Two years ago The Recount moved out of beta with our first daily product. A short summary of national news, The Daily Recount was designed to cut through the bullshit endemic to mainstream media. As we grew, The Recount cultivated an incisive voice that never wastes time, rejects tired tropes, and focuses on the core values of journalism: Identifying the truth, holding powerful interests to account, and reflecting the world as it is today, not the way it used to be.
Twelve months later, that voice had found a huge audience on Twitter – which in 2020 was pretty much the white-hot center of the political narrative we were covering. In my post summarizing that first year, I laid out what we’d learned, and how the audience who had gathered around our work was responding. And I indulged in a bit of boasting: “Since launch one year ago,” I crowed, “our work has been viewed more than half a billion times.”
This past week marked something of a milestone for The Recount – we launched a pilot marketing partnership with P&G, a company I’ve worked closely with over the past ten years. We’re testing out Twitter’s Amplify program, which pairs quality editorial with contextually relevant marketing content. The initial portion of the partnership centers on a unique creative asset: A 60-second film called “Lead with Love,” the centerpiece of a major campaign focused on P&G’s commitment to making the world a better place in 2021.
Yes, I’m writing about the power of advertising here, and I’m about to praise a long time partner. For those of you already rolling your eyes, you’re welcome to move right along…but my point has to do with the ability of nuanced and intentional commercial speech to shift the tone of discourse in this country, something I believe we all desperately need. As P&G Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard has said to me countless times, advertising can be powerful speech, and companies have a duty to wield it responsibly.
For the past several years, I’ve led a graduate-level class studying the early history of Internet policy in the United States. It runs just seven weeks – the truth is, there’s not that much actual legislation to review. We spend a lot of the course focused on Internet business models, which, as I hope this post will illuminate, are not well understood even amongst Ivy-league grads. But this past week, one topic leapt from my syllabus onto the front pages of every major news outlet: Section 230. Comprised of just 26 words, this once-obscure but now-trending Internet policy grants technology platforms like Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Amazon, and countless others the authority to moderate content without incurring the liability of a traditional publisher.
Thanks to the events of January 6th, Section 230 has broken into the mainstream of political dialog. Slowly – and then all of a sudden – the world has woken up to the connection between the disinformation flooding online platforms and what appears to be the rapid decay of our society.
Yes, it’s true: Last year, I did not predict a global pandemic in 2020. COVID is a gravitational force that warps everything it touches, so I approach this annual ritual of self-grading with trepidation. As I start, I honestly don’t remember what I predicted twelve months ago…but regardless, I’m expecting a train wreck. I’ll read each one in turn, repeat the headline prediction, and then free associate some thoughts on what actually transpired. Grab a glass of your favorite beverage…and here we go:
Facebook bans microtargeting on specific kinds of political advertising. OK, Facebook did NOT do this – well, not exactly. What the company DID do was ban political advertising altogether – but only in the week before, and a short period after the US election. Of course, you can certainly say that by banning all political advertising, the company ended up banning microtargeting as a result. So that’s one argument for giving myself a “Nailed It.” If that’s too weak an argument, let’s go to the fine print in my original prediction: “The pressure to do something will be too great, and as it always does, the company will enact a half-measure, then declare victory.” And that is exactly what the company did. I mean, exactly. I also wrote: “The company’s spinners will frame this as proof they listen to their critics, and that they’re serious about the integrity of the 2020 elections. As with nearly everything it does, this move will fail to change anyone’s opinion of the company. Wall St. will keep cheering the company’s stock, and folks like me will keep wondering when, if ever, the next shoe will drop.” Yup. Nailed it.
Netflix opens the door to marketing partnerships. This prediction requires a bit of clarification. I was not claiming Netflix would open the door to advertising on its platform, but rather that it “may take the form of a co-produced series, or branded content, or some other “native” approach, but at the end of the day, it’ll be advertising dollars that fuel the programming.” What I didn’t realize when I made this prediction was that Netflix was already deep into product placement deals for its Netflix Originals, and that it had already made sure the money changed hands somewhere else (such as between a production company and a brand). There is no doubt that marketing money positively benefits Netflix’s bottom line – and the practice absolutely accelerated in 2020, as did everything streaming-related during COVID. But there was not a significant shift in Netflix policy related to marketing that I can find, so I’m going to say I whiffed on this one.
