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Sometimes We Need More Back-to-the-Future Advertising

I’m on a plane to New Jersey for my 25th high school reunion, which promises a cover band that will play both Billy Idol and Cyndi Lauper, and a slide show of pictures from when we all had mullets. Low-tech time travel! And earlier this week my kids and I watched the 1989 box office hit Back to the Future II, which features actual time travel. You may already be aware that the movie sends Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) into a distant future — 2015 — to meet his older self and that older self’s wayward children.

It’s always fun when we get the chance to catch up to imagined futures depicted in science fiction (or 80s comedies). In this case Robert Zemeckis et al totally blew it with the flying cars, hovering skateboards and the eighties-only-brighter outfits. But Doc’s pocket computer does look a lot like an iPhone, and I, for one, eat a lot of compressed, dehydrated foods (and our modern foil-wrapped energy bars don’t even require a rehydrating oven).

I also love vintage ads, mostly because of how silly they sound to contemporary ears. Like ads encouraging you to pour 7Up down your baby’s throat or doctors recommending Camel cigarettes. But every now and then you find a vintage ad that should still be in rotation, like this one from IBM (thanks, Kurt!):

IBM ad from the January 1985 issue of the Atlantic Monthly

IBM ad from the January 1985 issue of the Atlantic Monthly

From the modern-day Atlantic:

The January 1985 issue of The Atlantic Monthly offered its readers an assortment of wonders. A cover story on “Theaterphobia” — a moviegoer’s experience on Broadway — penned by one David Denby. A humor piece by Patricia Marx titled, cheekily, “Getting Along With Russians.” A literary take on the complexities of E.M. Forster, and of Degas, and of Matisse. And that was just the journalism. There were also the ads. Oh, such ads! Ads for cars (“there is a special feel in an Oldsmobile”). Ads for cigarettes (Marlboro/Merit/Carlton) featuring horses and bold claims regarding tar levels and, in one particularly awesome instance, a surly-looking sea captain. Ads for delights both physical (NordicTrak cross-country ski machine!) and intellectual (Book of the Month Club!).

Plus this ad from IBM promoting its investment in programs to increase the number of women studying and working in science, tech, engineering and math:

In the past ten years, IBM has supported more than 90 programs designed to strengthen women’s skills in these and other areas. This support includes small grants for pre-college programs in engineering, major grants for science programs at leading women’s colleges, and grants for doctoral fellowships in physics, computer science, mathematics, chemistry, engineering, and materials science.

According to IBM’s ad, 13.6% of math and science PhDs in early 1980s were women. I assume that counts all living PhDs at the time, not just graduates in a given year. Given the current stats that say 22% of engineering PhDs and 27% of math and computer science PhDs are award to women (see Inside Higher Ed), the numbers should be heading in the right direction, eventually. But, dang, that’s not exactly lightning-speed progress. And as the recent controversy over Twitter’s all-male board makes clear, the shortage of women in tech needs an explanation that goes beyond math. Perhaps boardrooms that include some women will invest more money in educational programs (and ad campaigns) that accelerate the pace of change.

A Billion Photos Shared Each Day, Advertisers Nervous

According to Mary Meeker, we’re now uploading and sharing more than 500 million photos a day. By this time next year it will be a billion a day.

Daily Number of Photos Uploaded

Which is awesome — pretty soon I won’t need to feel self-conscious about sharing so many pictures of my kids on Facebook. (I’m pretty darn adorable, just for being related to them — right?!) My narcissism, at least on a relative scale, will experience a refreshing decline as greater narcissists outpace me.

But here’s the rub. The vast majority of those photos are posted to ad-supported sites — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr — or apps that are free to consumers (such as Snapchat) and therefore will likely pursue some kind of ad model eventually. Advertisers almost always follow consumers to a new media property once the sheer number of consumers gets too large to ignore. Take the recent rise of WorldStarHipHop. According to American Public Media’s Marketplace:

In recent days, ads for Fiber One, Walmart and Bloomingdale’s have appeared on WorldStarHipHop. O’Denat [WorldStarHipHop's founder] says the site’s racier content used to be a problem for advertisers.

