26 September 2010

Blogs are maturing as a marketing channel

Are blogs dead? No, they are maturing and for that reason are an opportunity for marketers.

Economist: the growth of blogs has stalled

A recent analysis by The Economist suggests that the growth of blogs has stalled as many bloggers move to Facebook and Twitter. Some people are more comfortable “microblogging” in 140 characters than writing a blog post. As evidence, the article points to abandoned blogs that haven’t been updated in years.

The question is whether migration to microblogging is a permanent trend. The Economist didn’t convince me. Some of their evidence was questionable: an advertising sales company specializing in blogs grew tenfold during 2004-2008 and then “only” 17% since then. Most of us would gladly accept 17% growth in these economic times.

Ad Majorem: blogs are maturing

My own theory is that blogs are maturing. Facebook and Twitter are attracting people who would start a blog if that was their only option. Former bloggers are switching because they express themselves just as well via microblogging. There never was a vast population of people with the patience and perseverance to blog day after day. People who are meant to blog will continue blogging. A great example is Don Dodge, who claimed last week “I will never give up blogging.”

In the same post, however, he made a good case for the decline of RSS readers, which is how many readers learn about fresh blog content. For example, Ask.com will close Bloglines on October 1st, signaling the end of an era for the blogosphere. Another big change is that Six Apart, the blog company behind TypePad and other services, is being acquired by Video Egg.

Blogs are maturing and their role is changing. Social Media are not cannibalizing blogs, they are serving a different market for self-expression and they are supplanting RSS readers as a way to promote blog content.

What are the implications for Marketing? (“Marketing”, it’s very important to say, includes public relations, especially in this case. For a passionate view on this from a dyed-in-the-wool blogger, click here.)

Blogs are the ultimate vertical medium

In the days of Ye Olde Marketing we sometimes called magazines a “vertical medium” because an advertiser could reach very narrow, specialized target audiences via special-interest titles. Those still exist, of course, and blogs play a similar role. The Economist acknowledged this point as well.

To take this idea a bit further, let’s not lose sight of the fact that blogs help drive word-of-mouth for our clients’ products. A positive review by an influential mommy blogger can accelerate sales for a new product launch, simply by driving word-of-mouth.

A little to the side from marketing, blogs can promote free speech. In China, 70 million bloggers help promote views counter to those of the authoritarian government. We’ve seen the same thing in Cuba.

You’re probably not even reading this post right now….

Hopefully you agree that blogs are alive, well, and maturing. Perhaps you’ll consider their role in your marketing plans for 2011.

19 September 2010

Ad Majorem celebrates 1 year of The Big Picture

This blog is one year old. Thank you, readers: clients, agents, students, generalists, specialists, Renaissance Practitioners, accountability aficionados, media mavens, Mad Men and Women, retailers, digerati, and others who have been reading Ad Majorem. In particular I'd like to thank the 116 of you who signed up as "followers" of this blog. I sincerely appreciate that you took an interest and took the time.

The Big Picture

Ad Majorem has more or less stayed true to its original purpose of chronicling the changes and challenges of modern marketing. The top five most popular posts in Year One were about iPad advertising, being a generalist, global campaigns, "media neutral", and job survival.

To put it simply, Ad Majorem tries to see The Big Picture, which in marketing and advertising today is a Gigantic Venn Diagram of ways to engage consumers who choose the messages they receive as well as the products they buy.

This means Ad Majorem isn't a one stop source for the latest in digital, retail or advertising. Instead it is a one stop source for the latest in how all those channels work together.

Ultimately we aren't interested in marketing solutions, but business solutions. Measurement and accountability will continue as important themes here.

Thanks again for reading!

16 September 2010

Channel Neutral vs. Channel Chaos

TORONTO – Today in Canada we spent the afternoon discussing channel-neutral planning.

The U.S., Saudi Arabia, Canada and beyond

This story really started yesterday in Chicago, however, when we were working on a U.S. assignment. The client wanted us to get a brand “back on the air” after several years by virtue of a new product launch. The assumption was broadcast advertising. Thinking it over, the team saw for this product that TV advertising alone would only drive awareness, perhaps missing opportunities to engage the consumer much closer to the purchase decision.

A colleague who spent much of his career in the Middle East observed how this kind of channel-neutral thinking comes much more naturally outside the U.S. “This is how we always worked in Saudi Arabia,” he said. I’ve had exactly the same experience working in or with countries all over the world. Clients and agencies tend to be less divided into departmental silos, so teamwork comes more naturally.

This same integrated dynamic applies to Canada, where the channel-neutral mindset has always been strong.

Channel-neutral meets Channel Chaos

Having a mindset isn’t enough, though, because the choice of channels is complicated. In the days of Ye Olde Marketing, we had mass media, retail and perhaps direct mail or public relations. In the year 2010, we have so many options that some analysis is required, and that’s what brought me to Toronto today. How do you sort through it all?

