In case you’ve missed it, now is not a great time to be in print media. In the US, weekday newspaper circulation has hit an all-time low of 40 million copies (down from 63.3 million in 1984) leading to (according to Paper Cuts) the shuttering of well over 100 local newspapers and the loss of over 20,000 jobs since January 2008.
And it’s not just newspapers suffering, even the once bloated September Issues of the glossy fashion magazines looked decidedly anorexic in 2010 having lost up to ¼ of their ad revenues. The general consensus is that even with aggressive moves into digital and exciting developments like the birth of whizzy tablet editions, ad revenues will never return to their pre-recession levels. This appears to be acknowledged in the 2010 Ad Age Magazine A-List (commentary via the Ad Age Outlook podcast) which, in addition to recognizing editorial savvy and great journalism, celebrates those publications looking beyond print and diversifying into other areas. For example, special praise is reserved for The Atlantic’s Atlantic Live events division which has attracted big name speakers to The Aspen Idea Festival and Future of the City.
Described by The New York Times as “the biggest flurry of e-commerce innovation since Amazon & Ebay” daily deal sites such as Groupon and Livingsocial (there are currently over 130 operating in the US) are taking America by storm. Groupon, the leading player in the category which only launched in 2008 projects its 2010 revenues to be in the region of $300-500 million. It operates in 65 markets in North America and 14 in Europe, has a global subscriber base of 13 million+ and is so in demand that it turns away 7 businesses for every 1 that it’s able to work with. Proof of the brand’s clout came in August when its promotion with Gap (to get $50 worth of clothing for the price of $25) was taken up by 440,000 customers and generated $11million.
Whilst group buying sites are not a new thing (Microsoft was behind a service called Mercata which folded in 2001), “the business model is at the nexus of the economic downturn and the rise of social media” (NYT): consumers are both motivated to seek deals and have the ability to quickly and easily share them with others.
But whilst Groupon, Livingsocial, Woot, Gilt and all the others have been phenomenally successful, they are not untouchable. Their business model is predicated on a large subscriber base and the credibility that they will be able to provide this base with compelling discounts on goods and services relevant to them. But they are not the only ones with large customer bases and they are certainly not the leading authorities when it comes to making recommendations – this is where the opportunity lies for media brands. They have influence and authority in individual cities or specific areas of interest and they’ve been offering recommendations on goods and services to their communities for years. As Vinicius Vacanti, founder of daily deal aggregator site Yipit blogged, “I bet what keeps Groupon up at night isn’t LivingSocial or the now 120+ other daily deal sites, it’s the media companies with authority and an established audience.” He goes on to offer lots of useful advice to media brands looking to do so here as well as discussing the various ways for media brands to approach the introduction of daily deals (co-brand partnerships, white labelling etc) here.
Other media brands are taking moves toward retail even further with the creation of exclusive product ranges and dedicated stores. The practice of licensing is nothing new, Playboy has been slapping its logo across worthless tat for years but a new breed of publishers is taking a more thoughtful approach to ‘merch’, seeing it as an opportunity to both further the publication’s values and aesthetic and create a product that will be genuinely valuable to its audience. Available via exclusive retailers such as ABC Home in New York, Esquire’s new home furnishings collection promises high-end pieces for the home and caters to readers who have “figured out his look and he knows where he’s going and what he wants to be.” Monocle have taken a co-brand approach to its highly curated line of retail goods. Partnering with the craft-focused brands it champions in the magazine, it has created an online shop as well as beautifully conceived concept stores in London, New York, LA, Tokyo and Hong Kong. This approach has also been adopted by influential menswear blogger Michael Williams who has partnered with some of the brands he features on his A Continuous Lean site to create an equally alluring retail offering.
Seen in this context, the rush to erect paywalls is truly damaging. Media brands need to encourage access to their content in order to engage potential customers and establish a clear and compelling point of view. It is this point of view which will lie behind the creation of a broader value proposition and a compelling product and service offering.
Where once we simply looked to fill ad space, today we spend more and more of our time looking to drive consumer participation with brands. The thinking, as eloquently expressed by my colleague DB, is that consumers (helped by PVRs, music streaming services like Pandora etc etc) are creating ‘personal firewalls’ allowing them to lead blissfully advertising-free lives and enabling them to engage with brands only when they choose to.
Once our objective was damage limitation: we intruded on our captive audience’s TV viewing or magazine reading and hoped that we could win them round with funny / catchy / emotive / silly advertising so that they might remember us next time they were in the supermarket / car showroom / online… But today this captive audience has all-but disappeared, meaning that brand engagement must be a more positive choice – when you aren’t compelled to engage with a brand, why would you when there are so many more interesting things to do? Our new task, as argued by Gareth Kay is to create ideas that give people something in return for their attention: ideas that actually do something rather than just talking up our new toothpaste, car, perfume, cat-food. Citing examples like Nike+ and Fiat Eco Drive, he calls for us to ‘get into the business of creating communication products and out of the business of simply communicating products.’
Though this ‘give and take’ relationship with consumers entails more work and exposes brands to greater risks (Skittles anyone?), the rewards for getting participation right are significant. Thanks to their ability to spread brand messages far and wide via social media, engaged individuals represent a larger (in many cases) and significantly more persuasive channel than any TV or poster campaign we may have bought in the past, meaning that if we can create a sufficiently compelling ‘communication product’, they will work on our behalf to popularize it.