CDA 230 will get seriously challenged, but in the end, nothing gets done, again. This is exactly what happened. In fact, it’s happening as I type this – Trump just vetoed a veto-proof defense funding bill because it doesn’t repeal 230, and Biden has already indicated he plans to rethink 230 next year. But even though tens of millions of American citizens became familiar with Section 230 this year, nothing came of all that noise. Nailed it.
Adversarial interoperability will get a moment in the sun, but also fail to make it into law. OK I have GOT to stop writing predictions about obscure academic terminology. I mean, what the actual f*ck? What I was trying to say was this: In 2020, there would be a robust debate about the best ways to regulate Big Tech, and the ideas behind “adversarial interoperability” would get a rigorous airing. This did not happen, and just like Jeffrey Katzenberg, I blame COVID. Exactly no one wanted to debate tech policy in the middle of a global pandemic. Making things worse, toward the end of this year multiple governmental agencies decided it was time to go after Big Tech, and they went batshit with proactive lawsuits – the DOJ and a majority of states sued Google (three times, no less), the FTC sued Facebook, and I’d put money more suits are coming (looking at you, Apple and Amazon). The suits revolve around antitrust law, so the debate will now be dominated by whether or not the government can prove its case in court. This effectively postpones intelligent debate about remedies for years. I find this state of affairs deeply annoying. But a grade must be given, and that grade is a whiff, unfortunately.
2020 will also be the year “data provenance” becomes a thing. Literally stop me from ever writing predictions after hitting the flash evaporator, OK?! This was another policy-related prediction, and if I was going to miss #4 above, I’m certainly going to whiff here as well. In the very rare case you want to know what I was on about, this is how I described the concept: “The concept of data provenance started in academia, migrated to adtech, and is about to break into the broader world of marketing, which is struggling to get its arms around a data-driven future. The ability to trace the origin, ownership, permissions, and uses of data is a fundamental requirement of an advanced digital economy, and in 2020, we’ll realize we have a ton of work left to do to get this right.” Well, in fact, if you believe Google Trends, “data provenance” did have a marked lift in 2020. Does that qualify it for “becoming a thing”? I have no f*cking idea. And again, thanks to COVID, marketers were not exactly focused on public ledgers and blockchain in 2020. Note to self: Stop predicting that something will “become a thing.” Inane. Whiff.
Google zags. Oh man, oh man, I feel so close on this one. I mean, there are still a few days left in 2020, right? I honestly think this is about to happen. Here’s how I explained it one year ago: “Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020.” Google’s problems with both public perception (hello, three government lawsuits!) and an unhappy workforce only deepened this year – the Timnit disaster was just the most public of its struggles. But so far the company hasn’t produced a dramatic “game changing” move. Sure, the FitBit acquisition finally closed, but if that proves material, I’ll … start using a FitBit again. I firmly believe that Google must make a game changing move, and soon, if it’s going to keep its mojo. But….it certainly hasn’t happened yet. So…sigh…Whiff.
At least one major “on demand” player will capitulate. Just weeks into 2020, I was well on my way to a “Nailed It” here. The tide was turning on the entire category: Uber was in trouble and badly below its IPO price, GrubHub was a falling knife looking for a buyer, PostMates had shelved its IPO dreams. And then…COVID reordered the universe, making on demand everything an essential part of quarantine life. The entire category was supercharged – I mean, DoorDash at 19 times sales?!?! – and yet another of my predictions bit the dust. F U, COVID. Whiff.
Influencer marketing will fall out of favor. Well, if ever there was a year to be sick of influencer marketing, it’d be this one. But no, with sports and entertainment programming suspended for the majority of the year, all that marketing budget had to go somewhere, and lord knows it wasn’t going to support news (despite that being the most engaged and highest growth category of all). So…brands threw in even more with influencers. In my explanation I predicted that influencer fraud would be a huge problem – and by most accounts it is (the last figure I could find was 1.3 billion in 2019 – which was roughly 20 percent of the overall market!). But…influencer marketing did not fall out of favor, Charlie D’Amelio is making $50K per post, and damnit, I whiffed again.
