Email marketing, which was likely the first digital marketing tactic to go mainstream, has experienced a public relations drubbing over the past decade. Maybe it all started in the wake of the CAN-SPAM act of 2003, and the category has yet to recover its shiny gloss. But savvy professionals know otherwise: When employed smartly, email can be one of the core components of a successful marketing operation.
When thinking about your organization’s email marketing strategy and planning for improved performance, here are the metrics you need to keep top-of-mind.
1. Everyone’s Doing It
This statement applies to both individuals and corporations. According to Pew Research, 88% of smartphone users actively check email on their phones. Also, after being around for more than two decades, most organizations have some kind of either active or passive email marketing strategy in place – because it works. In a recent survey by Smart Insights and Get Response, more than 50% of marketers said email marketing performed good or excellent, outperforming all other tactics. And, eMarketer forecasts the U.S. email advertising market to increase from $343M this year to $500M+ in 2021 – not the skyrocketing growth we see in other digital categories, but not bad considering it’s been around awhile.
If you don’t have a formal email marketing strategy in place, prioritize its design and launch as soon as possible. It’s likely there’s an in-house list that exists somewhere and can be dusted off and put to use. If are currently engaged in email marketing, have a senior member of the marketing team assess its status and budget. Depending on the type of organization, the email marketing budget should account for 2.5% – 25% of overall marketing spending. A large, B2B company will skew smaller while a small B2C company will skew larger.
2. Be Wary of ‘Rate’ Metrics
Yes, this is an article on metrics, but too many organizations measure email marketing team performance on their rates: open rates, click-through rates, deliverability rates, etc. While meaningful in some ways, they aren’t very useful in the context of strategic marketing goals like branding, engagement, and conversions. Deep-pocketed technology companies with sophisticated marketing and sales operations like Constant Contact, Hubspot, Marketo, and Salesforce have force-fed the industry a set of metrics which, outside of small and specialized email teams, aren’t very meaningful. Senior marketing managers and non-marketing executives don’t need to understand the minutia of the operations, and sharing ground-level performance data with them only weakens the impact.
Email marketing performance is best viewed vis a vis other marketing tactics (direct mail, events, telemarketing, etc.) and its ability to contribute to customer acquisition and retention. While the true, absolute contributions of a tactic like email can often require sophisticated modeling and measurement operations – rolling up to attribution – the baseline metrics that are easy to track and serve as a reasonable proxy for attribution are engagement and sharing. Both are genuine measurements of the impact of an email’s content and strategies.
3. Take the Long View
Successful email marketing operations follow a 3-to-1 give-versus-ask ratio. That is to say, they only ask for something – a purchase, a piece of information – one time for every three times they give. While people have an overall preference to email-based communications from brands, their biggest point of feedback, according to an Adobe survey, is to make the correspondence “less about promotion and more about providing me information”. This is a big challenge for brands of all stripes, as hammering email lists to meet quarterly or year-end goals is a common tactic, but a short-sighted one.
While challenging, employing the 3:1 ratio isn’t as difficult as it might seem. A “give” to a user base could be a coupon, an entertaining but brand-promoting video, or a white paper or webinar pass. It takes some creativity, but most organizations have enough assets in place to make this happen without extraordinary effort. The important thing is to approach an email marketing strategy from a user-based perspective, and get the audience to look forward to opening your emails. It’ll pay major dividends over the long run.
To be sure, email marketing is capable of delivering on nearly every major marketing goal in our crosshairs: branding, awareness, thought leadership, engagement, acquisition, and retention. So, from a marketing strategy perspective, it’s not a question of “if”, but rather “how much”? That email marketing is the oldest and least shiny object among the current digital marketing toolset – which includes search, display, social, native, video, etc. – means that it might require an extra dose of support during budgeting season. But for most organizations, it’s well-worth the effort.
Tim Bourgeois (@ChiefDigOfficer) is a partner at East Coast Catalyst, a Boston-based digital consulting company specializing in strategic roadmaps, marketing audits, and online marketing optimization programs.
It feels like déjà vu all over again, harking back to the not-so-distant past when we had “Internet Slowdown Day” (2014) and “Internet Blackout Day” (2012) in support of net neutrality. Those battles seemed to have been won with the FCC changing its rules to protect net neutrality so that ISPs don’t block or throttle traffic.
The new FCC chairman Ajit Pai, formerly an associate general counsel at Verizon, recently released a proposal that would undo the Obama-era regulations that enforced net neutrality. Undoing net neutrality would give telecoms and ISPs the power to charge more or slow down services at will. Though they would have to be “transparent” about it (maybe in fine print somewhere).
In fact, as social media has become a larger source of news, and streaming video services are replacing traditional television, dismantling net neutrality regulations will upend how users access content. It also stands to change who can deliver news, information, and entertainment in the first place.
This is not a strictly conservative agenda — even Donald Trump’s supporters are now debating the potential consequences of upending net neutrality. Here’s a roundup of some of the winners and losers if the FCC’s proposal comes into play, with an eye on publishers and online content.
Internet Service Providers: AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, et al
ISPs will have more leverage over what they can charge consumers, and be in a position where they can slow or throttle the delivery of content from their competitors. Telecom companies have resisted net neutrality regulations by insisting they can offer more or less to consumers at different price points. In other words, offer audiences a wider variety. But that also means they can favor their own offerings, including streaming services. Take this example Wired’s Klint Finley assembled:
“When AT&T customers access its DirecTV Now video-streaming service, the data doesn’t count against their plan’s data limits. Verizon, likewise, exempts its Go90 service from its customers’ data plans. T-Mobile allows multiple video and music streaming services to bypass its data limits, essentially allowing it to pick winners and losers in those categories.”
