The reports of the cookie’s death have been grossly exaggerated.

“The death of cookies,” to borrow a phrase, is (mostly) fake news. I wouldn’t be concerned with this topic, except that so many reputable media outlets have been publishing misleading and sensational headlines about it.

Take a look:

Adweek sent an email special report with the headline:  “The Death of Cookies.”

AdAge with Cheetah Digital posted on social with the same frenzied phrase: “The death of cookies”

And Segment (Twilio’s customer data platform) went even further with this social gem: “Digital Advertising in a Cookieless World.”

But here’s the problem: It.  Isn’t. True.

So let’s get to the bottom of why all these authorities are spewing all this gunk.

The first thing that’s important to know is that there are two primary kinds of cookies:  these are called “first-party cookies” and “third-party cookies.”  (I know, it’s weird that there’s no “second party cookies.” Somebody got ripped off in this deal.)

First-party cookies are data files that are shared between your browser and any website you visit.  When you visit a site, especially a site that you may go back to multiple times, say a news site like NYTimes.com, a small text file is generated and stored on your browser. It contains information about you (nothing too personal, unless you choose to save passwords via your browser, and please don’t do that,) like the browser you’re using, the operating system, where you’re located (via your IP address,) and even the browsing history.  They were originally created to optimize the performance of websites.  Since there’s a history encoded in the cookie, the website does not have to fully reload each time you visit it – it sort of restores the previous session, and then updates the site with its latest content. This is why your shopping cart on e-commerce sites is “remembered” and preferences on other sites are stored.  Each time you go back to the site, the cookie is updated with more information.  So it’s a bit of a history log between your browser and a specific domain. 

Disclaimer: This is an oversimplification of first-party cookies, but it will serve to help distinguish it from the other type.

Third-party cookies are different in many ways. First, and most important, they are stored under a different domain than the one you are visiting. They are typically “shared” from the domain you’re visiting with – you guessed it – third parties. The most basic example is this:  you go and visit NYTimes.com to read the news, and you see banner ads on the top and along the right side from a brand like Toyota. Since NYTimes is a publisher, and has sold advertising space to Toyota, they may have also agreed to share your data, and allow Toyota to drop a third-party cookie to track your browsing behavior.  The thinking with this was “it would help Toyota to know what other kinds of sites readers of the New York Times might visit, and what their browsing behavior is, so we can build a better profile of potential targets.” 

Disclaimer:  this is also an oversimplification of third-party cookies, but it should serve to help distinguish it from the other type.

Okay.

So, the headlines you’ve been reading are misleading, because they leave out a very important qualifier: the only thing that’s “dying” is the third-party cookie.

Pushing out headlines like “the death of cookies” or “a cookieless world” is like saying “music is dead” just because we’ve banned Justin Bieber. It’s sensationalizing the story at best. It’s clickbait at worst.

First-party cookies are here to stay, and there’s no way they’re going away, since it would cut off hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue being transacted every year. First-party cookies form the basis of ad targeting, retargeting, (yes, you can still be retargeted via first-party cookies,) display advertising (banner ads,) most social media platform algorithms, and the mighty Zeus of them all, search engine marketing and its associated retargeting.

[The post ends there, but I have a few words to say about WHY third-party cookies are getting the axe.]

The whole kerfuffle over third-party cookies is generally about privacy, and not having one’s data shared without one’s knowledge. But who are we kidding? Our data is getting shared every day, all over the place, whether we a.) like it or not and b.) know it or not.  Did you ever Google yourself? I’m sure you didn’t actively and purposefully put all that information there – it was aggregated from across the web without your knowledge or consent. How do you think data marketing companies make money? They go and mine data they already have, or it’s getting shared with them from retailers, credit card companies, and others. Yes, GDPR legislation has been adopted, but all it effectively does is add another annoying click before I get to the content I want on any new website. Ugh. And if the last year has showed us anything, (since third-party cookies have started phasing out and Apple’s iOS tracking regulations have been adopted,) it’s that you can still run effective and even mobile-friendly ads without third-party cookies and nobody is any worse for wear.

