Oct 28, 2009

The Stubborn Mule-Like Tendencies of Reactionary Thinking

Three random events transpired recently. Each fairly innocuous, in and of itself, but together they served to remind me how much the world hasn’t changed once you leave our particular neck of the woods. (Or the internet, as the case may be.)

The first epiphany happened during a session with a client, when I was trying to explain why flash sites had fallen out of favor. I decided to use that old standby LeoBurnett.com as an example of the sort of flashturbation and “ha-ha you can’t figure out what to do next” interface that was once held out as the gold standard. And in that ten-second interval before the page loaded, I found myself thinking that surely they must have updated the site, that someone would have realized how out of touch it made them look.

But then the screen filled up and there it was, in all its spinning, black penciled glory. When you moved the mouse, the pencil drew little lines and it was 2004 all over again.

In our world we know that this is just bad UX, that agency sites like those maintained by Big Spaceship, Barbarian Group, Mullen, even Boone Oakley are showcases for what’s good and true and right.

But not all agencies-- or their clients have caught up to that. And there are still CMOs and agency search consultants who are dazzled by the “creativity” of flashturbation and dismissive of the “boring, overly dense” sites we hold so dear.

Another day, another scene.

I’m scrolling down some random web page using a giant ergonomically correct mouse I’ve recently inherited and I accidentally click on a banner for some product I have no interest in. This happens a couple of times a week, regardless of what mouse I'm using. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I intentionally clicked on a banner and I rarely stay on the accidental clicks long enough for the landing page to actually load. And it dawns on me that my behavior (and clumsiness) is probably more common than not.

Yet we’re still judging banners by click-through rates. Or using the negative click-through rate as proof that banners don’t work. We know that click-through shouldn’t matter, that banners pretty much serve to drive awareness and that no matter how much they move and dance and jiggle, no one's going to click on them because they’re too busy doing whatever it was they originally went online to do.

But we are not the ones controlling ad budgets. And the people who are controlling ad budgets still view click-through rates as the Holy Grail and they judge both their agencies and the state of digital advertising on their vicissitudes.

Final event: In our world we understand why the whole “Good Enough” economy makes sense. Wired’s even done a whole article on it. We get why experimenting and getting things out first and changing them on the fly is important, and, more importantly, why it’s what consumers are coming to expect.

But try explaining that to someone who doesn’t get it, as I recently was called on to do. No matter how you word it, it sounds like you’re just making excuses for shoddy work. For something you should have just stayed up later and done better.

And so releases are delayed, products and apps and sites are polished and repolished and clients sneeringly turn away from companies that use terms like “embracing failure” and “fixing things on the fly.”

A few things to take away from this meditation:

  1. Change happens quickly at first, then slowly. Once you get past the early adopters, getting the rest of the world on board takes a while. Most people don’t like change, will resist it and will often become hostile in the face of a growing tide of apostasy.
  2. We can’t expect everyone else to get it. And we can’t treat them like idiots because they don’t. Patience and reasoned explanation goes a lot farther than anger and hostility. No matter how dismissive you want to be when a client sneers “you’re just going to let people write whatever they want about us on this blog?”
  3. We will eventually triumph. Progress almost always does. Rarely as quickly as we’d like, perhaps, but it does eventually triumph. And these truths that we hold to be self-evident, will, in time, become self-evident to everyone else.

Oct 21, 2009

Real Time Goes Prime Time

So it seems like both Bing and Google are in the process of cutting deals with Facebook and Twitter to use their databases for real time search.

The result would seem to be a boon for Twitter and a potential land mine for Facebook.

Most people tweet with the understanding that their tweets are public, searchable (on both search engines and on search.twitter.com) and function as a broadcast medium. As such, Twitter results on many topics will be both relevant and interesting. Particularly in regards to breaking news stories.

But Facebook? With the influx of the over-30 crowd, Facebook’s become a very different animal, far more about conversations between friends than a broadcast medium. As proof, I’d offer the number of people who’ve stopped having Twitter update their Facebook status over the past year.

