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The "Long Tail" of the Blogosphere

The "Long Tail" of the Blogosphere Steve Rubel
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Marketers and media types are joined at the hip, thanks to a shared economic bond. Both are in the eyeball business. The marketers want to reach ‘em and the media’s got ‘em. Through its ups and downs, the laws of supply and demand have kept this dynamic, well-oiled economic machine humming along, generating profits on both sides of the fence. Until now.


Seemingly overnight, the fundamental underpinnings of the basic media/marketing economic model are on the verge of collapsing because of an explosion in user-generated content. Blogs have flooded the media space with so much content that the marketer and media species -- who depend on the old dynamic to feed them -- need to adapt quickly. So far, the media seem to have the upper hand.


It’s no secret that blogs are all the rage right now. They have democratized media by empowering anyone with a passion or voice to develop an audience. According to Google News, last month alone there were 5,240 articles that mentioned blogs -- nearly double the number of press stories that mentioned Britney Spears! PubSub, a service that monitors blogs, is tracking 3.75 million of them. And over the last several months, particularly during the campaign, we witnessed a number of landmark events like Rathergate that have only helped blogs move further into the mainstream.


Still, despite the noise, many of the marketers and media execs whom I talk with still pooh-pooh blogs. They view blogs as media-driven hype and question the value of their small, niche audiences. Some even call it a fad and observe that many bloggers are only talking about blogging. Very few marketers are willing to sponsor or have their PR agencies invest significant time generating earned media coverage on blogs. But this will all change soon -- at least I hope so.


Are the criticisms valid? Sure, but they are short-lived and colored by the supply/demand economic model that has kept us all well-fed since the dawn of marketing. But here’s the rub: The reason blogs are so important is because they are influential. They’re establishing a new media economic system that is akin to the one that has decimated giants in other industries. It’s called the law of “the long tail.”


In a landmark article published in Wired magazine last month, Chris Anderson described in detail how the long tail of ecommerce has disrupted the music and bookselling industries. His thesis: The pure online stores like Amazon and Netflix offer unlimited choices that enable consumers to dig deeper into catalogs, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what's available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records and Barnes & Noble. The more they find, the more they like. And as they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their tastes are not as mainstream as they thought (or, as they had been led to believe by the marketing that generally presents a lack of alternatives and a hit-driven culture). The result is fewer hits and more dollars flowing evenly across thousands of niche choices.


A similar long tail effect is now forming in the media content sphere. As blogging becomes more popular, it is now easier for news consumers to find specific niche blog sites that adequately meet their information needs. It doesn’t matter if you’re interested in knitting, gadgets, cars, sports, politics or music, there’s a blogger out there who’s covering it well who can serve as your information filter.


In addition, really simple syndication (RSS) is starting to move mainstream as a tool that empowers consumers to TiVo the Web and assimilate all the content they care about onto a single Web page. In a recent report, Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley noted that Yahoo!’s recent adoption of RSS content on its My Yahoo! customized page will drive blog readership and usage. In a nutshell, RSS has lowered the barrier to entry, making it even easier for the small fries to compete with the big fish.


Taken in all together, the result is that big media will increasingly adapt and embrace blogging in order to maintain their dominance. As a result, marketers too will need to adjust their strategies -- everything from where they elect to place their PR messages to where they allocate their media budgets. Here are several short-term ways the long tail is already causing the media to adapt:



  • Publishers and advertisers are experimenting with unique custom blog sponsorships. The Art of Speed -- Nike’s experiment with Gawker Media -- is one such collaboration.


  • Some media outlets are openly embracing bloggers -- either by buying them out entirely or by signing them to joint operating ventures that include revenue sharing. Mediabistro, for example, recently purchased CableNewser -- a popular TV industry blog, rather than launch its own competing effort.


  • The media will turn themselves into blog-like online aggregators that link readers to all relevant content in their area of focus, whether it’s a blog or a news site. CNET’s News.context, for example, already takes this approach.


  • Media Web sites will morph into social sites, employing comments, trackbacks, RSS feeds and other blog-like structures in order to create community. CNET and Variety are already pioneers experimenting here.

If the media are buying into the long tail, then the marketers should follow, right? I sure hope so, because those who ignore it may be forced to catch the tiger by the tail rather than by the teeth.


Steve Rubel evangelizes the application of blogs and RSS in traditional public relations campaigns. He is Vice President of CooperKatz & Company, a New York City public relations firm, and author of the Micro Persuasion blog.

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As Graham says, "It all starts with data." Publishers can collect two kinds of data to learn more about their customers. Declared data represents information consumers willingly disclose about themselves, while observed data is information compiled and collected based on how consumers use websites. Once the data is gathered, the challenge, according to Graham, is to make sense of it.


