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Stuck at LAX Again, Thinking About Conversational Marketing

I spent last Friday evening at LAX and the Burbank airport (and trafficky freeways between the two) on a 9 hour quest to get back to San Francisco. Lucky for me, I found myself distracted by an engaging and spirited discussion of advertising models, journalistic ethics and best practices for conversational marketing! A week later I find myself, again, stuck in Los Angeles waiting out flight delays — and collecting my thoughts on last week’s hoopla around conversational marketing.

Earlier this week I had a frank conversation with the folks at Microsoft to get their take. After revisiting the elements of the ad campaign, we agreed that this sort of “conversational marketing” doesn’t violate ethics (marketer or journalistic) or intentionally mislead readers. Still, they are taking seriously the perception among some commentators that we all could have done more to disclose the details on the campaign. More transparency can’t be a bad thing. Most importantly, Microsoft is listening and trying to learn from the feedback. I was thrilled to hear all of that.

That’s what makes conversational marketing so compelling to me (and my colleagues at FM) — it allows our customers to give us feedback. Honest feedback isn’t always nice to hear, but it’s important that we hear it, that we listen and that we grow from it. We’ll keep at it because we’re committed to finding more relevant, natural ways to communicate to our customers, and (let’s hope) we get better each time.

Anil Dash on Conversational Marketing

Anil Dash, Chief Evangelist at Six Apart and among the folks credited with launching the blog movement (here’s his bio), added this to the discussion of conversational marketing:

“There’s been a (mostly boring) conversation going between some blogs over the past few days regarding the line between editorial and advertising. Largely, this is a case of the same silly-meme-into-faux-fact path that I tried to document yesterday. In this case, it’s a little lessinnocent — Nick Denton used a Valleywag blog post to take a jab at John Battelle and FM Pub by implying its writers sold out by creating copy for a Microsoft campaign that ran on their sites.

“The whole thing is, as I said, mostly boring, except that the idea of the post is what ended up being debated, instead of the fact that this is really a case of a not-that-serious personal rivalry turning into an assault on the credibility of a number of good bloggers. And a number of overrated ones, but that’s beside the point.

“Again with the disclaimers: I know both Nick and John, and like them both for what they’re good at, as well as for what makes them different. And I have good friends in both of their companies. This isn’t name-dropping; A big part of my job is making connections to people who do innovative things with blogs and in the blogging industry, and they both fall squarely into that description.

“But Nick is being pretty transparently intellectually dishonest here — throwing bombs at John and FM not because he believes what he’s saying, but because he knows it’ll get attention. The idea of advertising becoming more blog-like is a good thing. If every ad were written by an actual human, had a permanent link to its location, and let people share or tag it, we’d end up with a radically better advertising culture.

The idea of a media team creating advertising content isn’t new — it’s as old as publishing itself. And it continues today. Here’s Ziff Davis’ Contract Publishing services. In public media, here’s PBS’ Red Book guidelines for underwriting content. Sure, it makes sense to have different teams be responsible for money and editorial. But in blogging, where the editor is the publisher and you can’t split a one-person staff in half, merging these functions isn’t just logical, it’s inevitable. Perhaps if Nick hadn’t been a pioneering blogger himself, I’d have believed he was simply mistaken.

“In this case, though, we’re fortunate to have some pretty articulate advocates for the idea of conversational marketing. For example, FM Pub’s Chas Edwards does a great job of telling the story (link).

“But perhaps the best advocate for this style of conversational marketing is Nick Denton. From three years ago…..”

In Anil’s post, he’s pulled material from Gawker Media’s own media kit from 3 years ago, including the offer to “provide editorial talent and oversight” and the statement that “campaign weblogs allow a marketer to participate in the weblog conversation, rather than observe it as a passive sponsor.”

I think Nick and I agree more than I thought!

Does Relevant Advertising Mean Selling Out?

Over the past 2 years, FM has worked with dozens of advertisers and 100+ leading independent authors, editors and publishers in an effort to give readers and marketers a better opportunity to talk to each other. We call it “conversational marketing.”

The idea is simple. The best publications have always been dialogs between great writers, passionate readers, and, yes, advertisers. This “conversation” is more obvious and more iterative among today’s social media communities, but it’s been happening since long before the Internet. The most successful advertisers have always been the ones that recognize and respect this conversation — rather than those who see media as a “delivery platform” for their pitch or an opportunity to “target their demo.” Advertisers that license New Yorker cartoons for their print ads in that publication, Wired advertisers that write ad copy in the definitive grammar of that publication, and tech advertisers that re-use in their ad units favorable reviews from CNET and PC Magazine are three examples.

To be clear, I’m not talking about advertorials; I’m talking about ads, those things that every human over the age of 7 recognizes as paid messages from a marketer. Provided publishers follow two long-standing guidelines — be transparent, listen to reader feedback — advertisers can join the conversation without tainting anyone’s credibility.

