Making the Case for Platforms (Warning: Explicit Math)

In some recent posts, I’ve discussed the values of platforms over campaigns.   For those of you just joining us, platforms, or brand-owned spaces that foster long-term engagement with customers, offer an economical alternative to acquiring and re-acquiring customers via Facebook and Google.

Today, I’d like to discuss the economics.  There will be math.  I am not above putting pictures of puppies in this post to keep you engaged.

I will stop at nothing to get you to pay attention to numbers.

The basic equation shouldn’t hurt; you need to compare costs to build and maintain the platform against expected customer value over a relevant time period.  I have no hard-and-fast figures for any of the above.  As always, the devil is in the details.

Costs to build and maintain

Costs fall into two categories: costs to create the platform and costs to drive consumers to it.  Creative costs vary as widely as the forms they take.  These costs depend mostly on what the marketer intends the platform to do, which in turn depends on what’s right for the audience.  Figuring out platform functionality–and hence creative costs–will probably take up the lion’s share of strategy development time due to the open-ended nature of building a platform.

Driving customers to the platform, aka acquisition, also represents a substantial cost.  Yes, despite all I’ve written about turning away from campaigns, I will now discuss why platforms require campaigns.

Puppy reminds you to think about a cost per action model!

A platform won’t grow customers all by itself.  Just as with any other marketing tactic, marketers need to make sure their audience knows about it for it to succeed.  That said, bear in mind that the platform will have lower acquisition costs than, say, a campaign designed to sell something.  A relevant platform offers something useful or entertaining to the consumer, something of immediate value.  A timely article or a fun mini-game will have broader interest than a straight sell.

Expected customer value

Acquisition costs nothwithstanding, platforms ultimately must drive some measurable value such as sales.  Direct brands and retailers have no problem here since they can usually connect a visitor to a sale easily.  Other brands in sectors such as consumer packaged goods, automotive or consumer durables have some more math to do, especially in terms of attribution.  The same goes for direct or B2B brands that don’t rely on digital channels to close the sale.

In short, how the hell do you correlate activity on a cleaning tips app to sales of a washing machine?

It’s not “attribute,” it’s “attri-cute!”

As Bob Dylan would have said had he gone into marketing, “the answer my friend, is proxies.”  Well, he might have said it, at any rate.  Marketers need to find good proxies for purchase behavior.  Let’s use the cleaning tips app and imagine our client is GE appliances (disclosure: they were a client of mine before GE sold them off).  GE appliances could push a coupon through the app or encourage new purchasers to register their new appliances via the app.  From this proxy, GE appliances could use the cost of the appliance or some derivation thereof as the yardstick for value.

Relevant time period

Marketers can’t measure a platform’s success in the same relatively short time period that they might use for a typical campaign.  Platforms engage consumers at different points of their journey, so results may not happen in the near-instant time frames associated with digital campaigns.

As a starting point, the time period for measuring platform success should correspond to the customer journey in some way.  On a recent platform project for an automotive brand, for instance, I used three years as a period of measurement because three years represents a typical (if short) ownership period for a car.  For the appliance example above, ownership periods represent too long a period to wait; people hang onto major appliances for more than a decade!  Instead, it might help to look at a length of time related to the purchase cycle.  A typical CPG, on the other hand, has the opposite problem.  People replenish their pantries and supply closets weekly.  As a result, the measurement period might represent a typical timeline for a customer to go from new customer to brand-loyal customer.

That wasn’t so bad, was it?  Now, let’s talk long-term lease depreciation.

I’ve sketched out the math for platforms in very broad terms.  Hopefully, you can use this math as a framework for evaluating ideas that will allow you to break your brand’s dependence on the digital duopoly.  If not, I hope you liked the puppy pictures.

Why rent when you can buy? The argument for marketing platforms.

In my last post, I argued that Facebook’s decision to shift their news feed algorithm away from publishers’ posts and back towards friends’ and family members’ posts should encourage marketers to build platforms as a hedge against changes that might hurt them.  Solid advice.

Now what the hell is a marketing platform and why should marketers invest in one?

In terms of description, a marketing platform is a long-term marketing initiative, often but not always digital, that engages customers and prospects at one or more points along the customer journey in a brand-owned space.  Let me emphasize that last point about a brand-owned space.  In some ways, platforms work like branded content in reverse; rather than engage consumers in a trusted publisher’s space, platforms build brand trust by becoming media properties themselves.