“Advertisers were afraid of us,” he said. “We were kind of risque. We had girls in thongs, fights. Not until later on they decided, well, the site is too big. We’re just gonna have to work with them.”

When Facebook landed in hot water this week, though, it wasn’t for thongs or fights. It acknowledged that its “systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate.” More specifically, as one advocacy group brought to light, Facebook ran advertising on pages with names like “Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs.” Oy. I’m betting Facebook has already rolled out a solution to prevent this kind of thing from happening again — software has gotten pretty good at reading text on a page and understanding when that text is objectionable.

Managing brand safety is really hard to do, though, when it comes to photo content at enormous scale. It’s still a whole lot easier to flag the word “rape” than it is to recognize a visual depiction of the crime inside one of those hundreds of millions of new photos that its members publish to the site each day. Advertisers are more than eager to pitch their wares to the enormous audiences at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and Snapchat — assuming they won’t tarnish their brands in the process. Figuring out that last part, especially as it pertains to user-submitted photos, is fast becoming a ginormous marketing opportunity. A billions-upon-billions of dollars opportunity.

(Disclosure: Until recently I worked at Luminate, one company that’s working on aspects of image recognition, including a visual brand watch system. I hope they succeed, partly because the online ecosystem will benefit from happy, confident advertisers, and partly — let’s be honest here — because those cute kids you see too often on Facebook want to go to college some day.)

The Year In Pictures, In Review

Luminate CEO (and my boss) Bob Lisbonne debuted his Forbes column, Visual Approach, with a look back at “the most widely photographed year in history” and the major developments across the imagesphere in 2012: The Year In Pictures, In Review.

The year in images dawned with an explosive start when Facebook announced it would acquire Instagram. While many fixated on the $1 billion price tag, implications for Facebook’s mobile strategy, or whirlwind negotiations, I found it fascinating that a company whose essence revolved around relationships between friends, would find irresistible a network whose connections centered on pictures.

It was a year of significant hardware innovations, pictures from Mars, break-through interactive galleries and the first skirmishes in a battle of the Internet titans over who will dominate the future of photography. Full column here.

We Dislike Mobile Ads, But They Are 4 Times More Effective Than Online Ads

The latest study from Millward Brown, AdReaction 2012, finds that only 9% of American smartphone users have a favorable or very favorable disposition toward mobile ads. (More at Mediapost.) That’s about how much they like emails that they didn’t opt to receive (ie, spam), and less than half as much as they like online display ads. It’s a sad state of affairs when you can win a popularity contest against banner ads, eh?

Meanwhile mobile ads are working exceptionally well.

Prior research by Dynamic Logic’s AdIndex brand metrics system has shown that mobile ads are approximately four times more effective than online ads at increasing brand awareness, message association and purchase intent.

At first blush it sounds like two points of data that contradict one another. But that’s not really the case. It’s evidence of two factors that have played out across the history of advertising. One, when people actually look at ads, they tend to work. Mobile ads are more invasive and harder to ignore than online banners — there’s no AdBlocker Plus or Tivo for smartphones yet, and the narrowness of mobile screens means ads aren’t placed in that easy-to-ignore right rail — so they work better. Two, when asked directly consumers will always tell you they hate ads. Almost two-thirds of us dislike or strongly dislike ads, and yet we continue to pay a premium price to buy the stuff we see advertised. In other words, if we fail to shield our eyes from an ad — like it or not — it’s going to make an impression.

Visual Storytelling for Brands in the Facebook, Pinterest, Insta-gallery Era

In November 1995 I had a job selling ad space for tech magazines. One afternoon the office fax machine scrolled out 12 pages worth of insertion orders from a software company I’d been pitching for two months, and I did a happy-dance in my cubicle. With those orders, the company had committed to running a full-page ad in every issue the magazine would publish in all of 1996. I called the client to confirm the mailing address for our traffic coordinator and the creative instructions — right-reading film, emulsion-side-down — and got the further good news that the ad creative was already on its way in a FedEx pouch. The ad creative. A single photo with ad copy that would serve as the campaign’s creative all year.