Information warfare becomes a national bogeyman. Finally, a slam dunk. Man, I was starting to question myself here. “Deep fakes, sophisticated state-sponsored information operations, and good old fashioned political info ops will dominate the headlines in 2020,” I wrote. Yep, and true to form, 2020 saved the scariest example for the end of the year. Nailed it.
Purpose takes center stage in business. Here’s one prediction where COVID actually accelerated my take toward a passing grade. The year began with BlackRock’s stunning declaration that it would make investment decisions based on climate impact. Once COVID and the George Floyd murder came, nearly the entire Fortune 500 began recalibrating their communication strategies around racial, gender, and climate equity issues. Last year I wrote “I expect plenty of CEOs will feel emboldened to take the kind of socially minded actions that would have gotten them fired in previous eras.” Whether it was P&G on climate and race, Nike saying “Don’t Do It,” or nearly every major sports league standing with the Black Lives Matter movement, companies have taken previously unimaginable stands this year. Nailed It.
Apple and/or Amazon stumble. Sure, Apple did pay up to half a billion to bury its “batterygate” scandal but let’s be honest, you forgot about that, right? Even the publication of a terrifying expose of worker conditions in iPhone manufacturing plants failed to dent the company in 2020. But what you likely will remember is the Epic Fortnite story – and to me, that’s the stumble that tips my prediction to a “Nailed It.” Apple’s response to Epic was ham fisted and short sighted. The company misread regulators’ appetite for antitrust, deeply injured its reputation amongst developers, and exposed the iOS App Store – the source of its most important growth revenues – as a pristine monopoly just begging for a Federal compliant. Meanwhile, while Amazon profited handsomely from COVID, the company’s reputation has only worsened in 2020. A drumbeat of negative press about unsafe working conditions, union busting, and anticompetitive practices culminated in a broadside from one of its own – Tim Bray, a respected technologist (and early reader of Searchblog) who penned a damning Dear John letter to his former employer in May. Despite the strength of both companies’ stock prices, I think it’s safe to say that both Apple and Amazon stumbled in 2020. Nailed It.
Next week I’ll be writing Predictions 2021 — let’s hope this is the start of an upward trend…
A new year brings another run at my annual predictions: For 17 years now, I’ve taken a few hours to imagine what might happen over the course of the coming twelve months. And my goodness did I swing for the fences last year — and I pretty much whiffed. Batting .300 is great in the majors, but it kind of sucks compared to my historical average. My mistake was predicting events that I wished would happen. In other words, emotions got in the way. So yes, Trump didn’t leave office, Zuck didn’t give up voting control of Facebook, and weed’s still illegal (on a federal level, anyway).
Chastened, this year I’m going to focus on less volatile topics, and on areas where I have a bit more on-the-ground knowledge — the intersection of big tech, marketing, media, and data policy. As long time readers know, I don’t prepare in advance of writing this post. Instead, I just clear a few hours and start thinking out loud. So…here we go.
Facebook bans microtargeting on specific kinds of political advertising. Of course I start with Facebook, because, well, it’s one of the most inscrutable companies in the world right now. While Zuck & Co. seem deeply committed to their “principled” stand around a politician’s right to paid prevarication, the pressure to do something will be too great, and as it always does, the company will enact a half-measure, then declare victory. The new policy will probably roll out after Super Tuesday (sparking all manner of conspiracies about how the company didn’t want to impact its Q1 growth numbers in the US). The company’s spinners will frame this as proof they listen to their critics, and that they’re serious about the integrity of the 2020 elections. As with nearly everything it does, this move will fail to change anyone’s opinion of the company. Wall St. will keep cheering the company’s stock, and folks like me will keep wondering when, if ever, the next shoe will drop.