Some of my favorite examples of marketing platforms include:

Society of Grownups, Mass Mutual’s content platform for adult financial education

These models are about as psyched as you are to learn about IRAs

Society of Grownups speaks to a segment of recent-ish college graduates who need to start making financial decisions with lifetime consequences.  Creating the Society of Grownups platform gives Mass Mutual’s content some credibility without relying on a publisher brand.  They update it frequently with new articles, graphics and calculators to encourage ongoing learning.

DIY Projects & Ideas, Home Depot’s tool and project tutorial series

Now I have a nail gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Home Depot has, of course, featured live tutorials in their stores for ages (and these, incidentally, serve as a great example of non-digital platforms).  Putting these tutorials online might represent an obvious next step for our connected and busy world.  However, they also encourage consumers and maybe even some pros to keep visiting the site and to build their trust with Home Depot.

Yeah?  So?  Why should I spend money on one?

Obviously, platforms such as these, which depend on fresh content and functionality, don’t come cheap, so why build them?

In terms of the investment discussion, it helps to think of platforms as a way to buy your audience’s attention rather than to rent it.  A successful platform reduces the need to acquire and re-acquire customers and prospects every time they reach the “shop” or “buy” phase of the customer journey.  They keep showing up because the platform has something of value for them.  Continued visits build brand trust that ultimately leads to purchase.

Speaking specifically of digital platforms, they can also play a valuable role as CRM tools.  At their simplest, any platform can have a “buy now” button or something similar.  The nail gun video above has links beneath it to drive users to a nail gun buying guide that leads to product pages.  More subtle approaches can gather data about visitors (assuming proper permissions, of course) and provision them with appropriate content and offers when they display buying behavior.

In a subsequent post, we’ll discuss how to build, maintain and most importantly measure the performance of marketing platforms.  For now, though, think of what you could do with your audiences if they belonged to you and not Facebook.

Facebook’s Revised News Feed is a Hint-and-a-Half for Your Ass

Pundits have not yet finished the volley of thought pieces in the wake of The Zuck’s decree that his kingdom’s news feed will focus more on posts by your friends and families and less on posts from publishers and, more to the point for our purposes, brands.  This move reminds me of the advice of noted marketing guru Eddie Murphy to people in horror films: “that’s a hint-and-a-half for your ass to get out.”

OK, maybe I exaggerate a little by suggesting that brands get out of Facebook (hey, clickbaiters gonna bait), but I think they should stop relying too much on Facebook for engagement and start building their own platforms.

It’s not an ark.  It’s a species diversity platform.

First, let’s acknowledge that no one, maybe not even Zuck himself, knows what the news feed change really means.  On the face of it, the change seems to limit opportunities for brands to buy their way into Facebook users’ consciousness.  However, Zuck didn’t become a gajillionaire by ignoring marketers’ and publishers’ wants.  Based on my studies of the Mafia and OPEC, I suspect that the Hoodied One wants to drive up margins by artificially limiting supply.  Take that as someone who grew up in the home state of Tony Soprano and Exxon.

Regardless of Facebook’s endgame, marketers should take this moment to acknowledge the media duopoly.  Facebook and Google account for 77% of all digital ad dollars spent.

As an alternative, look to create platforms rather than campaigns.  Specifically, I mean digital platforms such as The Wirecutter, an e-commerce platform owned by the New York Times or American Express OPEN’s Forum platform.  While campaigns and platforms both engage consumers around a brand, platforms seek long-term engagement rather than a limited time capture of consumers’ attention.  To put it another way, platforms help engage consumers when they’re interested in something, not merely when marketers have something to say.

Over time, successful platforms reduce the need to rely on Facebook or Google to snag consumers’ attention.  They become self-sustaining.  Facebook can restrict its news feed to French bulldogs for all your brand cares.  As my friend and mentor Tim Suther likes to say, “why rent your customers when you can buy them?”

Take the hint.  Build a platform.

Why Not Blockchain for News?

For the first time since color film, Kodak might be onto something.

Provider of mobile technology since ’88.  1888.

Pundits have already savaged The Great Yellow Father‘s entry into blockchain with KodakCoin.  After all, Bitcoin and cyrptocurrency hype continues to soar despite cautions from pretty good sources.

However, before consigning KodakCoin to the scrap heap, consider what Kodak and its partner WENN digital media created the product to do.  They intend to take advantage of blockchain’s distributed ledger to track the usage of photographs.  If you’ve never waded into the mire of photography digital rights, consider yourself lucky.  Fair, compensated use of photographs bedevils photographers and commercial entities who use photographs alike.

Also consider the larger opportunity: fake news.

Photo manipulation (e.g. Photoshop) has forced us to question the reality of a photograph since the days of Matthew Brady.  Now the ability to create a realistic photograph from nothing but algorithms has started to emerge.  A distributed ledger could verify that a picture of, say, Elvis shaking hands with President Nixon, really happened.

