Great series of posts on Choice Architecture in the Wild…

I’ve been a bit slack in recommending some of the great articles and posts appearing on other blogs around the internet, which is particularly highlighted by Jonathan MacDonald’s great series on ‘Choice Architecture in the Wild‘, as it’s now up to a 12th installment!

All of them are well worth reading, and the latest post provides some great examples about the way simple decisions in marketing and advertising are sometimes misguided in terms of what people actually believe and do as a result.

Obviously I need to disclose that I’ve happily known Jonathan a while and he may or may not have once bought me a sandwich (Or I might have bought one for him, in which case, he can disclose it, and also buy me lunch sometime!)

Lipstick on a pig….

Considering the current snow disruption to travel, and the fact that I had to cancel meetings today due to being stranded, the news that East Coast trains are about to appoint a new advertising agency came at the perfect time.

No disrespect to the advertising agencies involved, but I’m not sure any advertising agency is the solution to the problems East Coast has. Even when they’re not stumped by the presence of snow in winter, any advertising has to compete against the daily criticisms being made by paying passengers.

Peterborough station - 7:50am

Image by BadgerGravling via Flickr

Overcrowded, under-resourced, and charging for previously-free and unreliable wifi are just some of the things which advertising won’t solve. Add in the costs, the difficulty of reserving seats, the lack of effective information on delays, and you’ve got a pretty steep challenge to solve.

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Misunderstanding cigarette branding…

The UK Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley has suggested cigarettes should be sold in plain packaging, as ‘the evidence is clear that packaging helps to recruit smokers’.

Sadly for those who want to prevent smoking, he appears to be talking cobblers – as suggested by the fact the previous Government ditched the same plan two years ago due to a lack of evidence to that effect.

What’s happened is that there’s a misunderstanding of the role of branding in cigarette smokers.

  • People encourage other people to start smoking.
  • Branding and People influence which particular product someone smokes.

Removing branding won’t make any difference to the amount of people trying smoking. It might make a difference in the number of cigarette companies, but the spread of cigarette smoking is largely spread by encountering other people that smoke and being influenced by them in some way. There’s a handy chapter in The Tipping Point on the triggers for smoking, quoting examples of being influenced by people who were seen as cool, and also smoked. The basic hypothesis is that some people who smoke happen to be cool, and therefore smoking is perceived as cool (Rather than smoking making someone cool – the reality is that it makes people smell of tobacco, wheeze when they’re running, and end up dying earlier more often than if they hadn’t smoked – but as a smoker for over 10 years, I already know this).

Cigarette by SuperFantastic on Flickr (CC Licence)

So why do tobacco companies spend so much on marketing, and finding ways to place their brands in your eye, despite cigarette advertising bans?

The first cigarette I ever tried was a Silk Cut Ultra Light – and yet for 10 years I’ve smoked Marlboro. I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that Ayrton Senna drove a Marlboro McLaren, Wayne Rainey rode a Marlboro Yamaha, and I actually suffered through the feature film ‘Harley-Davidson and the Marlboro Man‘. Given the choice, I’ll pay a slight premium for the familiar taste and amount of nicotine, plus the branding and image etc. But if that brand vanished tomorrow, I’d find another one in the time it took to run out of cigarettes. The fact is that in the past I’ve bought John Player Specials (JPS Lotus, JPS Norton), and Rothmans (Rothman Honda in the Wayne Gardner era) as fall-backs which have no relation in taste or nicotine levels.

Wayne Rainey driving out of turn 3 at the 1990...

Image via Wikipedia

I’d reveal a more effective way to tackle smoking, but unfortunately there’s a limit to how long I can write about the topic without nipping outside for a cigarette…

Content farms will eat themselves

The leading example of web publishing dubbed ‘content farms’ is Demand Media, which has just publicly filed registration for an IPO, and as a result has made it’s financial records public for the first time.

There was some surprise that content farming doesn’t currently make Demand Media profitable – last year it turned over $198 million in revenue, but still managed to lose $22 million. This year is looking better – a $6 million loss on $108 million so far… but it’s also important to note that a sizeable percentage of revenue is actually coming from Demand’s web registrar business, eNom, rather than content farming.