The basic principles are simple but not always easy. Know your target. Understand what triggers a purchase. Identify what considerations ensue. Envision the moment of purchase. Figure out how to reinforce loyalty and ensure a repeat customer. You may have this down to a formula; in my QSR days our mantra was “bring ‘em in, trade ‘em up, keep ‘em coming back.”

Still, the choices available for engaging consumers at each part of this story are mind-boggling. Ironically, the efficient size of organizations that reduces departmental silos also reduces the available data and research you can use to analyze this process. Just like in the old days you must make some assumptions. In an age of data and research, this can be frustrating.

Channel Chaos meets Channel Control

There are a number of software developments in the market, in beta-testing or in development that will help us sort through these choices, so stay tuned. Today there was an interesting Adweek article about what IBM has been up to this summer. I’m not sure if it’s the wave of the future but it’s exactly the kind of tool that could help us all turn Channel Chaos into Channel Control.

10 September 2010

Can One Agency Really Do It All for a Client?

Can one agency really do it all for a client?

It depends on what you mean by “all”.

Almost any agency today, unless dedicated to a single discipline, will claim they can “do it all”. As Dan Goldgeier points out, this is often a questionable claim. Few agencies have literally every discipline right at hand. Many claim they can “do it all” with resources somewhere in their holding company. Let’s assume for a moment you can honestly claim to “have it all” either in-house, via corporate siblings, or by hiring free-lancers. Advertising, digital, retail, public relations – everything.

“Have it all” versus “Do it all”

Even if it you “have it all” there are still three overarching keys to “doing it all”:

Media-neutrality. This is a central topic on this blog so it hurt a bit when Goldgeier wrote: “Listen for a line like this: ‘We begin with the idea. We’re media neutral.’ More often than not, it’s bull.” He's right, though: few agencies have a true media-neutral perspective. Clients can hire almost any collection of agencies and get the various disciplines they think they need. They can't, however, write separate budgets for advertising, retail and digital, expecting them to magically fit together. Someone, either a sole agency or a lead agency, has to oversee a media-neutral strategy.

Mindset. Media-neutrality comes from a mindset that if everything starts with the consumer, we will combine all the disciplines in an optimal mix tailored to the client’s business needs. Perhaps we should call this an “open mindset” because my experience is that we must be open to where the data and the insights lead us. For the team to achieve this kind of open-mindedness, it needs great generalists as well as great specialists. If all you have is specialists, the work is likely to get bogged down in media-specific thinking.

Money. Teams of agencies have a hard time sharing projects because each one has its own profit pressure. It’s important for a single-agency team, working on a single assignment for a single client, to have a common P&L. This centralized accounting structure makes the whole team equally responsible for the result. Similarly, the client may want to consider media-neutral compensation. For example, if they normally pay a commission on media for TV advertising and an hourly fee for retail, maybe a unified fee structure is in order.

Why ask one agency to do it all?

I’ve come to the conclusion that one-agency-doing-it-all won’t be an industry standard. To Goldgeier’s point, very few agencies really have the resources. Fewer still are structured in such a way that they are truly media-neutral, have the right mindset, and can overcome money problems.

So why would you ask one agency to do it all?

Partnership. If you are one of the few clients today with a strong agency partnership focused on solving business problems, congratulations. Ask as much of that partner as you dare. If they care about your business, know your consumer and can outfox your competition, they’re a great partner.

Effectiveness. Having multiple outside partners fighting over budgets won’t solve much. Having a single, trusted partner will give you the best combination of an outside sounding board and a fair arbiter of how to allocate your budget among the many different media available today.

Efficiency. One creative resource at the helm means that you stand a better chance of getting a single, consumer-relevant, media-neutral idea that can be executed across channels. This will make your overall budget work harder because the messages will be synchronized.

This isn’t just theory, it’s my experience. Please use the comments section to tell me about yours.

08 September 2010

Shop Small Stores

This past weekend while shopping for ballet supplies with Mrs. Ad Majorem, we visited Allegro Dance Boutique in Evanston, Illinois. At the checkout counter they had buttons with the advice to "Shop Small Stores". There was also information about the 3/50 Project, which I knew nothing about.

The 3/50 Project is an alliance consisting of small, local retailers encouraging shoppers to patronize at least three independent stores to the tune of at least $50 a month. The website starts with the question "What three independently owned businesses would you miss if they disappeared?"

It's a timely message in a down economy. They leverage this sentiment further by claiming that every $100 spent locally returns $68 to "the community" via taxes, payroll and other expenditures.

Retail meets SoMe...again

This alliance is more like a movement, and provides yet another example of how Retail and Social Media intersect. By "social media" we really mean "word of mouth", which in the 21st Century is propelled by technology more so than a conversation across the fence between neighbors.