Why stop at photos?  Couldn’t we use a blockchain-driven technology to allow consumers to see who actually created a news article or video?  Sure, we can assume that a story appearing on the Wall Street Journal’s website really came from a WSJ reporter.  However, when we see a dubious news story in our Facebook feed, couldn’t something like KodakCoin let us know where it really came from?

I can’t wait to see how Kodak–wait for it–develops this idea.

Pro Bono Advice: Be Like the Watermelon

Marketers often turn to pro-bono or charity work to give back to the community, to use their skills for good or even just to get experience they can parlay into paying work.  I can’t tell you why you should volunteer.  However, if you do volunteer, I advise you to be like a watermelon: develop a thick but porous skin.

I am not even remotely above using pictures of babies to get you to read my blog

The watermelon analogy stems (sorry) from the realities of charities and not-for-profits.  Most often, people work or volunteer in this sector because they have strong feelings about the subject, whether it’s the environment, religion, an illness or civil rights.  Moreover, these people often have a difficult connection to that subject.  This connection both makes the work more meaningful and more difficult.

You need a thick skin to take on some of the more uncomfortable issues, yet you still need to let some of that discomfort in to remind you of why you take on the work.

Continue reading

So You’ve Painted Yourself into a Corner

Some articles by marketing strategists expand your horizons and render your giddy over the endless possibilities of our craft with soaring language and sparkling analogies.

This is not one of those articles.

Instead, this article focuses on one of the more grind-it-out aspects of our trade: what to do when you’ve got to provide strategic input for a purely executional project.

Rise and grind, kids.  Rise and grind.

You know the type: you have to direct your creative team to complete a very prescribed set of display ads, emails or social posts to meet a specific set of objectives, which usually boil down to clickthroughs, even if objective focuses on branding.  More often than not, someone else, perhaps at a different agency, has finalized the brand strategy and creative idea, aka “the fun part.”  More to the point, this project may not actually make sense to you.  For instance, in the above example about objectives, clickthroughs do not serve as an effective proxy for branding.

Or the task may involve picking existing creative assets to fill a role they weren’t designed for.  You’ve got the proverbial hammer all right, but none of the problems looks like a nail.

I liken this situation to the proverbial “painting oneself into a corner.”  It doesn’t matter what color you’ve used; you’re stuck.

Here’s the secret: don’t think of it as a chore, think of it as…ah, who am I kidding?  It’s a chore all right.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t stretch your strategy muscles and make something as good as can be.  Hell, maybe you can even make it fun, as long as you have a flexible definition of fun.

Let’s assume “do something else” isn’t an option.  I’ll admit that I’ve often taken “no” for an answer when I could have pushed back a bit.  Mea culpa, but mea cupla minima as I’ve learned the hard way that pushing back ends badly more often than not.

Instead, try this approach:

    1. Clarify objectives and metrics.  Go over both thoroughly with the client or client manager.  As the strategist, you have to be clear about them even if the powers-that-be aren’t.  Pay close attention to any disparity between objective and metric, such as the branding/clickthrough inconsistency.  You better believe that when it comes down between the two, the metric will matter more than the objective.
    2. Find the most likely key.  Here’s where you earn your kibble.  Use whatever you can to establish which factors drive the metric that matters most.  In the best case scenario, you have previous results that you can parse for clues.  Fire up Excel and look for anything that you might compare.  These comparisons might include the basics (segment, offer) and any and all creative factors (headline/subject line length, call to action copy, image content).
      Unless you have really huge audiences, you’ll probably end up with anecdotal evidence.  But that’s better than nothing.  By the way, if you do have nothing, raid whatever you can for insight, including the overall brand brief, customer research or even insights pulled from competitive or desk research.
    3. Build your brief around the factors that emerge.  Present those factors to the creative team as puzzle pieces.  Encourage them to think of themselves as beating the brief; finding the tricks that will make the whole thing work.  Then let ’em rip.

 

While we pride ourselves as strategists and planners by our ability to weave together the whole cloth of new brands and platforms from the frayed threads of consumer insight, business requirements and cultural trends, we still have to pay the bills.  In this case, paying the bills means writing the quotidian briefs and offering the quotidian feedback on the long tail of client relationships.  Rise and grind.

(Non) Humblebrag

Hey, pals & gals!  I got someone else to publish my drivel for once.

Check out my article in Gamechangers, a publication of the Troyanos Group.

It’s my take on how rideshare companies like Uber and autonomous cars will create a passenger economy sooner rather than later.  Moreover, that passenger economy will have profound impact on retail, entertainment and even health and wellness brands.