Content farms will peak this year:

I definitely think this is the right time for an IPO, as I honestly believe that this year could be the peak of content farming as a sustainable model for big business – for years, small companies and individuals have gone around creating targeted landing pages, and I still think there are ways to make this work effectively, but sizeable companies dominating the space are going to struggle.

What content farms rely on:

There are two things that content farms rely on for content creation – Search and Advertising. Essentially they’re creating content to respond to popular search queries to arbitrage advertising revenue (sold direct or via networks such as Google’s Adsense). In Demand’s case, it currently has deals with Google which are set to end in 2011.

They’re able to produce this content by farming the work out to a legion of online writers who are submitting for a low cost.

The shakey foundations of content farms:

Search – Traffic comes from responding to search queries. If the nature of search changes, by becoming more personalised and from social recommendations, then the traffic to search query specific sites drops.

This is likely, because the search content is often on sites which have no focus on owning an area with quality content – which is the sort of thing which is more likely to be shared on social networks (It should have also been the sort of content more likely to be highlighted by Google – maybe in 2011?).

Advertising – Ad networks, affiliate deals, and particularly advertising linked closely to search works, such as Google Adwords. If you can optimise a page for traffic and response by targeting people actively searching for it, and it’s something which advertisers will happily bid a significant amount to advertise against, you’re in business.

But the nature of the internet, and relatively open networks like Adwords (which have no minimum barrier to entry), means that there are always going to be an increasing number of options for advertisers. And while there will only ever be a handful of sites getting sizeable traffic from a position on page one of the search results, Adwords is keyword-based, so in aggregate you can achieve a similar scale more cheaply if you start digging into the results (as more people will – search advertising is relatively old in terms of internet revenues, but still a newborn for most advertisers.)

Content creators: Content farms can exist because there are thousands of people who are willing and able to churn out enough content to make a worthwhile return for them despite the relatively low reward – in comparison to traditional freelance costs for someone working in the media. Partly this is because it’s easy – relative to establishing a successful blog in a niche and achieving the same level of earnings for example. And partly it’s down to a lack of options – if you’re not one of the ‘elite’ with a job for traditional media, and you’re not building your own property, there’s an apparent limit to your options for contributing for payment

The earthquakes of algorithms and competition:

Google, (and Bing, Wolphram Alpha, or any other search product) uses software which can be tweaked and changed at any point – and if content farming is producing terrible writing (I’m not saying that’s the case across all companies and articles, but potentially en masse), then that software algorithm can be adapted.

Plus the social web is having an increased effect on both filtering and discovery. Google News is experimenting with human editors, whilst the likes of Facebook and Twitter have made social recommendations more mainstream than the previous traffic drivers of Digg, Reddit and Stumbleupon, because suddenly my none-digitally addicted friends have a quick and easy way to share links beyond their email connections, and for everyone else to pick up on them and repeat them.

And content farming is not a new concept – the segment of bloggers who focus primarily on making money have long looked at search data and advertising as the way to isolate niches which are most likely to make them a reward… So there’s nothing which is protected from unlimited competition, particularly when the likes of aol and Yahoo have also started to use search as a tool for article creation.

Finally, there’s a big element missing from content farm advertising. I’ve spent a long time working for media companies, and whatever you may believe about the media industry as a whole, I’ve seen an enormous amount of respect and faith from audiences for traditional media products. There are flaws in traditional display advertising, but you’re not just buying the ‘last click’ – indeed several attempts have been made to quantify the branding and awareness benefit you get from advertising with a big media brand.

Indeed, the same is true of advertising with a small niche blog in many ways – if I’m actively accepting advertising (which I do), and promoting affiliate products (which I also do), I have a vested interest in vetting them beforehand to avoid losing any trust, respect and loyalty from anyone who visits my site. I’ve never made a direct recommendation for anyone to purchase something I haven’t sampled first, and I take a similar approach to the advertising I sell directly. Only those adverts served by Google Adsense are independent from any editorial judgement, and that hopefully means that the implicit or explicit links mean that there’s an element of trust there.

