High on the list of things that push my blood pressure into unacceptable territory is the practice of making up cool names for bleeding-edge technologies that no one in the advertising universe understands and then talking about how these things will forever change the way we work.
Enter the futuristic, tagvertising platform, which made its way into iMedia Connection last week in an intelligently written piece from Steve Rubel. Another article by Steve Levy in Newsweek explained the phenomenon of user-based labeling -- or tagging -- information for links on the web. Several other news outlets have jumped on the tagging bandwagon. Some are even calling it the next great thing in search advertising.
My problem here isn’t with Rubel, Levy or any of the other visionaries in this space, or with the people who use these sites, or with the actual community-based arenas in question. But to my mind tagvertising has about as much chance of providing value to the searching public or advertisers as I do of becoming the next Pope.
Let’s start with the basics. Tagging sites, such as the ones noted in Newsweek and CNET, like flickr for photo sharing and del.icio.us have hailed user-empowered “tagging” as a way to build large groups of people who use the same keywords or “tags” to identify everything from discussion board topics to photos and bookmarks.
But when does something neat or interesting start to become a money making vehicle? When someone figures out how to sell more products with it, of course. At that critical tipping point, several parties begin to sit up and take notice. When advertisers, attorneys and adopters get together for a big love in, a new and improved ad platform is born and whole thing rolls out smooth as silk.
Sure it does, and I have my spot in the Grotto all picked out.
When tagging groups get together, they share and share and share until some of them start labeling their shared files similarly with new and innovative keywords. At that point (and here’s another cool word) the group system is referred to as a “folksonomy.”
The folksonomy dream for an ad platform relies on using user-designated, keyword-based content as a means to reach targeted audiences based on their own definitions or keywords.
Hold on a second: haven’t we tried this before?
Forward thinking backwords
While tagging pages and other ancillary information like photos is interesting, most search engines ignore content contained in website tags relating to keywords. Site owners abused the tags by filling them full of top searched keywords in an attempt to get rankings. In the end, search engines had to find better ways to rank the pages.
In this manner, tagvertising opens a door to all kinds of abuse.
How about content targeting with keywords? Contextual or content-targeted search already tried to be the next generation of search using keyword scan technologies in order to help match advertiser interest with existing information in a dynamic world. That’s precisely how a luggage ad listing could end up on pages with news about plane crashes. Sure, that’s a worst case scenario, but instances like this -- along with a general lack of interest from advertisers in the content arena -- led to new and interesting ways to connect content with search ads.
Found: useless info and scams
Proponents of the free information flow and indexing will say that people self-designating information will have no reason to enter false information or pump up the keyword sets to be included in more searches. Well, that might be true but no one is trying to advertise against these keywords yet, are they?
Despite the lack of ad platforms, people are finding ways to try and sell their products on these websites. In my experience with searching the popular category “Google” I found more than one example of misguided free-information seekers posting not-quite-topical information. One had explained how to make big bucks with AdSense.
Another showed me how to trick out Google video search in order to find super-secret directories. (I know you’ll be shocked --shocked! -- to find the subsequent posts listed all the quality adult content found with this trick. I can think of a few better places to position an ad for Google, but that’s just me.)
An overwhelming supply of useless information and multitudes of shady, agenda-driven opinions have been trademarks of the web since the dawn of publishing. Are you willing to rely on tagvertising experts' abilities with your brand message in a search listing?
Then there are the trademark issues. What’s the fastest way to initiate a whole gaggle of lawsuits?
Start futzing with brand owner’s rights by selling pages categorized with keyword tags for “Bloomingdale's” to Macy’s and watch the fun. Remember all the excitement we had with selling keyword banners? How about a stroll down amnesia lane to revisit those disasters before we start thinking of ad units here.
On the other hand, it might be a tremendous way to align your brand. If 23 percent of bloggers or keyword taggers think you’re brand or products are crap, you may want pay a few bucks less for those clicks since there is a 100 percent chance they will be buying anything but your product.
In a recent Friday Fodder, Masha Geller noted that “According to USA Today, CNN, and Gallup polls… few U.S. adults are even aware of blogs. Predictably, when it comes to actual readership, younger respondents spent more time with blogs, with 21 percent of the youngest age group saying they read blogs at least monthly. On average, though, most people said they never read blogs, with a huge 90 percent of the 65 plus group falling into that category.”
Most people never even read blogs? Where do I sign up?
Studying the consumer interaction with products and services via weblog postings or file sharing is one thing, understanding them and relying upon them to provide some level of value to search technology is quite another. Consumer opinion changes with the wind, and very few postings on blogs or self designated indexes would be considered valuable information for consumers or advertisers.
