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Why I Love FM's Ad Stamp

By - September 10, 2009

Today my company Federated Media announced a new ad format for a group of our publishing partners. We call this beta program “Ad Stamp”, and those of you who’ve been watching the space closely, and reading my thoughts on marketing here, won’t be too surprised by what you see.

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However, with Ad Stamp there is more than meets the eye, and I wanted to think out loud a bit about why I believe this format works, and how it might reflect some of the trends I’ve been watching and commenting upon in this space for years.

First and foremost, what is most striking about Ad Stamp is how much space is dedicated to the marketer’s message (see image at left – the temporary and one time pushdown at the top is pushed back up in this mock up). Ad Stamp coordinates three large units across roughly 50% of the total space available on a site – an “ad edit ratio” not unlike most premium magazines. An initial visceral response might be “That’s too much!”, but I don’t think that’s how audiences are going to react.

Why? Because in the main, I think the rise of ad networks and the relegation of marketing impressions to increasingly competing “third rails” on the sides and tops of sites has created a “Nascar effect” where more than five – if not 15 – messages blink numbly and disparately at their subjects. This is not a quality environment for readers or brand marketers, and it’s a premium publisher’s job to create a quality environment for both. (For a longer treatise on this see my post “The Rise of Independent Media Brands Online“).

It’s our belief that delivering 100% of the real estate reserved for marketers to *one marketer at a time* could be part of a strong solution to this concern. Ad Stamp, while still an early test program (and one we hope to roll out to all our sites) does just that. The authors of sites involved in our initial test – sites like Serious Eats, Mashable, Apartment Therapy, Business Insider, Dooce, and Boing Boing – all responded positively to early mockups of Ad Stamp, and all for the same simple reason: It makes the site look better.

Looking good is just one part of the thinking behind Ad Stamp. Other premium publishers are doing similar, larger executions (see the OPA news for more), but FM takes a decidedly social twist, as you might expect. To that end, an equally, if not more significant part of Ad Stamp is a new unit we call “the Conversationalist.”

The Conversationalist unit (an early execution is shown below) takes some of the best work FM has done over the years (content-driven, conversational ad units), and brings it full circle into the realm of high quality brand marketing. The thesis is this: When a reader comes to the page, he or she initially sees the uncluttered, focused brand message via the coordinated pushdown and tower on the side. (Both of these units are now quite standard across the premium publishing web, but are not often coordinated from a creative and messaging standpoint.) Given that FM sites are A/ a branded environment; B/ a conversational media environment; and C/ that brands are conversations; the next step is pretty logical for an enlightened marketer: Provide the reader with a space where he or she can converse with the brand.

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That’s where the Conversationalist comes in. Developed in part through work FM did with American Express, Microsoft, and many others, the unit can pull in and curate nearly any conversation deemed relevant by the marketer. Nearly every brand on the web now has Twitter, Facebook, and blog presences, for example. Some have an extremely sophisticated approach to social media (witness American Express Open’s Open Forum or Asus and Intel’s WePC, for example). In short, brands are becoming social media publishers, and they have a lot to say, and they are increasingly ready to begin a dialog with their customers. The Conversationalist is where they can do just that.

Consider the scenario of a movie campaign, for example, or a mobile phone launch. Both types of campaigns are driven by awareness – the marketer wants to announce the presence of something new and timely. Ad Stamp provides a large canvas for just that. But both campaigns also create a ton of conversation across the Web. The Conversationalist provides a place to curate and add to that dialog – via Twitter and Facebook feeds, blog search, and more.

We’ve noticed that ads which offer up a chance to join a dialog or engage with contextually relevant content perform one to four times better than ads without these features. It’s my belief that combining a clean, clutter free environment with the opportunity to converse is a strong alternative to the Nascar-network blight that seems to be creeping into high quality conversational sites.  

For now, Ad Stamp is limited to about 20 sites in the FM family, in two distinct categories – tech/biz (around 11 million uniques) and Home (about 10 million). Should this new format prove successful, we’ll roll it across all of FM, and it’s my hope the rest of the industry will adopt similar formats. We’re all in this together.

In summary, Ad Stamp is a response to what I wrote in a previous post about all of this more than a year ago:

Brands are, in essence, defined by the conversations your consumers have about your products or services (and yes, I am indebted to Cluetrain and Ogilvy and any number of other great thinkers, even Hopkins, who might justifiably be the bridge between direct response and brand advertising).

Brand advertising in traditional media has been about getting in between the ears of a target consumer in some way and “building brand equity” through media executions. In essence, brand advertising has been, up till now, an attempt to influence the conversation that potential consumers will have after experiencing the advertising.

