It’s the sentence that any marketer dreads hearing. You get a client brief with no media budget and the expectation is that you can sprinkle some magic dust and make a hit.
The lingering perception within digital is that ‘earned’ is the new ‘paid’, that social is free and we should pump more money into making content than actually supporting that content. I’ve seen this mistake over and over again – a brand spends big on a piece of activity it expects to be huge organically, and acts surprised when it falls flat on its face due to lack of paid support.
In his brilliant new book “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction” Thompson, an editor for The Atlantic carefully and scientifically analyses what really makes things ‘go viral’. As Buzzfeed might say ‘what he found will shock you’.
According to Thompson, there’s ‘no such thing as going viral’ for brands. At least organically.
Basically, almost nothing goes viral without a lot of help and the viral metaphor is misleading at best and counter-productive at worst. His theory should be music to the ears of marketers.
He outlines why going viral has become shorthand for “that thing got big really quickly, and I’m not sure how”. By examining the information cascade for smash hits like the Volvo truck video Thompson found that in almost all cases of ‘virality’, exposure from marketing, paid media, a large broadcast moment and powerful distribution created the inflection point.
It’s these elements, and not organic sharing, that really make monster hits.
Only when a piece of content started getting picked up by large networks or websites, often after it had been pushed heavily with paid support, was it likely to reach ‘viral’ status.
In the book, Thompson also describes how popularity is created online through a snowball effect – things that are popular tend to get more popular. This makes sense. Since we place so much power in the opinions of the herd, we’re far more likely to watch and share something that already has 500,000 views and thousands of likes or shares (whether they’re paid or not), than something with 10 views.
Spending heavy on paid media up front is the best way to sow the seeds for virality. We’ve been told for years that ‘content is king’, but we’ve fallen foul of the ‘Field of Dreams’ fallacy by presuming that ‘if you build it they will come’.
“Distribution is more important than content” says Thompson. “You can say that a song is the best song in the world, you can say that an idea is the best for people’s welfare, or a movie is the best documentary of its kind. But without a distribution strategy to reach people, nobody hears it.”
There’s so much ‘content’ out there that without paid media and a smart distribution strategy even the best video or article is like a tree falling the forest.
The most important determinant of ‘virality’?
While this type of insight won’t be music to the ears of social gurus telling us that paid media is a thing of the past, it does tally with other research out there.
According to Unruly Media, experts in this viral video space, often marketers don’t distribute their content well at all, and this leads to nobody seeing it. Videos languish and they don’t get seen. The most important determinant of ‘virality’ besides the content is what happens in the first three days after any video is launched. Support at this stage, through media spend and P.R. is crucial, as this is when the big sharing spike happens, leading to the biggest viewing spike. Around 42% of shares occur in the first three days after upload.
Similarly, recent IPA data also reflects the importance of paid media to spur organic sharing. Only 7% of IPA campaigns that generated the most online buzz relied on earned and owned media alone, compared to 78% that also included paid media. The most effective campaigns tend to combine earned, owned and paid media to create a “multiplier effect”.
They pay to “add fuel to the fire” of online buzz.
Unfortunately, many brands seem to be ignoring these findings. Jerry Daykin and Shann Biglione both recently touched on the subject online. Shann came out with a brilliant paradoxical theory that puts things into perspective:
Brands with creative problems often expect media to solve things, brands with great creative often underestimate how media could help them.
Jerry makes the excellent point that so often with creative awards entries the line ‘we did this with little media budget’ is put forward as a positive, when actually that should be a lament. Because what this line of thinking fails to realise is that this award winning creative could’ve reached so many more people with a bigger media budget. This should be an indication that either the agency wasn’t smart enough to ask for more media, or the brand wasn’t brave enough to supply it.
As he says:
“If you’d managed to really get behind your idea you’d have reached 10x as many people and had an accordingly bigger impact. For some reason ‘we couldn’t really convince our managers to back this idea’, ‘we screwed up in how much of our budget we spent on production’ and ‘we got suckered in by a promise of free unlimited social reach’ haven’t caught on as much…”
Relying on organic reach alone to hit the ‘viral’ jackpot is not a smart strategy.