Whereas people writing solely for search aren’t building that same level of engagement – they’re writing whatever they’re assigned, and that’s not going to translate to the social web effectively. I don’t pay to promote myself – I submit my content to several other locations, and then it’s down to the people who either know me, or see it and like it, to reward it with recommendations, links and traffic.

And there’s a final thought – at the moment there are several big sites allowing you to contribute on a huge range of topics without necessarily benefitting you financially. Wikipedia is one example, but others, for instance, Squidoo, allow you to donate any earnings to charity, for example. At the moment most of the open or non-profit approaches aren’t as prominent in the minds of many people, but as time goes by, more and more people seem to be following the notion of establishing a knowledgeable online presence in order to benefit indirectly, rather than monetising it at the source – Cory Doctorow often quotes Tim O’Reilly as saying ‘ the greatest enemy of a new author isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity’, and the same could be true on monetisation. More and more people seem to be contributing and building elements of online empires to establish reputation over monetisation, and these non-profit approaches could become another source of competition.

So what can content farms do?

In my eternal optimism, I think there’s a future for an evolution of content farming – to establish the leverage to provide a platform which correctly rewards people for displaying a high level of knowledge and engagement, so that those wishing for a direct financial reward can be recompensed, and advertisers can confidently invest in the branding and trust benefits of being associated with them.

But the challenge is that it’s an area in which media companies have existed for years, and they’re coming to the web from the opposite angle as they are getting more and more digitally savvy (there’s still a long way to go, but there’s probably more movement in digital from a lot of big media companies in the last year or so than in the last 5 or 6). If they don’t fall into only developing expertise in a closed application ecosystem, but also continue to invest, experiment and build, then content farms could actual be inspiring and paving the way for traditional brands to have a resurgence.

The future of Twitter – crushing the ecosystem?

Things are definitely coming to a head when it comes to Twitter. The official Twitter conference, ‘Chirp’, takes place on Wednesday, April 14th, and with Evan Williams speaking about the ‘Monetisation Philosophy’, followed by Dick Costolo on ‘Monetisation’, it looks like the Twitter ad platform will arrive after much speculation.

Then there’s the post by Fred Wilson, a significant Twitter investor, about the role of developers, and the fact that the days of ‘hole filling’ by producing something simple which makes up for a gap in the original service have gone.

Then came the purchase on Friday of one-man Twitter client Tweetie, and the news that the $2.99 app would soon be rebranded ‘Twitter for iPhone’ and become a free application.

That’s not forgetting the officially-endorsed Twitter client for BlackBerry, which has since apparently had the ‘official’ term changed. Although there’s no word on what that means for Tweetie.

And the news that Twitter has created a second portal site – following on from Twitter‘s Business portal, there’s now also a Twitter Media.

So in the space of a week:

  • Third party advertising on Twitter could be hit in a major way.
  • Clients on iPhone and BlackBerry could be hit in a major way
  • ‘Simple’ apps will probably read into what’s happening that they could be hit next in a major way
  • Blogs and Twitter-based websites are starting to find that Twitter is creating portals (blogs!) which serve their business, but could also hit other sites by removing valuable content areas.

Sheesh…

There’s definitely a slight feeling of worry at the moment, whether light-hearted or more nervous, as various people wait to see what comes next.

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Will Twitter continue to expand into the space formerly occupied by the vibrant Twitter ecosystem? And if so, will there be any self-imposed limit? Or should every Twitter app developer be looking to see whether they’re likely to be acquired (Not exactly a bad exit), or possibly made redundant by the Twitter expansion?

In all honesty, I’m not sure anyone knows, even at Twitter. Contrary to popular rumour, there is money coming into the company via search deals made with Google and Bing, so there hasn’t been a rush to expand and monetise. And there’s a logical point that new Twitter users without access to a mobile client may get extremely confused when presented with the huge choice available, particularly on iPhone.

There’s not much of a precedent set by previous companies either, with Blogger not being known as an app-fest in the same manner as Twitter before Google acquired it.

