Is the future of marketing big ideas, big data, or something else entirely? (Or, lessons from blogging’s Golden Age for today’s marketers…)

The New Statesman has a long piece on the ongoing slow death of the advertising industry, with some fun distinctions between the ad industry (creative, visionary) and the ad business (dull, obsessed with data).

Can you guess which part the person who wrote it comes from?

Of course, the simple response to the majority of the article’s debate about whether high-impact artistic visions or hyper-efficient attempts to ensure relevancy are the best way forwards is:

Why not both? little girl meme

But while there’s much to disagree (and agree) with throughout, it was this particular passage that sparked a realisation about the real challenge for the marketing industry:

“Now that people carry media around with them everywhere, advertisers have less incentive to create memorable brands. Instead, they concentrate on forcing our attention towards the message or offer of the moment. The ad business doesn’t care about the future of its audience, only its present.”

This, within the context of modern ad microtargeting and algorithms (as well as the general proliferation of TV channels, streaming video, and the decline in newspaper readership), is kinda true – with no clear way to ensure a follow-up interaction, the classic old ad model of trying to get a message in front of someone eight times (or whatever) and it’ll stick is no longer as straightforward as it once was. Even if you succeed, it’ll be by using cookies to track someone across multiple sites, firing the same advert at them so relentlessly that it seems desperate – and obvious.

But the obsession with the fast-paced present also shows how many marketing campaigns continue to utterly miss the point of social media.

The clue’s in the name

Social – done properly – *isn’t* simply of the moment, as much as it’s often dismissed as ephemeral.

A series of photos showing the stages of a horse runningTo think of social posts as throw-away one-offs, as much marketing does, is like viewing a single frame of a film that’s designed to be watched at 24 frames per second. It’s like the blind men and the elephant – you may *think* you know what’s going on, and how your audience is responding, but you’re not seeing the whole (motion) picture.

Yes, a single tweet or Facebook post *can* work in isolation. It can have impact. A person with a couple of hundred followers can see something they post go viral and reach hundreds of thousands of likes. An influencer can amplify it to the point the original poster can monetise that single moment, or use it as the starting point to become an influencer in their own right.

But the clue’s in the name – social is *social*. It’s about relationships, not one-off interactions. And the internet is the same – again, the clue’s in the name. It’s a network. It’s interconnected. Nothing online operates in isolation.

This is why an approach to online advertising that thinks only about the advert – in isolation – is always going to be doomed to fail. (And yes, if your social media post or article or video or whatever is put out on a schedule to broadcast to your followers – whether you put paid behind it or not – if you have no plan or resources to follow up and respond to the replies, then all it is is an advert.)

Even if you aggregate all your social data to see trends over time, you may *think* you’re seeing the big picture – but you’re not seeing it from the perspective of your audience. You’re lumping them together as stats, when in reality they’re all individuals – each having a distinct interaction with your brand. The long-term trends hide the fact that your audience is not always the same audience – different people will see different posts at different times, and many won’t see some of what you’re putting out at all. This means they’ll all be getting different impressions of what it is you’re about.

I remember when all this were fields…

When I started playing about in IRC and messageboards in the 90s, it took months to be recognised as a regular. When I started blogging in the early 2000s, it again took months to build a following and reputation.

And that’s months of multiple posts a day. Multiple replies to comments. Discussions. Following commenters back to their own blogs and reading *their* stuff. Getting a sense of how they thought.

This was all pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook – but post-IRC, and after messageboards, MSN Messenger and the like had become passé. We’d encounter each other on other people’s blogs, in their comment sections, and notice we were talking about the same things through trackbacks, RSS aggregators (after 2004 or so), checking now-defunct sites like Technorati, IceRocket and the like to find other people talking about the same thing (because Google was still rubbish for realtime search back then), and occasionally directly emailing.