The next time one of our clients asks for a ‘viral’, either buy them Thompson’s book or send them this post. And then ask for some media budget.
Imagine how cool it would be to get handed a shiny new toy that everyone is talking about and told ‘you’re the first to get it, now do something cool’?
There’s a definite first mover advantage for brands. The PR story of being the ‘first company to…’ do something can draw attention, and there’s also a little ego boost for the agency and brand manager. Everyone wants to be an early adopter, an innovator.
Costa Coffee in the UK got that opportunity last week. We’ve been waiting for Snapchat Spectacles to come to this side of the Atlantic for months, and Costa was the first brand in the UK to get their hands on a pair.
Now just imagine the creative possibilities at the brief stage? You get handed an opportunity to do something nobody has done before, to use a product that shoots video with distinctive look and to come up with a really cool, novel idea that’s guaranteed to get some interest.
Plus, there’s no pressure, the bar is automatically low since nobody has done much with the tool before. It’s literally an open goal for a digital creative.
Unless you forget to come up with a creative idea that is.
Unfortunately, Costa fell into this trap. They created a campaign that’s the definition of ‘meh’.
Their idea was
“to give fans a unique insight into the world of Costa, specifically through the eyes of its baristas”.
Basically, they gave the specs to a barista, who made a coffee, and they recorded that. That’s the ‘campaign’.
According to a spokesperson,
“for our customers and followers, we know…they’ll be intrigued to watch their favourite coffee being made from the perspective of a Costa barista”.
Will they aye? Does anyone really want to spend a minute and a half watching a Costa barista pouring coffee? Is that interesting?
To me, this is a wasted opportunity. It’s a channel thought without any creative idea.
It’s relying on a shiny new thing to do the work, and lazily not thinking up of a way to bring it to life.
I know this is a first use in the market, and there’s no Spectacles campaigns to get creative ideas from.
But surely Costa could’ve looked to campaigns like this from Eighty Twenty and this from Old Spice for inspiration.
Both were built on top of an immature platform, but had a strong creative idea at the core. Both won awards too.
I’m not picking on Costa here, this is something that we’re all guilty of. We forget that channels and platforms are the equivalent of creative canvases that we paint on. But they’re benign without a strong creative idea. It’s up to us as marketers to get creative, build cool things on top of them, to understand them, test them and sometimes break them.
But just using a new channel can’t be ‘the big idea’ on its own.
In Ireland meanwhile, Aer Lingus were the first brand to be given a go. They decided to hand the specs to Conor Murray to give an insight into a ‘day in the life’.
This is my considered take on the story set to define multiple industries in 2017 – two enormous social platforms battling for the biggest prize in advertising, the $200 billion spent on TV each year.
If you like it, please share it, and if you have a comment to add to the discussion, please let me know.
Act 1 – The big blue monster smells blood…
Small changes in the language used by a brand can be very revealing if you look carefully and join dots.
And Facebook knows the importance of semantics better than anyone.
At launch, Facebook’s business platform emphasised the power of precision targeting, personalisation and cost effectiveness. Minimising ‘wastage’ was their USP, a counterpoint to the traditional mediums of print, radio and, of course, T.V.
Facebook Advertising 1.0 was about direct marketing and performed very well in direct response.
But across 2015 and 2016, the language began to change. Slowly at first, but then all of a sudden, Facebook started to emphasise its ability to generate broad, mass awareness. Advertisers were told that when buying ads, ‘optimising for reach’ gave the best bang for your buck. Language like ‘personalised marketing’ was replaced with a focus put on ‘scale’.
Because Facebook is money hungry and it spotted a huge opportunity.
Like a cocky young lion stalking an unsure middle aged zebra, it saw a chance to take an even bigger bite out of global ad spend as the TV/digital scales starts to balance up.