Netflix opens the door to marketing partnerships. Yes, I’m aware that the smart money has moved on from this idea. But in a nod to increasing competition and the reality of Wall St. expectations, Netflix will at least pilot a program — likely not in the US — where it works with brands in some limited fashion. Mass hysteria in the trade press will follow once this news breaks, but Netflix will call the move a pilot, a test, an experiment…no big deal. It may take the form of a co-produced series, or branded content, or some other “native” approach, but at the end of the day, it’ll be advertising dollars that fuel the programming. And while I won’t predict the program augurs a huge new revenue stream for the company, I can predict that what won’t happen, at least in 2020: A free, advertising-driven version of Netflix. Just not in the company’s culture.
CDA 230 will get seriously challenged, but in the end, nothing gets done, again. Last year I predicted there’d be no federal data privacy legislation, and I’m predicting the same for this year. However, there will be a lot of movement on legislation related to the tech oligarchy. The topic that will come the closest to passage will be a revision to CDA 230 —the landmark legislation that protects online platforms from liability for user generated content. Blasphemy? Sure, but here we are, stuck between free speech on the one hand, massive platform economics on the other, and a really, really bad set of externalities in the middle. CDA 230 was built to give early platforms the room to grow unhindered by traditional constraints on media companies. That growth has now metastasized, and we don’t have a policy response that anyone agrees upon. And CDA 230 is an easy target, given conservatives in Congress already believe Facebook, Google, and others have it out for their president. They’ll be a serious run at rewriting 230, but it will ultimately fail. Related…
Adversarial interoperability will get a moment in the sun, but also fail to make it into law. In the past I (and many others) have written about “machine readable data portability.” But for the debate we’re about to have (and need to have), I like “adversarial interoperability” better. Both are mouthfuls, and neither are easy to explain. Data governance and policy are complicated topics which test our society’s ability to have difficult long form conversations. 2020 will be a year where the legions of academics, policy makers, politicians, and writers who debate economic theory around data and capitalism get a real audience, and I believe much of that debate will center on whether or not large platforms have a responsibility to be open or closed. As Cory Doctorow explains, adversarial interoperability is “when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them.” As in, I can plug my new e-commerce engine into Amazon, my new mobile operating system into iOS, my new social network into Facebook, or my new driving instruction app into Google Maps. I grew up in a world where this kind of innovation was presumed. It’s now effectively banned by a handful of data oligarchs, and our economy – and our future – suffers for it.
As long as we’re geeking out on catchphrases only a dork can love, 2020 will also be the year “data provenance” becomes a thing. As with many nerdy topics, the concept of data provenance started in academia, migrated to adtech, and is about to break into the broader world of marketing, which is struggling to get its arms around a data-driven future. The ability to trace the origin, ownership, permissions, and uses of data is a fundamental requirement of an advanced digital economy, and in 2020, we’ll realize we have a ton of work left to do to get this right. Yes, yes, blockchain and ledgers are part of the discussion here, but the point isn’t the technology, it’s the policy enabling the technology.
Google zags. Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020. It could be a massive acquisition, a move into some utterly surprising new industry (like content), but my money’s on something related to data privacy. The company may well commit to both leading the debate on the topics described above, as well as implementing them in its core infrastructure. Now that would really be a zag…
At least one major “on demand” player will capitulate. Gig economy business models may make sense long term, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting the execution right in the first group of on demand “unicorns.” In fact, I’d argue we’re mostly getting them wrong, even if as consumers, we love the supposed convenience gig brands bring us. Many of the true costs of these businesses have been externalized onto public infrastructure (and the poor), and civic patience is running out. Plus, venture and public finance markets are increasingly skeptical of business models that depend on strip mining the labor of increasingly querulous private contractors. A reckoning is due, and in 2020 we’ll see the collapse of one or more larger players in the field.
Influencer marketing will fall out of favor. I’m not predicting an implosion here, but rather an industry wide pause as brands start to ask the questions consumers will also be pondering: who the fuck are these influencers and why are we paying them so much attention? A major piece of this — on the marketing side anyway — will be driven by a massive increase in influencer fraud. As with other fast growing digital marketing channels, where money pours in, fraud fast follows — nearly as fast as fawning New York Times articles, but I digress.