For Graham, the twin-tools of cookies and analytics solutions capable of observing time spent online, and repeat visits and which pages generate the most traffic, are more than just ways to track consumers. As Graham sees it, the online ad experience is a dialogue between consumer and publisher, wherein the publisher (if he is listening) can adjust his business on the fly to meet the needs of a savvy user.


Though Graham points out the use of several BT models, the basic process is quite simple. Publishers create page tags for targeted webpages that are triggered upon a visitor's arrival. The data is then collected and analyzed. Visitors are next grouped according to similar patterns observed while on the site or within the ad network. The groups are then refined into groups of clearly defined audiences. Publishers can then sell advertisers access to highly-targeted audience groups.


While the process may sound basic, for Graham it is revolutionary.


"For the first time in the history of marketing, the ability to reach individuals based on their needs, interests, desires and sudden urges is within reach of advertisers," he writes.


Next: Five ways to use BT

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As Graham is quick to observe, BT isn't a what, but a how. In "Fishing From a Barrel," he isolates five ways of approaching BT, making clear that a specific marketing goal needs to be set so that the marketer can gauge the campaign's effectiveness.


"By first identifying the specific actions consumers need to take, marketers can create ways to capture and measure data to determine if those goals are being met," Graham writes.


1) Publisher solutions
According to Graham, more than 90 percent of advertisers using BT use some type of publisher-based BT solution. Publisher solutions use identifying characteristics of site visitors, applying those understandings to current visitors in order to serve them relevant ads.


"The main advantage for sites that use behavioral tracking capabilities is that it allows them to be defined within ad networks as a specific audience destination," Graham writes.


2) Ad Network Solutions
Ad networks are a collection of sites representing an expanded range of places where advertisers can run ads. But unlike a single publisher, ad networks offer an added wrinkle to BT, according to Graham.


"Unlike a single site, ad networks can collect consumer data on hundreds of sites and, in some cases, track individual consumers as they travel between sites on the same network," Graham writes.


3) Adware Solutions
Adware solutions are an opt-in way for advertisers to reach consumers directly, usually by giving the consumer some free software or online tools in exchange for their participation. But as Graham points out, advertisers using adware solutions have felt the heat recently from lawsuits seeking to conflate adware with spyware. While a good tool, Graham says he believes only time will tell if it is to be a viable option for BT.


4) Ad Optimization
Ad optimization is considered an offshoot of ad serving. Ad optimization companies typically use intelligent ad serving technologies to interface with a publisher and an ad serving engine.


"The greatest advantage of this process is that targeted consumers can be reached with tier one targeted ads, while visiting pages normally cater to second and third tier inventory," Graham writes.


5) Rich Media Advertising Solutions
To be fair, Graham says he is a "huge fan of rich media solutions," having designed more than 500 rich media ad units in his career.


"To me, the greatest benefit that rich media ads offer advertisers is the ability to help drive the consumer's behavior toward a specific marketing goal," Graham writes.


Campaigns typically involve gathering information such as product preferences, email addresses or ZIP codes. The data is then collected within the ad unit and fed into a back-end database.


The difficulty, according to Graham, is synchronizing the data gathered from an interactive ad with the appropriate web analytics data.


"By tying all the collected campaign data together, it is my expectation that rich media and behavioral targeting will become a juggernaut in the land of online advertising," Graham writes.


Next: The challenges facing BT

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To paraphrase Graham, there is an elephant in the room when it comes to BT, namely a lack of standardization across solutions. According to Graham, this is no small obstacle, as he writes, "It could prevent BT from gaining the foothold it really needs to complete its paradigm shift."


As Graham sees it, the landscape of BT solutions is a mixed bag of practices because providers employ different approaches to reach consumers. While Graham concedes that the spirit of experimentation in that area will likely pay dividends in terms of innovation, it is something of a drawback for advertisers because running a campaign with a single vendor won't put the message in front of all potential buyers.


For Graham, there is no easy fix for the standardization problem. Although he points out that media exchange solutions and the establishment of standards by a governing body such as the IAB should go a long way toward allowing BT to reach its full potential. 


A primer on privacy
At some point in a conversation about BT, someone will likely use the S-word, according to Graham: spying. "There's no way to sugar coat this," Graham writes. "In order to learn more about individual consumers, marketers have to resort to 'spying.'"


While Graham details the some of the legal and business concerns those employing BT should have when it comes to issues of privacy, he makes the point that advertisers and publishers who use BT need to demonstrate to consumers that the practice benefits all parties involved.


"Benefit is the key word here," Graham writes. "As consumers, we demand to know 'what's in it for me' before taking any action. Relevancy is king. If I'm going to give you something, I expect to get something in return."