Brand versus direct
Direct marketing is focused at the bottom of the marketing funnel, and that’s great. But the problem with hyper-targeting is that in seeking out the perfect potential customer, advertisers risk ignoring the wider pool of possible customers.
Facebook realised that in focusing on precision, it was disregarding the need for brands to speak to a wide audience, to have cultural impact and to target vast swathes of people, just like T.V. allowed them to do.
So it made the strategic decision to change tact.
Brand advertising – making end users aware of your product in the first place, or just building affinity for your brand as an investment in some future payoff – is still as necessary as ever. Despite the targeting opportunities of digital, reaching lots of people with salient, noticeable advertising is still the best way for brands to win share.
One of the biggest ‘negative’ Facebook stories last year was P&G’s admission that they were scaling back on targeted advertising, and would refocus on much broader brand campaigns (but still invest the same amount in Facebook). Many saw this as a bad story for Facebook. But the more cynical among us saw it as a carefully orchestrated P.R. move that made advertisers sit up and see Facebook as a brand building, rather than a direct response option on their media plan.
Much of the brand advertising money on TV will eventually split and go somewhere. It’s not going to go to Google, who are kings of direct, so why not to Facebook, the other giant in the digital ad duopoly?
It’s certainly big enough – close to one-fifth of the world’s population checks Facebook daily, there are already more than 4 million active monthly advertisers using the platform and video makes up an increasingly important part of its business.
“The more they can make themselves like TV, it will certainly better position them for those ad dollars.” Kieley Taylor, GroupM
Brand advertising is more lucrative, often more beautiful and less intrusive than a lot of direct marketing. With Facebook’s core focus on user attention, not annoying people but still increasing ad load, trying to offer a platform for media spend that’s like T.V. but better makes sense.
And they haven’t just talked the talk.
Almost every major strategic move that Facebook has announced over the last 12 months has a connection to grabbing a slice of the brand T.V. pie.
Just like TV advertising, these are video adverts that will interrupt users mid video.
The company has partnered with Nielsen, the entity most associated with TV ratings measurement and last week announced that it was also ‘trying to give marketers a more accurate grasp of how ads on the social network compare to other media like television’ by creating a new modelling tool that compares its ads to T.V.
And there’s more.
In the past week, Facebook has announced that it’s preparing an app for set-top TV boxes, a sort of Hulu/Netflix lite if we’re to believe the news. It will now rank longer videos with high completion rates more favourably in the newsfeed. And, like Netflix and Amazon, original programming is in the offing too. Facebook will look to licence TV-quality shows to be available on the app, and will look to current Facebook video publishers too. According to Kurt Wagner or Recode:
“As part of a larger effort led by Facebook exec Ricky Van Veen, Facebook is pushing publishers to create longer, premium video content. The hope is to get more high-quality video onto the platform and into your News Feed — the kind of stuff, presumably, you might find on Netflix.”
To anyone smart enough to join the dots, the trend line seems obvious.
From a few small copy and language changes on their advertising platform in 2015, Facebook has grown to now offer mid-roll ads on long form content that’s shown on TV and measured in the same way traditional TV is measured.
Facebook really wants its slice of that big tasty TV pie.
Act 2 – A new challenger arrives…
It’s not just Facebook that’s trying to make a dent in TV advertising.
Snapchat is positively gunning for it. Just like Facebook, Snapchat is stealing vast amounts of attention with its video heavy social app. In its IPO filing last week, boasted of 10 billion videos a day.
But unlike Facebook, which initially focused on targeting and personalisation, Snapchat is a platform that’s purpose built to take brand spend away from traditional ‘brand’ channels. It’s much closer to ‘TV designed for your phone’ than its big blue brother has ever been.
Snap is in a perfect position to create a “mobile TV” experience with a menu of programs designed for an attention-short, vertical-video-watching audience. Its UX is already set up in a ‘channels’ format, just like TV, and it doesn’t hurt that the app over indexes heavily in the 18-34 bracket, where TV viewership has been been falling at around 4 percent a year since 2012.