Looking beneath the surface

Classic iceberg cliche - with more beneath the surfaceThe public face of blogging was our individual blogs. The individual posts. But those were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – the starting points for interactions between blogger and reader that in some cases have lasted years. Some of the people I met virtually through my various blogs have become real-life friends. Some discussions inspired people to take up blogging for themselves, or to pursue different careers. Some of those interactions even led to real-world, paid work (as they did for me – which, in turn, led to my transition from print journalism to digital, and from there to my current role developing multiplatform, multimedia digital marketing strategies).

All these deep, lasting, sometimes life-changing relationships started with a connection around shared interests – just as, today, algorithms try to match adverts to people who may be interested in them. Superficially, to anyone looking from outside, those initial interactions in the comment sections under individual posts would have looked like that was all there was. If you’d looked at the stats on our blogs, the numbers would have looked *tiny*.

But the *real* story was the ongoing conversations and subconscious assimilation of each others’ ideas. The discussions and collaborations that stretched over months, and led to the short-lived rise of group-blogs, real-world meet-ups, grand plans that (in my case at least) never quite came to fruition. It was about the relationships and trust we built up over time.

The *real* impact took *years*, and in some cases was more significant than any of us ever imagined when we first put finger to keyboard.

How humans work

We’re all humans. We latch onto stories. We need big ideas. Emotional connections. Things to inspire and entertain. Things that speak to our gut instincts as well as to our heads. We’ve all read Daniel Kahneman, and know these heuristics are classic marketing creative territory.

And yes – as we’re humans we can also be manipulated if we’re targeted with the right message at the right time. Some of us will be more susceptible to some messaging than others. We will all have slightly different interests, meaning you can’t speak to us all in the same way. So a data-driven approach makes sense to try and finally give some clarity to John Wanamaker’s classic “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted” conundrum.

But where big idea creative can attract attention, and data-driven targeting can increase relevance, what’s still missing for many brands is the follow-up. The vital thing that comes next.

Microsoft's ClippyIn some cases this is where CRM comes in – but I can tell you from my blogging and chatroom days, in most cases being overly keen to initiate a conversation is going to have precisely the opposite response from the one you want. No one wants a pop-up window asking if they want help the second they land on a site any more than they want cookie notifications or requests to turn off their adblocker. Overly keen CRM = instant bounce, often with feelings of mild violation and anger. Not great for the start of a relationship. There’s a reason Microsoft killed Clippy…

My point? Let your audience go at their own pace

The reason the brief Golden Age of blogging (from around 2003-2006, by my reckoning) led to so many strong, lasting relationships is that those relationships were able to be built at our own pace.

There was no realtime chat. There was no “unread” notification to put pressure on us to respond unless and until we were ready. We all gradually built up archives of work that our readers and fellow bloggers could all check out at their leisure to get a sense of who we were and what we stood for. We linked to our past work – and each other – where relevant, showing how our thinking was developing over time, and allowing others to follow our trains of thought at their own pace to catch up and join in the conversation.

So when you encountered an unfamiliar blog or blogger – which was frequently – you could dip your toe in, test the water, and go back and check the context before engaging only when you had an idea what you were going to get involved in.

It was a slower-paced, more civilised way of communicating online that the likes of Twitter seem to have permanently destroyed with the constant need for instantaneous responses to everything.

Still from the film They Live showing advertising billboards with instructions like "Obey" and "Consume"

But today’s pressure to living in the moment and make instant decisions is deeply offputting. It’s not how people like to work. It’s not how any successful relationship has ever been built. It goes against all the instincts of the high-pressured world we’re now in, but today’s emphasis on the hard sell and call to action – not just the obvious “BUY NOW!” but also the more subtle “CLICK HERE TO…” and “FIND OUT HOW…” – may give a short-term nudge but not a long-term engagement.

Engagement – true, lasting engagement – comes through recognition, familiarity, and trust. This can only ever be built over time – often a long time. It will never come through a hard sell, and rarely through a single call to action.

In short:

Rather than worry about big ideas vs targeting, what the marketing industry really needs to learn how to do is revive the art of the soft sell and the long tail. That’s the more human way of building relationships that last – but to work it needs a significantly more nuanced understanding of how people will be interacting with you than I’ve seen from pretty much any modern brand marketing campaign.