The end of net neutrality signals that more packages like this one may become the norm.
Publishers Owned by ISPs
The publishers under the umbrella of large telecom companies could also get a leg up when it comes to favored distribution. Verizon owns AOL, Yahoo, HuffPost and TechCrunch content, among others. Comcast owns NBCUniversal Media, which includes all NBC channels, USA Network, Telemundo and a stake in Hulu. If AT&T closes its deal to purchase Time Warner, that means it owns HBO, CNN and TBS. Bundling packages that favor these subsidiaries could very well be a part of new subscription plans. The downside is that while one telecom might favor owned content, the others might throttle it.
The chairman of the FCC wanted to undo net neutrality rules for a long time, and with the odds of voting stacked in his favor, this would be a clear victory for his deregulatory point of view.
Deregulating the internet by abolishing net neutrality is in line with Donald Trump’s conservative government agenda. It’s a huge boost to an administration looking to favor business at all costs (and undermine Obama-era accomplishments).
Streaming video players: Netflix, Amazon Video, YouTube, et al
If AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, which the Department of Justice is currently trying to block, comes through, that means that a telecom company owns HBO. Imagine what that could mean for HBO’s competitors? That’s exactly the situation that streaming video players find themselves in. The intuitive understanding is that the price of internet streaming will go up — for the streaming services that want to deliver video, and subsequently, the consumers who want to access those videos. Netflix has already announced that it will increase its monthly subscription rate, and loyal users seem intent to pay without fail. Yet this is with net neutrality still intact.
Ironically, streaming video players have succeeded where complicated and expensive cable subscription packages have not. However, as the internet looks to replicate cable subscriptions, it seems just as likely that not every Netflix consumer will be able to afford the cost of streaming their favorite content online.
Publishers not owned by ISPs
As the publishers who are part of large telecom conglomerates stand to receive the benefits of dismantling net neutrality, independent publishers could have the opposite experience. And that means everyone from the New York Times and Washington Post, which rely heavily on subscriptions; non-profits such as ProPublica; and local newspapers, which already struggle to compete with larger publishers of any kind online.
Small online local news startups have been trying to bridge the gap in coverage as newspapers have declined. This could hit them hard, according to Dylan Smith, chairman of the Local Independent Online News publishers.
“Giving a clear go-ahead for a tilted playing field would be the result if the FCC tosses out net neutrality,” Smith said.
Not having as many resources as larger competitors — but being able to access the same-speed connections — has enabled small companies to stay competitive and innovate when the odds were stacked against them. That’s how once-small startups like Etsy and Pinterest found their success. The chance that telecom companies would charge more for faster connections clearly puts such businesses at a disadvantage and could impact who will even be able to do business in the first place.
Technology giants: Google, Facebook, Amazon, et al
Tech titans have been some of the staunchest advocates for net neutrality. However, with telecom companies amassing more power if the regulations are upended, they too face potentially exorbitant rates. Sure, it’s hard to feel sorry for them, as they have plenty of money to pay more for a faster connection. But YouTube, Amazon Video, and now, Facebook Watch, have also made heavy investments into original video programming. An already competitive landscape stands to become much more volatile if the benefits of these video investments don’t outweigh the costs. And consumers will feel the trickle-down effects with the likelihood of more tiered-access and less access to programming they will want to watch.
If the internet becomes more expensive for different kinds of websites, services and content, this will likely lead to consumers paying more. Online education startups like CodeAcademy have made their mark offering courses online, for example. The internet, which helped equalize access to such opportunities, will now make them more stratified.
In the end, it might come down to the courts to stop the FCC’s move to roll back net neutrality protections. As Tim Wu wrote in the New York Times, Pai will have to prove that the FCC is justified in repealing net neutrality, and it will fall short in proving that telecoms haven’t been investing in infrastructure or that there has been harm done. For publishers and tech companies – and consumers – that’s the last best hope that the rollback can be stopped. Otherwise, cue Internet Slowdown Day 2.0.
Viewability is at the center of every digital media buy. It’s the metric that assures consumers have an opportunity to see a digital advertisement. The Media Rating Council (MRC), an independent third-party, has established a framework for measuring and reporting viewability. The MRC’s standard for viewability includes two factors: the amount an ad is shown on screen and the amount of time the ad is viewed on screen. A display ad is considered viewable if half its pixels are on the screen for one second. A video ad must be on screen for at least two consecutive seconds. The standard is meant to be a minimum threshold for determining an “opportunity-to-see.”
Not surprisingly, the research shows that the more viewable a digital ad is and the more screen time it has, the more likely it is to be effective. The more viewable campaigns are, the more likely they are to lead to a consumer action to buy, click or register, etc.
However, viewability is one of many factors connected to a campaign’s success. Additional metrics such as ad interaction also show a positive relationship with conversions. Specifically, Magna reports a direct relationship between consumers who interact longer with ads during exposure and their conversion rates. For example, the longer consumers interact with ads during exposure, the more likely they are, at some point, to convert to an action.
The research provides confirmation that the MRC baseline of viewability is clearly connected to ad effectiveness. It is significant to note that the research also proves that higher levels of viewability required by some agencies (80% to 100%) has no additional impact on ad effectiveness.
It’s important for marketers to experiment and test viewability rates and engagement levels to find the best performing combinations. Importantly, measurement of campaign success should include metrics that relate to performance goals. Other metrics such as such as cost, conversion task, target audience, ad format, frequency and others may also to the story of an ad’s performance.