Information warfare becomes a national bogeyman. If we’ve learned anything since the 2016 election, it’s this: We’ve taken far too long to comprehend the extent to which bad actors have come to shape and divide our discourse. These past few years have slowly revealed the power of information warfare, and the combination of a national election with the compounding distrust of algorithm-driven platforms will mean that by mid year, “fake news” will yield to “information warfare” as the catchphrase describing what’s wrong with our national dialog. Deep fakes, sophisticated state-sponsored information operations, and good old fashioned political info ops will dominate the headlines in 2020. Unfortunately, the cynic in me thinks the electorate’s response will be to become more inured and distrustful, but there’s a chance a number of trusted media brands (both new and old) prosper as we all search for a common set of facts.
Purpose takes center stage in business. 2019 was the year the leaders of industry declared a new purpose for the corporation — one that looks beyond profits for a true north that includes multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders. 2020 will be the year many companies will compete to prove that they are serious about that pledge. Reaction from Wall St. will be mixed, but I expect plenty of CEOs will feel emboldened to take the kind of socially minded actions that would have gotten them fired in previous eras. This is a good thing, and likely climate change will become the issue many companies will feel comfortable rallying behind. (I certainly hope so, but this isn’t supposed to be about what I wish for…)
Apple and/or Amazon stumble. I have no proof as to why I think this might happen but…both these companies just feel ripe for some kind of major misstep or scandal. America loves a financial winner — and both Amazon and Apple have been runaway winners in the stock market for the past decade. Both have gotten away with some pretty bad shit along the way, especially when it comes to labor practices in their supply chain. And while neither of them are as vulnerable as Facebook or Google when it comes to the data privacy or free speech issues circling big tech, both Apple and Amazon have become emblematic of a certain kind of capitalism that feels fraught with downside risk in the near future. I can’t say what it is, but I feel like both these companies could catch one squarely on the jaw this coming year, and the post-mortems will all say they never saw it coming.
So there you have it — 11 predictions for the coming year. I was going to stop at 10, but that Apple/Amazon one just forced itself out — perhaps that’s me wishing again. We’ll see. Let me know your thoughts, and keep your cool out there. 2020 is going to be one hell of a year.
This is an edited version of a series of talks I first gave in New York over the past week, outlining my work at Columbia. Many thanks to Reinvent, Pete Leyden, Cap Gemini, Columbia University, Cossette/Vision7, and the New York Times for hosting and helping me.
The Los Angeles Times was the first newspaper I ever read – I even attended a grammar school named for its founding family (the Chandlers). Later in life I worked at the Times for a summer – and found even back then, the great brand had begun to lose its way.
I began reading The Atlantic as a high schooler in the early 1980s, and in college I dreamt of writing long form narratives for its editors. In graduate school, I even started a publication modeled on The Atlantic‘s brand – I called it The Pacific. My big idea: The west coast was a huge story in desperate need of high-quality narrative journalism. (Yes, this was before Wired.)
I toured The Washington Post as a teenager, and saw the desks where Bernstein and Woodward brought down a corrupt president. I met Katherine Graham once, at a conference I hosted, and I remain star struck by the institution she built to this day.
And every seven days, for more than five decades, Time magazine came to my parents’ home, defining the American zeitgeist and smartly summarizing what mattered in public discourse.
Now all four of my childhood icons are owned by billionaires who made their fortunes in technology. History may not repeat, but it certainly rhymes. During the Gilded Age, our last great era of unbridled income inequality, many of America’s greatest journalistic institutions were owned by wealthy industrialists. William Randolph Hearst was a mining magnate. Joseph Pulitzer came from a wealthy European merchant family, though he came to the US broke and epitomized the American “self made man.” Andre Carnegie, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., and Henry Flagler all dabbled in newspapers, with a healthy side of politics, which drove nearly all of American publishing during the Gilded Age.
Which brings us to the Benioffs, and to Time. This week’s announcement struck all the expected notes – “The Benioffs will hold TIME as a family investment,” “TIME is a treasure trove of the world’s history and culture,” “Lynne and I will take on no operational responsibility for TIME, and look only to be stewards of this historic and iconic brand.”