With conversational media and marketing, that concept is time shifting. Now brand advertising can *join* and even *initiate and convene* those brand conversations. And that requires a different skill set, one media folks are just starting to explore. To date, we’ve just begun to figure out how to execute marketing in this new form of media in ways that work for all parties concerned – the content producer, the marketer, and the consumer. But that doesn’t mean we won’t. It just means we have very interesting work ahead of us.

I am thrilled that by working with the amazing folks at FM and our extremely thoughtful publisher and marketing partners, we’re taking what has been a lot of theory on this site (OK, call it bloviating if you wish) and turning it into very real advances that are becoming reality in the field. I feel very, very fortunate. And as always, let me know what you think, as your input over the years is what has always led my thinking.

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A Preview: This Year's Web 2 Program (Newly Added Speakers!)

By - August 31, 2009

web 2 09.pngI may have been “on vacation” over much of the past month, but as usual, I was working, and part of my work was framing out and filling in the program for the sixth annual Web 2 Summit. Tim O’Reilly and I had a very hard job trying to top last year’s program, given it featured Lance Armstrong, Al Gore, Edgar Bronfman, John Doerr, Jerry Yang, and so many more.  

But I think we’ve managed to top it. Pasted below is a note we sent out recently with an overview of the program. But even since then, we’ve had a couple of pretty major new additions, both from the world of government and policy:

- Aneesh Chopra -  America’s first ever appointed CTO will join us this year, in conversation with Tim O’Reilly (for Tim’s take and a video of Chopra, click here). A charasmatic figure and proven leader, Chopra is charged with developing national strategies for technology investments – overseeing the U.S. Government’s $150 billion R&D budget.

- Austan Goolsbee – Chief U.S. Economist, member of the Council of Economic Advisers, serving the executive office as staff director on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB) – an outfit established within the Department of Treasury charged with analyzing and understanding the state of our financial markets, banking and commerce systems in order to inform decision making around economic policy. Between the CEA and PERAB, Austan is working to fix America’s economic standing both domestically and internationally. No small feat. (See his interview with Jon Stewart here).

More on the rest of the program:

Day one covers broad ground — opening with an in-depth conversation with Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast — and moving into a series of powerful High Order Bits and discussions around government policy and healthcare. Then Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE, will share his thoughts before our dinner Q&A session with maverick Mark Cuban, hosted by ModernMom CEO and Dancing with the Stars champion Brooke Burke (Mark had his own stint on Dancing With the Stars, as you may recall…).

After kicking off with morning workshops, day two features insightful one-on-one conversations with Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, and Qi Lu, President at Microsoft, who’s leading the recently announced partnership between the two companies. Later in the day, media gurus will discuss the future of their industry, including Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. of the New York Times, CEO Dan Rosensweig of RedOctane, and CEO Richard Rosenblatt of Demand Media.

Mid-day we’ll check in with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, then launch our new High Order Ignite program — a session of dynamic, rapid-fire presentations that highlight ground-breaking and viable technologies that may well change the world. After a focused session on sensor and augmented reality applications, we’ll wrap up the day with Twitter CEO Evan Williams.

Last, but definitely not least, our third day will include conversations with the CEOs of Intel, Adobe, AOL, and Jon Miller, head of digital for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. We’re also bringing back our famed Teen Panel, where we’ll hear from the generation that will most shape the future success or failure of our industry’s efforts. And in a manner more fitting than we could have planned, we’ll close our conference with the man who started it all — Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

And those are just the highlights. Let’s not forget the slew of new speakers we’ve added including:

Erin McKean, CEO of Wordnik. (An API for language? Why not?!)

Sundar Pichai, VP at Google. (Responsible for Chrome OS, Google’s pointed response to Windows.)

Steve Schneider, Program Director at WestEd. (Walking the talk, Steve has plans to launch the first-ever standard for technology literacy across the U.S. by 2012.)

Cynthia Warner, President of Sapphire Energy. (If Sapphire’s biofuel plans scale, we have reason for hope in the world of energy.)

If you’d like to come to the Web 2.0 Summit, let us know by requesting an invite. I have discounts for Searchblog and Twitter readers (ping me here or jbat at battellemedia dot com), and I really look forward to seeing you October 20-22 at the Westin San Francisco!