The number of brands placing ads programmatically dropped 17% in April compared to the same period last year. The reason? Brand safety.
Brands are more concerned than ever that their ads are being displayed next to offensive content. Things have escalated in light of the most recent YouTube scandal. As a result, some are beginning to shift programmatic spend. But is this the right move? How can agencies and brands better control quality? How can the industry improve?
Earlier this month, my company, MediaRadar, hosted a panel discussion around these questions and the future of programmatic. Panelists included top experts from GroupM, Vox Media, The Trade Desk, LinkedIn, and Sizmek.
Here are their thoughts.
Who’s to blame?
When asked who was at fault for the distrust within the programmatic supply chain, Joe Barone, Managing Partner, Brand Safety Americas for GroupM cited the system as a whole.
“I think it’s the programmatic supply chain,” Barone said. “Brand safety means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. One of the issues that’s very emotional for the client is brand equity associated with negative content. And it’s not even the biggest issue from a financial standpoint. There’s a lot of issues, which is why there are so many different ways to try to fix it.”
Similarly, Kathleen Comer, Vice President, Client Services at The Trade Desk, thinks it’s up to the industry as a whole to fix it. “I might focus less on blame and more on missed opportunity,” she said. “There are a lot of big-spending advertisers who are starting to reevaluate the transparency of our supply chain. And they’ve scrutinized us. To me, it’s all of our responsibility to fix it because that means there are budgets on the sidelines that haven’t been leveraged yet.”
How to fix it
The panelists also offered up solutions on how to make programmatic more transparent in the future. Mike Caprio, Chief Growth Officer at Sizmek, says that the company plans to deliver more transparency via one of the company’s recent acquisitions.
“We just made a recent acquisition of a company called Rocket Fuel,” said Mike. “And one of the big initiatives that we’re undertaking over the next couple of weeks is moving to a 100 percent transparent marketplace. For us, that means that we’re going to disclose every fee, every bit of inventory that’s blocking our platform, the viewability rates – everything that’s available. That’s the starting place where we can make sure buyers know what they’re getting from using our marketplace, by working with our supply partners to make sure everything is being disclosed, including fees.”
Matthew Hogg, Head of Programmatic at LinkedIn, believes it’s a complicated issue without a single solution. “With this kind of space, there’s no silver bullet. There’s no ‘hey, we’ve done this thing and it’s going to fix all of your transparency and trust needs and wants.’ But we’re trying to think very strategically. Big on our list of priorities is ads.txt, which I think is a step in the right direction.”
What still needs to be done
The discussion concluded with the panelists commenting on what they think still needs to be done. “I think the first thing that needs to be done is a behavior change,” said Ryan Pauley, VP, Revenue Operations & General Manager of Concert, Vox Media. “There’s enough technology and solutions today to make a real difference. Publishers need to make sure the inventory is viewable and leverage the ads.txt file. DSPs should do the same as trade desk. Marketers and clients need to assess the level of risk they’re willing to tolerate because they can manage it too. There are enough solutions in place that I think a few behavior changes can make a difference.”
Barone thinks that better attribution is the solution. “One of the biggest problems is that we give credit to things that never happen,” he said. “When this happens, you don’t even know what drove your business. If we could build better models and know what is working, it will be a huge benefit. Better attribution is a big part of the answer.”
At the end of the day, programmatic buyers are demanding a more transparent and brand-safe environment than ever. And while there’s no single, clear-cut solution, the industry will keep taking measures to mitigate the problem.
The press worked itself into a flurry last week about missed projections, mergers, acquisitions, staff reductions, doors closing, and political influence across its own industry. Amidst this activity, there is real momentum and honest discussion of the challenges in building a sustainable 21st century digital news and entertainment business. And there is opportunity knocking. Newly compiled DCN member research shows early signs of marketer investment moving upstream towards quality content with sequential quarterly revenue growth for DCN members. News and entertainment companies are transforming into truly diversified revenue machines that are less dependent on advertising. More importantly, DCN’s “duopoly” analysis continues to reach wider circles of influence (and understanding) with reporters, think tanks, academics, and lawmakers now asking tough questions of both Google and Facebook.
Therefore, it’s puzzling to see these two companies operating with blinders on as we watch their reactions to inquiries from the press, partners, and lawmakers. It should offend us all that, despite gob- smacking earnings this month, Google is attempting to double-down on its argument that their platforms are merely weather-machines innocently reading data rather than a major source of the media storm itself.
It certainly offends me.
In a speech last week to the Society of Editors’ at The Tamburlaine Hotel in Cambridge, Ronan Harris, Managing Director of Google UK and Ireland, fed decade-old Google arguments into the winds, despite the current media climate. While acknowledging that, “the open internet has turned business models on their heads and raised all kinds of new questions and challenges for us all,” Harris systematically tried to distance Google from any negative affect and control over the demise of news media and its societal consequences. By opening his talk on the uniqueness of the company’s role, Harris makes his Google-eyed perspective clear with the company’s classic “But we’re a search company” retort to any attempt to hold them to the standards to which responsible media companies gladly adhere.
However, this particular PR rhetoric is far from the most egregious that Harris wove into his talk. As the UK’s News Media Association observed, my visceral response to some of Harris’ points—which I first expressed on Twitter—was that he was trying to reshape the escalating duopoly narrative. You have to wonder if he’s being willfully ignorant or overtly resistant to the discussion happening in every corner of our industry.