Smart companies like palmOne and Microsoft have created or recommend moderated discussion boards for consumers to exchange information about their products and services, but these discussions have quality controls in place. Some complain this type of moderated discussion limits posting freedom. I think it frees consumers from having to wade through tons of adult content, nonsense sales scams and other miscellaneous garbage before finding what they need.
Bottom line? People, that is to say the tagging public, are not going to be controlling a “new” ad platform any time soon. As to tagging being the next generation of search advertising? Let’s get content targeting right before we tackle tagvertising.
iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Current reality: Location
Physical location may be the single most relevant targeting attribute for any marketer. As location targeting for ad units becomes more prevalent, the current method of evaluating and buying digital advertising becomes quite antiquated. Audience is great; demographics are helpful guides; but the actual ability to place highly-appropriate marketing in front of a consumer inside a decision-making moment increases the value of interactive advertising immeasurably.
The possibility of so-called "location-based services" has had marketers salivating ever since the smallest iota of computing or digital media became mobile. For the past decade, virtually the same example (just with varying brands) has been used by technologists and marketers alike to describe a mobile, location-targeted campaign. It sounds something like this: "You are walking by The Gap, and your phone begins to shake with an offer of 10 percent off a pair of jeans. You walk in the store, present your phone, and buy your jeans -- along with four other items."
From the introduction of the Palm VII with its pop up antennae to the embracing of the iPhone, challenges to this approach existed on technological and consumer-usage levels. However, within the past three years, both of these have been at least partially solved, making hyperlocal-targeting a reality.
From a consumer usage standpoint, Disney took an early stab at this, with a child-locator service in its now departed eponymous mobile service. But it was the introduction and adoption of mobile apps that created the basis for consumers to proactively use location to their own benefit. Obvious services such as mapping, driving directions, and mobile search use location as a focal criterion. An added category that found significant value with location is social media.
Several platforms including Loopt, Google Lattitude, and foursquare use location as a primary component for users to interact with their network of friends and contacts. Instead of just manual status updates, as on Facebook, automated location updates accompany posts, including displaying friends' current positions on maps. With this interaction as a basis, these services also offer suggestions of events, stores, and restaurants in the area.
The opportunities it brings
A brand advertising in such an environment can significantly heighten its own relevance. In fact, for retailers with physical storefronts ranging from clothing chains to restaurants, this is the specific type of consumer engagement that they have long sought. For example, a consumer having coffee at Starbucks opens a social media app to find friends in the area. He is presented with an exclusive mobile offer in a visual ad unit for the Best Buy within a block from his location. Alternatively, if the consumer is within the proximity of a Radio Shack, he could be served another unique offer pushing him to Best Buy. This location-aware advertising gives brands great consumer influence, hyperlocal targeting capabilities, and reduction in wasted digital media.
Campaigns like this exist today across the different platforms that have location at the core of their service. However, each platform has wrestled with moving that concept into a larger ad buying conversation. This transition is hindered partially by a matter of understanding by the marketer of the mere possibilities and the creativity to use this type of advertising effectively. Equally though, the challenge lies in the age-old scalability issue. That is, many agency buyers want to make large buys. While understandable, the real focus should be to directly address a brand's goals by adapting to the opportunities created by technology.
The seminal moment for advertisers will be when virtually every ad unit can be location-aware. This moves the potential from confined communities to virtually anyone accessing the internet or using an app on a mobile phone. This will enable a marketer to augment the normal buying decision criteria with the assumption of using physical consumer positioning. "Right place, right time" is an old adage, but here is that precise potential for the astute advertiser.
Current reality: Audio interactivity
Mobile devices are still primarily for making phone calls. While this is an often-forgotten aspect for mobile marketing possibilities, the technological necessity to support this functionality places a microphone in each consumer's pocket. This provides a basic component for untapped advanced advertising and interactivity.
Services like Shazaam have amazed and impressed consumers with its app that "listens" to songs and does a look-up based on that 10-second audio clip. It then returns a list of possible places to purchase the song directly through the mobile phone.
The essence of this concept can translate specifically for brands as well. To simplify the overall functionality, Shazaam uses an audio element to trigger a response. What if a clever marketer were to build similar pieces into a mobile campaign, letting users' phones listen to its advertisements, thereby augmenting larger media investments?
