This is my 14th annual predictions post. And as I look back on the previous 13 and consider what to write, I’m flooded with uncertainty. That’s not like me. Writing these predictions is something I’ve always looked forward to – I don’t prepare in any demonstrable way, but I do gather crumbs over time, filing them away for the day when I sit down and free associate for however long it takes me to complete this post.
But this time, well, for the first time ever I have very little idea what’s about to come out of the keyboard. Honestly, when I consider the coming 12 months, so much feels up for grabs that I wonder whether it’s wise to prognosticate. Then I remember, it’s all of you reading these words who keep me writing in the first place – your encouragement, your wise (and sometimes cutting) commentary, and your willingness to spend a little time with me and my thoughts. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more – it’s always been how I make sense of the world, and this year, the world feels like it needs a lot more sense making. So I’ll be writing at least a few times a week going forward, starting with this uncertain post.
But lately I’ve noticed a strong theme running through a number of interesting and successful businesses: Integrations. From Acxiom and sovrn (where I am a board member) to Slack, Gecko and Zapier (where I am a happy customer), these companies are thriving because they have built a platform based on the integration of many different products and services. At NewCo, we call this “being platform’d” – an inelegant but apt descriptor.
Early in a conversation with Alex Austin, CEO of mobile startup Branch Metrics, I had to interrupt and ask what seemed like a really dumb question. “So, wait, Alex, you’re telling me that the essence of your company’s solution is that it….makes sure a link works?”
Alex had heard the question before. But yes, in truth, what his company specializes in is making sure that a link works in a very particular kind of mobile use case. And doing so is a lot harder than it might seem, he added. Branch Metrics, a three-year old startup that began as a way to create and share photo albums from your iPhone, is now devoted entirely to solving what should be a dead easy problem, but thanks to the way the mobile ecosystem has played out, it’s just not. (Alex has written up a great overview of his journey at Branch, worth reading here).
Some years ago while attempting to explain the thinking behind my then-startup Federated Media, I wrote that all brands are publishers (it was over on the FM blog, which the new owners apparently have taken down – a summary of my thinking can be found here). I’d been speechifying on this theme for years, since well before FM or even the Industry Standard – after all, great brands always created great content (think TV ads or the spreads in early editions of Wired), we just didn’t call it that until our recent obsession with “native advertising” and “content marketing,” an obsession I certainly helped stoke during my FM years.
Today, there is an entire industry committed to helping brands become publishers, and the idea that brands need to “join the conversation” and “think like media companies” is pretty widely held. But I think the metaphor of brands as media creators has some uneasy limitations. We are all wary of what might be called contextual dissonance – when we consume media, we want to do so in proper context. I’ve seen a lot of branded content that feels contextually dissonant to me – easily shareable stories distributed through Outbrain, Buzzfeed, and Sharethrough, for example, or highly shareable videos distributed through YouTube and Facebook.
As I did last year, I picked my NewCo San Francisco schedule early, so I could prepare in advance of the festival this September 10-12. There are nearly 130 extraordinary companies to choose from, so it’s not easy to decide where to spend your time. But decide we must. Here are my choices for this year’s SF festival (there are festivals in Amsterdam, New York, Silicon Valley, LA, Detroit, Boulder, London, and Istanbul so far).
Haven’t heard of NewCo? Learn all about it here. In short, we pick extraordinary companies that are mission-driven and changing the face of our city and our society, and they open their doors to the public for a one hour session on a topic of their choice. It’s free, but if you want to insure that you get into the companies you care about, you can pay a small fee to jump to the head of the line right now. Some companies are already full, others are almost full. When we open General Admission, which is free, they’ll all fill up quickly. So it’s worth $90 to get in where you want to go. Here are the ones I plan to visit:
(image) On the eve of our third annual P&G Signal (a private event I’ve produced for P&G these past few years) comes this piece in HBR: The Content Marketing Revolution. Just this morning I was reflecting on the speed with which the idea that “all brands are publishers” has moved from evangelical blog post to standard business practice – less than four years since we officially canonized it at FM, and about seven since I first began writing about “conversational marketing” in earnest on this site.
