Monthly Archives: June 2009

Next in paid posts, Intel sponsors your life

If I pay you to insert a brand into your conversation with your friends and it makes you feel good, is that OK?

The ethical quandaries of pay-per-post continue this month with Intel’s feel-good outreach to Federated Media bloggers. Maggie Mason, author of the blog Mighty Girl, attracts more than 20,000 unique visitors each month, not a shabby audience. So when she developed a life list of 100 things she wants to do before she dies (hopefully many decades from now), Intel agreed to pick up the tab for 10 of them. Maggie is now delighted, headed for Puerto Rico to swim with bioluminescent plankton. Intel has woven the blogger gifts into its broader Sponsors of Tomorrow campaign, a rebranding effort by agency Venables Bell & Partners of San Francisco to move the chip maker beyond commodity status.

We love the repositioning but still pause over the paid posts. A value exchange is occurring but it is not labeled advertising, and instead has become embedded in the author’s content — a gray area of confusion. As we’ve noted before, Google has declared paid posts off limits for its search engines, requiring bloggers who write such stuff to include “no follow tags” so that such links won’t gum up search engine results, or risk having their page rank removed. For bloggers who seek fame, losing page rank is a big eraser. For those who ponder the ethics of accepting payment to write opinions, it is interesting that Google — the world’s largest search engine and one of its biggest ad channels — has deemed paid posts as worthless content.

Tragedy of the commons

Some in the blogging world, such as Chris Brogan whom we’ve debated here and here, wonder why ad industry types take issue with paid posts at all. “We disclose,” these bloggers say, “isn’t that enough?” The answer is no: advertising, like any communication, requires a healthy ecosystem for it to function, and the rising quantities of paid mentions are beginning to pollute social networks. We’ve seen this before. Telesales almost killed the telephone as a marketing tool due to overuse, spurring the Do Not Call rebellion. Email spam has become so prevalent that filters now block it out, depressing legitimate email ad efforts, with an added benefit that your important work email may get blocked from a recipient by accident. The radio network Clear Channel once ran so many ads per hour that it was forced to retrench, after some in the industry worried the clutter would depress ratings and harm advertiser results. Advertising is like any green commons: put too many cows in the field, and you end up with a dust bowl tragedy.

Going too far in commerce is nothing new; admire your local strip mall for evidence of that. What’s different with today’s paid posts is they are buying opinions, not ad space. When the voice of a blogger talks highly of a brand, you now must filter the message carefully to decide whether to believe the thought. Is the opinion an authentic 10 or a shilling 0? Or is it somewhere on the sliding scale in-between? Perhaps paid posts are lovely if you’re the one taking a trip; we wonder if they will be as much fun when the entire voyage of life becomes one series of cleverly inserted brand mentions.

Image: MTLB

Soon, a DVR in every home. Advertisers groan.

Marketers have been growing nervous about digital video recorders, those boxes now in 1 out of 4 U.S. homes that allow consumers to easily skip over TV commercials. So they may have a heart attack after the Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for Cablevision to offer virtual DVRs to its customers.

Sure, this looks like just another cable add-on — but as Josh Bernoff notes at Forrester, now Cablevision can launch DVR-type recording options on a system-wide basis vs. installing them gradually in individual homes. DVRs are great for consumers because you can pause regular TV programming during a bathroom break, record shows you don’t want to miss, watch things later, and yes, skip commercials. Bernoff predicts virtual DVRs with clever functionality will expand rapidly as Comcast, Cox, AT&T and others try to differentiate themselves from satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Networks with less-nimble on-demand services. We imagine, for instance, a cable company with unlimited storage could let you build a personal library of your favorite TV shows — a great switching cost to keep you from ditching Cablevision for satellite TV next year. Such services could even slash customer churn among the 7% of the U.S. population who moves each year to a new home, because you could now take your entire library with you remotely — as long as you stick with the same cable provider.

It’s not the end of the advertising world, certainly. Cable companies derive revenue from advertisers and won’t rush to kill their golden geese. Tim Hanlon, EVP of Viva Ki Venture, told the LA Times that advertisers could even use expansion of on-demand video to improve ad targeting.