Well to that, I say poppycock. Time needs fixing, not benign stewardship. While it may be appropriate and politic to proclaim a hands-off approach, the flagship brand of the former Time Inc. empire could use a strong dose of what the Benioffs have to offer. Here’s my hot take on why and how:
Don’t play down the middle. What the United States needs right now is a voice of reason, of strength, of post-Enlightenment thinking. Not a safe, bland version of “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism. As Benioff well knows, politics is now the biggest driver of attention in the land, and taking a principled stand matters more than ever.
Learn from Bezos. Sure, the richest man in the world didn’t mess with the editorial side of the house, but then again, he already had an extraordinary leader in Marty Baron at the helm. But Bezos did completely shift the business model at the Post, implementing entirely new approaches to, well, pretty much every operating model in the building. New revenue leadership, new software platforms and processes, even a new SaaS business line. He thoroughly modernized the place, and if ever a place needed the same, it’s Time.
Invest in the product – editorial. But thoughtfully. First and foremost, the Benioffs should force the Time team to answer the most important question of any consumer brand: Differentiation that demands a premium. Why should Time earn someone’s attention (and money)? What makes the publication unique? What does its brand stand for, beyond history and a red band around the cover? What mission is it on? If anyone understands these issues, it’s Marc and Lynne Benioff. Don’t hold back on forcing this difficult conversation – including on staffing and leadership (I’ve no bone to pick with anyone there, BTW). American journalism needs it, now. I can imagine a Time magazine where the most talented and elite commentators debate the issues of our day. And what issues they truly are! But to draw them, the product must sing, and it must also pay. Abolish the practice of paying a pittance for an argument well rendered. It’s time.
Related, rethink the print business. Print isn’t dead, but it needs a radical rethink. There isn’t a definitive weekly journal of sensible political and social discourse in America, and there really should be. The New Yorker is comfortably highbrow, US News is a college review site, Newsweek is rudderless. Time has a huge opportunity, but as it stands, it plays to the middle far too much, and online, it tries to be everything to nobody. Perhaps the hardest, but most important thing anyone can do at a struggling print magazine is to cut circulation (the base number of readers) and find its truly passionate brand advocates. The company already did this a year ago, but it may not have gone far enough. Junk circulation is rife in the magazine business. It’s also rampant online, which leads to…
Please, fix the website. A site that has a nearly 10-month out of date copyright notice at the bottom is not run like a lean product shop. Time online is a poster child for compromised business decisions driven entirely by acquiring junk audience (did you know that Time has 60mm uniques? Yeah, neither do they). Every single page on Time.com is littered with half a dozen or more competing display banners. The place stinks of desperate autoplay video, programmatic pharmaceutical come ons, and tawdry link bait (there are literally THREE instances of Outbrain-like junk on each article page. THREE!). Fixing this economic and product mess requires deep pockets and strong product imagination. The Benioffs have both. Invent (and or copy) new online models where the advertising adds value, where marketers would be proud to support the product. I’ve spoken to dozens of senior marketers looking to lean into high-quality news analysis. They’ve got very little to support at present. Time could change that.
Move out of Time Inc’s headquarters. Like, this week. The original Time Inc. HQ were stultifying and redolent with failure, but even the new digs downtown bear the albatross of past glories. It’s soul crushing. As an independent brand, Time needs a space that reclaims its pioneer spirt, and encourages its staff to rethink everything. Move to Nomad, the Flatiron, West Chelsea – anywhere but a skyscraper in the financial district.
Finally, leverage and rethink the cover. One of the largest single losses in the shift from analog to digital publishing was the loss of covers – the album cover (and its attendant liner notes), the book cover (and its attendant social signaling), and the magazine cover (and its attendant declarative power). The magazine cover is social artifact, editorial arbiter, cultural convener. The digital world still lacks the analog cover’s power. Time should make it a priority to invent its successor. Lock ten smart humans in a room full of whiteboards and don’t let them out till they have a dozen or more good ideas. Then test and learn – the answer is in there somewhere. The world needs editorial convening more than ever.