For example, Wal-Mart could create Mobile Sunday on NFL telecasts the week before Thanksgiving 2010. On its national TV spots, it featured an exclusive mobile sale for Samsung's Blu-ray player. While the commercial may have looked like any other, the audio -- whether audible or not -- automatically triggers the customer's phone to open to the product details and purchase opportunity for the Blu-ray player. Now that is how to use advertising to directly drive purchase.
Further, consumer behavior proves that people watch TV with their phones by their sides (see "American Idol"). It is an ideal interactive medium, which some brands have tried to embrace with text message calls-to-action. This mechanism is significantly more advanced, and even simpler for the consumer.
The opportunities it brings
Beyond the single app component, the next logical step would be mobile ad units that are themselves "audibly aware." This infers the relevance of the moment based on the sounds surrounding the consumer. While a consumer is multi-tasking, watching a TV show while viewing the web on the phone, mobile advertisements could directly correlate to the show itself. This would let a brand reinforce its on-air buy, potentially compensating for the exposure lost to DVRs. It is yet another evolution in the targeting capabilities made possible by the growing contingent of iPhone, Blackberry, and Google Android users.
The awareness and transactional capabilities that mobile phones can provide will continue to grow rapidly, and can serve brands well. There will inevitably be some privacy concerns, but the right approaches and innovations will help protect consumers. As the online world and that around us blurs more, the opportunity for a marketer to adapt may be the biggest challenge. This is not a matter of chasing the shiniest, newest thing. It is understanding consumer behaviors, and how mobile technology specifically enables brands to actively be a relevant component of each customer's day.
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It's hard to see how a pitch involving suicide would get the green light. But somehow, Hyundai managed to produce an ad that used a failed suicide attempt as a way to showcase the fact that the IX35 has extremely low emissions. If that sounds absurd, stupid, and most of all, tasteless, you're right. The automotive blog Jalopnik called it "the worst auto ad in history," and freelance copywriter Holly Brockwell took the company to task for making light of a serious and very personal issue.
Naturally, Hyundai was quick to apologize. But it's still unclear why anyone thought this was a good idea in the first place.
File this one under oops.
To promote the musical version of "Matilda," a play based on the book by Roald Dahl, the producers took out a banner ad in the New York Times theater section.
But here's the thing, great ideas also need great execution. Actually, even solid or competent execution will do.
In the case of "Matilda," that execution was lacking. The ad went live, but instead of the usual quotes from favorable reviews, the banner went out with temp copy.
Fast Company snapped up this screen grab before the "Matilda" team could take it down.
Malicious hacks are an unfortunate fact of life. They're also a marketing opportunity, if you're Chipotle. Earlier this year, it appeared as if the fast food brand's Twitter account had been hacked after it published a stream of odd tweets. But as it turned out, the hack wasn't real.
"We thought that people would pay attention, that it would cut through people's attention and make them talk, and it did that," Chris Arnold, a Chipotle representative, told Mashable. "It was definitely thought out: We didn't want it to be harmful or hateful or controversial."
In its defense the company says it added followers -- 4,000 after the "hack" -- but what did the stunt do for the brand's image? And does it make sense to fool your most loyal customers? And while we're on the subject, since when is 4,000 new followers a win when you lie to get them? Couldn't Chipotle have gotten the same results -- and happy customers -- by offering a free bag of chips or a drink to any customer who followed its Twitter account? The numbers would likely have been just as good, and while bribing followers may not create a lasting relationship, neither does lying to them.
Call it tech snafu of federal proportions. Regardless of what you think of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, the fact of the matter is that one key component of the new law, namely the federal exchange website, has been about as buggy as a Florida swamp.
But while liberals and conservatives have had a field day over the site's issues at rollout, digital marketers have expressed their own concerns. Digiday pointed out that the site has some rather serious design flaws. Meanwhile, Mashable made the case that the decision to forgo open source technology -- something that many marketers happily use to build their platforms -- may have also contributed to the mess.
Chalk another marketing fail up to dumb bots and the shortsighted brands that deploy them -- or maybe not.
Here's how the story first went out: When a user complimented Domino's Pizza on the brand's Facebook page, the bot mistakenly replied with a message designed to field complaints. At least, that's how the story looked over at Gawker, Adrants, and Consumerist, to name just a few.
But according to Digiday, which reached out to Domino's for an explanation, the failure was actually a human one.
"We are proud to have real human beings right here in our Ann Arbor headquarters reading and responding to posts," Domino's spokesperson Chris Brandon told Digiday. "Real human beings make real human mistakes sometimes, and this was one of those times. It was an isolated situation in which one of our people simply goofed up. It happens. We were all, naturally, a little bit red-faced by this -- but we've already moved on."