I don’t miss the inky mess I’d make of my hands when I had to change the cartridge on that fax machine. But they sure were simpler times in the world of advertising and publishing.

Back then the brands on the other end of those fax machines could afford to sink significant time and resources into the production of each creative unit. Hiring a renowned photographer, a model, a team of set designers, makeup artists, art directors and post-production editors might set them back $25,000 for a single photo for a single print ad. But given the enormous role played by that one photograph — it would likely anchor a $15-million national ad campaign across many magazines for months — the time and dollars invested in getting it exactly right could fairly be called a rounding error. Twenty-five thousand dollars in creative development divided by 15 million in media spend is less than two-tenths of a percentage point.

While the math still works for brands advertising in glossy fashion magazines, there is trouble in paradise. Or rather, paradise has moved to the Internet. If brands want to engage with consumers online (which, more and more, is where their consumers spend time) they need to compete with publishers and social media sites that refresh their bins of eye-candy every few minutes. By the time they’ve art directed, developed and shipped a piece of right-reading, emulsion-side-down film to a publisher, Gangnam Style has been replaced with parody videos of Gangnam Style.

The digital landscape changes fast, and pictures are a main catalyst. Netscape released the first commercially-available web browser in 1994 and fewer than 15 years later Flickr housed more than 6 billion photos — more than 450 times the number of photos held by the Library of Congress. In 2009 more than 2.5 billion camera-enabled devices were in the hands of would-be photogs and in the course of a year would go on to take ten percent of all photos ever taken by humans. Instagram, the photo-sharing apps for smartphones that Facebook bought earlier this year for $1 billion, measures its customer engagement in uploads-per-second; 60 uploads per second, back in the quaint old days of December 2011, pre-acquisition, and before comScore released data showing Instagram’s daily usage is now greater than Twitter’s. By early 2012 Facebook members were uploading to the site more than 300 million photos every single day.

This slurry of data signals “the end of the Kodak Era, where we took photos birthdays and vacations, and shared them only with a small group of friends,” says Bob Lisbonne, CEO of Luminate (my boss) and former SVP for Netscape’s browser group in 1990s. “We’ve now entered a phase in which visual communication is supplanting the written word — what some are calling the dawn of the Imagesphere.”


(Source: 1000 Memories Blog.)

But it’s not taking or uploading pictures that should worry marketers. It’s the fact that there are consumers on the other end of these photos — viewing them, engaging with them, and generally spending more time with images they see on Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest than they used to spend reading glossy magazines that arrived on the newsstand once a month. comScore’s Mobile Metrix 2.0 survey says Facebook users are spending more than seven hours per month visiting the site by way of mobile phones alone. Om Malik, founder and editor in chief of GigaOM, asserts that photos are the fuel driving the mass migration to social media:

Malik writes, “Photos are the reason many of us continue to engage with Facebook. Facebook has tried many verbs to increase and maintain our engagement with the service — read, listen, watch. But in the end, it’s the photos that work wonders for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based social-networking giant.”

Research from a team at Harvard Business School supports Malik’s claim. A 2009 study finds that 70% of all activity inside social networks revolves around photos. Keep in mind, that was in 2009 — when Facebookers were uploading a mere 31 million photos a day, and My Space was still relevant enough to be included in a study of social-media sites.

These millions of new photos — or at least those shared by friends and organizations we choose to follow — are pushed to us each day in an unending, ever-updating stream of visual storytelling. We watch our friends’ kids grow up, in near real-time, and news stories unfold throughout the day as fresh photos replace those from hours or minutes before. Publishers, too, are responding to their readers’ growing appetite for image content with larger, high-res photography and the gallery-ification of stories as disparate as celebrity news, travel destinations and business analysis.

Roughly one-third of pixel real estate on the web is image content, according to the Wall Street Journal, and those images get old fast. In its first three days on the Internet, the average photo has attracted half the total views it will ever attract. If you look at content shared via social media platforms rather than the entire web, the half-life for content is measured in hours not days.


(Source: Bitly Blog.)

And there lies the rub for brands. The changing dynamic of media consumption has changed the rules of marketing in three fundamental respects.