All Business Starts With A Community

By - August 19, 2009

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Today I was on my way back to our house after dropping my kids off to camp, and I decided to stop by a local cafe for a quick coffee-n-chat. Now, in August, “our house” means a century-old family place on an island, an island that rather pugnaciously refuses to allow large chain stores to set down roots. So it’s fair to say that this island is sort of a Galapagos of small business. There are no Mickey D’s, no Safeways, and no Starbucks. It’s all locally owned – nearly every single “year rounder” who lives here is a small business person.  

The local cafe I stopped by is a hangout – a place where the community comes to eat and drink coffee, to gossip and share information, to learn the latest, to connect. It’s a social network in its truest sense. It’s driven by content – the conversations and knowledge of the staff and customers, and it’s driven by community. Commerce is a by product of the two.

But the commerce is not limited to just the coffee and egg sandwiches on the menu. Not by a long shot. Like nearly every other cafe and community restaurant on the island, there’s a bulletin board, and everyone who has something to promote puts up their business card or their flyer. And you know what? It works.

I love this picture. If you really think about it, it tells you just about everything you need to know to succeed as a business in the digital age.

Twistory 101: It's All About Small Business

By - July 24, 2009

biztweetbird.pngThe world’s abuzz this week with word that Twitter is getting serious about business – the proof point being Twitter’s new subdomain “business.twitter.com” and the “Twitter 101″ handbook currently living there, a white paper of sorts aimed at helping companies figure out how to leverage the sometimes befuddling service.

This all reminds me of Fall 2004. Back then, Google was coming on hard in search. And while the world viewed Google as an upstart stealing query share from the incumbent Yahoo, the real drama was happening on the business side. By the Fall of 2004, Google’s AdWord and AdSense solutions were warranting serious attention from the same ecosystem of SEO/SEM that previously had focused on Overture’s offerings.

In this Fall, 2004 thread on Webmasterworld, where SEO types hang out to talk shop, search marketers debate the relative performance and profitability of Overture compared with Google. Prior to that year, Overture was the undisputed king of paid traffic. But in ’04, Google started pulling ahead, and since that time, it’s never looked back. Why?

Well, there are myriad reasons: Google had a better consumer facing search experience than Yahoo (Yahoo bought Overture in 2003), and Google’s AdWord service including a quality ranking score (as well as paid ranking like Overture), for example. But I believe something else was at work, an upward spiral of adoption by small business advertisers.

What do I mean by that?

Well, I was covering the search space pretty closely back then, and one of the metrics touted by both Google and Yahoo were the number of advertisers who were using their service. Google didn’t publicly announce those numbers, but my sources inside the company did whisper them to me from time to time. Overture, on the other hand, touted their “active advertiser” numbers in their public filings. Its number of active, paying advertisers crossed 100,000 around the time of the Yahoo acquisition, and upwards of 200,000 a year later. Who were all those advertisers? That early in the search revolution, they sure weren’t the Fortune 500, or even the Fortune 5000. They were SMBs – the lifeblood of the US economy, responsible for two thirds of jobs and the driving force of a nascent recovery from the 2001-03 recession. These businesses live on the edge of profit at all times, and they are always the first to find tools that might help them succeed. By ’04, tens of thousands of them had found paid search.

As far as I could tell, Yahoo stopped disclosing the figure after the acquisition closed. And as I was strolling the halls of the first Web2 conference (October 2004), I got a phone call that might explain why. The call was from a source at Google, who wanted me to know that Google had eclipsed Overture in the number of total active advertisers. I couldn’t confirm that number, nor could I get Overture/Yahoo to respond, so I dropped the story (can you imagine a blogger in the tech world not printing a story like that now? How times change.).

twit101.pngAnyway, I was reminded of this anecdote while reading through “Twitter 101″ and it occurs to me that to really succeed, Twitter must be useful, really useful, to small businesses. It was those tens of thousands of small businesses who drove success at Overture, and then at Google. Search became an essential channel for lead generation, and Google became the dominant player in that channel.  

Billions ensued.

While a lot of the attention around business success on Twitter focuses on big brands like Comcast, JetBlue, or WholeFoods, the ecosystem that will really drive value, revenue, and profit for a TweetSense like execution will be the small business ecosystem. And absent a clear service like AdWords for Twitter, a user manual of sorts that explains why Twitter can help business makes an awful lot of … tweetsense.

Vark Goes Twitter

By - July 07, 2009

aardvark_twitter.pngI’m on vacation this week, ostensibly, building a treehouse and taking time off. Hence the light posting schedule. But I’ve also been tracking Aardvark, the lightweight question answering service that uses your social graph, IM, and email accounts as a channel to intelligently route complicated questions to those who might best answer them, and as readers know, I’m intrigued.