This author’s preference is to have his data shared (no social security numbers, credit card numbers or bank account numbers, thank you very much,) so that my general Internet experience is more carefully curated and more fully tailored to my preferences. Killing third-party cookies was accelerated as a knee-jerk reaction to the 2020 election and fears of the “echo chamber” effect, and more sensitive issues like child welfare, gender identity, and other possibly incriminating privacy gaffes. All the while, forgetting that you can still be retargeted via first-party cookies. They could have worked that stuff out and still made the Internet an interesting and contextualized place.

If Toyota wants to follow me around for two weeks to find out that I’m not a fit for their brand, so be it.  At least I won’t see ads for the 2022 Camry hybrid anymore.

Facebook’s Meta transition. A mashup that proves hardware is the new tech.

Late last month, noted CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is changing its name to Meta, and changing its official stock ticker from FB to MVRS.  The name Meta is a shorthand for the metaverse, which is itself shorthand for an almost fully immersed online world, where people can play, work, and gather in groups in the virtual sense. Zuckerberg is betting big on building it, even though it’s been tried before. (More on that in a bit.)

That this massive shift away from one of the world’s most recognizable brand names comes amid a slew of scandals is indeed curious.  But let’s leave all the political soundbites and sexy headlines aside for the moment.  This is not about the Facebook Papers, nor about Russian disinformation, nor about Cambridge Analytica, or data collection, or facial recognition…man, they do have a lot of shit swirling around the campus out there, don’t they?

Nah, this smells like a big bet hardware play, plain and simple.

This whole Meta rename is nothing more than a cosmetic corporate restructuring that will now control Facebook and its other well-known brands, including Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Oculus.  A lot like when Google changed their name to Alphabet, and rolled up all their brands, including Google itself, under the holding company.  (PS – only investors care about this stuff, and THEY still call it Google. And the stock ticker for the company known as Alphabet is…GOOGL.)

So why isn’t Zuckerberg saying that?

I have an idea. Maybe it’s because the metaverse isn’t a great idea.  Or, rather, maybe it isn’t a great idea to shelter it under the enormous loads of cash that the artist formerly known as Facebook has at its disposal.  It’s been widely reported that the year one budget is over $10 billion, and that 10,000 people, mostly in hardware, will be recruited to make it go.

When any entrepreneur wants to launch a new idea, especially a broad and ambitious one like the metaverse Zuckerberg envisions, it’s good practice to prove it can actually accomplish something on its own merits.  It’s a good practice to seek capital from investors and show milestones that prove the concept.  In the absence of that kind of oversight and objective grownups in the room that business incubator model provides, it’s just another lavish vanity project.  The Metaverse is to Zuckerberg what space is to Bezos, Musk and Branson: a vast unknown that he hopes to monetize.

And let’s remember two important things about Meta’s metaverse:
First, the road to the metaverse was paved by Second Life way back in 2003, a full year before Mark Zuckerberg’s “hot or not” turned into “thefacebook.” It is a metaverse full of avatars and provides an almost identical experience to what Zuckerberg envisions: an interesting alternative online environment, where you can have virtual meetings and other whatnots.  (Kinda mostly trying to ply a virtual shopping mall, though.)

Second, and far more interesting: Meta’s virtual world will require, not suggest, that you purchase some very real and very significant pieces of hardware to access it. Oculus VR goggles are currently retailing at around $300, and may not have the full range of capabilities to access what will eventually become the Meta metaverse. It’s a long way to go to sell a bunch of accessories, but it sure sounds like a hot hardware play, doesn’t it? Build the metaverse, get a lot of good press, then tell those who can afford it that the only way to get on board is to buy some rechargeable VR binoculars, now available in six avatar-worthy colors!  All of this is coming right on the heels of Facebook (can we still call it that?) inking a deal with Ray-Ban to sell some fancy Smart Wayfarers that take photographs and play tunes, also for about $300.

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Zuckerberg was trying to emulate Steve Jobs in some way. After all, Apple’s most successful product was/is the iPhone, not the Macintosh, its former flagship. It required the purchase of a significant piece of hardware. It was an ambitious project and came decades after the company launched. And Jobs didn’t just have the phone developed with a base OS and software.  He outsourced the smartphone “experience” to third party developers via the app ecosystem so every user could customize their device to their liking and have a uniquely personal interaction with it. It’s what ignited the phone’s insanely fast global adoption, and may be a route that Zuckerberg is similarly exploring.  The metaverse will require the purchase of significant hardware.  It, too, is an ambitious project that will launch decades after the Facebook flagship. Let’s all pay attention over the next couple of years and take notice when third-party developers – under a watchful eye and strict guidelines, of course – are invited to curate and broaden the metaverse experience in various ways, like shopping, gaming, utilities, fitness, and others.

