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.

What I Learned about Leadership from Brendan Byrne

Few outside the Garden State will probably note the passing of Governor Brendan Byrne, who served two terms from 1974 to 1982.  He never ran for President, nor did he have any notable scandals in his administration.  For most of his tenure, New Jersey played the butt of the jokes from other 49 states, with the emergence of Bruce Springsteen as the notable exception.  However, I learned a little bit about leadership from him, thanks to my grandfather, that I carry with me to this day and, I hope, I live up to.

If my meeting the Governor happened by chance, my grandfather helped the odds a bit.  Before his career in government, Byrne practiced law and had my grandfather as a client in the 1950s.  In 1980, my grandfather celebrated his 65th birthday by taking his children and grandchildren to Bermuda for the Memorial Day weekend.  We ran into the Governor in a hotel lobby.  My grandfather strode across the carpet and shook the Governor’s hand, exchanging greetings and asking after each other in a polite but genuine fashion.  As a 10-year-old, I stood awestruck that my grandfather spoke so easily with, by my reckoning, the second-most-powerful politician in America.

Years later, I spent a summer working at my grandfather’s demolition company doing everything from driving him around to jobsites to picking steel rebar from the rubble of recently-dismantled buildings.  Among other things, I saw my grandfather interact with the men who worked for him as foremen, truckers, equipment operators and laborers.  And that’s what he called them, “the men.”  Never “the guys,” “the fellas” or even the faux-honorific “the gentlemen.”  Always “the men.”

He spoke frankly and genuinely with them.  He had an easy familiarity with them that he did not put on.  It was how he talked.

Years later, I would note that he spoke as easily with his men as he did with the Governor.  And that’s when I realized a great truism of dealing with co-workers.  The opposite was even more true: he spoke with his men with as much respect as if they had been the Governor of New Jersey.

Data. And Research. And Fried Chicken.

When it comes down to it, marketing strategists have only three tools at their disposal: data, research and their own opinions.  Make that two things; opinions don’t count because everyone else has them, too.  Strangely, most strategists willingly ignore 50% of the tools remaining and focus on just research or just data.  I’ve learned that not only do research and data strengthen each other, they also cover each other’s blind spots.  If you consider yourself a strategist, you should use both.

The case for research informing data

Imagine a clothing brand that sells a sweater in both black and white in its online store.  Any data analyst can pull an astounding amount of information about the sales that will inform marketing strategy.  At its simplest, these data can show what percentage of people bought black vs. white out to as many decimal places as you please.  Without too much trouble, an analyst could also find interesting trends such as which color sold better at which time of the day or which one resulted in the larger average order size.  Add in data about the buyers and the analyst can tell you where black sold better than white or which sold better to longtime customers vs. first-time buyers.

Know what the data can’t tell you?  How many people wanted a blue sweater instead?

While data partisans prize data for their irrefutability, data tend to look backwards at what people did and not forwards at what they might do.  Looking forward means more than adding another sweater color.  In a larger sense, it means seeing opportunities that data simply can’t predict.

The case for data informing research

Research, on the other hand, has something to learn from data.  One need only look at polls where Americans report interest in healthier foods and compare that interest to actual sales of, say, Doritos to see the limits of research..  The discrepancy between what people say and what they do doesn’t invalidate research, of course.  Research gets strategists into the heads of consumers in a way that data simply can’t.  Like a CT scan, good research shows us not simply what consumers think, but how and why they think that way.

That said, data enhance research’s usefulness by giving scale and weight to findings or even by ensuring that the strategists answer the right questions in the first place.  In a famous example from the 1960s, one of the corn oil companies conducted research that proved, to them at any rate, that people preferred the taste of home-fried chicken over a new product, Shake ‘N Bake.  Correct answer, but to the wrong question.  Had the corn oil company recognized that people DID buy Shake ‘N Bake, perhaps they would have asked those purchasers WHY they bought the product and taken action to maintain sales of their product.

Come to think of it, I’d like to research a nice piece of fried chicken

Think “both/and” not “either/or”

A strategist who employs both data and research together can expect to provide stronger rationales for her recommendations.  Data give research a foot in the here-and-now while research gives data more understanding of why the numbers are what they are and how marketers can identify new opportunities.  Try using them to support one another and then maybe, just maybe, your opinions might count after all.

Humor: Generic Creative Agency Mission Statement

The work matters most.

The work tells you when you can go home, not the clock, not your boss and not your dog just barely holding it in.  The work comes first, slams the door in your face and laughs under its breath.  The work doesn’t wait more than three minutes at Starbucks.