OK, so it was a human screw up. But while it's nice to hear that Domino's hasn't farmed social media out to a robot army, it's still a pretty dumb mistake, which speaks to a serious deficiency in staffing.
Either way, the brand needs a lesson in how to take a compliment.
Remember that Coke Super Bowl ad that was supposed to kickoff an online game that we could all play when we weren't busy watching the actual game, tweeting about all the other great ads, and stuffing our faces with salty snacks? Yeah, we almost forgot it too, but then it was time to make this list.
As it turned out, the ad's interactive component never really worked. Plus, some critics complained that it portrayed Arabs in an unflattering light. But mostly, the campaign just turned out to be a flop that wasted an expensive media buy and never really delivered on the digital tie-in. But the worst part was that the ad gave rival Pepsi ammunition for this video spoof.
Here's a tough lesson in connecting online with offline. Most of the time, marketers pull their hair out trying to bridge the gap between the real world and the virtual world. So far, there's no secret sauce to make that happen. But rest assured that when your brand makes a mistake, that analog billboard that wasn't supposed to cross over to digital will suddenly go viral.
That's what happened to Pepsi in Japan, where the brand teamed up with a local clothing company to cross-promote "Aape" sub-brand. Unfortunately, the font they chose for the outdoor campaign made the first "A" look like an "R," which made it look like Pepsi had aligned itself with rape.
Cue your favorite "Lost in Translation" joke.
Now, obviously that wasn't Pepsi's intent. But the lesson is that mistakes like this -- even for offline assets -- can go viral, as evidenced by a Reddit thread that asked why nobody caught the rather obvious font issue.
When you divorce the media buy from the actual media, you're going to get some ad placements that don't look great in hindsight. Media buyers know this, and they know that no matter how many safeguards you put in place, there will likely come a day when your brand's ad runs alongside some objectionable content. It happens all the time, but this year it happened to Nissan, Sherwin-Williams, Wolverine shoes, and off-road vehicle manufacturer Polaris, according to Digiday, which reported that all four brands ended up running pre-roll in front of what appears to be a beheading video on ForbezDVD.com, a site that runs a wide range of community uploaded content. Display ads for Buick and Zipcar also ran alongside the beheading video.
None of the brands bought media directly from ForbezDVD. But according to Digiday, several companies acted as middlemen, including Google's DoubleClick, Evolve Media-owned company Gorilla Nation, and Cox Digital Solutions.
While it's easy to point fingers on this one -- the brands for not holding vendors feet to the fire, or the vendors for failing to vet their publisher -- the fact of the matter is that these incidents speak to an industry-wide failure. Everyday, brands, agencies, and vendors all tout the safeguards of automated media buys. But mistakes like this happen regularly, and nothing changes.
Bank of America
It's never a good thing when your brand's social media team confirms the worst suspicions people have about your brand, but that's exactly what happened to Bank of America.
First, a little context. BofA, like the rest of the big banks, has had an understandably tough time regaining the public's trust and affection since 2008. OK, maybe that's an understatement. After all, even if you've been living under a rock for the last few years, you should be aware of deep public antipathy toward big banks. In fact, the problem is so obvious that it's hardly worth linking to. But what's surprising is that the BofA social media team either isn't aware of the huge obstacle they face, or they think it's easily remedied with a little old-fashioned customer service.
So here's what happened. Shortly after Mark Hamilton chalked an anti-foreclosure message in front of a BofA branch in Manhattan, the NYPD told him to move along. So Hamilton did what you do these days, which is tweet about it. And that's where BofA's social media team knee-jerked its way into action, according to a report in Digiday.
On the upside, the brand's voice never waivered from a polite professional tone. But on the downside, the robot-like response (even though the account is actually manned by humans) pretty much confirmed to anyone who was watching that BofA was a heartless corporation. And while it's easy to blame the brand's social media team for the inept responses, it would seem to be marketing malpractice for a brand in BofA's shoes not to have a better plan for responding to an entirely predictable event.
A personal marketing fail
Call it a criminal targeting fail.
Gawker had the rundown on criminal defense attorney Thomas Lewis Edwards, who got himself arrested for an alleged DUI resulting in a hit-and-run only to have his banner ad appear next to his mug shot on a local mug shots site.
While the mishap didn't involve a brand advertiser, it should certainly serve as a cautionary tale for marketers who rely on algorithms to buy their media. After all, it's not like Edwards was the first -- or last -- advertiser to have his ad run alongside content he would have passed on if he had pulled the trigger manually.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.