So remember:

Every interaction with every part of your brand’s marketing campaign may seem like a one-off to you, but it’s part of a series to your audience. It’s all connected – but one bad experience could break the chain.

This means you need a truly integrated combination of high-impact big ideas and detailed data and longer-term storytelling and archives of the earlier bits of the story so people can catch up and targeting to the people who’ll be most interested and a true understanding of how people – and the internet – actually work.

No one said it was easy. But some things take time.

What I’ve been working on for the past year

Here it is. The new, multiplatform MSN.

The new MSN - customisable

Engadget has a solid overview piece.

The content proposition is fairly straightforward – a customisable mix of useful tools and the best content from many of the world’s biggest publishing brands across a bunch of key topic areas or verticals, curated by teams of in-market editors.

The aim on a technical level is actually the most interesting part of it – we’ve been developing a cloud-hosted CMS that enables single-publish across all devices and platforms, for both web and apps, running across 55 markets in 27 languages, with a coherent look and feel no matter your screen size or operating system. That’s properly ambitious.

Most of my input has been procedural (improving multimarket and multiplatform publishing processes) and hidden in the back end (I was part of the CMS superuser group that’s been working on back-end UX and workflow). I’ve not had as much involvement in the front-end design, architecture, or overall content strategy as I’d like, but still – a most definite improvement on one of the web’s longest-running major publishers (20 years old this year, and still doing a good 22 billion pageviews every month).

Please keep Twitter pure

The filtered feeds of Facebook (and LinkedIn) are the things I dislike most about them, the unfiltered most recent first approach of Twitter what I love about it, so this possibility that Twitter’s going down the algorithmic-filter route worries me – and not just because of recent concerns voiced over how algorithms can affect net neutrality and news reporting.

I very much hope Twitter at least retains the option of turning on the firehose, though I fully get the need to tame the chaos with some kind of algo or filter to pull in new users. Not everyone can get to grips with lists and Tweetdeck – too confusing for the newcomer.

Now don’t get me wrong: algorithmic filtering has its place. One of my favourite apps is Zite, and I was an early adoptor of StumbleUpon (well over a decade ago) – precisely because of their ability to get to know my interests and serve me up interesting content from sources I’d usually not discover by myself. For Facebook to offer up this kind of service, with its vast databases of its users’ Likes, makes perfect sense (though I’d still prefer a raw feed, or category feeds, so I can split off news about the world from news about my actual friends – a new baby or a wedding is not the same as a terrorist attack).

This is why I love Twitter – it is raw, unfiltered. And at 140 characters a pop, it’s (more or less) manageable. Especially if these old stats are still accurate, suggesting the majority of Twitter users only follow around 50 other accounts. If you end up following a few hundred, you’re already a power user, and likely know order them via lists. If you end up following a few thousand, then frankly you no longer care if you miss a few things.

Could Twitter be improved with a bit of algo? For sure. Why am I only ever shown three related accounts when I follow a new one? Why isn’t MagicRecs built in?

But the fact is we’ve already got this option on Twitter – it’s called the Discover tab. And I never use it, because it somehow manages to feel even more random than the raw feed. The problem isn’t a lack of algorithms, it’s a lack of intelligent algorithms, intelligently integrated.

The “Netflix of News” and the death of the publishing brand

I loved the concept when I first heard about it, and love that it seems to be working. Proof of concept done – now it’s time to take that concept and expand. Preferably globally.

In short, it’s a cunning system that allows you to pay for individual articles from publications, thus avoiding the constant fustration of not being able to read that great piece from the likes of the FT, Times or Economist because it’s hiding behind a paywall.

If this sort of thing takes off, it could be a whole new business-model – making paywalls more viable, while allowing monetisable ways around them.

But there’s also an interesting quote from Blendle’s founder:

“People want to read articles or want to follow specific journalists but aren’t particularly interested in the newspaper that it comes from anymore.”

This is especially true in the age of social, where URL-shorteners are so endemic that half the time you have no idea which site you’ll end up on.