It seems there are still a few options for developers:

1. Develop something totally amazing, and Twitter may acquire you.

2. Develop something totally amazing which stretches across platform (That’ll be Facebook then).

3. Develop something totally amazing for another platform – one which might not be as noteworthy in the media, but might still be a way to make a decent living – for inspiration, look at developers creating businesses developing for Symbian, or even Palm, alongside iPhone, Android and BlackBerry.

And the same principle of value applies to blogging about Twitter – the likes of oneforty.com provide Twitter client/tool recommendations which have powered the readership of a number of sites, and many of the others exist on a steady diet of ‘Twitter for beginners’, ‘Twitter for Moms’, ‘Twitter for journalists who may freelance two days a week but spend the rest of the time working for a regional paper and also enjoy bowling’ type guides. (Yes, I’m talking about Twitip.com – fair play to them for having a far bigger readership than 140char, but it’s not my favourite ‘other’ blog about Twitter. If you’re going to be polygamous with your microblogging blogs, I’d probably pick Twittercism first.

So it appears as if the era of microblogging consolidation has matured – just as forum software, blogging platforms, and social networks before it (Remember when there was more than Facebook, Myspace, and er….er…)

It doesn’t preclude one-man garage developer or lone-blogger success, but it does make it tougher, with a need to find the right product, get it out there hard and fast, and keep iterating it to stay ahead. There’ll be less novelty and lightweight applications aiming to make a couple of bucks, and more investment by brands and companies in specific advertising and application tied to their ROI. Essentially this kind of hybrid Proprietary meets Open Source model has swung slightly more towards Proprietary, as it did for Microsoft in the past, and as it’s done for Facebook more recently. The question is whether there’s enough gold in Twitter left for 3rd parties to mine, or whether we could see the start of a significant move to other platforms – particularly with the huge rise of interest in mobile internet of all shapes, sizes and applications.

So where do you think Twitter is heading next? And if you’re a developer, what are your plans?

New reputable way to make money by blogging

Sponsored Post

It seems like a lot of schemes offer ways for bloggers to earn money. But most of them don’t work unless you’re attracting huge traffic numbers. Monetisation often means having a few ad networks scattered around your site, rather than doing something more meaningful.

The good news is that Ebuzzing is a platform to bring together advertisers and bloggers – and having launched in 2007 to a predominantly French market, it’s now available in the UK, allowing you to serve advertiser campaigns either via a dedicated video player, syndicated video players and banners, or by allowing sponsored posts about brands and services. It’s also quick and easy to register on ebuzzing.com

Ebuzzing video campaign with the dedicated player

I’ve actually used the service already, resulting in a post on the Small Rivers blog network tool. Importantly you can choose whether or not a campaign is suitable, and apply or decline on a topic basis, so you don’t have to cover anything your readers would find odd.

Equally importantly it’s an ethical platform, requiring the “sponsored post” disclaimer for all articles, advertiser names alongside all videos, and all links are ‘no follow’ links to avoid being mistaken for paid links – not only do you submit your article for approval, but they’ll also check it’s appearing correctly when it’s published on your site. And more than 600 brands have proposed campaigns so far..

Ebuzzing video campaign with the syndicated player

The financial rewards are at a good level, and registration is quick and simple – and there’s no obligation to post anything if you don’t find a suitable topic – you can also set your own price. Plus it was recently acquired by the WIKIO group, so there’s enough backing to know it shouldn’t disappear overnight. Take a look at ebuzzing and see what you think.

Sun viral video started with Twitter paid advertising

UK newspaper The Sun is getting plenty of online coverage for a viral video it has created to capitalise on the interest in Apple’s rumoured tablet computer. But what noone has mentioned is that the seeding started with paid Twitter advertising from Be A Magpie (referral link)…

And I know that because I’ve been running paid Twitter advertising for a while as a test, and spotted it in my approval queue early yesterday, which then got picked up first by Paid Content UK.

The Sun's paid Twitter advert in my stream

The Sun's paid Twitter advert in my stream

Searching Twitter for the bit.ly link shows that 4 other people are using Magpie and beat me to place the advert, as they all used the same text, same ‘ad:’ disclosure, and all posted via the API. And then the link started to take off around 22 hours ago, coinciding with it starting to appear on more and more websites and blogs.