Harris attempted to refute the simple math that demonstrates how Google and Facebook capture a majority of the growth across western media’s digital advertising by stating he’s “heard lots of people say that Google and Facebook are ‘ruthlessly stealing’ all the advertising revenue that publishers hoped to acquire through online editions. That analysis just isn’t right.” He went on to claim that these analyses conflate search and display while boasting about the amount of traffic Google drives to publisher’s sites “for free.”
Huh. Let’s break that down, shall we?
The duopoly’s power defined
This notion of an internet advertising duopoly is not based solely on Google and Facebook’s shared and growing dominance of digital advertising. Rather, it considers that the two share a core business model that leverages “free services” that collect inordinate amounts of consumer data in order to micro-target advertising at a massive scale. Importantly, Google and Facebook suggest that because their services are free, they can’t commit consumer harm. They do this by using the Chicago School of antitrust theory out of the 70s and 80s, which is now being questioned as competition law experts attempt to consider these issues in the context of our 21st century world. This is already something the European Commission is addressing in its fines of Google. And just last week, multiple Attorney Generals joined in Europe’s concerns. Regardless of your view on antitrust law, the point is that Google and Facebook have the same business model and their dominance begets more dominance.
Driving traffic or driven by content
Another shared trait between the duopolists is that much of the information that they are able to collect about consumers is based upon the content that they discover on these services. As any premium publisher can attest, you learn a lot from audiences by what they choose to read, watch, and share.
But that’s something Google knows all too well. This is a company that owns 96% of the mobile search market and 67% of search overall. Harris crowed about driving “more than 10 billion clicks a month to publisher websites — for free — from Google Search and Google News.” But the reality is that search—as a concept, much less as Google’s foundational business—would not exist without publisher content.
Another argument that Google’s Harris made was that publishers only share a minority of the revenue from their own sites with Google. This is an argument from a decade ago that fails to recognize Google’s dominant lock-in for search and data collection across the web, which is what they are actually monetizing—in a massive way. Yes, most publishers keep a majority of the ad revenue on their own sites—after they’ve paid out the significant costs for programmatic/automated delivery. But Google also has trackers (data collectors) on more than 750,000 of top 1 million sites. And, not even the biggest publisher has leverage to negotiate with Google to limit their data collection and use practices. This data collection allows Google to target audiences using the cheapest inventory and cheapest suppliers possible. (And for now, let’s not even go into the dank, dark places ads end up with this particular approach.)
Harris also claims that analysis of Google’s dominance in digital advertising “conflates two markets: search and display.” The majority of Google’s revenue comes from showing highly relevant ads when you search for a particular term.” In fact, in this way, search and display are not actually that different. Both target direct marketing ads based on data collection. This is what most of digital advertising is transacted on. And as we know, Facebook and Google are empires fueled by data, so this statement is more than disingenuous. It is absurd.
Harris points to the lack of advertising on “Google News” as a clear sign that Google isn’t trying to compete directly with publisher’s hard-wrought news business. The fact there is a “Google News” vertical is something most people outside of industry don’t even understand. People are searching for and discovering news and information through many Google sites and channels (including YouTube and general search) where Google drives significant revenue—and data. Even though there aren’t traditional ads on Google News pages they are most certainly still monetizing that area of their business.
Additionally, over the past five years, Google’s own revenue mix has migrated from Google’s network of publishers (where they have the lowest margins and includes their AdSense text ads and DoubleClick ads which serve across the web) to Google’s owned and operated businesses (where they have highest margins and includes sites such as Gmail, YouTube and Search). Google controls this effect.
And here’s part of Google’s business model that Harris didn’t cover: ad blocking. The fact is that many EU pubs lose more than 30% of their site advertisements to ad blocking software which significantly impacts publisher revenues and the ability to pay for newsroom jobs. Google’s recent decision to include an ad blocker in its own browser is not the biggest issue here. Google has admitted to subsidizing major ad blockers in order to service the “whitelisting” of Google’s own ads. Let’s be clear: Google is paying companies that develop ad blocking software. Meanwhile, Google is also the dominant company in discovery, distribution, and delivery of ad blocking software. While the rest of the industry is bludgeoned by ad blockers, Google’s payments protect what is likely billions of its own revenues on its highest margin products from the effects of ad blocking yet they refuse to disclose the details of these deals.
That speaks volumes about the company’s priorities and tactics. Is this the behavior of a company that genuinely cares about the future of the media business? Harris claims that Google wants “to act thoughtfully and responsibly in our relationship” with the media industry. I can unequivocally state that transparency here would go a long way.
I don’t disagree with every point that Harris made. As he said, “as more and more people interact with news in different ways, we need to take advantage of new digital tools and capabilities to develop new experiences and sustainable business models.” Believe me, digital media executives are thinking about this every single day.
And while Harris claims that we’re misunderstanding who they are and what they do, I think we actually have a pretty good idea how they are making money and where publisher content fits into the mix. We get it, Google: You hire really smart people to create your products and your PR pitches. But don’t think that means we’ve lost sight of the value of premium content and the fact that we should be able to sufficiently monetize it in order to continue to support the journalism Google purports such esteem for and derives so much revenue from.
It’s been a full year since DCN sent a letter to Google and Facebook asking for moonshots to better serve the news industry. Facebook spent a full year dodging tough questions while at times demonstrating signs of early self-awareness of the problem. Google, on the other hand, has acted like a monopoly with its much more advanced lobbying machine. The fact Google is turning up its spin in the UK and putting Facebook out front to take the shrapnel in Washington should concern us all. It certainly concerns me.