I’ve got used to reading content that’s been de-branded via a hefty RSS addiction. That’s been replaced in recent years with an addiction to aggregation apps like Zite, Flipboard and Feedly, where what matters is the content itself, not the packaging, or where it’s from.

If the content is good enough, it will stand on its own – it won’t need to hide behind the brand. In fact, the brand can sometimes be a disadvantage, because it leads to preconceptions that can skew the reader’s opinion before they’ve even started to read a piece. There are some publications I avoid simply because I assume that they have nothing to offer me, for reasons of politics, prejudices, or whatever – and I know I’m far from being alone in this.

Remove the publication’s branding and present me with their content as is, would my preconceptions be different? Of course. And if I like the content, this could win them a new long-term reader.

Numbers are our friends

Useful look at how detailed, adaptable, *tailored* performance data (and people who know how to analyse and explain it) is essential if you want to be successful in modern media. As so often, Buzzfeed seems to be ahead of the curve.

It never ceases to amaze how often online publishers get het up about the wrong metrics. Tools like Omniture are obscenely powerful, yet all we tend to use them for is to find PVs, UUs, occasionally time spent, and sometimes how particular headlines are performing. Used properly, web analytics can help us keep our sites in a state of constant evolution, adapting to the tiniest shifts in user behaviour through minor design/code tweaks.

This isn’t about becoming Keanu Reeves and learning how to read the Matrix – it’s just knowing how to use the tools that are available to us.

Journalistic quality vs the money men

Useful study on metrics vs journalistic pride, but leaves out a key aspect: the sales guys – because this is how the money is made and the metrics are ultimately determined.

Time was, quality audiences would be worth more to advertisers than quantity. Why hasn’t online ad selling (and buying) caught up yet? Only when it does will there be incentive to move beyond page views and unique users as the key metric. Programmatic ad sales could be the answer, or could worsen the situation further – too early to tell.

Anyway, worth a read:

“Online media is made of clicks.

Readers click from one article to the next. Advertising revenue is based on the number of unique visitors for each site. Editors always keep in mind their traffic targets to secure the survival of their publications. Writers and bloggers interpret clicks as a signal of popularity.

The economic realities underpinning the click-based web are well documented. Yet much work remains to be done on the cultural consequences of the growing importance of Internet metrics.

I conducted two years of ethnographic research (observing newsrooms and interviewing journalists, editors, and bloggers) exploring whether web analytics are changing newsroom cultures. The answer is a qualified yes, but in ways that differ from the ones we might expect.”

Twitter launches analytics

Twitter Analytics will be fun and useful, but why no ability to sort by best/worst performers? How can we tell what does/doesn’t work if we can’t see what does/doesn’t work? Intro here. Analytics themselves here (you need to activate before you’ll start seeing stats).

Vox to open their CMS up to everyone?

Oh yes please!

I’m a massive CMS geek, yet in well over a decade and a half of online publishing, I still haven’t found one I truly adore. Mid-period WordPress came close, but now it’s too complex and chunky. Buzzfeed’s seems decent, from what I’ve seen. The one they have at ITV News looks great, from the screenshots. But I hear truly great things about the Vox Chorus CMS.


A golden age for journalism

Lots to agree with here:

“by some measures, journalism has never been healthier. And there’s every reason to believe that it is actually getting stronger because of the web, not weaker — regardless of what’s happening to print”

Are jobs being lost? Yep. Are publications shutting down? Yep. But are readers getting more of what they want? Yep.

My only worry with this optimistic take on the current situation is that, despite years of worrying about it, and over a decade of confident assertions that hyperlocal “citizen journalism” will fill the void left as uneconomic newspapers shut down, there is still a major risk that many communities will be left without a reliable source of local news coverage.

I’m based in London, so there are any number of hyperlocal Twitter accounts and small blogs covering the area, but none of these are comprehensive, even combined, and few have the skills or abilities to dig deeper into what’s going on in the local council. Local newspapers were never especially economically worthwhile, but they did (well, sometimes) provide a valuable public service in holding local government to account – something they were only really able to do because of the level of access they were afforded by their permanent, professional position.