Updating your Facebook status more than once or twice a day is considered bad form in most circles and with the Facebook “hide” feature, it’s easy enough to ding violators without hurting their feelings.

And so Facebook’s become the place where we talk about the larger things we’re doing in life (going on a vacation, spending the weekend shopping for a wedding gown) along with the occasional Dilbertesque quip and Bejewled Blitz score. And if we are sharing links on Facebook, it’s far more likely to be a funny video than a Mashable story about a newly launched iPhone app or a picture of Balloon Boy: Facebook seems to lack that sense of immediacy that Twitter has.

That’s why I’ll be very curious to see what the Facebook real-time results wind up looking like. First off, because they’ll most likely be opt in (or opt out, in the who-cares-what-users-think-let-them-go-to-MySpace-if-they-don’t-like-it way of thinking Facebook often exhibits.) So the results will only be from people who have a certain exhibitionist streak, the sort of people who don’t currently keep their Facebook pages hidden from the eyes of non-friends.

Because the biggest issue for Facebook is going to be that a major part of the sales pitch to the later adopters was the walled garden aspect, the notion that no one except a select group of friends was ever going to be able to see their Facebook page. And if status updates start turning up in search results, you’re going to have a whole lot of freaked out Facebookers. No matter how many times you explain it's other people's Facebook pages, not theirs.

Contrast that to Team Twitter, whose users are more likely to be absolutely thrilled to see their names turn up at the top of a Bing results page and to start trading tips on how to get them there.

We'll learn how this all plays out soon enough, as Google and Bing announce their Real Time Search strategies. In the interim, it's well worth keeping an eye on Twitter and Facebook at they prepare their users.

Or not.

Oct 20, 2009

More Magic Advertising Words

The Wall Street Journal' Kara Swisher reported yesterday that Yahoo! was moving its ad account from Ogilvy to Goodby. The news was greeted in ad circles with the usual schadenfreude and proclamations that golden child Goodby would “finally give them a good campaign.”

If only it were that easy.

Once again we have a case of a company relying on the power of Magic Advertising Words to save them from doom when the real problem is a less-than-ideal product.

I’m not going to fix Yahoo in a single blog post (though this one, from Nicholas Carlson over at BusinessInsider, is a good start) but the recent changes the company has made to its homepage, email and mobile sites have been more or less universally greeted with a great big shrug.

And that’s not good.

Yahoo needs an image makeover. But the days where that could be accomplished via a really clever ad campaign are long gone. (If indeed they ever really existed.) The product is still popular and still has a big user base, particularly with people who are less internet savvy, but hey, wasn’t that what we were all saying about MySpace around this time last year, and look what’s happened to them. (And it’s not like we can even say Yahoo’s really popular with up and coming rock bands or anything.)

Blaming the ad agency or the advertising for a product’s poor performance is always a simple solution: we make great scapegoats. And while “It’s Y!ou” was probably not doing anyone any favors, Yahoo’s problems are not going to be solved by a new ad campaign.

Not until they invest some more in R&D, anyway.

Oct 15, 2009

The Power of No-Roll

I’m convinced that when historians look back on the early days of the 21st century, they’ll concur that one of the major nails in the coffin of the broadcast television model was the decision to allow iTunes to broadcast entire shows without even the hint of a commercial break.

Because it’s the rare consumer who doesn’t find the experience of watching a show from start to finish without a single interruption completely liberating. Especially when that experience can be had for just two dollars and ninety-nine cents.

Think about it: we’ve never even had that kind of ad-free experience at the movies, where at the very least, five to ten minutes of trailers preceded the main feature. Even DVDs come loaded with can’t-skip trailers and sales pitches before you get to the main menu. But iTunes has no trailers. No “previously on Lost.” No post roll. Nothing but the show itself, available the same week it was first broadcast on television.