Other tech CEOs have also profited marvelously in various ways on and off the Internet, and have pivoted to hardware in the process. Brin and Page monetized consumer intent with paid search advertising. Then they sold us Pixel phones and Google Home and acquired Nest for broader reach with devices. (And they’re betting big on Waymo.) Musk made his money online with PayPal when it sold to EBay, then monetized major hardware with Tesla electric cars. Bezos is a retailer and monetizes markup. He also likes hardware – Kindle and Echo both do just fine, thank you very much. With Meta, Zuckerberg seeks to do all of the above, just in the opposite order. He’ll first sell hardware to access the metaverse. Then he’ll sell advertising (likely highly contextualized) with a new model that combines search history, affinity, and basic demographics to a mostly Gen Z audience. He’ll build in some exchange system (maybe crypto-based) in the metaverse that costs real offline dollars. And he’ll most definitely build some kind of online shopping component.

So…what color would you prefer for your new goggles?

CONTENT CATEGORIES: fuel your funnel with the right stuff

Funnel marketing is back in fashion, and dozens of new ideas are popping up around this classic business concept.  The marketing funnel (or the consumer journey, or the conversion pathway, as it goes by many names,) is simply a conceptual construct to illustrate the broad phases of how leads are generated and then move from one place – where a consumer is typically unaware of your concept or brand or product – to another, more desirable place, where that consumer is ready to buy (or recommend) your specific product, and hopefully, right now.

It usually looks something like this:

Another concept – content marketing – has also been blogged to death in the last several years. The basic idea here is that brands can and should be generating and distributing a constant stream of content in many forms to attract and retain their target audiences.

Both funnel marketing and content marketing are relevant and valuable. Both concepts are basically applicable for just about any audience in just about any category, and that includes b-to-c or b-to-b. (That’s neat.)

But what I’ve noticed recently is that there isn’t much discussion on how content and marketing funnels can or should work together.

If you decide that it’s time to create content for your brand (and yes, it’s always a good time to do that,) you may also realize it can be quite difficult.  Questions abound about what to create, when to create it, where and how to distribute it, and whether or not it’s a good investment of critical resources, such as time, talent, and capital.

One important strategy is to create categories for your content that line up with your funnel marketing goals. In this case, the illustration would look more like this.

Let’s explore.

Almost every marketing funnel is illustrated by the letters A-I-D-A to represent awareness, interest, desire (or decision) and action. But in broader terms, the consumer journey is encapsulated by three broad categories: evaluation, consideration, motivation.

When the consumer is in the evaluation stage (becomes aware, develops interest):

In the early (high-funnel) stages, a consumer may be evaluating a purchase or interaction in this category.  In some cases, that consumer may be wholly unaware of your brand at this point. If your brand is new, or has just launched a new feature, or a new line, or has been dormant for a while and is back in some way, you want to communicate to the consumer set that you have options that might be worthy of review. 

For this I recommend creating generalized content.  Think about ways to show the consumer simply that your brand belongs in the category and has something interesting (or better yet different) to offer. This is a great time to educate/inform the consumer.

Some examples would include social content, blog posts, listicles, product reviews (to outline the basic brand/product traits.)

When the consumer is in the consideration stage (has interest, develops desire):

In the middle (mid-funnel) stages, that same consumer has probably become a bit more educated as a result of their exploration, and they’re now considering which options are the best for him/her/them. Note that this can only occur with brands that the consumer is aware of, and knows something about. They may circle back and look to check off important boxes, such as features, availability, time to delivery, and other (buying signal) particulars that are now important to them. 

Also note how the consumer, from a psychological perspective, gets more and more self-interested as they proceed down the funnel.  The conversation tends to move from “what does this thingy do?” to “what does this thingy do FOR ME?” 

This is where you should consider more specialized content. Help the consumer see your brand from the perspective of its superiority points, or better yet its unique points.