Partly this is down to the advert itself being worthy of comment/repeating. See it for yourself:

But it’s also interesting that The Sun (Or whichever agency/affiliate placed the Magpie advert) is now using paid Twitter advertising – previously the majority of all advertising has been for technology products (with one charity popping up as a one-off).

You can see it’s got around 1457 total clicks today by appending the identifier on the bit.ly url on your own bit.ly info page. And considering the going rate of paid Twitter advertising at the moment, I’d love to know exactly what they’ve paid, but I’d assume it’s been pretty cost effective judging by the prices I’ve seen, and the fact it got picked up by websites following on from the tweets.

The question is whether this was sanctioned by The Sun itself, and whether we’ll see more and more mainstream brands starting to use paid Twitter adverts in addition/instead of using their own accounts or trying to earn Twitter mentions?

In The Sun’s case it definitely makes sense, as their accounts are RSS feeds with less followers than my individual account! e.g. The Sun News, The Sun Bizarre, The Sun Football.

New research states the obvious for advertising on social networks

In a shocking revelation, research has revealed that adverts running on non-social media sites get better click-through rates than on sites such as Bebo and Flixter.

Via Brand Republic, social advertising network Lotame compared figures with Google’s Doubleclick – although interaction with ‘advertising communication’ was higher on social networks.

There are a stack of reasons why this is the case – the fact that conversion rates and click-throughs can be monumentally different due to designs, ad placement and topics means that these types of comparison are never particularly useful.

But the main one is that when I want to communicate with my friends and family, I don’t give a monkeys about any product unless I’m actively asking about it, or my network are actively recommending it.

When I’m viewing non-social sites, I’m more likely to be possibly searching for something related to my browsing.

If you’re monetising something via social networking, surely the best way is to remove advertising, and just go straight from recommendation to purchase?

Ad.ly targets celebs with the same old sponsored Tweet model

Ad.ly is a self-serve Twitter advertising network matching advertisers and celebrities to tweet about products. The celeb gets to approve or decline messages, and advertisers get tracking for click-through rates, retweets and geographic locations for Retweeters. The celebs set their own price, but Ad.ly gives suggestions, and the celebrity has to tweet four times in the course of a week, netting them five figure sums for each message if they have more than a millions followers.

So that’s Magpie or Izea Sponsored Tweets system just with only celebrities. And apparently that’s enough to have attracted Kim Kardashian, Brooke Burke, Nicole Richie, Brody Jenner, Dr. Drew and Samantha Ronson for the launch.

It’s potentially a good move to only have celebrities involved – that way you only go for the big ticket advertising to generate the share for Ad.ly. But it’s not exactly an evolution of monetising Twitter for individuals.

I’m not going to rant about sponsored tweets as having tested them, I’ve continued to use Magpie on the odd occasion – within a few days each year it effectively pays for my hosting costs, and with a young family and little time to monetise Twitter in other ways, I can just about justify it to myself.

But surely celebrities actually have far more to lose? And less to gain considering the myriad ways which they can effectively monetise their followers and fans through their products? Particularly the hypothetical example Ad.ly is using

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BMW’s new ‘Joy’ ad doesn’t have that effect on me…

I’ve always been a big fan of cars and motorcycles, coming in somewhere on the Steve McQueen/Jeremy Clarkson end of the spectrum, and I’ve liked a lot of BMW’s.

But their latest ad just really doesn’t work for me:

The problem is that it’s mixing two things badly, and comes across as incredibly patronising: ‘at BMW we make Joy’. No you don’t – you make cars and motorcycles which can evoke feelings of anything from happiness to sadness depending on the person, the situation and millions of other factors. I’ll choose whether I feel joy when someone in a BMW repmobile cuts me up.

And showing people enjoying your product only works if they are real people, and look like real people. I don’t share a lot of emotions with a hired actor from LA being towed in a car on the back of a truck for a morning.

Compare it with a car advert I love:

Now this inspires me to feel joy, because they let me recognise the icons I identify with from their range, the song is about chasing an impossible dream rather than assuming they’ve achieved it, and because their main character is a balding, mutton-chopped 70’s loon, rather than a perfectly groomed extra.