During the 1990s hey-days of tech magazines, readers of PC Magazine and PC World said they spent as much time with the ads as they did the editorial content. And that’s not because IT professionals are so dumb they can’t tell the difference (please!) — it’s because ads that work hard to join the conversation, to be relevant to participants in that conversation, are more valuable than generic ads that attempt to interrupt the conversation and steal your attention for half a minute.

This is all to say: I’m a believer that highly relevant advertising — advertising that joins the conversation — is better for all involved parties.

So I took issue with Nick Denton’s Friday post on ValleyWag accusing some of the web’s most highly respected, most experienced professional journalists of selling out their credibility to help Microsoft bring more relevant ads to their readers.

One of Microsoft’s marketing messages is built around the phrase “people ready,” and the equation “software + people = business success.” It’s a mouthful, and — to me, anyway — not immediately digestible. So, working with FM, Microsoft invited 8 FM authors to talk about the concept of “people ready” in their own words, in language that might resonate better with their readers. What those authors wrote was featured in the campaign that ensued.

Did Microsoft ask the authors to endorse their brand, use their products, or tell their readers what to do? Of course not.

Did Microsoft or these journalist try to sneak these ads past their readers, in a costume of editorial or even advertorial? Nope. Microsoft paid for ad impressions, and the rates for advertising on each of these sites is published at FM’s website. Quite obviously, Microsoft was running paid ads on their sites. John Battelle took the added measure of blogging about his participation in the campaign (see Searchblog) — and that’s a great idea to make the self-evident even more evident!

Did readers get confused by what they were looking at in those ad banners? Well, Cisco did something similar last fall, around their “Welcome to the Human Network” campaign. A dozen leading tech and business journalists affiliated with FM wrote their own definitions of “human network” that they let Cisco use in ad banners on their sites. Like Microsoft, Cisco didn’t guide or edit or participate in the copy written by these journalists. And readers seemed OK with the project. Thousands of them clicked on the Cisco ads to read more definitions and voted on their favorites. Nearly 900 of them went back to their own blogs and wrote up the experience (not all were positive reviews, but most were). The Wikipedians added “human network” as entry to their encyclopedia, and made reference to Cisco’s “commercial use of the phrase,” so the distinction between advertising and editorial was clear to them, too. And for the past 2 months — the Microsoft campaign started running on these sites in April — readers of those sites haven’t raised an outcry.

So there’s a fair amount of evidence Denton is raising a stink all by himself. Or perhaps his disdain for the advertisers that support his business (Gawker Media), our business (Federated Media), and every other ad-supported content business online or offline, is so great that he feels they don’t belong in the conversation at all. Except, of course, the conversation in which they agree to pay him, then shut up. At FM, we think that — for commercially supported sites, anyway — marketers might just have something to add to the conversation. And we’ll keep working on innovative ways for them to do just that.

Other coverage:

Robert Scoble at Scobleizer.
Fred Wilson at AVC.
Mike Arrington at TechCrunch.
Richard MacManus at Read/Write Web.
Don Park at Daily Habit.
Neil Chase at FM’s blog.
John Battelle at FM’s blog.
Om Malik at GigaOM.
Paul Kedrosky at Infectious Greed.

Rating System for Ad Agencies?

It sounds like my colleague Bernie Albers lit it up at last month’s “Innovators Roundtable Dinner,” hosted by the IAB.  He proposed an eBay-style rating system for ad agencies where publishers and other partners would vote them up for good service (frank and open communication, etc.), or vote them down for poor service (delinquent payment of invoices, late delivery of creative, etc.)  Scandale!!

But perhaps it’s more likely — and beneficial — than it sounds. Industry by industry, the internet has forced a new level of transparency to business practices that have been intentionally obscured from consumers and business partners. Inflated brokerage fees and retail pricing met this fate in the 1990s, thanks to online discount brokerages and comparison shopping engines. Google has begun the process of “rationalizing” direct-response ad rates online; and, ironically, their own black-box approach to sharing revenue with publishers is facing inevitable pressure.

As we saw in other industries, best-of-class agencies will force this issue — since a system that rewards better-than-average service gives them competitive advantage in winning new business. Change can be uncomfortable, especially for the incumbent leaders. But I say, bring it!

Om and Arrington in USA Today

In USA Today

“GigaOm has readers numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and TechCrunch’s audience tops a million. But that doesn’t accurately reflect their far-reaching influence. TechCrunch is the fourth-most-linked-to blog on the Internet, says Technorati, a blog search engine. GigaOm ranks 34th, a still impressive number given that Technorati tracks more than 86 million blogs.”

Digg Bigger Than Facebook?

Data from Compete.com puts Digg ahead of Facebook in unique visitors, both a bit above 20 million in May 2007.

