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Social Media’s Fade-Out (and Why That’s a Good Thing)

Wave goodbye to all those social media gurus. They’re about to head off into the sunset. And that’s a good thing.

By all indications, this is the year that social media will fade into the background. All those social media gurus and social media ninjas and social media experts’ volume level will no longer be perma-set at 11. It’s not that social media is going away. It’s just that it’s fading into the background. Which is a really good thing.

Social media is the new wallpaper, a highly predicable moment many of us have been waiting for. It’s an important and very distinct historical pattern.

Whenever a significant new digital channel develops, it inevitably begins its lifespan as a Bright Shiny Object. The turn of this century was all email, all the time.  Email marketing was the new new thing that dominated the digital marketing conversation for close to 10 years.

Then, oooh! Search! Paid search! SEO! Search engine conferences were the industry’s largest events. The one I was formerly involved with, the biggest one there was, recently rebranded twice: first as a “search and social media” conference, then as a “digital marketing” event.

See where this is going? Email and search now both enjoy wallpaper status. They’ve faded into the background. This is absolutely not meant to diminish the importance or significance of either as a marketing channel. Search and email still are significant, impactful and effective. “Wallpapering” is a sign of maturity and of essential integration into the larger marketing organization. Really, it’s what all those experts and gurus and pundits are fighting for.

Social media is now following search and email into the background. It’s finally mainstream, not a novelty (like having a website once was – remember?). Social media has been departmentalized, strategized, budgetized – all of which are very good things.

We’re seeing the industry shifts that corroborate this. It’s not just conferences that are rebranding and shifting their go to market strategies. Social media software vendors, SEOs, and email providers are all scrambling to reposition as content marketing purveyors. Their offerings are essentially the same as they were before, but this new positioning is more topical, and more broadly relevant.

Content marketing is the new term on everyone’s lips. As an analyst, I’m seeing (and hearing) that it’s top-of-mind with clients, technology vendors, at conferences and seminars, trade publications – everywhere, in fact, digital marketing is discussed.  There’s a sudden plethora of “content marketing experts” blathering on about the topic who you never heard of two weeks ago (a source of great amusement to those of us who have been undertaking serious work in the sector for years). “Content is king” is new all over again, even if that trope was tired as far back as when I still worked in television.

Sound familiar? It should. Content is where email was. It’s where search was, and one day, it will be where social media is headed: fully integrated into marketing, not a nice-to-have but a must-have.

Wallpaper. Really, it’s kind of the goal, isn’t it?

This post originally published on iMedia.

Image: “Sunset at sea” by Jan-Pieter Nap

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Is There Really a Content Glut?

You are just beginning to wrap your mind around the fact that content marketing is the new “it” thing in digital marketing when you hear it’s over. Too much noise, not enough signal. Too much content. Too much bad content. No one will ever find your content due to the glut of other content incessantly pouring into digital channels at an accelerating, unceasing rate.

You may as well hang it up and go home. Better yet, if you haven’t already, don’t even start doing this whole content marketing thing.

This argument, surfacing recently in a spate of blogs and articles, is as pointless as it is predictable. You may as well argue that you shouldn’t market via email because of spam. Or (as was suggested in a recent interview), claim it’s time to trash your website because all websites “look alike” and are “boring.”

These are kneejerk reactions to disruption, more indicative of human nature than they are of the efficacy of new marketing strategies and techniques. Here’s what’s really going on:

  • It’s cool to be the first to the party.
  • It’s even cooler to declare the party’s over before anyone else does.

Only with content, you can’t do that because content is a constant. As I’ve said before in this column, content is the atomic particle of all marketing. No content = no website. No content = no email. No content = no social media, advertising, “creative,” DM, you name it. All those tactics and formats are, in effect, content envelopes.

Has a surge in the popularity of content marketing foisted more bad content upon us? You bet it has. So what else is new? Bad content, boring content, superfluous content — the world’s always been full of it and will continue to be full of it.

Even bastions of impeccably produced content, The New York Times, for example, can be tarred with this brush. For more decades than I’m willing to admit, as a print edition subscriber, my first act of the day was to bend over, pick up the paper, and chuck the sports section. That (to me, at least) is boring, superfluous, irrelevant content (though I can appreciate that you may be of an entirely different opinion). This did not, however, impel me to “turn off” my New York Times subscription.

