by this definition, the use of Google by AP employees means they themselves are engaging in blatantly violating copyright.

The idea of “nichepapers” makes a lot of sense, but mostly because that’s exactly what the blogs have been doing for years now. This model also kind of necessitates an aggregation system, either in the form of an RSS reader or something that looks very much like a newspaper, collecting the niche content in one place for people to sort through.

Social Media

NewsGator is shutting down their free, online RSS reader and recommending people switch over to Google Reader, making it easy for people to sync with that product. I used to use NewsGator and am disappointed to see it go since there were a lot of things about it people used, including its integration with Microsoft Outlook and such.

Marketing Madness in 60 Seconds: 7/17/07

static3Advertising/Marketing

People are voluntarily sharing more information than ever before even as they don’t want advertisers mining their online behavior for the purposes of serving up ads, despite research that shows ad relevance – and subsequently click rates – go up as a result. That’s an interesting paradox of the current age that’s free of easy answers.

People say they don’t go online for product and service recommendations but frequently share their own experiences and recommendations on those social sites. That seeming contrary behavior doesn’t mean brands are free to not participate and in fact should absolutely do so if they wish to remain relevant.

More coverage of the “sponsored posts” issue, this time focusing specifically on “mommybloggers” – the favorite of PR people everywhere for their influence and social circle – and the way they interact with the brands that are keen to get their attention. All of this has prompted one blogger to call for a “PR Blackout” week among mommybloggers that would be free of sponsored posts, product reviews and other such material and instead get back to moms talking about their kids, marriages and other topics that the blogs are *supposed* to be about. Caroline McCarthy points out that a week is not exactly a major period of time and highlights other wholes in the entire frustrating issue.

Nielsen has expanded its web measurement panel to be eight times larger then it had been, allowing for a larger sample size of sites and behavior and hopefully resulting in more accurate results.

Stephen Baker at BusinessWeek takes a look at the evolving world of behavioral targeting in advertising and marketing.

Despite the availability and growing acceptance of other forms of metrics, a Forrester report says most online marketers are still dependent on click-through rates to determine success.

Media

PaidContent rounds-up some of the thinking that’s been published about what to do with BusinessWeek in the wake of news the title’s publisher was looking to put it up for sale.

The editor of The Financial Times made comments expressing his belief that within a year most media organizations will be charging for content. He admits he’s unsure how the payment models will work from either the publisher or the reader standpoint but sees it as something that’s inevitable.

One initiative that’s leading that charge is Journalism Online, a company begun by media personality Steven Brill, that wants to create a single platform for multiple pubs to setup pay walls of some form. That group says it is getting close to launch but hasn’t released an initial affiliate list yet not because of lack of interest but because new pubs are being added so fast the list is out-of-date as soon as it’s updated.

Social Media

Fox Interactive wants to turn MySpace into an entertainment portal, according to reports. I’m confused as I thought that’s what it already largely was. Mashable thought likewise until it saw numbers from Hitwise that said differently. There also seems to be some lack of mission clarity internally.

I’m having increasing problems with companies that only respond to customer complaints when they’re being voiced on social networks and blogs while they still outsource and minimize the importance of their phone or other systems. The story of “United Breaks Guitars” is what’s got me thinking about this again.