Having experienced that kind of liberation, some consumers are taking the next step and realizing they don’t need broadcast TV. It’s happening with the “early adopter” community, time-crunched twenty and thirtysomethings who are concluding that it’s far cheaper to pay $300 a year to iTunes to watch the ten series they like than to pay $120 a month to their cable provider. (Note to Luddites: hooking a laptop to a big screen HDTV is quite simple.)

And while cable spurners are still a rather small percentage of the overall population, at some point the NBA, NFL and other major sports leagues are going to figure out that they can sell their games directly to consumers too, and even more viewers will begin to flee their cable systems for an online a la carte model.

So while much of the argument today seems to center around pre-roll and post-roll and creating compelling commercials that consumers won’t skip or will interact with, I’m afraid the cat has been let out of the proverbial bag: once you’ve experienced no-roll, anything that’s interruptive is going to seem incredibly irksome. We're too busy to put up with it anymore and we'll gladly pay to avoid it, particularly if all we're paying is $2.99.

The only question seems to be how long it takes before this becomes the norm rather than the deviation.

Oct 13, 2009

More Me

Time for another BeanCast podcast. This one featuring the lovely ├ůsk Wappling of Adland. Ken Wheaton of Ad Age. Bob Knorpp (our host) and John Wall of Marketing Over Coffee.

Topics included the FTCs new guidelines for bloggers, the power of online reviews, is YouTube making Google more creative, and why users love pre-roll.

It’s a great discussion and Wheaton actually manages to make me seem perky and uplifting by comparison ;)

You can find the show’s notes here, or download the entire thing via iTunes here.

Oct 11, 2009

First Ad Age Column

Ad Age editor Jonah Bloom and I appeared on the same BeanCast podcast a few months back, and the result was an offer to start writing for Ad Age.

My first column is this week and is online now:

Niche Brands Should Embrace Big Market for Offbeat Content

One of the wisest bits of advice I've gotten in my advertising career came from an old creative director who once noted that "there's a reason 'America's Funniest Home Videos' is a top-10 show."

His point, which predated You Tube's sneezing pandas and dancing babies by at least 10 years, was that the most popular entertainment is often the safest. Which doesn't make it bad or wrong or awful. It's just not cutting edge.

It's something to keep in mind as we move... READ THE REST AT ADAGE.COM

Oct 2, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Adland

I don’t know Curt Detweiler. Never even heard of him until this morning when, catching up on my ad trades, I clicked on this article announcing that he’d been named to a senior creative role at McCann in San Francisco.

There were over 50 comments attached to the article. But what was truly odd was that while most of them were both positive and completely innocuous (e.g. “Curt is a great guy! I wish him well! Great hire!”) not a single poster used anything remotely resembling their real name. (Which happens enough on Adweek, but rarely to this degree.)

Now my first thought was that maybe these comments were a PR effort from McCann or from Detweiler himself, a thought echoed by several commenters.

But it seemed like an awful lot of effort for the PR agency. A dozen comments, maybe. But 50?

Which leaves the other option: that people in the ad business are so scared of actually being seen to have an opinion on anything, that even something as banal as publicly congratulating a co-worker is thought to be akin to career suicide.

I’m at a loss to understand why though. What are people afraid of and why are they so loathe to be seen as having opinions?

There’s the “you’re not Bill Bernbach” factor, something I had discussed with Ana Andjelic not too long ago, where there’s a strong undercurrent of “only famous people are allowed to have opinions” sentiment within the industry.

I’m thinking that comes from the fact that everyone-- from clients to their spouses to the guy in the next seat on the airplane-- thinks they can write ads. So that people in the industry develop a fierce attachment to the idea that they alone possess the talent and expertise to create ads. As such, only the most talented of this already talented cadre are allowed to express opinions. Everyone else just needs to shut up and let the professionals do their work.

This circling the wagons effect is no doubt exacerbated by the spate of user-generated content advertisers are turning to and the fact that digital media seems to rely less and less on clever headlines, funny visuals and all the other things that once allowed advertising creatives to set themselves apart.

Or it could be nothing more than a follow-the-leader type thing and once the first 5 commenters used pseudonyms, everyone else did too.

But somehow, I don't think so.