If there’s a content glut, it’s because we’ve reached that very predictable stage in the disruption curve when a trend becomes a bandwagon. This results in spray and pray tactics, irrational exuberances, content “gurus” emerging from every quarter (most of them were social media gurus yesterday, and search gurus a couple of years back).

I won’t dispute for an instant that bad content is being created at a healthy clip. But I do disagree that all this noise drowns out the genuine signals.

Please read the rest of this post on iMedia, where it originally published.

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Yes, There's Fraud Online. Deal With It.

Breaking: everything you see and read on the internet isn’t true.

Hope you were sitting down for that surprising revelation.  I know, I know, it’s not that big a surprise, but that’s why it’s constantly surprising that people are…surprised by it.

A reporter from one of this country’s leading metropolitan dailies contacted me recently about the late-summer revelation from Facebook that some 83 million (or 8.7 percent) of its user accounts are fake. Facebook is, after all, a platform based on the value proposition that its users are behind real identities.

Doesn’t this blow Facebook’s value proposition out of the water, the reporter wanted to know. Isn’t this an incredibly high number of fake accounts? How could they allow this to happen?

Relax. The problem is hardly endemic to Facebook. Fake accounts, whether malicious in nature or not (Facebook estimates only c. 1.5 percent of active accounts are, in fact, malicious – the others are mostly duplicates, users under the age of 13, your dog, etc.) come with the territory – online or off.

Facebook is working to identify and disable fake accounts just as the search engines are working to combat click fraud – for years now. As ISPs work to block oceans of spam.

Oh, and did I mention fake online reviews?  Yelp has resorted to a sting operation aimed at shaming businesses that are caught trying to game their ratings system. They’re posting “consumer alerts” on those businesses’ pages, and exposing the emails they send to hire favorable reviewers. (TripAdvisor is also participating in its own version of the walk of shame.) So widespread is the fake-review practice that Gartner estimates by 2014, 15 percent of all online reviews will be fake.

Companies running online sweepstakes often encounter fraud, fakes and undesirable metrics in short order. A few years back, I looked under the hood of several soft drink sweepstakes aimed at males aged 12 – 24 (Coke, Sprite and Mountain Dew, to name a few of the brands). I asked Hitwise (now Experian Hitwise ) to crunch the data. They clocked the overwhelming majority of entrants as low-income females…over 45. They weren’t clicking on ads, but rather on a link on contest-aggregator site Sweepstakes Advantage.

Blame the Internet – Or Human Nature?

Somehow, when fraudulent, misleading or even unintentional things happen online, “the internet” is to blame. Or Facebook. Or Google. Or the dating site that was a 14 year old girl’s first step into a bad situation – never mind that a 14 year old had no business being on the site in the first place.

No one seems to be stepping back and saying things like, “Contests are overwhelmingly popular with low-income, middle aged women. Is it wise to run a sweepstakes to reach young men? If we do elect to go that route, how can we ensure we reach the target audience?”

Just as retailers account for “shrinkage” in financial forecasts, digital marketers must account for wasted clicks and impressions. Comes with the territory. There’s always going to be clickfraud. Chihuahuas and Yorkies will continue to update their Facebook newsfeeds (or, even further violating Facebook’s TOS, allow others to do this for them.) People who aren’t 100 percent neutral (like maybe the owner’s mother-in-law) will review restaurants and hair salons – favorably or unfavorably, depending.

Offline Corollaries are Much Worse

While the media are quick to blame “the internet” for a multitude of crimes related to fraud, companies like Facebook, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, Bing, Yahoo, and all the major ISPs get little public credit or acknowledgement for their efforts to combat said fraud. Much of the knowledge we have of online misconduct was revealed by these companies themselves. It’s transparency and disclosure.

Not so their offline bretheren. A quick search of “inflated circulation” results in a veritable rogues’ gallery of news stories indicting companies like Time Inc., News Corp, Newsday and other major publishers of being caught in the act – not openly revealing they are combatting a problem.

Forbes recently indicted USA Today for padding hotel bills to the tune of $82 million annually for those unwanted, untouched copies of the newspaper in front of your door in the morning (nearly one million copies per day that you probably don’t read, and probably are billed for).

Online fraud? Yeah. It’s a problem. It will always be a problem. Just like in the real world.

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Co-Op Advertising: Digital's Multi-Billon Dollar Opportunity

If you work in digital marketing in some capacity (if you’re reading this, it’s likely you do), you probably devote little to no time thinking about co-op advertising. You may only have the vaguest idea of what coop advertising actually is, or how it works.