Enjoy and tell your friends!

How to Save the Banner Industry (Labor Day Edition)

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the advertising company CEO said, “our banners are not delivering the value we promised our clients.  Janet, please brief the team on the specifics.”

The sales director rose to speak.  “Impressions are down.  Engagement is way down.  Targeting is non-existent.  Some units flash by so quickly that actual humans can’t see them.  The long and short of it is that our ads don’t move consumers like they used to”

Ted, a senior sales rep, raised his hand.  “Janet, hasn’t this always been the case?”

“Perhaps,” replied Janet.  “However our clients have become more sophisticated.  They expect more now.  Alternative formats and channels offer more engagement.  Meanwhile we have increasing trouble showing relevant metrics beyond impressions.”

A hush fell over the room.  The CEO spoke again.  “Any suggestions for improving our banners?”

“Better targeting,” said a planner seated at the back and idly thumbing his phone.  “Be more selective about the properties where we appear.”

“More engaging creative,” said an account manager.  “Most of our creative is still 2D”

Suggestions came thick and fast now.

“Better validation.  Our clients have less and less confidence that their ads actually get seen by real people.”

“Better data.  Let’s get more precise.

“Let’s be more selective of our client base.  Ads for sketchy plastic surgeons and cheap booze brands devalue our channel.”

“Video!  I don’t know how we’ll make it work, but people can’t resist moving images.”

“More banners!  Quantity over quality!”

A lone, junior sales rep raised her hand.  The room fell silent and all eyes turned to her.

“Let’s take the mufflers off the airplanes,” she said.  “That way, when our planes fly over, the people on the beach will hear them and look up.”

Once again, the room fell silent.

Slowly then quickly, the CEO clapped his hands together.

“Kid,” he said, “you may have just saved the Jersey Shore Airplane Banner Advertising Company.”

 

How to Scumbag, by Lands’ End

Compliance with the law–or even your own promises–leaves plenty of room for bad behavior.  Lands’ End, formerly owned by Sears and, as such, noted weasel Eddie S. Lampert, demonstrates how not to treat new customers in a master class.

I couldn’t find any free stock images of douchebags

A timeline:

Wednesday, 24 May: Lands’ End sends me a postcard with an offer I couldn’t refuse, 50% off my entire order if I texted them my email address.  So I did, and promptly got back an email offer for 40% any single item, which is not the same thing at all as 50% off my entire order.  Nevertheless, I called them on the phone and they honored the coupon after the obligatory intercession of a manager.  To his credit, the manager also gave me free shipping even though my order came up about $3 short of of the $50 threshold.

Thursday, 25 May: I get a marketing email with the offer of 50% off all swimsuits and 30% off everything else.  I immediately downsub to one email per month.

Friday, 26 May: I get a shipping confirmation…and another version of the 50% off swim/30% off everything else email.  Also, another email with an offer for 40% off home products.

Saturday, 27 May: Two more emails, the swim offer and a new, 40% off pants offer.  Also note that although I have elected men’s clothes as a preference, every single email to me has featured women’s products.

Sunday, 28 May: the 50% off swim offer.  Again.

Monday, 29 May:  Yup, same offer.

So, after asking them to send me one email per month, I got six emails in the space of four days.  Legally, they’re probably in the clear to fusillade me like this because a) CAN-SPAM  dictates a 10-day response for opt-outs and b) strictly speaking, I haven’t opted out.

Nevertheless, let’s look at what they did here:

  1. Honor the offer they mailed to me only after I had to speak to a manager
  2. Did not immediately respond to my request for fewer emails
  3. Failed to honor my preferences for men’s clothes (I know, cis-gendered men can’t exactly claim too much agony here, but still)

Not bad for the first five days of customership!

More Lessons from the Stripe Life

A while ago, I shared some things about marketing that I’ve learned refereeing my kids’ soccer matches.  I wanted to add one more: how and why to spread the work across multiple channels and campaigns.

Soccer pitch with referee running routes; also candidate for a really cool flag

See that big orange S-shape in the middle of the pitch?  That’s roughly the route that the center referee (CR)–the boss on the pitch–runs during a match.  Those red and blue lines that each follow half the sides of the pitch?  That’s where the assistant referees (ARs, formerly known as linesmen) run.  This setup gives the officials reverse angles of play on either end of the pitch.

Last weekend, I worked as an AR with a CR who simply ran along one side of the field, the same one I was on.  Thus, during any play on my end of the pitch, the CR and I had either the same view or, worse, she blocked mine.

Continue reading