Everyone groaned when Facebook announced that it was going to roll out video ads that played automatically as you scrolled. I groaned. But that groan is not half as loud as the one I gave when I visit sites like io9 and gizmodo and ABC News, only to be assaulted by a darkened screen and loud sounds from an advertisement I’m forced to watch, or at least actively close, before I can get to what I was looking for. Autoplay is the more high-tech and also more annoying version of what they do at sites such as Business Insider i.e. directing you to a lame-ass quote/ banner ad before redirecting you to the website. Coincidentally, it’s also the more high-tech and more annoying version of television ads, playing for everyone and no one. Come on, guys. We put something on Mars! Let’s do better than that.
This post by Copyranter sums up what I feel about a lot of the digital social location-based engagement real-time bullshit out there:
The men and women who make up the “digital creative class” are a disgrace to their forebears. The industry, as it stands right now, has the imagination of a sheet of drywall. They have managed to create an atmosphere where even the laziest, most lackluster ads are praised among their coworkers and celebrated as “brilliant” by the internet’s media-blogging lemmings. The quality of work has plummeted to such a low point in the digital advertising and marketing industry that I feel like a fucking Creative God, when in reality I am just an above-average copywriter.
As a tweet, this one (Oreo Superbowl 2013) wasn’t half bad (although if 360i had tweeted it during a blackout at, say, an NBA championship game, it would have been better). The problem I had with it was the amount of fevered praise it received from all corners of the internet. Everyone employed in the social media world leaped without thinking onto the Oreo garbage barge that night, lauding, gushing over, and ejaculating on the tweet like it was the second coming of “Lemon.”
Was there an “Oreo Moment” at this year’s Super Bowl? Well, JC Penney was the clear “earned impressions” winner. But their Twitter attention grab was so juvenile and asinine it made Oreo’s look brilliant.
I have to agree that JC Penney’s stunt was just awkward and shlocky.
JC Penney’s Twitter maven had the internet abuzz during the Super Bowl with his/her typo-filled tweets. What the fuck on God’s good Earth was going on?
He/she was wearing mittens!
And BOOM, there it was: Adland’s Oreo moment.
I would wager that a few social media dipshits have since dug out their mittens (or bought a pair) and stared at their screens, racking their impressions-driven brains trying to think of a similar stunt.
See some more awful examples here.
Who knew a mobile instant-messaging app with no frills or any distinctive features of any kind would one day be valued at $16 billion? Whatsapp may not be have been a familiar name before (at least with Americans), but it certainly is the name on everyone’s lips right now.
Some quick numbers – Facebook has 1.2 billion users, but because that’s not the whole world, it is acquiring Whatsapp and its 50 employees and 450 million users that exchange some 53 billion messages a day, a volume that equals the total number of messages sent through SMS each day, worldwide. For all the work it is doing, Whatsapp charges… one dollar a year.
Many questions surround the deal, specifically what Facebook wishes to do or achieve with Facebook, and whether the venture is worth $16 billion.
Whatsapp’s numbers are appealing – its 450 million users were acquired in five years, making it the fastest growing mobile messaging app in the world. Its users are more active – 70% of users get on Whatsapp every day, versus 62% for Facebook, and getting higher user engagement and a larger share of consumer’s time spent online is something that Facebook wants, even if it does not yet know how (or perhaps not even want) to monetize the attention.
A vocal segment of Whatsapp users are convinced that Facebook, operating on a business model heavily reliant on advertising revenue, will introduce ads to the messaging service. Yet it is most likely that these worries are misplaced – it will be the equivalent of Facebook buying a $16 billion shoe, putting it on, and then firing a bullet through its own foot. The messaging market is highly fragmented – between Google chat, AIM, Skype, SMS, Twitter, Facebook chat, iMessage, and other players such as WeChat in China, it is not difficult for users to switch to another service should they feel unhappy with what Facebook may introduce.
If not ads, then what?
In its post announcing the acquisition, Facebook reiterates its desire to help bring more connectivity and utility to the world, and promotes itself as an environment where “independent-minded entrepreneurs can build companies, set their own direction and focus on growth while also benefitting from Facebook’s expertise, resources and scale.” Let’s break this down. “Bring more connectivity”, meaning, as a brand, Facebook exists to connect the world. How will it do that? Place this in light of “independent-minded entrepreneurs”, the acquisition of Instagram, and the launch of Paper, and suddenly we are looking at Facebook’s strategy for the future: to acquire or build a house of applications, centered around communication and content sharing of any kind, with anyone.