Still, consumers gain a new remote. There is a huge market for content right now, when you want it, and remote DVRs when ubiquitous will give consumers great control over which messages they see or skip. Advertisers will have to rapidly build more relevant or integrated content if they want to avoid the fast forward button.

Image: Still from video Speed by Atzu.

In defense of outdoor

Sure, internet makes headlines. So why doesn’t anyone talk about billboards, the second-fastest growing ad medium in the United States?

Outdoor advertising has leapt from 0.6% of all ad spending back in 1996 to 2.4% in 2007. About $7 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on billboard or so-called out-of-home ads, half that of magazine ads or two-thirds of internet ads. The irony is outdoor, one of the few bright spots of the ad recession, often gets a bad rap among marketing elitists who fail to recognize the reality that most Americans are trapped in cars for 25 minutes a day, staring dolefully at giant signs by the side of the road. Occasionally Ad Age mentions the award-winners, such as this piece above by agency Serve for the organization Pathfinders (which achieved a 30% lift in funding and inundated local police with 911 calls about kids sleeping on billboards). But agency or marketing execs typically disdain outdoor; one told us years ago, “billboards are what we do when we have money left over.”

Too bad, because outdoor works well for many products or services whose consumers have high modality. This is the psychological state of apathy interruptus, when you don’t think about something very much until suddenly you do — insurance, banks, Realtors, a new car. It’s impossible to tell when an individual will enter the 7% of the population about to buy a new home this year, but if you sell rugs or heating oil, you want to reach those consumers right when they get to that decision point. Direct mail or TV might hit a few by chance. Outdoor puts you there, in front of that entire 7%.

Part of billboards’ funky rap is their own fault, because the creative is so often awful. Local businesses often grab a board to try to convince consumers to turn off a highway exit, so homespun, multiple-font bastardizations that would make Edward Tufte groan are commonplace. Rare is the elegant Mini Cooper S whimsy. And the industry has recently alienated some in the ad world with its Wild West approach to pricing the new digital signs (say, huge electronic billboards that rotate messages, where the pricing for one slot out of six is the same as that for a single regular billboard — yet most drivers passing by won’t see the digital ad).

We recommend you don’t focus on formats or creative, but start with your customer. Do they have high modality (thinking about your service only rarely, and then suddenly)? Does your product have mass appeal, but only to the masses when they reach a critical point of interest? If so, then outdoor could be your thing. To see how some marketers do it well, visit the creative library at industry group OAAA.

ThisMoment solves a social media problem: The slippery stream

Dirk and Darryl are riffing about, the latest ho-hum attempt at a new social network — but wait. Could ThisMoment be on to something?

Yes. The problem with most social networks or blogs, like this one, is there is no good way to hold on to content. New posts push down old posts. Today’s tweet is lost in tomorrow’s stream. We mean, jeez, we had a brilliant idea once for a 48-hour work day and no one has rallied, since the post is now buried below. ThisMoment puts the breaks on this slipperiness of social communication with a colorful bookmark in time. If your son graduates or you go crazy at a backyard barbecue, now you have a “moment” to bookmark all the photos and comments around that event — and you can invite others to also add to, and latch on to, that specific instance in time.

It’s a nice idea. Now your embarrassing events can be found forever.

5-second films

Feeling rushed? Then you’ll like this project by Brian Firenzi, Daniel Hollister and Jonathan Schlaepfer, who have produced a series of 5-Second Films packed with solid plots. The films actually include an additional 2 seconds for beginning titles and 1 second for end titles, so you’ll have to wait 8 seconds for full effect. If that bothers you, the producers say, then you’re no fun at dinner parties.

Burger King: Why unsettling ads work

Yes, this is a real ad by Burger King, and its sexual imagery has pundits screaming foul. Slate calls it shameless, Gawker calls it desperation, and even Alex Bogusky, head of Burger King’s U.S. agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, took time to tweet that his shop didn’t do this job. Turns out the ad was created by a separate team and is running over in Singapore.

As rude as many find this, it also resonates. Burger King mentions on Twitter more than tripled Wednesday, mainly among the influential marketing and advertising crowd. Blogs everywhere are chatting up the campaign — and the sandwich will certainly stick in your mind. Sex and violence have been used in advertising for decades to break through to consumers’ memories; other work for Burger King uses the creepy King figure rubbing women’s backs on the beach to tingle your mind somewhere between hunger, lust and fear. Psychologists know that human memory is heightened in times of emotional stress; freaking out people makes a lasting impression. Shock enough and Ad Age and Entertainment Weekly give you a call.