While you’re ignoring coop advertising, the manufacturers who run coop programs are equally busy ignoring you. They’re too busy pumping an estimated $50 to $520 billion into their coop programs annually.  Online advertising may be growing by leaps and bounds, but it’s getting significantly less than one percent of this enormous sector of the market (by comparison, GroupM estimates total U.S. advertising spend this year will be $153 billion).

While the above figures indicate valuing the coop advertising market is difficult, clearly it represents a huge reservoir of potential digital spend. So how come digital is getting so little of it? This is a topic I’ve been discussing with the IAB for some time. Recently, they asked me to look into the issue more deeply. My findings are available on the IAB website as a PDF download.  Here’s a brief overview of what co-op advertising is, why digital is missing from the equation, and what steps the industry might take to rectify a clear imbalance.

 Coop Advertising Defined

Coop advertising is an agreement between a manufacturer and a retailer to share advertising costs. Typically, manufacturers underwrite from 30 to 50 percent of advertising costs, though contributions from 75 to 100 percent aren’t uncommon. Different manufacturers have different policies. They may provide creative, furnish the ad, or underwrite only media costs.

There a numerous beneficiaries in this ecosystem. Manufacturers get increased exposure at a lower cost. Retailers benefit from brand name product associations, while smaller retailers who might not otherwise be able to afford to advertise can, thanks to co-op dollars. Agencies and media companies can increase their billings, and media companies fill ad inventory.

The Missed Digital Opportunity

Of over 1,000 coop programs listed in the Local Search Association’s database (representing over 1,700 brands), only 223 permit limited forms of digital advertising, generally search and display. Several explicitly forbid coop dollars from flowing into digital channels. This, despite hockey-stick growth in local search, advertising, targeting, daily deal and coupon sites, etc. (and local is, of course, the bread and butter of retailer-focused coop programs).

A recent study by Borrell Associates estimates the online co-op market currently makes $1.7 billion available, with $450 million of that left on the table “for lack of participation.” Couple this with the majority of co-op programs that limit or preclude allocating spend to digital channels, and the potential value of this market could very quickly exceed $5 to $10 billion per year. This is roughly double 2011’s online retail spend of $7.1 billion (IAB/PwC).

Clearly, it’s time to take stock of the obstacles that prevent this revenue from flowing online. We identified three primary stumbling blocks:

  • Complexity and multiplicity of digital channels On both the manufacturer and merchant sides, the sheer amount of knowledge required to advertise in digital channels is a formidable barrier.
  • Lack of infrastructure On the manufacturer side, co-op advertising sometimes falls under the auspices of marketing, but more frequently is a function of either the sales or the finance department, areas inherently unlikely to be versed in digital marketing strategies or tactics.
  • Lack of guidelines and requirements - Co-op advertising program rules around issues such as logo usage, mentioning competitive products, and general branding requirements are established in traditional channels. Digital provides range of new challenges (e.g. manufacturer rules around bidding on brand or trademarked terms in search).

With billions of dollars on the table, its time the industry met these challenges head on. Our recommendations include strategically and tactically addressing a multipronged approach.

  • Awareness Just as manufacturers and retailers are unaware of the potential benefits of online advertising, not to mention the actual tactics and techniques for executing digital campaigns, so too is the digital ecosystem largely blind to the potential and the workings of co-op advertising.
  • Education Channels, metrics, targeting, and the like are close to a foreign language for many retail executives, particularly the “mom ‘n’ pop” retailer.
  • Standards and best practices Online co-op advertising does exist, particularly in the automotive and durable goods sectors. A closer examination of how successful programs in these verticals function can lead to case studies and ultimately help create templates on which broader co-op programs in different industries can be based.
  • Technology Development of platforms that enable workflow automation would go far to make the co-op advertising process easier both for manufacturers and the often over-burdened merchants who run co-op campaigns. Also useful would be a comprehensive database of co-op programs and digital asset management systems for logos, creative executions, and brand elements.
  • Publisher initiatives - Assist in helping to re-establish the co-op ad manager role, this time with a view toward online display advertising.
  • Cooperation with co-op ad management companies - Many legacy co-op program management companies have expanded into the digital, yet remain unconnected with mainstream publishers and industry trade groups.

The IAB, together with the Local Search Association, have taken an important first step in creating awareness of the value and the lack of coop advertising in digital. The next step is to drum up a broad swath of industry involvement. We need more trade groups ( and the OPA come to mind) beating this drum with their constituencies. Agencies, technology providers and VCs should be brought into the discussion. Both sides need to talk, and to listen to each other.