Given its effect on pretty much everything people do, weather sits at the sweet spot between content and commerce. However, it’s also information that companies can harness to do much more than trigger a purchase. AccuWeather, a weather information and digital media provider, is focused on platforms and partnerships that deliver accurate weather content and data in the proper context at the appropriate moment. The company, which counts over 30 billion data requests daily, is pursuing a strategy that spans multiple channels and touch points – ranging from apps and bots, to watches and wearables, to connected cars and devices in the home. Peggy Anne Salz – mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove – catches up with Steven Smith, AccuWeather President of Digital Media, to discuss how the company, established in 1962, has evolved with technology, devices, and IoT to power content and services with a personal touch.
PAS: AccuWeather brings together weather information and digital media. What is the role of the data you provide across the products you power and the partnerships you pursue?
SS: To be clear, it’s more than weather data; it’s a type of content that makes what we offer part of the equation in people’s everyday lives. It is content geared towards helping people plan their day, plan their lives, plan everything around it.
It’s also part of a concept we call Weather 2.0 – making our content relevant to the user ‘in the moment.’ That moment is influenced by the decision people want to make and dictated by the device they’re using at the time. To be relevant to their needs and their context ‘in the moment,’ you have to be on the traditional platforms – including browsers and mobile apps. But you also have to integrate into a range of other platforms, devices, delivery vehicles – or whatever you want to call them.
PAS:AccuWeather has a presence in the connected car. This makes it possible for drivers of Ford SYNC 3 cars to operate the AccuWeather app using voice commands or buttons on the vehicle display screen. What did you have to consider in order to deliver, as you put it, “meaningful impact?”
SS: Obviously, a five-day forecast is probably not the most useful piece of information at that time, in the moment. So, the product we’ve developed here tells you when it will start raining along your route, and answers key questions: When do I need to slow down? When will that heavy snow start? And it’s the same approach for a whole variety of IoT devices – whether it’s wearables for fitness or wearables for health. It’s why we have put forth several initiatives to tailor those products and the content we provide, to be contextually relevant. It’s the reality of what our content – and really all content today – needs to be.
PAS:I hear Accuweather is making a personalization play as well as a platform play. Is one more important than the other?
SS: From the browser products all the way to the traditional flagship apps, it’s about being on the relevant platform. And we make our platform choices by watching our audience. We have 300 million monthly active uniques interacting with our core digital properties. It’s activity and usage that allows us to see where there is a desire to use a product.
For me, connected car tops the list of practical platforms, which is why we are developing a product that provides users with minute-by-minute forecast along their route. The product has been developed to support driving, whether that’s a person in their car, a ride-sharing platform or an autonomous self-driving car. So, you can see how our content is transcending beyond being a feature within an app to become the heart of the driving experience. Right now, it’s contextual content, just-in-time. There’s a safety aspect as well as just what is going on with the weather.
PAS:Where do wearables come in?
SS: Wearables is also at the top of our list, and we break those down into categories. There’s Fitness, where we’ve had a partnership with Garmin for a number of years that’s geared around providing weather content related to the fitness activity like running. Our Minutecast, which is minute-by-minute forecasting for basically every exact GPS point on the route, provides the user what they need based on where they are, or will be, for that period. We also have a partnership with Samsung and a number of others in that space that we haven’t announced yet. Another category is Health. It’s where our content focuses on conditions that tangentially impact to health. So, how air quality impacts asthma, for example. We have partnerships, where our big data on the back-end is used to personalize and predict conditions.
PAS:It’s all about delivering accurate and actionable content – regardless of platform. You offer an AI-powered weather assistant for Facebook Messenger. What is the fit with bots?
SS: Imagine a scenario where there is a major line of thunderstorms coming. That’s where you want advice and help, not just the weather. It’s where a bot experience meets the requirement of the individual for real assistance in the moment. It’s why we launched a Facebook bot, and we just did the same on Google. It all gets to your point that there are scenarios when the consumer needs to make a life-management decision, and a bot is a good fit.
Voice is similar, in this respect, which is why we consider it a future path for the delivery of content and – more importantly – interaction with the consumer. We have been active in that field for a while. In fact, we power the weather on the Amazon Alexa product and the Echo. This quickly taught us how to create a voice experience and meet the consumer expectation for an answer coming back within milliseconds.
PAS:What about the role of content in effective and relevant advertising? You have a partnership with Swirl, a mobile marketing platform provider, giving them access to your weather data sets to tailor and trigger in-door shopping experiences based on the user’s local weather conditions…
SS: Weather is a universal language. It’s the classic conversation starter, regardless of language or dialect. It has relevance in all our lives all around the globe. Of those 300 million monthly active users I mentioned, 65 percent come from outside the U.S. The reality is, as an organization, we have to be global-first, and this also applies to partnerships. On the handset side, our partners range from Samsung to Sony. We also work with Naver, the popular search engine in South Korea. Globally, we have a joint venture with the Chinese Meteorological Agency within China, as companies must be licensed by the Chinese government to distribute weather data.
In all these partnerships it comes down to the same principles and paving the way to deliver meaningful content and experiences regardless of the platform consumers prefer. Advertising is also about delivering experiences. Imagine a user who’s looking at a flu index, because we create flu forecasts influenced by weather conditions. It’s not inappropriate at that point to present a product that will help with the types of conditions the user is interested in at that moment and in that context. It’s all about the ability to wrap contextual advertising around something that we know a user will find interesting.
We’ve been talking about consumer-facing scenarios, but AccuWeather is also very much a B2B partner. We help companies, do everything from logistics planning and supply chain planning, to a product by product roll out. Weather heavily influences what consumers want and product usage, so we also help companies to make decisions around where to place those marketing and advertising dollars.