With the purchase of Whatsapp, Facebook gains access to an audience that prefer communicating one-on-one or with very small groups, rather than sharing information more widely on a wall that is accessible to family members, friends, and potential employers alike. In fact, each social network/messaging app out there – Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, is a slightly different form of sharing and communication platform, with different value propositions, and rather than folding its acquisitions into its main social network, which acquired users clearly do not want, Facebook is rightly letting them flourish, with its support.
Still, the purchase of Whatsapp is hardly a philanthropic act, but monetization may be a discussion best left for the future, depending on how the world continues to evolve. Will we one day make mobile payments through messaging? It is not an impossibility, and Whatsapp, with a global reach and secure system, will make that extremely easy. In the meantime, a slight integration between Whatsapp and Facebook is not impossible as well. I wish for a Read Later button on Facebook that syncs with my Instapaper account; I don’t see why Facebook may not also make it easier for Whatsapp users to share content they come across on Facebook in their Whatsapp messages with friends. If Facebook is serious about keeping communication open and connecting the world, it should make it easier for other apps and networks to exist and work with its content. Who knows how the future of communication will eventually evolve? But clearly Mark Zuckerberg has an idea, and is working to realize it.
Out of the many deceptively simple, aesthetically comical, casually addictive games out there in the app store, Flappy Bird made it big. The question is, why did it succeed, among the many games that possess the same qualities?
This same question can be asked of the many goods in the cultural market – why did this book make the bestsellers list, and not that one? Why did Justin Bieber make it big, instead of another blonde Canadian? We are inclined to believe that there is some difference in quality – Bieber may be objectively a better singer, or subjectively more good looking than other Canadian blondes. If that were the case, we should be able to replicate the success quite easily, or at least reliably predict which book or song or game will be the next runaway hit. Instead, The Blair Witch Project wins while John Carter sinks.
Kieran Healy adds to the discussion by bringing up one of my favorite academic papers, by sociologists Duncan Watts, Matt Salganik and Peter Dodds that examines this phenomenon, titled, “Experimental study of inequality and unpredictability in an artificial cultural market“. The experiment set up was clever – A music sharing website was created in which over 10,000 participants download previously unknown songs. One group of users were presented with a list of songs without any indication on how many times the songs have been downloaded. Another group of users were presented with the same songs, but ordered by the number of previous downloads.
Results showed that just that little bit of information on the number of downloads was enough to make songs perform disproportionately. Songs that were shown to be downloaded just a little bit more became extremely popular. Even then, rerunning the same experiments again lead to a slightly different result – the most popular song still became disproportionately so, but was a different one. On the upside, however, the best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well. But everything in between is up for grabs.
Flappy Bird had the qualities for success, but it was also the beneficiary of some rapid word-of-mouth and random luck that drove the game up the download charts. This paper helps blast aside some of our grasping for the post rationalization on why success occurs – we want to believe something has succeeded because of certain features, that the product is fundamentally better, when most of the time they can be quite irrelevant.
There are probably a range of reasons for people’s reluctance to agree that true unpredictability is a real feature of these markets. Psychologically, people are often predisposed to believe in some version of a Just World Hypothesis where people fundamentally get what they deserve. A little more sociologically—as noted by Salganik et al—the sheer fact of a winner’s huge success focuses attention on the particular features of the good, and encourages people to tell a story about why those features drove it to success. This story is of course very plausible ex post precisely because the good succeeded so well. The commentariat in the business press, and sadly a great deal of research on management and leadership in business, is built on some version of this error. Seeking an explanation for success, you look only at the successful cases and thus ignore the possibility that the predictors of success you discover are also present in many of the failed cases. In research design this mistake is called sampling on the dependent variable. As John said repeatedly during the show, this will lead you to confuse necessary and sufficient causes.
What does this mean for brands? It does not mean that quality is not relevant. It is, and it’ll be nice if quality is enough to win, and that was the case when there weren’t that many companies around. A unique value proposition is great, but difficult to achieve. This leaves many companies trying to win what is really a game of chance (even if it’s one you can approximate), to be the Flappy Bird that keeps on flapping. When we say we don’t know which half of the money spent on advertising/marketing is wasted – all the data in the world still cannot give you an ex ante explanation.
We often chalk up the failure of a venture to two reasons: that it doesn’t address any real needs, or that it doesn’t address needs better than existing solutions.
