Online advertising’s disappointing revenues are no surprise to pretty well anyone observing the online publishing industry for the past five years, it seems to have come as a revelation to Ev and the investors who’ve staked an estimated $140 million in the venture.
That money, which most online publishers would gag for, seems to have gone on a bloated headcount given the company can afford to fire fifty people. It’s a shame the company’s investors didn’t appoint a board that checked management’s hiring practices.
Something that should worry other publishers is the organisation’s Promoted Stories division is being shut down as part of the restructure. This underscores how branded content doesn’t scale the same way traditional advertising does and won’t represent a major revenue stream for online publications.
It isn’t the first time Ev Williams has got it wrong, in founding Twitter he and his team turned their back on ordinary users and developers to focus on courting celebrities in the hope big brands would pay large amounts to be associated with them. It didn’t work.
Contrasting Ev’s Twitter and Medium experiences with that of Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti is interesting. While Buzzfeed still hasn’t found the formula for profitability, Peretti and his team have gained a deep understanding of what works in online publishing.
To be fair to Ev, we’re all trying to figure out the revenue model that will work for online media, his travails with Twitter and Medium show just how hard it is to find a way for publishers to make money from the web. What is clear though is burning a lot of cash on sales staff is not the answer.
The advertising industry is in trouble, as consumers’ eyeballs move from broadcast mediums to online services, the wildly successful Twentieth Century business model that drove the radio and television industries is dying.
So it isn’t surprising advertisers are angry at Facebook for mis-stating its figures although a cynic would suggest those inflated statistics helped drive its video service over competitors like YouTube at a critical time.
Whether Facebook’s actions were deliberate or otherwise, the service’s misleading behaviour only underscores how publishers and advertisers are struggling to find ways to translate their business model to an online world.
Now Facebook has announced further changes to its newsfeed which sees more emphasis on users’ family and friends’ posts than news and brands.
Sites like Buzzfeed are left in a bind as one of their key sources for traffic dries up and, once again, Facebook’s cahnges show how risky it is for publishers and marketers to rely on individual online platforms.
In truth all of the major online services are predators with Facebook, along with Google and Amazon, being at the top of the food chain, just like tigers.
For those riding the internet tigers, the risk of being mauled is real. As Buzzfeed and others are finding.
Over the last 50 years the relationship between professional sport and television broadcasters has been defined by broadcasting rights. Like most other media business models that relationship is now under threat.
Touring the Australian Open tennis tournament this week, it was striking how the relationship between sports organisations and broadcasters has changed as the internet changes distribution models and data starts to become a valuable asset in itself.
A tour of the data infrastructure behind the tournament as a guest of sponsor and service provider IBM showed how sporting organisations are hoping to use data to improve their fans’ experience and add value for sponsors and competitors.
Last year the Australian Open collected 23 Terabytes of data, a 136 percent increase on 2014, which the organisers distribute on their MatchCenter web platform along with analysis through their Slamtracker system.
Using IBMs Bluemix development platform and the company’s Watson artificial intelligence service, the Australian Open website analyses factors ranging from the audience’s social media sentiment through to predicting competitors’ performance based on historical data.
This wealth of data gives the event organisers a great platform to engage with statistics hungry fans and it was notable when talking to the Australian Open staffers how they now see the television broadcasters as much as their competitors as their partners.
When coupled with the changes to broadcasting rights – like most sports organisations the Australian Open has moved to the model pioneered by Major League Baseball of providing their own video feeds rather than engaging a host broadcaster to record the events and distribute the video – this has put the television and pay-TV networks in a far less powerful position.
For the sports organisations those broadcast rights deals are still by far the most lucrative income stream they have but the days of the host broadcasters holding power over the events are slipping away.
One telling statistic was the shift to mobile platforms. Kim Trengrove, the digital manager for Tennis Australia, pointed out how in 2015 online traffic was split equally between desktop and mobile use while in 2016 it was appearing to be 60% mobile. That change in itself has major ramifications for the market.
In the future as the data becomes more valuable and the video feeds can be distributed across web browsers and even artificial reality headsets, the late Twentieth Century broadcast model becomes even more tenuous.
For the television networks it means their power and income is reduced while those collecting, processing and distributing data become more important. However it may be the software companies managing the information aren’t able to pay the immense sums the broadcasters have been able to offer for the last fifty years.
One thing a tour of the Australian Open did show was how business model of professional sports is dramatically changing. A data driven world is going to be very different to that of the last fifty years.
The promise of internet advertising was that it could provide much more targeted audiences with far better, precision results.
It turns out the truth is different, with Bloomberg citing Heineken US who did a detailed analysis of their advertising returns to find, as the company’s Brand Director Ron Amram says, “giving money to the mob.”
While that news is bad, although not altogether surprising, for the digital media industry there’s even an even worse revelation from Heineken.
Digital’s return on investment was around 2 to 1, a $2 increase in revenue for every $1 of ad spending, compared with at least 6 to 1 for TV. The most startling finding: Only 20 percent of the campaign’s “ad impressions”—ads that appear on a computer or smartphone screen—were even seen by actual people.