Another trump card is the nature of video consumption on the platform. With Facebook, video is consumed in a stream, surrounded by other pieces of content. On Snapchat, the vertical video on on offer is far more immersive, and delivers much higher attention for brands. Snapchat ads are also fun to watch. Taco Bell and Gatorade have both generated enormous levels of engagement with branded filters, in return for enormous spend.
Snapchat’s content strategy is focused on partnering with networks to develop entertainment programming and it has strong existing partnerships with brands like CNN, Buzzfeed, ESPN and others. In August, the company announced it had partnered with NBC to develop Snapchat-specific episodes of some of its hit shows, including “The Voice”, “Saturday Night Live”, and “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.” It has also worked with BBC on Snapchat tailored versions of the incredible hit ‘Planet Earth‘ and is planning unscripted drama series called ‘Snapchat Shows‘.
According to Martin Sorrell, WPP spent $90 million with Snapchat in 2016 — having only projected to spend around $20 – $30 million. This year, Snap wants $100 million to $200 million in 2017 commitments from WPP, Omnicom and other ad companies. According to reports, at CES last month the company pitched a room full of Publicis executives and clients, making the case for why it should soak up TV spend.
That’s fightin’ talk, and for good reason. Snap’s IPO puts it at a valuation north of $20 billion. If it’s to realise that, it will need to win its battle to take a slice of the TV pie.
That’s a riskier bet than Facebook, but given its enormous success so far, you certainly wouldn’t write that off.
Act 3 – Who’s the winner and do they take it all?
So who’ll be the winners, losers and the ultimate champion? Will Facebook and Snapchat dance on traditional TV’s grave?
It’s impossible to say at this stage. By the end of 2017, things could be clearer, but its a VUCA (volatile, uncertain complex and ambiguous) industry with lots of egos and lots of moving parts.
Firstly, consistent studies have show that traditional linear TV is still by far the most effective platform for brand building, and in Ireland for example, over 60% of our video consumption is still linear and live. What Snap, Facebook and others don’t seem to have any feel for is the power of TV compared to their own ad offerings. Most great TV advertising is talked about, it’s enjoyed in your living room with your family, and just being on TV gives brands a kudos, a social cache that paying for FB adverts doesn’t. That’s a key strategic challenge for social media platforms, but it might be overcome just by virtue of slowly decreasing TV viewership.
It’s also not just Facebook and Snapchat’s battle to become the new TV, there are plenty interesting players involved.
Other platforms will have a strong say. YouTube for example, despite losing some momentum and offer less powerful brand advertising options, is still the major video player, and has been wooing networks.
On the other side, there’s danger from Netflix and Amazon, who have the huge budget to create their own content, but don’t need to rely on money from advertising. Netflix have a strong recurring revenue from subscription, while Amazon could credibly turn around and give away all its video content for free as a way to generate subscriptions for Prime.
And then there are also plenty of legacy issues with both Snapchat and Facebook that could create speed bumps. Snapchat’s advertising platform is pretty much non-existent, meaning it relies on multiple large deals rather than giving advertisers the chance to self manage. Its lack of targeting will not play well in an age when measurement is everything either. There’s also the double edged of being a youth biased platform – who’s to say the success with under 34s will be grown into older brackets? And then there’s the pressure to monetise pre and post IPO.
Facebook has its own issues. Despite paying for original content and being the place where most people in the developed world get their news, it refuses to admit it’s a media company. Four separate measurement errors in the last year alone has shaken advertiser confidence in the platform too, and articles like this really don’t help Facebook’s case.
So who’s going to win?
Certainly as digital advertising reaches maturity and we come out of the ‘trough of disillusionment’ (Gartner Hype Cycle terminology) caused by the display/programatic/adblocking mess, this will be the defining story of the next five years.
My uneducated guess is that the fragmentation of traditional TV will take much, much longer than we expect, and, at least in the medium term, it won’t be a winner takes all game.
Now that you know a little more about the main protagonists, let battle commence.