One: “Professional grade” doesn’t get the mileage it once did.

Sure, the list of most-viewed clips on YouTube includes Justin Beiber music videos, but it also includes quirky independent interviews of people waiting in line for iPhones and home-movie sensations such as ‘Charlie Bit My Finger… Again.’ The same goes for photos. Consumer interest no longer tracks with traditional definitions of “photo quality.”

There was a time when all media was professional media, created and distributed by large publishing companies. It only made sense, then, for advertisers to polish their creative units to a professional, high-production-value shine. Good advertising should always seek to imitate the editorial content around it; ‘native advertising’ has been around long before the Internet. There’s mounting evidence, however, that recall rates for TV spots and display ads in magazines are declining, despite the professional expertise that goes into their creation. Nowadays relevance trumps production value.

Now that amateur photographers have gained access to distribution — Google might lead you to an independent photoblog, Instagram might introduce you to some great photos from an excellent hobbyist — consumers are dividing the world of photos into ‘interesting’ and ‘not interesting,’ not ‘professional’ and ‘amateur.’ Interesting no longer requires the talents of a professional.

Two: Attention Deficit Disorder has become a lifestyle choice.

A trend that’s probably as old as the publishing industry has achieved fever pitch: Content miniaturization. Articles get shorter and shorter, and readers still can’t get to the end of them. I mean, who has time to read the entire tweet anymore? Audience ratings seem to suggest that frequency and freshness of content are trumping quality and depth. In a world where tapping our thumbs on the Instagram icon on our iPhones unleashes an endless stream of photos taken in the last four hours, looking again at last month’s print ad for Prada strikes many modern consumers as boring.

Three: Consumption is giving way to interaction.

There’s something that’s even more popular than posting pictures: Liking them and commenting on them. It’s a sign that we define ourselves not only through our own pictures, but also through association with the pictures of others. It’s this instinct that explains the growth of Pinterest, the social network that rocketed to 10 million users faster than any social network before it. It’s not built on photo-sharing in the sense that Instagram or Facebook are (“Hey, check out my pictures”); it’s about photo-assembling (“I’ve collected these pictures so you understand who I am and what I care about”). Forty-one percent of us, says new research from Pew, find photos and videos online and re-post them on sites designed for sharing with others. It’s one of the most popular things we do on the Internet.

In order for brands to embrace these new platforms for photo mixing and mashing, they need to get comfortable with their images being separated from the carefully assembled context of yesterday’s print ad or the Spring catalog, and being extracted from the traditional models that protect ownership rights and pay out talent royalties. Your customers want to befriend you and play with you, but that game is going to be on their terms.

So what’s a brand to do?

The creative departments at traditional agencies simply can’t adapt to this new world, says John Battelle, founder of Federated Media (disclosure: I was his co-founder there) and the first managing editor of Wired Magazine. The old rhythm of branded storytelling — devise the Big Idea, take a month to convert it into an art piece of advertising, and then enlist the media department to implant it deep into the skulls of consumers through mass media — is losing its efficacy. Agencies will continue to find success producing professional-grade assets and distributing them around tent-pole events, but they’re ill-equipped for the in-between times, the 363 days a year that don’t feature the Super Bowl or the Oscars. The beefy muscles built up over years of pumping out thirty-second TV spots and full-page print ads aren’t well suited for the marathon running required by lasting social-media conversations. “Brands need to catch up to media,” he says, and they’re going to need some help.

“Most creative agencies don’t see themselves as ongoing, real time publishers — that’s the business of, well, publishers,” Battelle continued. “I predict the two will merge over time — agencies must become more like publishers, and publishers are going to have to learn how to service brands like agencies do.”

Federated Media says the solution is a distributed, crowdsourced model for branded content creation. It invites advertisers to tap the talents of “the world’s largest creative department,” the 30 million some-odd bloggers affiliated with FM, from the vast army of small WordPress publishers to large-reach sites such as Boing Boing or Notcot.


(Source: Tom Ryabo, featured on Intel’s My Life Scoop.)