ClickZ on Ask.com's Ask A Ninja Sponsorship

Zach Rodgers at ClickZ wrote up Ask.com’s experience with their Ask A Ninja sponsorship:

“Question: What do you get when you cross a ninja with one of those live-read radio sponsorships of old — you know, the ad spots news hosts and celebs used to read on-air?

“Answer: Ask.com’s latest digital ad initiative.

“The IAC/InterActiveCorp-owned search engine has paired with goofball video blog Ask a Ninja on an ad deal in which the show’s host and namesake reads the sponsor copy himself — and then offers bonus clips to fans who query Ask with special ninja-themed search terms. The three-month relationship, which also includes run-of-site display ads, was brokered by Ask a Ninja rep Federated Media Publishing….”

“Early response rates are good. In the first two weeks of the campaign, 8.3 percent of viewers have searched on Ask.com’s ninja-related terms and watched the videos.

“‘There isn’t advertising that is able to drive that kind of response rate,’ said [ChasNote's own] Chas Edwards, chief revenue officer at FM Publishing. ‘But there certainly is opportunity around the ninja to drive that response rate around himself and his content’ by incorporating a call to action and a pay off that takes place within the search experience.”

Thanks for the coverage, Zach!

Yahoo Needs To Bring Back the Humans

I agree with Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0, commenting on what Yahoo should do post-Semel: “Yahoo can’t out-Google Google — and it’s likely that nobody can…. To catch up to Google, much less beat Google, Yahoo needs to change the nature of the game. Here’s a hint: Yahoo should focus where Google is weakest — human intelligence and human relationships (i.e. ‘social’).”

CNET Launches Blog Network, Too

My alma mater CNET Networks announced today that they are launching their own network of blog sites, with clusters — what some may call “federations” — of sites covering tech, graphic design, parenting and sports. Where have I heard that concept before?! (Hint: Here’s a link to FM’s site.)

Two years ago I left CNET to help start FM.  Here’s what I wrote then under the heading “ChasNote Has A New Address”:

“Well, I should have guessed it would lead to this.

“About a year ago I started ChasNote as an excuse to talk to all of you about trends and innovations in online marketing. And, through these conversations, I’ve convinced myself — or maybe it’s your fault! — that I need to move out to the front lines. I am leaving CNET Networks to join John Battelle’s “record label for bloggers,” FM Publishing [updated, FM is now called Federated Media], as VP of sales and market development, starting July 11 [2005]. It’s been a very tough week saying goodbye to the innovators, trend-setters and good friends among whom I’ve worked here at CNET for the past six years. But I’ll tell you what I’ve been telling them — why my heart and soul required me to enlist with Federated Media.

“A few thousand, maybe a hundred thousand, of the 10 million bloggers are doing something remarkable. In today’s media-saturated, viewing-multiple-channels-at-once climate, they have grabbed the undivided attention of an audience. For all the talk of “audience engagement” by Big Media, it’s a handful of moonlight publishers who have actually pulled it off. They’ve created intimacy, authority and real live dialog with their readers. While three-fourths of PVR users skip commercials and everyone else has learned to tune them out, certain bloggers have convinced their constituencies to tune in.

“Two big challenges remain, though. First, most of these bloggers haven’t figured out how to quit their day-jobs and pay rent at the same time. Second, marketers — who are willing to kick in rent money for the opportunity to participate in this high-energy connection between blog publishers and their audiences — don’t have a scalable mechanism for doing so.

“I won’t pretend that I know exactly how these issues will resolve, but I’m signing up — by way of Federated Media — to work on the solution full-time.”

Gosh, what starry-eyed optimism.  How cute!  But my belief in conversational media (and conversational marketing) hasn’t tapered a bit.  In fact, the marketers who have helped shape this new kind of marketing — and have supported FM’s business — have convinced me that I’m right to believe.

So CNET, welcome to the party!

Dell's Blog Admits Mistakes, Wins Support

It’s refreshing to read an honest assessment of Dell’s blunders at its own blog, Direct2Dell:

“Now’s not the time to mince words, so let me just say it… we blew it.

“I’m referring to a recent blog post from an ex-Dell kiosk employee that received more attention after the Consumerist blogged about it, and even more still after we asked them to remove it.

“In this case, I agree with what Jeff Jarvis had to say: instead of trying to control information that was made public, we should have simply corrected anything that was inaccurate. We didn’t do that, and now we’re paying for it.”

Go, Dell!

You have to wonder why more companies don’t do the same. First, you sleep better at night with the guilt off your conscience. Second, it’s so darn hard, these days, not to get caught. Finally, your customers will you respect you more for coming clean. Here, for example, is “Erica” in a comment to Dell’s apology post:

“Thanks for apologizing. As Gaby on Consumerist wrote, working with and not against the consumer will work for you, I believe. In any situation (marriage, the workplace, or customer relations), when a person feels respected, acknowledged, and treated as human, they are more likely to cooperate and remain loyal. When many other companies are not willing to do that, being the one company that listens to their customers could be quite an asset.”