On a local level, as local papers shut, the most common publication to fill the void isn’t a blogger, it’s an official local government publication – we’re replacing public service for propaganda.

This is the most important thing about clickbait you’ll read today*

* assuming you don’t read anything else about clickbait today

This article focuses on content produced by content marketers, but applies just as much to regular publishers who are constantly trying to ride the latest wave of social media fads to suck in a few unsuspecting punters with low-rent, instantly-forgettable clickbait. Short, cheap, trend-driven / fast-turnaround content may well help you hit short-term engagement metrics, but will long-term kill audience retention:

“The internet is ballooning with fluff, and bad content marketing is to blame. In our obsession with ‘engaging’ our ‘audience’ in ‘real-time’ with ‘targeted content’ that goes ‘viral,’ we are driving people insane… When a publishing agenda is too ambitious, people can’t afford to shoot anything down… They’re under too much pressure to fill… slots”

I particularly like the concept of “click-flu” – the sense of annoyance and disappointment you get (both with the content and, more importantly, with yourself) when you click on a clickbaity link, and the page you end up on fails to deliver on its hyperbolic promise. The resentment builds and builds – and over time, leads to hatred of the people who lured you in time and again.

If you make a big promise, as so many of these “This is the most important thing you will see today” clickbaity headlines do, you’d damned well better live up to it.

Who’s the competition in the future of news?

People are starting to fully wake up to this now – in the mobile-first age, competitors are no longer just other publishers, it’s *everything*, so we all need to start thinking bigger. Good piece as ever from Mathew Ingram on Gigaom:

“very few news apps take advantage of the qualities of a smartphone — things like GPS geo-targeting, which could use the location of a reader to augment the information they are getting, the way the Breaking News app does. Or the brain inside the phone itself, which could compute how long it took a reader to get through a story, how many times they returned to it, what other news they’ve been consuming, and so on:”

A number of sites and apps have started to do *some* of this, but very few have managed to pull it all together. Give it a couple of years, and we may finally have a *properly* disruptive news delivery system that combines the best of everything. Combined with increasingly intelligent algorithms and reams of data on individual user preferences, this could get rid of the need for editor selecting stories altogether. But despite ongoing experiments in code-written stories, to do this really well will still take humans producing the copy and vetting the info. The journalist isn’t obsolete yet.

Algorithms and the news agenda

Well worth a read on the Feguson riots, and how different social media sites (notably Twitter vs Facebook) served up news about them:

“Now, we expect documentation, live-feeds, streaming video, real time Tweets… [Ferguson] unfolded in real time on my social media feed which was pretty soon taken over by the topic…

And then I switched to non net-neutral Internet to see what was up. I mostly have a similar a composition of friends on Facebook as I do on Twitter.

Nada, zip, nada.

This morning, though, my Facebook feed is also very heavily dominated by discussion of Ferguson. Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn’t see them then. Overnight, “edgerank” –or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now?—?seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more.

But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.

Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?

Would we even have a chance to see her?

This isn’t about Facebook per se—maybe it will do a good job, maybe not—but the fact that algorithmic filtering, as a layer, controls what you see on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control.”

It’s a continual worry – how to ensure we see what’s important? Though, of course, the concept is nothing new – the algorithm is just an editor or an editorial policy in a different form. It’s something I’ve written about before when it relates to the EU, focusing on a BBC editorial policy that fails to cover EU affairs in mainstream news most of the time, and then serves up extremes.

This kind of human editorial determination of the appropriate news agenda based on perceived audience interests is arguably no massive degree different from a Facebook algorithm determining what is important based on how it interprets user interests. If anything, there’s a strong argument to be made that Facebook knows its audience better than any editor on any publication or TV show ever, due to the sheer quantities of data it possesses on its userbase.