We call this a backchannel buzz strategy, where the creative is designed to startle viewers and also build scandal across other media. You’re seeing more of this lately because the internet makes it possible; web sites and social media don’t have broadcast standards, so shocking materials can spread like fire there even if seen or mentioned only briefly on CNN or The New York Times. Run a horrid ad once, cross the line, take it down — yet it will reverberate for weeks online, and if you’re lucky go viral to millions.

Good Outlook, bad Outlook

Back in the old days, say 2007, if a huge corporation changed a product and you didn’t like it, your options were few: call to complain; write a letter or email to the company president; play your contacts in the press and hope that someone picks up the story.

Times have changed. When Microsoft announced that the 2010 version of its flagship email product Outlook will not render web pages correctly, but instead use Word as a “render engine” to give a strange, squashed version of HTML email inserts such as e-newsletters, users went up in arms. A group started a viral campaign using Twitter and the web site to demand Microsoft rethink its strategy.

An old product change, but new user complaint tools

Microsoft actually made this change already in the 2007 version of Outlook. Prior to that, email newsletters appeared in Outlook laid out exactly like a web page (above left) while the 2007-onward versions of Outlook squished things inside Microsoft Word (above right). The issue will mostly affect marketers who push professionally designed emails into recipients’ In boxes, and could conceivably reduce email newsletter response rates — one of the few remaining bright spots in internet banner advertising CTRs.

User complaints are spreading: The top 10 ad blog Brandflakes led with the headline “Windows users: Another 5 years of crappy email?” and the topic is beginning to trend in Twitter. Microsoft has responded to the campaign noting its Word editor lets users create graphic-rich emails without HTML.

We can only guess at Microsoft’s motive: by entangling email tightly with its PC-based Word software program, it defends the Windows mothership against the rapid movement of users to other online, free, “cloud” communication options.

Unlike back in 2007, Twitter and social media have gotten a giant’s attention. Right or wrong? Look at the choices above and you be the judge.

Newport newspaper spanks readers for using web

All newspapers are struggling to find the right new pricing model as readers flock to the internet, where ad revenue is far less than that of print editions. Now the craziest idea appears from The Newport Daily News of Rhode Island. The Daily News has announced it will charge $145 a year for a print subscription, $245 a year if you want both print and access to their web site, and $345 a year if you want just the web site.

Um. That’s right. You pay a $100 penalty if you want to read Newport news only on the web. Jim Brady, former executive editor of the, says the model reeks of desperation:

“Newport’s strategy suggests it believes it can drive people away from its own web site and back to the newspaper. And maybe it can — for a few years. But as future generations continue to abandon print, this strategy will reveal itself to be short-sighted. By penalizing people who only want to use the paper’s web site, the Daily News is likely guaranteeing itself future irrelevancy.”

We respect the challenge, because even the big boys are in trouble. Back in January Michael Hirschorn wrote in The Atlantic that The New York Times, $1 billion in debt with only $46 million in cash reserves, still had no pricing strategy to deal with consumers rushing online. About 1 million people read the Times print edition each day vs. 20 million online — yet the print version generates the lion’s share of revenues, and if the paper stuff were shut down, web revenue would support only 20% of the current Times staff. NYT has toyed with charging online subscriptions to backfill the holes in online revenue, but keeps backing away, fearful that its web readers might do the same.

Good luck, Newport. But rest assured, we won’t be reading you online.

TV networks post worst-ever ratings. So, advertisers, what now?

Private communication has been around for as long as humanity, but the whispers in the advertising industry are growing worried as marketers realize their audience is slipping away into new forms of social media. After all, it’s hard to intercept a consumer with an ad message if they are only communicating among themselves.

Case in point: Last week the major television networks posted their worst-ever ratings among viewers 18 to 49, despite pushing expensive new dramas. Over in radio, the rollout of the new Portable People Meter — a device meant to improve rating accuracy by picking up an actual signal from the radio station a listener is tuned in to, vs. relying on less-accurate diaries — has exposed continued declines in radio ratings. The findings were so startling that Arbitron launched its own spin campaign in the media planning press to try to convince ad agencies that 70 of the “new” rating points were as good as 100 of the old ones.