Still, there's an undeniably passionate, personal feel to the 3/50 Project you can't get from a Walmart greeter or the Starbucks barista who knows what you always order. The "movement" was sparked by a retail consultant, but it sustains itself on the energy of small enterprises on a mission.

The (endlessly clickable) Shallows

Here's an epilogue to yesterday's review of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.

Later in the day we were running through an important social media campaign for a valued client. The creative director presented the work as a series of screen shots on boards.

It wasn't intended this way, but there was roughly one presentation board for each link or object a consumer could click. When the creative director finished, we had boards lining every rail.

It wasn't a big room, but the long line of images was an impressive visual display of the endlessly clickable options available to consumers with short attention spans.

07 September 2010

Book Review: The Shallows

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
By Nicholas Carr
W. W. Norton & Co., 276 pages

Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows, explains his theory that the Internet, like all forms of media before it, affects our brains by changing how we think and communicate. In the specific case of the Internet, this effect is to shorten our attention span.

Casting all irony aside, I will now blog about it, in hopes you will have the patience to read an entire book review. Ready? Here goes.

While Carr does believe Internet use reduces the attention span, he actually has a more elaborate thesis: Throughout history, humankind has created many tools, measures and media, all of which literally changed the way we live, usually bringing some advancement to civilization. The human brain adapts to each of these advancements. Neurologists have proven the brain to be plastic in nature, operating according to the routines by which we live. This principle explains muscle memory, addiction, and how we communicate.

The Shallows lasts ten chapters, with the charming irony that Carr interrupts some of the chapter transitions with “a digression”, perhaps to underline his overall point that few of us can stay on track anymore. Nevertheless he stays on track, starting with a personal perspective, then plunging deep into the science of neurology, followed by the history of communication media, and finally tying the two together to show that the Internet, like all media before it, influences our ways of thinking. It’s a compelling case.

This book is thick with science and history, all presented as the engaging story of our journey through oral traditions, cuneiform, papyrus, paper, books and the Internet. Carr sees the benefits of all these media. He embraces the Internet, pointing out how it not only stores information efficiently, but has developed our skills at locating the right information. We may not remember the Dewey Decimal System, because we don’t have to -- and that’s the danger. Carr quotes more than once a caution expressed by Socrates that writing down texts, instead of memorizing them, was “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

Carr is neither Luddite nor Cassandra. Most of the books’ press coverage pursued a “bad Internet” storyline, but in reality Carr sees “the Net” (as he calls it) as simply another invention that’s not only a product of our brains but an influencer of how we use them. In that way the story is a bleak one for bibliophiles. A key finding is that just a decade and a half of Internet usage has reduced our ability to digest long-form literature such as an essay or a book. More than that, Carr laments in a personal observation, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” There’s a kind of resistance-is-futile feel to this and other passages of the book.

Carr also captures a debate between Determinists, who say out technology affects our history, and Instrumentalists, who say our history affects our technology. Carr seems to side with the Determinists, based on his analysis of science and history. Science tells us the brain is “plastic”, forming neural pathways based on how we employ it most frequently. History tells us that we have always molded our brains with each new technology, including the map, the clock and the printing press. It’s worth remembering how revolutionary books were as the Renaissance dawned: “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object.”

Pursuing the Determinist angle, Carr's examination of the Internet focuses on linked text and its cascading cross-references. Reading a page in a physical book leads merely to the next page. Reading a page on the Internet can lead to hundreds of other pages with just one or two clicks. Chapter 7, “The Juggler’s Brain”, explores how Internet multitasking erodes comprehension. You can access all sorts of data but not all at one time. The software you’re using to read this review isn’t called a “browser” for nothing.

Google comes in for some criticism in The Shallows for its ├╝ber-quantitative culture. Google’s very business model is based on the number of choices people make, so the more links we click, the more data we feed to the beast. It occurred to me while reading this passage that SEM is like direct marketing on Red Bull. Instead of sending in a single BRC, the consumer votes early and often, every time they click.

Why this matters to Marketers

How does The Shallows matter to marketers? I see two implications.

The first implication is how we train ourselves as professionals. The Internet isn’t detrimental unless it becomes our exclusive way of working. The antidote to Carr’s dystopian view is a balanced use of various media, with a return to more contemplative experiences. Reading is solitary and the Internet is interconnected – you’re never alone with your thoughts. We need balance.

The second implication is that we are marketing to a consumer population that increasingly lacks this kind of balance. The advent of social media will drive short attention spans. How can we engage consumers in an environment like this? It won’t be easy. We can only do so much to influence society, but just going with the flow doesn’t do much good. Balance your messages.

I’m glad you stayed with me to the end of this book review. You probably realize that I recommend reading The Shallows, preferably the physical book. You may not have realized that in tribute to the book, this review contained no hypertext links whatsoever.