SS: That’s an interesting one. We have also partnered with Spotify, on a new site titled Climatune aimed at giving music fans around the world the perfect musical score for any weather. That’s a perfect example of how we are at the intersection of where weather meets and mixes with another data set – and it shows how companies can deliver experiences by taking our unique data set and combining that with another data set to offer a service that is unique and personalized. Frankly, we’ve been doing this type of big data look-up for years, long before brands and marketers got a hold of it and understood how weather influences consumer preferences and behavior. The Spotify example is interesting because it provides insights into mood and what people do musically.
PAS:We agree that weather content must be contextual and can be incredibly valuable to users. What is the best way to get it in front of consumers in a way they will appreciate, and not find annoying?
ISS: n our product team, we talk about push moments, as opposed to pull moments. Before everything was about the user pulling information. They opened an app, went onto a website, entered an environment to access content. As a content company, you tried to triage the three pieces of information about the user to decide what to present them. Today, it’s about creating push moments, where content and information is front and center – right in front of the user at the right time, and when they want to see it.
PAS: So, we’re right back at personalization?
SS: Yes, it’s personalization, and it also takes contextual awareness into account. Am I at the office? Am I at home? In each case, the content and information will differ. But what’s really key is how you craft that delivery. We all know what it’s like to have too much clutter – like 17 notifications on your smartphone and more coming in. The push I’m thinking of adds value by delivering what people expect in the way they need it right then and there. This why much of our product development going forward focuses on technologies to avoid clutter. Whether it’s a push technology or some of the new notification technologies on the market – or whether it’s a wearables device or a connected car – it’s about using the right platform to bring that content – that experience – to life for that user in that moment.
Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. Full disclosure: She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.
As Facebook continues to amass enough force and influence to rival a superpower, its ad targeting is not only the social giant’s biggest liability, but also its forte. Entire countries, global populations, legislators, and advertisers both seethe and marvel at its prowess. And Facebook finds itself caught in a conundrum created by its own success.
One thing is clear: Digital advertising on Facebook is skyrocketing. Most advertisers haven’t been dissuaded by the company’s negative press — because the crisis has yet to directly hit them. However, history shows that brand safety isn’t a given on the internet. Facebook needs to rein in its own power – not just in testimony, but also in practice — so that it can placate regulators and a very concerned public before the next scandal hits.
Targeted propaganda… and eavesdropping?
Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election is obviously one of the biggest examples of what ad targeting intended to spread propaganda and misinformation can do if left unchecked. Some 3,000 ads reached nearly 146 million people with a paltry $100,000 ad buy. And some ads had the explicit aim to exploit contentious issues like gun rights and illegal immigration. Coordinated campaigns operated by fake accounts liked, shared, and commented on these posts. If you spend any time on Facebook, you know intuitively what this means: More interactions increased the chances someone would see these post.
Russia may be the biggest example, but it’s certainly not the only one. Take China. The country may ban Facebook within its borders, but Chinese companies purchase thousands of dollars in Facebook advertising every quarter to help spread its state-sponsored propaganda. That means the typical news you’d see on Chinese television, which touts the country’s prosperity and stability relative to global crises and is subject to massive censorship, reaches far beyond the average worker in China. It’s a digital extension of China’s own foreign policy and entrance into other countries.
Facebook’s recent face-off before Congress has prompted even more attention among politicians on what’s possible on the platform. Two U.S. senators, Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) recently created a Facebook page for a fictional political group, paid Facebook to target content from the page toward thousands of journalists and staffers on Capitol Hill and found, as one of their aides told Axios’ Mike Allen, “there was literally no mechanism on [Facebook] for us to [prove] we were who we said we were.”
Here’s the deal: Facebook’s ad targeting is so scary because it works so well. In the middle of this political mess (and consumer concerns about sacrificing our data and ourselves to Facebook) it’s likely that there are marketers who interpret the Russian campaign as impressive. It’s basically a selling point for cheap targeted advertising on the social giant.
“For better or worse, one key takeaway from this is how effective Facebook can be as an advertising medium,” Kyle Bunch, managing director of ad agency R/GA’s social practice, told BuzzFeed News. “Many advertisers are probably asking themselves, ‘How can I make better use of data to have my campaigns get those kind of results?’”
Any type of post can be promoted on Facebook. Should Facebook, which largely requires people to use their real names (unlike Twitter), create more restrictions on who buys ads and sets up Facebook Pages, requiring more information and verification? One would assume that an up-and-coming restaurant would be willing to invest the time to apply for verification. However, there are those who will grumble at the tediousness. Other critics might wonder why Big Brother Facebook must have the responsibility of verifying the credibility — and by extension, morality — of these buyers.
But as frightening as it may be for some to admit, Facebook is already a Big Brother. Advertisers, or anyone who wants to promote their brand to the world, for that matter, can’t afford to sacrifice the unparalleled scale the company offers. There may be other tech companies, but there is no other Facebook. The social behemoth has pledged more transparency and more hiring of ad reviewers, but that will never be enough as long as scandals continue to come to light. Congress may not be satisfied with self-regulation alone. And ultimately, Facebook will have to rein in its overwhelming power and set up checks and balances – even if it takes a short-term hit on revenues – to satisfy an angry public.
Brand safety measures are a key concern for advertisers given recent headlines highlighting safety limitations in the programmatic advertising buying process. Advertisers and brand marketers often resort to open exchanges and ad networks for large volumes of inventory and to reach demographic targets. As a result, their ads may be found next to offensive or inappropriate digital and video content. The CMO Council, in partnership with Dow Jones, examines the impact of unsuitable ad placement on consumer satisfaction and perception of digital advertising in their research report “How Brands Annoy Fans.”