There’s so much more, but I didn’t actually set out to write a post about how to fix Time – I was merely interested in the historical allegories of successful industrialists who turned to publishing as they consolidated their legacies. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Benioff claimed his purchase of Time was aligned with his mission of “impact investing,” and that he was not going to be operationally involved. Well, Marc, if you truly want to have an impact, I beg to differ: Please do get involved, and the sooner the better.
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.
So why is this content dissonant? I’m thinking out loud here, but it has to do with our expectations. When a significant percentage of the content that gets pushed into my social streams is branded content, I’m likely to presume that my content streams have a commercial agenda. But when I’m in content consumption mode, I’m not usually in a commercial mode. To be clear, I’m not hopping on the “brands are trying to trick us into their corporate agendas” bandwagon, I think there’s something more fundamental at work here. There are plenty of times during any given day when I *am* in commercial context – wandering through a mall, researching purchases online, running errands in my car – but when I’m consuming content, I’m usually not in commercial context. Hence the disassociation. When clearly commercial content is offered during a time when I’m not in commercial mode, it just feels off.
I think this largely has to do with a lack of signaling in media formats these days. Much has been made of how native advertising takes on the look and feel of the content around it, and most of the complaint has to do with how that corporate speech is somehow disingenuous, sly, or deceitful. But I don’t think that’s the issue. What we have here is a problem of context, plain and simple.
Any company with money can get smart content creators to create, well, smart content, content that has as good a chance as any to be part of a conversation. In essence, branded content is something of a commodity these days – just like a 30 second spot of a display ad is a commodity. We’re just not accustomed to commercial content in the context of our social reading habits. In time, as formats and signaling get better, we will be. As that occurs, “content marketing” becomes table stakes – essential, but not what will set a brand apart.
Reflecting on my earlier work on brands as media companies, I realize that the word “media” was really a placeholder for “experience.” It’s not that every company should be a media company per se – but rather, that every company must become an experience company. Media is one kind of experience – but for many companies, the right kind of experience is not media, at least if we understand “media” to mean content.
But let’s start with a successful experience that is media – American Express’ Open Forum. If I as a consumer chose to engage with Open Forum, I do so in the clear context that it’s an American Express property, a service created by the brand. There’s no potential for deceit – the context is understood. This is a platform owned and operated by Amex, and I’ll engage with it knowing that fact. Over the years Amex has earned a solid reputation for creating valuable content and advice on that platform – it has built a media experience that has low contextual dissonance.
But not every experience is a media experience, unless you interpret the word “media” in a far more catholic sense. If you begin to imagine every possible touchpoint that a customer might have with your brand as a highly interactive media experience – mediated by the equivalent of a software- and rules-driven UX – well now we’re talking about something far larger.
To illustrate what I mean I think back to my original “Gap Scenario” from nearly five years ago. I imagined what it might be like to visit a retail outlet like Gap a few years from now. I paint a picture where the experience that any given shopper might have in a Gap store (or any other retail outlet) is distinct and seamless, because Gap has woven together a tapestry of data, technology platforms, and delivery channels that turns a pedestrian trip to the mall into a pleasurable experience that makes me feel like the company understands and values me. I’m a forty-something Dad, I don’t want to spend more than 45 seconds in Gap if I don’t have to. My daughter, on the other hand, may want to wander around and engage with the retail clerks for 45 minutes or more. Different people, different experiences. It’s Gap’s job to understand these experience flows and design around them. That takes programmatic platforms, online CRM, well-trained retail clerks, new approaches to information flows, and a lot of partners.
I believe that every brand needs to get good at experience design and delivery. Those that are great at it tend to grow by exponential word of mouth – think of Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, or Earnest (a new lending company). When marketing becomes experience design, brands win.
There’s far more to say about this, including my thesis that “information first” companies win at experience-based marketing. All fodder for far more posts. For now, I think I’ll retire the maxim “all companies are media companies” and replace it with “every company is an experience company.” Feels more on key.