Bringing coop advertising online will be neither quick nor easy. But with billions of dollars at stake, you can bet it’s bound to happen.

Here's the presentation I delivered to the IAB's Local Advertising Committee on Sept. 5:

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Email's Critical (But Overlooked) Role in Content Marketing

In our recent research report on content marketing, we asked 56 marketers what content channels matter now, and will in the future. Not a single one of them – not one – named email as a content channel, though we know that virtually every company we spoke with has invested significantly in email marketing initiatives.

We call this the “bright, shiny object syndrome.” It’s an obsession with hot new marketing technologies (video! mobile!) at the expense of digital marketing fundamentals (email, search). Not that there’s anything wrong with new. We love new. But you have to learn to walk before you can run and all that.

So it’s great to see the DMA’s Email Experience Council (eec) has just announced its relaunch of the YouTube education channel.

Below, some footage of me nattering on about the very important role email plays in content marketing (in another video I discuss how to find email content). I suggest you tune in for more email wisdom from experts including Bill McCloskey, Chad White, Tami Forman and other undisputed email marketing experts.


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CMOs Want Technology and Content

I spent this afternoon immersed in a briefing on IBM's most recent research effort, perhaps the most exhaustive survey of CMOs ever conducted. In a four month period, the company interviewed over 1,700 CMOs in 64 countries to learn more about their priorities and their pain points. The full report is available for download (registration required).

There are many fascinating insights in the report, as well as much information that's validating, if unsurprising (CMOs feel they need to better understand social media, data, and technology in general, for example). Two tables are of particular interest given the rise of content marketing and social media.

When asked in which areas they plan to increase the use of technology, responses are overwhelmingly geared toward content-oriented initiatives. Social media, content management, tablet applications - all these are heavily oriented toward the creation of content, not advertising and not direct marketing. SEO made the list, but search advertising didn't. Less than half plan to invest in more email technology - unthinkable a mere five years ago.

Of course, this naturally doesn't mean CMOs plan to abandon email marketing (or any of the aforementioned channels). But these planned investments indicate that worldwide, companies want to create content, interest and dialogue with customers and prospects.

This indication is borne out in their plans for partnerships. In the chart on the left, red indicates near-term, yellow longer-term plans. Call and service centers, community development, and new media strategy outweigh more traditional agency considerations for either traditional or digital advertising.

These are all themes I'll be digging into shortly in a research project: how organizations are reallocating both internal and external marketing resources to balance their need for advertising with the demands of content, social media and conversational marketing  

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Publishers: Take Note of "Social Subscribe"

Digital publishing is no longer about newsletter subscriptions. Social media channels are capable of driving more traffic to media sites than search and direct navigation combined (sometimes).

Two years ago, when I was with Econsultancy, we learned 10 percent of traffic was coming from Twitter alone. Ten percent may not sounds like an enormous number, but it's not peanuts, either. Moreover, it was traffic that hadn't existed a scant two years earlier, before Twitter launched. With Facebook on the scene and Google+ billing itself as a "content discovery" tool, social media simply cannot be ignored by any publisher hoping to attract eyeballs.

It's not as if publishers aren't aware of this. Many, if not most, already have some sort of prerequisite presence on Facebook and Twitter (at a bare minimum). Today, AllThingsD raised the bar for all publishers by launching a social media subscribe page.

It's about segmentation. User preference. Social media. The page makes it easy for subscribers to follow the topics they wish to follow in their channel of choice. The page features 12 topics to follow on Twitter (news, mobile, media, etc.); coverage of five specific tech companies (OK, here's a hint, they start with "G," "M," "A" "F" and "T"); and 10 different writer feeds (are you listening, PR professionals?).

Scroll down the page and take your choice of 20 (20!) RSS feeds, an iPhone app, e-readers and widgets. There's even a newsletter option, which in the context of the rest of the page starts to look terribly retro.

While this plethora of new follow, like and subscribe options give AllThingsD more to measure, at the end of the day these social metrics won't be more complex or difficult to analyze than email metrics in terms of number of subscribers/followers, clickthroughs and yes, even conversions.

Publishers need to take a look at AllThingsD's social subscription page now and seriously consider using it as a template for their subscription options. Email newsletters are far from dead, but there are many other channels in which users find, discover, consume and share content.

Be there for them.  

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb is a strategic advisor, consultant, research analyst, keynote speaker, author, and columnist.


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