Three years ago, David Veneski, Intel’s director of US media, took FM up on the offer for a program called My Life Scoop. While the site features periodic updates on products like Intel-powered Ultrabooks, the bulk of the content is created by a broad array of independent content producers who speak the native language of Intel’s customers — those young, affluent people who seek out cutting-edge tech gadgets to enhance their lives. The imagery that accompanies the site’s content is not highly produced. Instead the emphasis is on fit, tone and relevance — photos and videos collected, curated and presented to My Life Scoop readers at a fraction of the cost associated with a professional shoots. The content is on-message (‘Sponsors of Tomorrow’ and ‘Ultrabook’), it’s frequently refreshed and it’s inviting social amplification. Nearly 50,000 Twitterers are following the My Life Scoop feed, and 100,000 Facebook members have Liked it.

“It’s important to us that we provide an authentic and compelling brand story for our target audience,” says Veneski. “We find that visuals and imagery, both photos and video, alongside written content, offers a way of telling a story that is more interesting to the people we want to reach.”


(Source: GE’s Tumblr.)

General Electric has taken an even more stripped-down approach. On Tumblr they’ve created (with help from the Barbarian Group) a corporate site that is nothing but photos. You’ll only find text only where it’s used to caption or hashtag a photo. What’s initially surprising is that airplane engines, smart LED bulb testing facilities, and gardens decked out with PulseArc Multi-Vapor metal halide lamps are quite photogenic, especially when they’ve been dolled up with an Instagram filter. Without set designers, models or professional photographers, GE is telling its story with frequent, low-cost iPhone pictures. More importantly, GE fans are spreading this story to their networks, with comments and hashtags included.

And the ‘interactivity’ isn’t just something that occurs after the brand unleashes the content — GE uses Twitter to invite its social-media followers to pick the locations of future photos.


(Source: GE’s Twitter Account.)

Without breaking the bank or getting reckless with its brand, GE found a path to social-media relevance. The brand is leaning into the consumer acceptance of spontaneous, inexpensive photo storytelling, which isn’t just reducing production costs either. It’s giving GE a stream of highly sharable content nuggets to satisfy the short-attention-span types and the sharers.

In other words, they’re speaking our language — the one in which every missive is worth a thousand words.

(This article first appeared on iMediaConnection under the title Why Visual Storytelling is the Future of Digital.)

A Picture Is Worth More Than 140 Characters?

The latest data from Comscore shows that Instagram now has more daily users in the US than Twitter. More at the Business Insider.

Twitter and LinkedIn Projected to Sell Nearly $1 Billion in Ads in 2014

eMarketer forecasts that Twitter will follow its 233% growth in ad revenues (last year) with another 83% this year, racking up $260 million in 2012, $400 million in 2013 and $540 million in 2014. Seventeen-percent of 2014 ad revenues will come from sources outside the US, up from 4% last year.

LinkedIn is doing alright too. Its ad revenues are growing more slowly than Twitter’s, but eMarketer still projects it to be north of $400 million in 2014. And its revenue is more global in its distribution: Almost one-third of LinkedIn’s projected $226 million in ad revenue this year will come from outside the US.

Federated Media’s FM Signal Chicago Recap

In his opening remarks FM’s @johnbattelle says mobile strategy is nothing if not paired with local, social and real-time strategies.

A few presentations later my boss, Luminate CEO Bob Lisbonne recommends you better start thinking about your image strategy too. I may be biased (hey, he signs my paychecks) but I think he’s on to something. Some stats he shared: 10% of the pictures ever taken were taken in the past 12 months (by my count this was the most tweeted/RT’d stat of the conference), roughly 40% of the pixel-space on the web is image content, and over in Facebook we’re uploading 70 billion photos a year. Yet images are still “black rectangles of pixels” to the search engines. According to a post on Google’s blog, among the ironies of computer science is:

We can write a computer program to beat the very best human chess players, but we can’t write a program to identify objects in a photo or understand a sentence with anywhere near the precision of even a child.

When you give users the opportunity to interact with images — let the mouse into an image to get relevant content or services — 20% are doing it.

Meanwhile Liz Ross at Mediabrands says the big cultural events, say Mad Men or Glee, are still created by TV. Digital can’t yet create media opportunities at scale.