If Secret (or Whisper) fails, it wouldn’t be because of the former, that it’s entirely stupid. While it does have a quality similar to trashy magazines or reality TV, there is, at the same time, clearly some strong desire for an app that guarantees some anonymity. We just don’t quite know how to optimize it and what to do with it yet. In this case, the desire for some information that one is not quite comfortable to ask for/reveal is asking for a solution. Maya Baratz at Techcrunch has suggested that an effective anonymity app will allow you to privately share with someone to help them avoid a mistake you’ve made without you suffering any further repercussions (barring any issues around the accuracy and sensitivity of the material put up).
Viewed as such, Secret is just a first step, and I’m eager for this baby to grow up. (I can see an app as such being useful for whistleblowers or informants – clearly there is a need for either more boundaries or more opening up in order to make anonymity useful, instead of merely frivolous.)
Between all the “empowering” and “results-driven optimization” and “leveraging of core competencies”, there appears to now be a new word in the mix – the horrifying amalgamation of publishers and platforms, otherwise known as platishers.
We should really cascade some memos regarding these crimes against vocabulary.
Jonathan Glick came up with the word in a recent post at Re/Code, itself a social media platform as well as a publisher, comparable to other platforms ranging from the wide-ranging Twitter and Facebook, to more content-specific platforms such as Forbes and LinkedIn, to newer brands such as Byliner, BuzzFeed and Vox Media.
A new trend? Sort of – Huffington Post has a similar model since 2005, but it is in the last few years that platishers mentioned above have emerged – clearly there is much room for growth. Ideally, insightful curation, together with unique content and a differentiated brand, will lead to a proliferation of quality writing readers can enjoy. Competition will be tough – between aggregators turned publishers and publishers turned aggregators, companies not involved in journalism will themselves be interested in creating content and telling a bigger story. It may be time we also have a Forgotify for the many posts that are going to go unread in this sea of words.
If you haven’t read this piece by George Packer on Amazon, then you should probably quit playing Flappy Bird for 20 minutes and do so. The business is a fascinating one, summed up in the first paragraph alone:
Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S. Its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns a major newspaper, the Washington Post. All these streams and tributaries make Amazon something radically new in the history of American business. Sam Walton wanted merely to be the world’s biggest retailer. After Apple launched the iPod, Steve Jobs didn’t sign up pop stars for recording contracts. A.T. & T. doesn’t build transmission towers and rent them to smaller phone companies, the way Amazon Web Services provides server infrastructure for startups (not to mention the C.I.A.). Amazon’s identity and goals are never clear and always fluid, which makes the company destabilizing and intimidating.
It is a comprehensive read on its history and development to the point it’s at today, and makes certain points that I agree with, particularly on the use of data to assume the shape of public demand, in order to be the one positioned to supply it almost immediately.
“Jeff is trying to create a machine that assumes the shape of public demand,” Tim Appelo, the former entertainment editor, said. “He resembles a very, very smart shmoo—he only wants to serve, to make you happy.” Appelo was referring to Al Capp’s smiling blob of a cartoon character, which happily provides people with whatever they need: milk, eggs, butter, even its own tasty self. With Amazon’s patented 1-Click shopping, which already knows your address and credit-card information, there’s just you and the buy button; transactions are as quick and thoughtless as scratching an itch. “It’s sort of a masturbatory culture,” the marketing executive said. If you pay seventy-nine dollars annually to become an Amazon Prime member, a box with the Amazon smile appears at your door two days after you click, with free shipping. Amazon’s next frontier is same-day delivery: first in certain American cities, then throughout the U.S., then the world.
The company is further along than anyone else in its monstrous amalgamation of the online and offline worlds, and a manifestation of Bezos’ view on how the world should and will be.
Bezos also argues that Amazon’s role is simply to usher in inevitable change. After giving “60 Minutes” a first glimpse of Amazon drone delivery, Bezos told Charlie Rose, “Amazon is not happening to bookselling. The future is happening to bookselling.”
Of course, this is a sleigh of hand – for Bezos, Amazon is the future. And Amazon is a microcosm (if you can call Amazon micro) of the world to come. Public demand is a signal waiting in the data collected. A middle class job is one that robots can’t perform, yet. Consumers will not like this ill-treatment of workers, yet its low prices will be what they can afford. More and more things will be bought online and delivered, and this will free us and give us more time to do… what? Amazon or Netflix or Apple will probably make an ad telling me the time is for heartwarming moments with the family.
I’m scared and in awe of what is to come.