Where once the brief may have been ‘do me a 1984 or a Sony Balls’, it is increasingly ‘do me an Old Spice / VW Fun Theory / (insert flavor of the month here)’. But for every brilliantly conceived, so-simple-an-idea-you-wished-you’d-had-it, even-your-mum’s-talking-about-it, participation-driving-social-media-phenomenon, there are numerous others which fail to hit the mark. And of course, in our super-connected world, antagonizing consumers is the last thing we want to do: participation has more power to engage than traditional marketing approaches but it also has more power to piss people off.
In an open letter to ‘all of advertising and marketing’ (which has gone viral, striking a chord with consumers bombarded with ill-conceived invitations to participate) that objects to a campaign for a sausage brand, Brian (he doesn’t give his surname) writes “I don’t want to make a film, or draw a picture, or nominate a friend. Or compose a sound-track, or re-edit your advert.” He continues “I know it must be very tempting to sit in your nice, comfy offices and dream up schemes where normal people like me forget our everyday cares and participate in your marketing. But…please, please, PLEASE…Leave me alone.”
I have a suspicion that Brian may be from within our industry and this may be a hoax but whatever the truth, he raises a valid question: are there some categories and some brands where attempting to drive participation is inappropriate?
It is certainly true to say that the campaigns that often stimulate the most participation are from categories and brands (like the ‘Why so serious’ alternative reality game which launched ‘The Dark Knight’ or ‘The Best Job in the World’ which showcased one of the most beautiful places on earth) that people genuinely care about. But in these cases, consumers were not participating with the film or the Great Barrier Reef, they were participating with an idea (a communications product) inspired by them. The Barrier Reef has existed for many millions of years and the Batman franchise for 70 without a huge amount of social media buzz. It was the creation of compelling ‘communications products’ around them which got people participating.
The same goes for more mundane brands and categories. Given all the other distractions available to them, for consumers to spend time thinking about (participating with) blenders or soda would be and odd choice. But this is exactly what they do thanks to ‘Will it blend?’ and ‘The refresh project’, compelling ‘communications products’ that have been created around Blendtec and Pepsi and have successfully driven participation.
In his letter, Brian says ‘If you’d like to tell me what’s good about your product, fine. I may buy it. I may not.’ This is a perfectly logical approach and one that often used to work. That is in the days when Brian had little option other than to listen to what brands had to say. But now I fear that he has put up his personal firewall and is blanking out marketing messages meaning we have little option other than to attempt to communicate what it is that’s good about the product via more participative means.
So rather than condemn the sausage brand in question for attempting to stimulate participation, we should question the ‘mode of participation’ they sought. Finding itself in a low interest category, Blendtec doesn’t make big demands of its audience. It simply asks that people endorse its brand in the form of sharing links to, ‘liking’ and ‘tweeting’ the videos that it creates. I would argue that the mystery sausage brand’s mistake was to blindly seek participation without considering what its audience wants / needs and how a communication product could provide them with genuine value.
Identifying the appropriate ‘mode of participation’ is as important as the idea at the heart of the brand.
Given our changed brandscape (and despite Brian’s protestations), I believe that creating participation around brands will be absolutely key to their future success. And that even the most mundane products and brands, by understanding the role they play (or could play) in consumer’s lives have the opportunity to create compelling, value-adding communications products. But for these communications products to be successful, the demands they make on consumers must be proportionate to the reward they offer in return. Where traditional campaigns were about getting the message right, participative campaigns demand that we also get the ‘mode of participation’ right.
Given the miniscule readership of my blog, I’m unable to apologize on behalf of ‘all of advertising and marketing’. But on behalf of me and others who believe that done well, participative marketing is the future; sorry, we’ll do better next time.
An understanding of people, not just technology is the key to unlocking the value of ‘The Connected World’
(Fantastic) illustration by Jez Burrows
As we know, we are living in an ever more connected world where increasingly malleable and portable content and smart devices are causing consumers to demand more connected solutions. But who will help consumers to navigate this landscape? Will Google make IPTV a mass market proposition or will the cable providers get their act together before it’s too late? Does Apple have the mobile internet sewn up via self-contained apps or will Google’s browser-based apps prevail? The big question being asked in the boardrooms of CE manufacturers, content distributors, broadband and airtime providers and technology and entertainment retailers (and I have been party to a few) is how to leverage these trends in order to sell lucrative eco-systems of devices, connections, services and content and reap the consequent revenue and margin benefits.
But currently progress is slow as everyone searches for a ‘silver bullet’, a single value proposition which will explain the connected world to consumers and help them to understand its potential in order to unlock their spending.
This is the wrong approach because it supposes that ‘the connected world’ is something that can be neatly categorized and packaged when in fact it’s a multi-layered collection of technology, devices and applications: a complex eco-system which is radically changing almost every part of our lives. This complexity will be its key strength: the connected world’s ability to provide a million different benefits to a million different people will drive uptake. But this also makes summing up what it does in a single statement that everyone can understand and find compelling impossible.
The PC-accessed internet wasn’t popularized by an all-encompassing proposition which someone defined and suddenly everyone understood. It was a messy grass-roots phenomenon: the cumulative effect of millions of people finding solutions to individual needs using online tools (communicating via email and IM, learning via educational resources online, shopping via internet stores etc.)
So rather than spending our time naval-gazing and agonizing over the set of words which will unlock the potential of the connected world, we need to take a consumer-focused approach in order to show individuals how it can address their specific needs and sell the products and services required to make this happen.
The key is to present the connected world as a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself. Fundamentally, it is a tool that can help people get more from life (whether they want to work smarter, connect with their networks, engage more with their favourite TV shows or sports teams, better research their school project etc etc). Fundamentally, the key to unlocking the value of the connected world is less about understanding every possible permutation delivered the technology and more about understanding what consumers want from life.