Of course, advertising still works. It’s just the metrics have changed.

The irony of all this is consumers now use more media than ever before. Home broadband (high-speed internet) adoption is up from 54% of U.S. homes in late 2007 to 63% today. Consumers are adopting so-called companion device behavior, working on laptops or mobile while also watching television. While social networks such as Facebook and Twitter began as youth playthings, now 35% of U.S. adults have social media profiles, catching up to the 65% of teens who already do. The biggest trend of all — and the one to watch, since young consumers take media habits with them as they age — is the convergence of content creation with mobile. Pew reports 2 out of 3 teens 12-17 are avid “content creators,” posting blogs or photo or video to social media sites; 91% use such sites to stay in touch with friends; and the majority use cell phones for texting or online communication.

More media. Weaker ratings. So what gives?

Media use is up, but communication is fragmenting and the old illusory “impression” metrics can’t keep up. GRPs and CPMs have always been more fiction than reality; Mediamark Research is one group that has found consumers usually are not paying attention to the “impressions” they receive from advertising. Advertising impressions have always been a currency used to compare different ad options, but each impression is not necessarily an impact on a consumer’s mind.

What is the solution? Marketers have a choice: one, they can wait for ever-more sophisticated attempts to monitor impressions among the fragmenting audience (see the recent TiVo-Quantcast partnership that will try to match television viewing with web surfing behavior). Or two, marketers can measure their own responses to advertising and public relations, and evaluate the variances between which media options work best.

We suggest the second solution is the best path. Front-end forecasting is necessary to build media plans that allocate advertising dollars with the greatest chance of success. But if you can measure responses — and determine from the real, hard measurements of inquiries coming into your web site or call center or sales force which ad media is out-performing others — you will have better insights to adjust the media mix. Relying on the old ratings and CPMs of yesterday is becoming a weaker solution.

Why Iran?

More than 20,000 people marched in the streets, blocking roads, waving flags, decrying the corruption that has pushed another quarter million from their homes, with rumors swirling about genocide.

We’re talking, of course, about the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka.

Tamil? Sri Lanka? Not even on your radar? That’s OK — most Americans don’t follow international politics at all. So you have to wonder why one international tragedy causes nary a ripple in the United States while another, the current Iranian election angst, has affluent Americans turning their Twitter headshots green in solidarity. This statement doesn’t make light of either dispute but simply notes that some messages go wild while others wallow in the back pages of dry newspapers.

Iran is a case study in why some topics go viral

The Iranian elections caught CNN by surprise a week ago when Twitter lit up with complaints the news network was not covering the riots. To be fair to CNN, most Americans usually don’t give a hoot about international politics. Between 60,000 and 100,000 civilians were killed in the Darfur genocide, yet few in the U.S. can name the continent Darfur resides upon.

By comparison, over the past seven days discussions of Iran have escalated in social media; by Saturday, June 20, “Iran” was included in 3 percent of all tweets. The controversy has struck a chord, perhaps because Americans are fresh off an emotional election and are projecting their Obama passions (he’s a savior / he is destroying democracy) onto a very foreign election. Perhaps the thought of anyone gaming an election irritates us, when our own country just had such fervent debates about our next leader (a fresh hope / friend of terrorists). Perhaps U.S. social media users were secretly flattered at the thought of their favorite new tool, Twitter, being used to circumvent draconian censorship (although The New York Times reports Twitter use in Iran was marginal compared to other, less sexy technology such as text messaging).

It’s all a case study in the Gladwell Tipping Point power of context — for any message to go viral, not only must it be resonate and reach network influencers, but the network itself has to be primed and ready. Humans propagate messages best when their communication ecosystem is staged, like dry grass waiting for the spark that causes wildfire.

Our thoughts go out to those struggling to find truth in Iran. The answers are neither simple nor easy. It’s very interesting, though, to find out suddenly that Americans care. For some reason, unlike CNN, our networks were ready.

Photo: From the Flickr collection of Faramarz Hashemi, who is sharing graphic images of the current conflict in Iran.