Yet Old Spice launched its most recent campaign on YouTube. While the campaign’s creative began as a conventional TV spot — using YouTube as the launchpad was a practical decision, says P&G’s Charlie Chappell, since Old Spice couldn’t afford to run it on the Superbowl head-to-head with a rival product from Dove — it evolved into a social media phenonomenon. “I’m on a Horse” was followed by “Response,” where the handsome and funny star of the original spot created messages that directly addressed Twitter influencers and Twitter commoners, delivered via @Replies. The result: Within 3 days, 40 million people had watched various Old Spice videos on YouTube — that’s more people than watched Obama’s victory speech. P&G attributes a 27% boost in Old Spice sales to the campaign.

Before it was over, even Grover got into the act.

According to Vitrue’s Jenny Heinrich, though, digital advertising is still tremendous pain in the butt: The ease of buying TV means that trafficking and administration costs are 2% of the media investment. For digital it’s 26%. And digital isn’t just expensive on the front end, says Shopkick’s Cyriac Roeding, it’s still less efficient for retailers to point a customer to its online store (where conversion to sale ranges from sub 1% to low single digits) than to its physical location (nearly half the people who walk into a clothing or electronics store make a purchase).

Social media, though, is giving brands an opportunity to make friends for life with customers and new prospects, even as consumers are becoming less inclined to tune in to advertising. One of the first 10 accounts followed by a new Twitter user is a brand, says Manilla’s Jessica Insalaco. While nearly 80% Facebook members follow fewer than 10 brands, the fact that hundreds of millions of consumers are inviting brands into their newsfeeds at all is significant. We hate ads, but we’re willing to be friends with brands.


(Word associations by veteran agency exec Sean Finnegan.)

On Yahoo: Former head of sales at Yahoo Wenda Harris Millard says her old company has become obsessed with math (and chasing Google) and has lost touch with the art of the media business. Given that “many CEO candidates view Yahoo as a falling knife” they wouldn’t want to attempt to catch, Battelle asked Millard how they’re going to emerge from their funk. Pshaw, she said. Yahoo still has 680 million users, and plenty of senior execs love a challenge. “Look at me, I went to Martha Stewart when she got convicted.”

Videos of the full presentations are here.

The Shelf-Life of a Tweet

This chart comes from the Bitly Blog, in a post on the half-life of a link posted to Twitter or Facebook. Half-life, in this case, means the point at which a shared link has received half of the clicks it will ever receive. The half-life of a link on Twitter is 2.8 hours, and for one shared on Facebook it’s 3.2 hours.

These numbers make sense, right? If you’re following a few hundred accounts, by the time you look at Twitter, Tweetdeck or HootSuite, Tweets published more than a few hours ago (or a few minutes ago, if you follow especially chatty types) have been pushed to that cobwebby, unvisited place on the Internet called Page 2. As Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan puts it:

On our @sengineland Twitter account, we tweet a story as soon as it’s posted. However, many of our Twitter followers might easily miss this, if they’re not online, busy and so on. That’s why we schedule a “second chance” tweet for most major stories to go out a few hours after they originally get tweeted.

An interesting data point from Bitly’s report, though, is that the half-life isn’t a whole lot longer when you share a link with a friend directly, via email or instant message. In that case it’s 3.4 hours. That’s 21% longer than the half-life of a Tweet, but in real numbers it says we’ve lost interest in a link sent directly from a friend only 36 minutes more slowly than a linked pushed out to everyone in Twitter. So maybe the shortness of link half-lives isn’t caused by social-media dynamics — we follow too many accounts, our friends blab too much, and thus we approach social newsfeeds in skim mode. Maybe it’s a broader internet thing: Whether you see a link in Facebook, or your mom sends you one by email, if it arrived to you before lunch, it’s old news by mid afternoon and not worth your time.

That’s good news for Twitter’s evolving ad strategy, which will make it easier for brands to achieve reach and (more importantly) frequency with their Promoted Tweets, but bad news for thoughtful publishers who expect you to wait until tomorrow morning for the analysis.

Dilbert Needs to Get on Google+

Dilbert.com