The HBR post notes “Nine out of ten organizations are now marketing with content – that is, going beyond the traditional sales pitches and instead enhancing brands by publishing (or passing along) relevant information, ideas, and entertainment that customers will value. The success of content marketing has radicalized the way companies communicate.”
That’s quite a shift in what is, by the standards of media and marketing, a very, very short time. Back in 2007 (!) I wrote a post that pointed to early examples of content marketing in a social and digital context, and offered a framework for why this nascent movement made sense. In it, I said:
Marketers are realizing that while it’s fine to advertise in traditional ways (Hey! This movie is about to open! Hey! Check out the cool new car/product, etc.), it’s now an option to begin a dialog with the folks who you hope are noticing your ads. In fact, it might even be a great experience for all involved. Brands might hear criticisms that are valid, and have the chance, through conversations with customers, to address those critiques. Customers have the chance to give their input on new versions of products, ask questions, learn more – in other words, have a dialog.
And in the end, isn’t having a dialog with your customers what business, and brands, are supposed to be about?
We’re still early in the shift to conversational marketing, and not all brands are excellent at it. But even the most traditional brands are now deeply engaged in figuring out how to be part of conversations that matter to them. And that’s a very good thing. Content marketing has birthed native advertising, which has given new life to independent publications like Quartz and Vox. And it’s become the lifeblood of massive platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and LinkedIn. In short, content marketing is working.
Sure, there are as many examples of flat footed or poorly thought-out executions as there are screaming successes, but again, we’re just getting started. Brands are finding their voice, and we, their audiences, will determine the value they add by our response to what they have to say.
Lost in the latest Facebook kerfuffle (if you’ve missed it, read this cheeky Eat24 post, and the hundreds of articles it prompted) is the fact that we all seemed quite confused about what Facebook’s newsfeed is supposed to be. Is it an intimate channel for peer to peer communication, where you stay in touch with people who matter to you? Is is a place you go to find out what’s happening in the world at large, a watercooler of sorts, a newspaper, as Zuckerberg has said? Is it a marketing channel, where any brand can pay for the right to pitch you things based on your stated or inferred interests? Is it all of these things? Can it be?
We’re in the midst of finding out. Of course, I have an opinion. It boils down to this: Facebook’s newsfeed should be what I tell it to be, not what Facebook – or anyone else – tells me it should be. If I want to fill my newsfeed with Eat24 sushi porn, then it should be brimming with it. If I tell it to only show musings from Dwight Schrute and Marc Cuban, then that’s what I want to see. If I love what Mickey D’s is posting and want to see the best of their posts as determined by engagement, then Big Mac me. And if I prefer to keep it to my immediate family, then damnit, show me that.
If the cost of giving me that kind of control is that I have to see a marketer’s post every five or six entries, I’m cool with that. That’s what Twitter does, and it doesn’t bother me, it’s table stakes, I get it. But what I think Facebook’s got wrong is where they’ve instrumented the controls. Facebook spends an inordinate amount of time and energy tweaking a black box set of algorithms to figure out what it thinks I want in my feed, boiling an ever-larger ocean of content into a stream of stuff it believes I want. For reasons I can’t fathom, it doesn’t give me the chance to truly curate my feed, beyond some clunky lists and filters which, from what I can tell, are only good for blocking people or indicating preference for a particular feed (but not saying, for example, “show me everything from this source.”)
We are all accustomed to the idea of software “Preferences” – that part of the program where you can personalize how a particular application looks, feels, and works. Nearly every application that matters to me on my computer – Word, Keynote, Garage Band, etc. – have preferences and settings.
On a Macintosh computer, for example, “System Preferences” is the control box of your most important interactions with the machine.
I use the System Preferences box at least five times a week, if not more.
(image) If you weren’t under a rock yesterday, you know Facebook turned ten years old this week (that’s a link to a Zuckerberg interview on the Today Show, so yep, hard to miss). My favorite post on the matter (besides Sara’s musings here and here – she was at Harvard with Zuck when the service launched) is from former Facebook employee Blake Ross, who penned a beauty about the “Rules” that have fallen over the past ten years. Re/code covers it here, and emphasizes how much has changed in ten years – what was once sacred is now mundane. To wit:
– No, you can’t let moms join Facebook because Facebook is for students.
– No, you can’t put ads in newsfeed because newsfeed is sacred.