So when Max Ventilla, Aardvark’s CEO, told me he was finally integrating Twitter, I knew it’d be big news.

As explained on the Vark blog, using the service on Twitter is simple:

Now you can ask Aardvark a question via Twitter: Just include ‘@vark’ and a question mark (‘?’) in your tweet Aardvark will find the perfect person to answer, and Direct Message you their response in a few minutes (Set up Aardvark to recognize your Twitter handle here: http://vark.com/profile/twitter)…..Aardvark is all about providing the questioner with a magical experience of getting any question answered in about five minutes, and providing the answerer with a gratifying experience of helping someone out in a moment of need. We think asking questions via Twitter is a natural way to bring this experience to more people.

I feel the same way. I’ve used Vark on Twitter in private beta and it worked great. Now that the service is public, I have a feeling it’s going to become one of the most useful applications on Twitter. Next step, Groups, and then watch out….

When Value Is Created, Let It Be Curated At Scale

By - June 25, 2009

Facebook’s opening up even more, as CNet reports. Facebook has posted an update to its “Publisher” settings – basically, the instrumentation to your status updates – that makes it possible to broadcast the value you create in the social web through composition – of a status update, a blog post, or any other action that you might wish to declare. You can instrument it to be seen only by your network, or your network’s network, or everyone – and it’s that everyone part that makes Facebook a lot more like Twitter in terms of the ability for developers to create interesting executions based on that firehose. Think about what Microsoft did with ExecTweets, but with Facebook scale. Of course, that’s just the tip o’ the iceberg. Exciting stuff.

Thoughts on Online Marketing

By - June 21, 2009

Many folks have asked me when CM Summit videos would be posted, several are up now. They include the opener, above, in which I give a short overview of the state of online marketing from my perspective – start at about 6 mins in if you want to miss the throat clearing of setting up the show and thanking folks I’ve worked with. Perhaps the key thoughts: People Don’t Join Ad Networks, and Publishers Are Communities of Mind.

Twitter Bumps Ceiling

By - June 10, 2009

quantcast twitter june.pngIt had to happen, and it has. Twitter’s unbelievable growth numbers have flatlined, or even gone down, if you look at Quantcast (the site is not Quantified).  

This was predictable, given all the media hype and new folks, and the very real newbie problem I outlined in this post last month.

I predict Twitter will address this issue, and growth will resume, but at a more moderate and sustainable pace. But this is a very clear sign that Twitter, which made the cover of Time magazine last week, is on the other, less happy side of a traditional hype cycle.

As a reminder, here’s what I said in a post just a month ago, noting the incredible growth of Twitter:

I think this is both Twitter’s most important and dangerous phase of its young life. The retention problem must be addressed, and quickly. In my previous post about Twitter adding value to new users, I suggested Twitter incorporate some structure around its suggested users feature.

But with an inflection like this, I think it’s time to swallow hard and embrace some serious social media jujitsu. In short, Twitter should integrate Facebook Connect in its signup process, and offer it as a feature for current users.

English's Millionth Word: Web 2.0

By -

web2.pngFor the past few days I’ve been focused on a final draft of an essay, co-authored with Tim O’Reilly, focusing on the theme of this year’s Web 2.0 Summit. It’s rewarding work, reminiscent of the early days of Wired, when I’d regularly edit or write long form pieces focusing on big ideas and the future, but grounded in real world examples from today.  

But writing and editing this kind of stuff is also challenging work, and I often procrastinate, as I am right now, by writing a blog post or skimming the web for interesting tidbits. And boy, did I find a funny one today. According to CNN, the term “Web 2.0″ is not only now an “official word” in the English language, it’s also the millionth one, of all things. (This according to the Global Language Monitor, a website that uses algorithms to determine when words enter the language.)

Too funny!

The theme for this year’s conference is “Web Squared,” a very real nod to the idea that “Web 2.0,” five years in, needs to be refreshed. From the draft Tim and I are working on:

The Web is evolving so quickly, it’s clear the “versioning” terminology that we borrowed from the software industry – Version 1.0, 2.0, etc. – no longer captures the pace and impact of the Web’s true nature. The web opportunity is no longer growing arithmetically, it’s growing exponentially. Hence our theme for this year: Web Squared.

We plan to post a draft of this paper soon, and will be asking for all your input in making it better. Meanwhile, it’s kind of cool that a term Tim and his partner Dale Dougherty coined way back in 2003 has made it into the history books. I wonder if and when “Web Squared” might make it in?! I guess we’ll know in five or so years…