Some examples would include infographics to position your brand in the category, video or animated product demonstrations, info sheets/brochures or White Papers for b-to-b (to highlight the brand/product difference relative to other choices.)

When the consumer is in the action stage (has desire, ready to act):

Finally, the consumer reaches the moment of truth.  They’ve moved into the mode of desire and are ready to act in some way.  As mentioned above, they’ve considered this from a fairly self-interested point of view, and come to believe that maybe only one brand can really satisfy their needs.  Very often, they may whittle their choice down to two brands (because binary choices are easier for consumers to make,) and run a final A vs B competition in their minds, and yes, maybe even in their hearts.

Whenever you hear someone say marketing is emotional, they’re talking about this critical juncture in the funnel.  Consumers – especially if they’ve reached this binary choice phase – tend to go with the option that “feels” right for them.

If you’ve made it this far, be sure to have some contextualized content ready to go to motivate that consumer to choose your brand.  Take out any remaining guesswork. Show that consumer what it will be like to interact with your brand every day, and how that relationship will progress.

Talk about expectations, get specific on policies and procedures, warranties and registrations, and smooth the path to get the action (which may not always be a sale, by the way) you desire most.

Some examples would include consumer testimonials, case studies, and any customized or educational content like webinars (note the very personalized and specific complexion of these options.)

2021 Marketing Outlook: two possible scenarios for advertising’s near future

2021_marketing_thingy_featured_image

As we’ve turned the calendar to a new year, and the leadership of the country has turned over to a new administration, we have to consider if there might be a new kind of marketing landscape to be formed in a (hopefully) post-COVID world.

There are two distinct possibilities that could feasibly materialize. One, that we are in for a boom time in advertising as the population wakes from its imposed hibernation. And the other, far more daunting, possibility is that advertising may be met with increased skepticism, or worse, not welcomed in the national commercial dialogue.

Possibility 1 – it could be the best of times. As more and more Americans receive a vaccine, it’s conceivable that life could return to what we would consider “normal,” perhaps even as early as the summer months. It could mean being allowed to gather again with friends, to travel again at will, to eat indoors at restaurants, and (oh please, dear sweet baby Jesus) to sit with 70,000 close friends at the home opener for your favorite football team.

With that, consumerism will likely not just be on the rise, but there’s very good reason to believe that we’ll see an elongated surge in consumer spending across numerous categories, built largely on pent up demand, and the sheer joy of having the “privilege” to once again participate in the analog retail experience.

And once those floodgates open, or it’s even hinted that they might, I would argue that we are likely going to see an equally giddy advertising crop burst out of every conceivable corner and category. Brands will trip all over each other for a share of the voracious consumer appetite, and media companies will feast at the table of “flexible” rates while the demand stays unusually high, and the competition is unusually fierce.

And the best part of this rosy prediction is that the tenor of the advertising itself is likely to be more positive, less serious, and almost joyous in nature. Simple messages like “we’re back!” or “we’re open” will lie at the core of most claims, and brands will be paying big money just to have the “privilege” to beg consumers to come back now that the pandemic has loosed its grip on the nation.

That’s a rosy outlook.

Possibility 2 – (okay, let’s go with the Tale of Two Cities theme,) it’s plausible that it could also be the worst of times.

It’s possible that consumer perceptions have changed significantly over the past 10 months, (and perhaps continue to do so for the next five or six months,) and that large demographic segments may be more guarded against brand messaging delivered across the typical media. This, as a result of first the shock therapy of nightly news with a drone of grim reports, and subsequently the drawn out solitary confinement of houses and apartments, living both professional and private lives in the same spaces.

Consumers may be in a kind of post-pandemic stress disorder, and it might last well beyond the days when it’s deemed safe to come back in the water. This bodes ominous for those sectors hardest hit: restaurants and hospitality, travel and tourism, the arts and entertainment, even healthcare.

And more importantly – and the reason this subject is being taken up on this blog – is that the normal receptivity to advertising messages may be affected in ways that has brands and their agencies re-thinking their strategies, and re-tooling their plans.