To provide context, the research also provides insights on the consumers’ view of the digital content environment. A full three-quarters of the 2,000 consumer respondents surveyed in North America and in the UK report that they are concerned with the growing number of fake and biased news sites. Further, consumers surveyed rank social media last among their five most trusted information channels, following friends, TV, search engines and newspapers. As a result, 60% of respondents now seek their content from brand sites with trusted content.
These findings indicate that environment impacts the overall advertising experience. Most consumers (88%) state a negative advertising experience may make them think differently about the advertised brand. Nearly half of all consumers (48%) indicate they would rethink purchasing brands or would boycott products whose ads appear alongside digital content that offends or concerns them. Further, 38% report they would lose trust in a brand that advertises next to objectionable content.
Importantly, ad placement in specific channels has a direct impact on how consumers perceive those brands. Additional findings on the effect of ad placement on consumer intent include:
64% of consumers state they respond better to ads delivered from a trusted news site than those that appear on social media or search.
If ads are near to objectional content, 37 percent report it changes how they think of the brand, and 11% state they will boycott the brand.
Advertisers and programmatic platforms need to take these findings to heart as consumers are ready and willing to their business elsewhere. Importantly, where marketers run their ads is just as important as the ads themselves. Brands need to ensure their ads are adjacent to appropriate content among trusted-brand websites in well-lit environments.
The alignment of new laws, reader advocacy, and technology has opened up a challenge to user tracking tools. While some express concern that an end to unbridled tracking will hinder the digital ecosystem, this is an enormous opportunity for publishers to take the lead in building the next generation of personalization technology. However, this evolution in personalization will need to be built on a foundation of editorial metadata, which will drive everything from video playlists to targeted advertising.
A new door opens
A new type of personalization that eschews user-based targeting is coming. In part this will be driven by the fact that many analytics, ad tech, and personalization-tech companies will be deeply affected by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). An AdAge headline once proclaimed that the GDPR will “rip global digital ecosystem apart.” While that may be a bit alarmist, the GDPR will force companies operating within the EU, and the third party tools they use, to adhere to a strict opt-in for all tracking. It will also levy severe penalties on those companies within EU jurisdiction that fail to do so.
The omnipresent motivation behind the law, though, has failed to prompt the development of similar legislation in the U.S. Despite results and sentiment that suggest otherwise, targeting remains central to many marketing strategies. Brands have found user targeting programmatic campaigns less effective than they expected. Consumer groups have formed in protest of the functionality of user tracking in action (such as ads appearing with no regards to the content they appear on). Individuals on social networks find retargeting approaching some sort of uncanny valley — a point at which its very accuracy is becoming deeply discomforting. And we’re even seeing the start of a conversation around user targeting happening in Congress.
A victory for publishers
Publishers have a mission to treat their readers and viewers ethically. The good news is that smart publishers can (and do) run user-targeting related tools on that basis. The personalization of ads and news has become a significant trend, one that many are still chasing. However, the fundamental underlying technology is challenged by the GDPR. Even if publishers never conduct any business outside of the U.S., the vendors who power personalization tools do. We operate on literal reams of data but must face a future where comparatively little is available.
These oncoming shifts in the marketplace shouldn’t frighten publishers. They are likely to hurt the thousands of middleware third-party ad tech companies that have failed to deliver on user targeting for years now while skimming profits. A push to decrease both publisher and advertiser reliance on user targeting is an opportunity.
Metadata to the rescue
Publishers need to take a look at the new generation of tools that can provide the data needed for personalization on-page without ever tracking a user. Metadata standards are improving and adding detail. Our current tools consider article relationships mostly in keywords and categories but new ways of telling the story about a story could bring about a revolution in personalization.
Regardless of how successful the fact checking markup project becomes, it demonstrates that page-to-page relational metadata is joining other complex metadata systems as part of the future of publishing. With privacy concerns on the rise, it behooves publishers to start considering these systems as part of the future of personalization.
A structured future
Beyond keywords and tags, there is an embarrassment of new options for metadata that can create a unique experience on each webpage more tailored to the moment the reader encounters an article than following them with cookies ever was. While a reader might have been shopping for shoes yesterday, what they read today may put them in a very different mindset. And the reader of today is a more useful target for personalization than the reader of yesterday.
What can we build on using enhanced metadata? Geographic coordinates could drive a set of recommendations even more relevant than attempting to geotarget the user. Article authorship has worked well for media companies where the byline promises a particular voice. We can build playlist systems that find their next videos through more than title keywords, looking at producer credits, length and related affiliate offers. Types of content or referenced urls in the body of an article can allow personalization tools to recommend other articles that share a particular format, or ads that sell the referenced type.
Planning beyond keywords
Taking advantage of these opportunities will require different ways of thinking about what everyone creates and how it breaks down. It won’t just be up to an SEO expert to drop tags on a page. News organizations will find that optimizing for search, social, or ads will require taking advantage of all the opportunities that complex metadata provides and operating within a larger plan for how metadata should be handled. The editorial and business sides will need to work together to consider the whole of outlets’ output, prioritizing approaches, and building out tools that automate and suggest metadata structures.
Owners of this process will need to consider personalization on a variety of factors that describe form, format, key ideas and digital objects. They’ll have to build out a framework on how articles connect to each other that will describe small universes of content. A site that takes full advantage of metadata structures can promise a richer experience for readers, viewers and listeners than any provided through cookie-based tracking, an experience based on in-the-moment intent.