That major brands are television is three times more effective than digital puts online advertisers in a bad position, although social media gurus have long argued companies can’t measure return on investment from their efforts.
Ultimately though the Bloomberg story shows we need a new model, applying broadcast advertising conventions to online services isn’t working. We’re still waiting for a new David Sarnoff to come along.
So after five years about posting about food, travel, tech, fashion or reverse cycle widgets you’ve being listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the most influential voices in the field.
Now every morning in your inbox is another pitch from an agency offering you freebies and access in return for posting about their clients products, some are great while others are strange.
Welcome to the world of Influencer Programs, a strange hybrid bought about by rise of social media and the collapse of printed news. As overwhelmed salaried journalists at established media outlets have less time to deal with hundreds of PR people desperately trying to get their attention, those with decent social media followings start to look attractive.
The influencer theory
A key part of the PRs strategy in engaging with social media outlets are the influencer programs, where the agencies trawl Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the other services to find those with large followings and then try to induce them into promoting their clients’ products.
These influencer programs are not anything new, while today we associate them with Kim Kardashian and Will.I.Am, in the 18th Century Josiah Wedgwood publicised his sales to the royal courts of Europe to generate sales for his earthenware and a hundred years later Mark Twain endorsed cigars in journals across America.
So congratulations on being the modern Mark Twain, now you have to decide if you want to play with Fat Fee Media and be part of their influencer programs.
The land of the free
Most of the time the initial approach from the nice folks at Fat Fee will try to get you to work for free in exchange for a shiny laptop, a free feed or even an overseas trip to The World Reverse Cycle Widgets conference.
That might work for you, if you have a full time job and the food blog or fashion Instagram feed is a hobby then this exactly what the influencer programs were originally designed around although there might be some quirks there
Should the blog be a business, or you take the distinctly unfashionable attitude that your time as a creative content creator is actually worth something that Fat Fee Media should pay for, then things get messy.
People die of exposure
The first response for payment from the nice folk at Fat Fee Media is that working with their client will be wonderful exposure for you.
In some respects this is probably true, however the reason Fat Fee Media has come to you is because their clients need exposure more than you do. Just the fact you’ve been listed as an ‘influencer’ shows you have credibility on the interwebs.
One of the traps many of us with consulting businesses on the side is the belief that doing a favour for BigCorp will open future paid opportunities. Sadly, the truth is somewhat different.
Pay the writer
“It’s the amateurs who make it tough for the professionals” says Harlen Ellison in his wonderful Pay The Writer rant. “By what logic do you call me and ask me to work for nothing.”
Ellison’s point is well made and those working for free are marked down as amateurs by the large agencies. Be under no illusion, when the paid consulting, speaking or writing gigs become available, the folks giving away stuff for free on the influencer programs won’t be getting them.
While Samsung’s behaviour was extreme, it’s by no means unusual. It’s common in these programs’ agreements to have ‘exclusivity’ or ‘no disparagement’ clauses.
The exclusivity clauses are particularly pernicious because they limit the scope of your writing and could even lock you out of future paid work in the industry you cover.
Controlling the copy
Another weird, but common, part of the PR control freakery in influencer programs is the determination to vet everything so only Nice Things are said about their clients.
This never ends well as the agency and its client spend the next six weeks rewriting your work. Inevitably the results look like something published in the Ministry of Public Works house newsletter.
Even if your blog or Instagram feed is just a hobby resist any request from agencies to pre-vet your copy. If they insist, send them your advertising rate card and tell them to hire a copywriter.
You can’t say bad things
The ‘non-disparagement’ clauses are equally pernicious. One of the curiosities of the social media world is that corporates are horribly risk averse.
As a consequence they don’t want the possibility of bloggers or the Twitterati saying nasty things about them and the non-disparagement clause becomes part of almost any agreement.
These clauses are usually far ranging, not only do they stipulate a blogger can’t say something less than glowing in a post but they also restrict any social media commentary on that business.
A recent agreement I was presented on behalf of one of the world’s biggest banks required me to say I wouldn’t say anything nasty about them. This is a curious way of shutting people up but one can’t blame them if it can be done cheaply for the cost of a meal or conference invite.
Happy shiny people
Ultimately the social media and digital media worlds are about happy and shiny. Given they are largely controlled by large corporations, this isn’t surprising and much of the attitude that you shouldn’t say bad things online comes down to how food, fashion and travel bloggers have regurgitated nice things rather than been genuine critics.
To be fair to the new breed of online writers, the dumbing down of travel and food writing was well underway in the mainstream media before the arrival of the internet. One could argue that mastheads devaluing their brand with puff pieces was one of the reasons alternative online media, particularly in food blogging, became so successful so fast.
A broken model
In truth, the whole social media engagement industry is broken, it depends on poor measurements and old school marketers applying 1960s Mad Men broadcasting methods to an industry that’s diffuse and diverse.