But then what of *importance* – who determines this? Who overrides the algorithmic or standard editorial policy assumption? Is there a chance that an important story will get buried because a bit of code doesn’t see it as significant? Yes. But the same is true of any number of important news stories that human editors don’t pick up on, or choose to bury on page 23 because they don’t think their readers will be that interested.

As so often, the web may be a bit different, but there’s nothing that *new* here.

Web writing, hate reading, and the decline of quality

Nothing new, but this is worth a read on web writing and hate-reading – that old trick of being as controversial as possible in order to get an extreme response, purely because extremes get more attention, and in a pageview-driven business model, controversy is seen as good purely because, based on the metrics, it’s the controversial stuff that’s driving engagement.

This infantile attitude of provocation to get attention is increasingly being combined with ream upon ream of cheap content, because the more content you’ve got, the more potential PVs you can attract. We end up with the most depressing (and false) equation of online publishing:

Cheap content + Controversy = Clicks = Cash

It’s an attitude that’s lazy *and* massively short-termist in thinking – over the long term, quality can and should trump quantity. But even if it doesn’t, cheap, crappy content is a turn-off for audiences. The more sites that start to rely on hastily-produced, poorly-checked copy, or lazy semi-plagiarisms of things that desperate teams of poorly-paid hacks with deadlines and quotas to hit have found elsewhere, the less distinctive sites get, and the fewer returning visitors you’ll get. As that linked article puts it:

“With a business model based on a ton of cheap content, Web publishers can rely too heavily on acid-reflux-style aggregation, in which young writers destroy the savor of interesting stories and an interesting world by constantly regurgitating the news with added bile.”

There’s also an interesting point made from John Waters in the Irish Times (now behind a paywall), on the impact of comment sections under online articles: “Because everything written specifically for online consumption is written in the expectation of addressing a hostile community, the writing process demands, as a prerequisite, either a defensive or antagonistic demeanor.”

Having learned my online publishing trade in the realm of message boards, chatrooms and blogs, I’m incredibly aware of the vast levels of bile that exist in comment sections. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With careful community management, it’s perfectly possible to build online communities that are supportive, friendly, and constructive, rather than the supposed default of objectionable and offensive. Check out the likes of b3ta, imgur and Metafilter for some prime examples of sites with vast *positive* communities of commenters. And then contrast those with the comments sections of pretty much any national newspaper site – packed with trolls and maniacs.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Odd numbered lists are good, says science

We still don’t know why, though…

“There are many more listicles of length 10 published compared to other numbers. This is primarily because BuzzFeed is selling the 10-length listicle to partner brands, such as the Michael J. Fox Show, Nordstrom Topman, and Buick. The second most popular length is 15, followed by 12. Listicle length drops off quite rapidly in the 20’s, although surprisingly, lengths 11-21 are far more popular than those under 10…

“If we look the bar chart by audience score we see a completely different picture?—?odd number length listicles… tend to have a higher audience score on average, where in our dataset, the number 29 tends to have an advantage over the rest.”

How to write clearly

I usually hate tips for writers – writing, to me, should be a natural thing. But having seen a lot of very bad writing, more concerned with showing off the writer’s linguistic skill or subject-matter expertise than enlightening the reader, this approach strikes me as vital to keep in mind at all times:

Writing is a modern twist on an ancient, species-wide behaviour: drawing someone else’s attention to something visible. Imagine stopping during a hike to point out a distant church to your hiking companion: look, over there, in the gap between those trees – that patch of yellow stone? Now can you see the spire? “When you write,” Pinker says, “you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, and that you’re directing the attention of your reader to that thing.”

Perhaps this seems stupidly obvious. How else could anyone write? Yet much bad writing happens when people abandon this approach. Academics can be more concerned with showcasing their knowledge; bureaucrats can be more concerned with covering their backsides; journalists can be more concerned with breaking the news first, or making their readers angry. All interfere with “joint attention”, making writing less transparent.

This isn’t a “rule for writers”; it’s a perspective shift. It’s also an answer to an old question: should you write for yourself or for an audience? The answer is “for an audience”. But not to impress them. The idea is to help them discern something you know they’d be able to see, if only they were looking in the right place.