Beyond BT, the human element
While BT may look like a numbers-heavy discipline, the truth of the matter is that it's really more of a human art. After all, as Graham explains, "it's difficult to understand the parameters of BT without first understanding the realm of human behavior." For that reason alone, Graham delivers some basics on studies in human behavior as they relate to ad campaigns.


According to Graham, the relevance of an ad, whether it's served up via BT or otherwise, comes down to how the ad plays to our core emotions. Whether the ad meshes with our self-described identity, or whether it conflicts with how we see ourselves, will also determine whether a given message can break through the noise of everyday life.  


Resources
While "Fishing From a Barrel" is meant to serve as a roadmap for a BT campaign, as well as a strong argument for BT in general, Graham rightly assumes that his readers may not be quite as far along in adopting BT as he would hope. For that reason, Graham concludes his book with a useful "Resource Pack," which contains contact information for various firms offering BT solutions, and better still for the novice reader, brief, easily digested descriptions of what those companies do.


"Fishing From a Barrel" is available from LearningCraft.


Michael Estrin is the associate editor at iMedia Connection. Read full bio.

Tactics are specific actions that support the plan and bring it to life. They utilize specific resources to achieve an even more specific objective. There can be many levels of tactics, some high level and some lower. The higher level tactics may seem like strategy but are not. Rather, they are the bridge between the high level ideas of strategy and very specific steps of execution. The aggregate of these individual tactical actions realize the strategy. While the strategy sets up a methodology, tactics are the actual implementation. In this way, tactics are more grounded than strategy. 


Strategy is a plan for achieving a goal, and tactics actually implement that plan. A single strategy will almost always have multiple tactics, each of which supports the plan in a different manner. All tactics spring from that same train of thought but differently perform. The strategy orients the tactics, but it does not necessarily define them either. Because they are so intertwined, strategy often seeps into tactics. This also causes confusion. Some decisions may feel strategic even though they are tactical. The rationale behind a strategy understandably bleeds in to the tactics.  Be aware of such murkiness when connecting lower level strategy with upper level tactics.


Some tactical ideas may be fantastic but still do not fit within the established strategy. This is a common mistake. Even great ideas must be discarded if they do not fit within the guiding principles set forth in strategy. Tactics must always follow strategy! This is what Stephen King meant when he wrote "kill your darlings." You must axe even your favorite ideas if they don't fit within the larger narrative. The same holds true with innovative tactics that don't align with strategy.


For sure, there can be an ebb and flow between strategy and tactics. While the strategy always begets the tactics, tactics may sometimes influence the strategy. Since tactics are so rooted in reality, they can advise modifications if the underlying conditions change. If previously held assumptions no longer are true, then the tactics may need to change. If enough tactics change, perhaps the strategy may no longer be valid either. In this way, the tactics can inform the strategy.


Whereas digital strategy defines what types of publishers to use, digital tactics determine precisely which publishers to work with and how. Tactics magnify the ideas set forth in strategy; thus, there is much more detail involved. Tactics orient budgets and ad sizes and formats for each partner. Tactics define exactly how each partner will be utilized. While strategy sets the stage, tactics initiates the action -- usually through the media buy. For this reason, strategies tend to be shorter and more vague than tactics.


Advertising strategy is important but, like summiting Everest, only half the journey. Tactical implementation is equally important, especially in media. Great strategic planning without proper execution is worthless. Richard Kovacevich, former CEO of Wells Fargo, put it this way: "I could leave our strategic plan on a plane, and it wouldn't make any difference. No one could execute it. Our success has nothing to do with planning. It has to do with execution." How to implement an idea can be as valuable as the idea itself.


In digital media, every campaign can be executed in an almost limitless number of different ways. Rarely is there a single best approach. This means that digital tactics are crucially important. Tactics are the unique ways we approach the marketplace. They are the secret sauce that powers campaigns. Perhaps this is why tactics receives so little attention at public conferences. Discussing tactics would give away the trade secrets that everyone needs to protect. Strategy can be couched in ambiguous language that says a lot without saying anything in particular. But tactics are so specific that discussing them in any detail gives away valuable information. This reflects the very calculated and granular nature of tactics. Tactics bind the hype of strategy with reality. Since a digital strategy can be executed in so many ways, the tactical implementation is particularly important.


Objectives, strategies, and tactics are intricately connected. They all serve together to form a communications plan but have vastly different meanings when closely examined. As a pyramid, the goal would be the pinnacle, strategy the neck, and tactics the base. They work in tandem but each serves a different function.


Andrew Ettinger works in advertising in New York City.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


"Beautiful woman with questioning expression" image via Shutterstock.

Steve Rubel is a senior marketing strategist and one of the most influential bloggers in the world, according to Technorati. He currently serves as a Senior Vice President with Edelman, the largest independent global PR firm. Rubel is charged with...

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