Every major industry innovation arrives in fits and starts. It took more than 10 years of testing for Pampers to figure out the product design, pricing, and advertising message to convince parents that they could not live without disposable diapers. There were more than 100 carmakers in the U.S. before Henry Ford mass-produced the Model T. Today, social media marketing is still struggling through its own growing pains. Or perhaps we should call them "lack-of-growing pains" because the total business impact of social is still far below what it should be based on consumer habits. The good news is that a handful of companies are driving a new "paid-organic" hybrid approach that blends historic media buying habits with earned engagement to finally scale up sales.
By now brands should have figured out marketing through social media. Today, we know social is one of the first places more than 1 billion customers turn for information, advice, and discovery. So it's no wonder that most businesses have finally been convinced to create the budgets, processes, roles, and responsibilities that allow them to post, pin, tweet, and tag every day. But ask yourself: Is all of this work truly building the business?
Sure, you might have run an ROI study or tracked social traffic to see an increase in actual sales. But what about scale? Chances are that if you stopped those tweets or pins today there would be zero impact on the sales report you pull up tomorrow. And whether you're a startup sewing shop or a billion-dollar brand, if you cannot feel the impact of your marketing, then it really doesn't matter. So far, social is missing scale, and we will not move marketing into future without cracking this code.
Now that brands have participated in social for some time, the problems with current approaches are becoming obvious. First, marketers have grown tired of social tools that end up creating more work for them. Initially, tools that churn out social analytics reports, or allow you to create a quick contest, sound like great ways for marketers to get a handle on the complexity of social media. But over time, they end up becoming too much work with too little reward. Further, the monthly subscription business model does not fit with marketers' needs. That $10,000 per month comes from brands' precious "non-working" budgets (aka "cost center"), and the tools come with no guarantee of results.
Social media still asks marketers to do too much. Who has the time to A/B test an infinite number of possible tweets, or to keep up with this week's Facebook feature update? Who has time to work on product innovation or a package redesign when you haven't gotten to update the brand Instagram account yet? Earlier in my career as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, all we had to worry about was email and message boards. Today, this job has never been tougher -- and thanks to profit pressures there are fewer resources to help you out.
It is no surprise that marketers are increasingly loath to renew their annual contacts with subscription social tools. I hear the phrase "social fatigue" in a growing number of corporate halls as marketers struggle to keep up. The reality is that mass marketers have never been do-it-yourselfers. If television advertising started like social media has, you would have seen brand managers personally writing ad copy and deciding daily whether they should buy commercial time on "I Love Lucy" in Idaho or "The Honeymooners" in Hackensack.
The mass media and marketing engine has run efficiently for decades because of very scalable roles and relationships. Companies create products and services, advertising agencies craft meaningful messages, and media planners and buyers get those messages in front of as many people as possible for the lowest cost-per-impression. We need to go back to this type of model to move forward in the social media future.
Thankfully, the $500 billion-per-year global advertising market offers a huge incentive for startups to bring new models to marketers, and a relative handful of these fresh thinkers are blazing a results-driven trail. They take social updating and optimization work off brands' plates, use breakthrough optimization technology to deliver results, and charge brands only for real results, out of the media budget. It is earned, or organic, social media content -- but it is bought according to desired media objectives, such as views, visits, or even sales, like paid media. When combined, this "paid-organic" model is delivering some amazing results.
Outbrain is one of the earliest examples of the paid-organic model. It developed a way for brands to scale up attention to earned and owned content through media budgets at the touch of a button. Outbrain has relationships with many of the world's leading publications and controls the space at the bottom of articles that suggests other relevant links that you might find interesting. Some of those links are sponsored by brands that wish to attract customers to their quality content.
So now Outbrain is simply part of the media plan for dozens of the biggest brands in the world, such as GE and Red Bull. Instead of wondering, "If we build it, will they come?" brands can confidently create content marketing strategies that deliver big numbers. Plus, Outbrain has a powerful, profit-driving incentive to continually improve its algorithm and strike new partnerships with publishers. No wonder it is one of the hottest startups in the ad tech world.
Another company is taking this "do-it-for-me, pay-for-performance" model to viral videos. Again, it has been a challenge for brands, agencies, and media buyers to figure out how these creative shots-in-the-dark can earn actual viewers. A new firm, The 7th Chamber, takes the pressure off and uses its skills and relationships to guarantee video views at a respectable cost-per basis that you can build into the budget from the beginning.
Ultimately the success of Outbrain, The 7th Chamber, and a growing number of other new companies is directly linked to delivering huge business results through social media. That's a powerful win-win-win for all sides.
Of course, for paid-organic to succeed, there are still some needed habit adjustments and stakeholder conversations. The model works better in "always-on" versus "campaign" budgeting, as it can be challenging to deliver (and then turn off) a specific number of views or engagements. Sourcing content can still be a barrier, but major publishers such as Time Inc. are striking new social content partnerships.
We should not let these small differences stand in the way of progress toward unlocking the scale power of social media. After all, the idea of less work and more reward is well worth at least some test-and-learn funding. Paid-organic might be the meaningful marketing solution that our brands -- and customers -- have been waiting for.
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