The work pays the bills, puts a roof over your head and expects you to take out the trash, you bum.  The work calls its mother every day.

The work matters most.

The work matters more than E divided by C squared.  The work wrote all of Chuck Norris’s so-called facts.  The work has a bigger following on Instagram than Beyonce’s dog.  The work can make jokes in French.

The work is probably sleeping with that co-worker you haven’t worked up the courage to ask out yet.  The work can make Cross Fitters shut up for a second.  The work literally can even.

The work matters most.

The work matters. You do not.

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.

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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.

How Soon is “Too Soon?”

How soon is “too soon” for promoting tourism after a terror event? Three weeks seems to be the norm.

While it may feel unseemly to talk of commerce in the wake of a murderous event, the question bears asking. For one, tourism drives the economies of many cities, meaning that people depend on it to make a living. For another, terror attacks show no sign of stopping.

Sadly, it pays to be prepared.  I would argue that a tourism-dependent business not thinking about this issue would be like an citrus grower not having a contingency for frost.

Times Square, Veteran’s Day 2014

This week’s cowardly attacks about five miles from my home and hard by my nephew’s high school (he graduated in 2016) prompted an article in the New York Times about how terror attacks have affected New York.

However, I also happen to have my own experience with this grim calculus.

On a recent assignment for a client who conducts large-scale event marketing, I had to ask–and answer–the “how soon?” question. The client had planned an event in a large U.S. city that they would promote in email and other digital channels.  It’s telling that I can maintain client anonymity due to the prevalence of terror activity.  So, while police combed the crime scene, I felt a duty to advise the client on the go/no-go decision.

In the absence of a social listening tool to measure consumer sentiment,  I used Google Trends.  If you’re unfamiliar, Google Trends tracks the popularity of a search term according to an index where 100 is the high water mark.  Researchers can filter results by location down to the city, by time and by other factors.

Specifically, I looked at search trends for terms that included “[city name] travel” and “what to do in [city name] this weekend” for several large worldwide cities over the past several years, before and after terror attacks.  I found some interesting things:

  1. Travel interest drops after an attack but returns to seasonal normal after about three weeks on the outside.  While the number of terror attacks hasn’t reached a robust sample size, I feel confident saying that the length of time before returning to normal roughly reflects the severity of the attack.  Interest in London travel rebounded more quickly after the Westminster and London Bridge attacks than interest in Paris travel after the Bataclan attacks.  As the kids say, YMMV.
  2. Counter-intuitively, interest in travel searches increases during and immediately after the attack.  I suspect the spike comes from people en route or about to travel who want to change plans or simply determine prosaic details such as whether the airport remains open.  I would call this more of a “huh” than a marketing opportunity, of course.
  3. Locals rebound faster.  Again, sample sizes preclude me from making broad promises, but weekend-related search terms get back up to normal within a week or so.  Speaking as a jaded New Yorker, I suspect that after the initial shock wears off, people still gotta get out of the house.

In the end, I recommended that the client go ahead with the promotion as the earliest mail date would come a month after the attack.  Without a doubt, I’ve never made a sobering recommendation.

(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!

Tom Petty’s Death Signals Radio’s Approaching Sign-off

I don’t usually post about entertainment figures, because I don’t work in the industry.  However, the passing of Tom Petty brings up a salient point about marketing: he’s one of the last musicians from the era when radio mattered.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Commercially and critically successful, Tom Petty earned some scorn from rock cognoscenti because, they felt, radio had made him more popular than he deserved to be.  Whatever that means.

However, this criticism (fair or not), points to a conspicuous absence: radio can’t do that anymore.  Radio will no longer crown pop princesses like Madonna or Britney.  It will no longer unleash the Monsters of Rock.  Hip hop seems to have maintained a local radio tradition and maybe country has, too.

Sure, mass distribution of a sort exists in the form of YouTube and music streaming, not to mention satellite radio and alternate channels such as movie and TV soundtracks.  However, these channels have fragmented.  You never have to hear Tom Petty even if you like a lot of similar acts such as the Allman Brothers or Bruce Springsteen.  A high schooler today could live out the old joke of not realizing that Paul McCartney had been in a band before Wings.

We no longer have the social contract that radio wrote: you listen to music that someone else chooses and, every once in a while, you’ll be exposed to something new that you’ll like.  As marketers, Tom Petty’s death reminds us of a channel that offered distinctly emotional human connections for brands.

I offer apologies if this post comes off more as a Jeremiad than the usual “Everything Is Awesome” posts on LinkedIn (and, yes, I realize that in the world of “The Lego Movie,” that song was a radio hit).  I just want to call something out that we, as music lovers and marketers, have lost.