Our current generation of overly-targeted ads and recommendations don’t just fail to perform, they’re creepy and overpriced. Our audiences deserve more and our ethics require that we provide it. We have the technology and industry pressure to deploy successful alternatives. Understanding, expanding and adapting the use of detailed metadata across the web will build better media companies and a better open and well-connected internet.
Aram Zucker-Scharff is the Director for Ad Engineering in The Washington Post’s Research, Experimentation and Development group. He is also the lead developer for the open-source tool PressForward and a consultant on content strategy and newsroom workflows. He was one of Folio Magazine’s 15 under 30 in the magazine media industry. He previously worked as Salon.com’s full stack developer. His work has been covered multiple times in journalism.co.uk and he has appeared in The Atlantic, Digiday, Poynter, and Columbia Journalism Review. He has also worked as a journalist, a community manager and a journalism educator.
Video has become an increasingly important delivery medium for media brands. Given the investment, it might seem like they’d want to keep this video traffic firmly on their own sites. However, as with other types of content, most publishers have developed a distribution strategy for multiple platforms. Because YouTube offers such an efficient way for viewers to find, view, and share video content, it has become a de facto video distribution channel for many media outlets.
Undoubtedly, YouTube has become a primary video viewing destination for internet viewers. And media companies need to go where the viewers are. This is true regardless of platform – desktop, mobile, or OTT. It makes little sense to make a significant investment in video exclusively for your site if the video audience is off watching somewhere else.
So, it follows that companies investing in video content are giving YouTube a hard look. Of course, as with every content distribution decision, there are always trade-offs. However, many believe that reaching the sizable YouTube audience is worth the effort. While he described the evolution of their YouTube strategy as “a work in progress,” Jigar Mehta, SVP, head of video at Fusion Media Group believes it is well worth the effort. Topping the list of priorities is making Fusion’s video more discoverable on what he describes as “the second largest search engine in the world.”
Establishing a YouTube strategy
Each company will need to develop a YouTube strategy that suits its resources and objectives. However, some may want to follow the Washington Post’s lead. They think of YouTube as a distinct content delivery channel that attracts viewers who might not normally visit their website. That provides an opportunity to introduce your brand to an entirely new audience, an exciting prospect for any content producer.
“YouTube is a space with a great deal of audience and revenue potential that we have only begun to tap into. We see it as the primary place to build a diverse audience that will think of The Washington Post as video-first and engage with our visual journalism,” Nadine Ajaka senior producer for video platforms at The Washington Post explained.
She said that they have separate strategies for how they approach video on the Post’s website and what they deliver on YouTube. “The difference between what we choose to publish on washingtonpost.com and what we publish to YouTube is that for YouTube it must stand alone. On the site, there are times when video will lead the story, but often we are plugging in and embedding clips and social video that are meant to add to what has been written,” Ajaka said.
Although they share the Post’s desire to build an audience that might not frequent their site, Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg executive producer for The Atlantic says her company has taken a different approach. YouTube is central to their video distribution strategy.
“We recently switched to YouTube as our primary video hosting service. Now, we host all our videos on YouTube and integrate the player throughout TheAtlantic.com. This decision was motivated by a desire to build audience beyond our owned and operated platform. YouTube’s subscriber features, search functionality and recommendation algorithm all help us do that,” she said.
Long form anyone?
While audience development seems to be the be a primary driver behind using YouTube, it also offers a place to hone and deliver longer form content. This is because people see it as a destination where they can stay for a while and watch – if the content is compelling enough.
“YouTube emphasizes watch time over clicks and encourages viewers to watch with the sound turned on. We’ve seen amazing engagement. A recent 15-minute documentary has earned an average watch time of eight minutes,” The Atlantic’s Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg said.
Mehta pointed out that this emphasis on watch time correlates with better performance for Fusion’s long form content on YouTube. He said that they approach YouTube as a specific content destination (and not a competing channel for their own sites). As such, they specifically optimize their videos for the platform.
Ajaka from the Post emphasizes that you have to really present video people want to see on YouTube, or you won’t build a subscriber base for your channel. “With YouTube, there’s a real opportunity to hone your video inventory and create a coherent body of work. For some news publishers, video can be a churning out of quick-turn clips. Luckily, we have editors and video journalists who are continually working on long-form reported visual stories, that tell a cohesive story. These are perfect for YouTube as a platform,” she explained.
YouTube offers more than delivery tools and audience engagement. It also provides a means for monetization, which is certainly welcome given that producing quality video can be expensive.
In fact, Mehta finds that YouTube offers better monetization options than Facebook or Twitter and he is optimistic about YouTube’s long-term roadmap. “We are currently utilizing AdSense on YouTube which is their programmatic option. YouTube also has other products including YouTube Red and YouTube TV that as they become more mature will be interesting options as well,” he said.
Ajaka said the Post is talking to YouTube about direct-selling of their ads, but it hasn’t yet come to pass.
At The Atlantic, Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg said that they are “primarily focused on direct sold sponsorships and pre-roll, both on our domain and off. Our main challenge month over month is keeping up with the demand,” (which is a good problem to have).
As with any external platform, there are going to be trade-offs, but YouTube offers companies a way to distribute video that puts it in front of an engaged audience with a good search engine and monetization tools. “Our YouTube audience is seeking video first and foremost, and will have an easier time surfacing our videos than someone searching the site,” Ajaka said. That seems like a compelling reason for any media brand to build a YouTube presence.