It wasn’t long ago (seriously, it was August 2019,) that we all reveled in the great Chicken Sandwich War between Popeye’s and Chik-Fil-A. Or watched like rabid MMA fans as Wendy’s and Burger King dealt death blows to each other via Twitter. It was fun. It was entertaining. And it was good for all the brands involved.

Mostly it was frivolous, and that’s what made it so much fun. Nobody got hurt, and we were just dishing abstract concepts and opinions that no one took THAT seriously. But here we are, perhaps about to come out of the year-plus-long fog that seems to have changed everything. Will American consumers have the patience for frivolous feuds? Will we tolerate the background noise of cola wars? Is it too soon?

Remember that brands (at least the ones with discretionary budgets,) scrambled to change the tonality of their advertising in the first few weeks and months after the pandemic took hold. Starting as early as St. Patrick’s Day 2020, we saw national brands releasing more heartfelt messages, saying things like “we’ll be here when this is over,” and heralding frontline workers. Somber. Serious. Considerate.

A few of the standouts: GUINNESS

UBER

DOVE

While those ads were all very good, (and I say this politely,) it was also almost too easy. When you do ads like that, you know you have about a 97 and a half% success rate, and you’d have to do something egregiously wrong to not curry favor with your target. The real challenge that faces brands and their agencies now is in striking the most appropriate first chord as the stage lights come on and everyone starts watching again.

It’s about to be morning in America once again. (Hat tip to Hal Riney.) And I’m just over here wondering if there will be Twitter feuds this afternoon.

What do you think? I’d love to know your thoughts. Please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

[Important note – We cannot overlook the seriousness of post traumatic stress disorder, including those struggling with the fallout of the pandemic. It’s real, and the people who face it are struggling in untold numbers and in myriad ways. For more information and resources on PTSD, visit www.ptsd.va.gov]

Playing through the pause: marketing never stops.

pause_button

There was a phrase that was popular in the late 20th century that advised “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It was a meme that implied you were making a prudent choice in your technology partner, because IBM was so ubiquitous and so darn reliable, you couldn’t possibly go wrong if you chose to pay the extra fees and engage with such an established leader. (And talk about a GREAT branding platform for IBM!)

Here in 2020, it appears there’s a new version of that old trope as it relates to marketing. It would read “no one ever got fired for being cautious during the COVID-19 crisis.” And if you look around, all you see are brands being cautious. Brands stepping back. Brands holding on to their marketing spend. Brands putting their agencies in lockdown “until further notice.” CMOs, VPs of marketing, brand managers, and other senior executives are in full wait-and-see mode, and some of them have quickly pivoted to warmer and fuzzier messaging platforms in the short term.

If you own or represent a brand right now, it’s likely that you or someone in your organization has ordered a “pause” on some or all of your marketing activity. After all, it’s expensive to “keep the lights on” an operation that isn’t (or can’t be) visibly returning results. And you’d be more than justified for being cautious and for demonstrating prudence with your precious budget.

However, you’d also be violating one of the immutable laws of marketing. And that is to find competitive strategic advantages over the other producers in your category. Hint: now is absolutely the time to do it.

While your competition is sitting on the sidelines, you gain zero ground by sitting on the opposite sideline. Competitive marketing never stops – even when it looks like all marketing has stopped.

Irrespective of your brand category, or what position you own in the category, here are six cornerstone marketing efforts you can put to work right now (without spending tons of money) to gain an edge on your competition:

Focus on or improve your core product/service
Can you add a key ingredient, or replace a less-than-desirable one in your product formulation? If you’re a more service-oriented business, is there a new policy you can put in place that would give you an edge over your competition? (Think longer warranty period, free upgrades, adding value in new or unorthodox ways.)  Put some structure on this.  Give it language.  Give it a name.  Start talking about it.

Add new products or extend your line
If you’ve ever thought about why you’re not gaining ground on your competitors, maybe it’s because you offer limited choices. Think about adding new flavors, new varieties, or new services to your practice. Hiring a new subject matter expert into your practice is almost the same as acquiring a new company, so consider how you can go “wider” in your business, and give consumers (existing or new targets) more opportunities  – and reasons – to interact with you.

Re-evaluate or re-negotiate your distribution deals
Following on the heels of having new products or an extended line, this is a great time to read the fine print on all your contracts. Especially your distribution deals. Can you get more lineal inches in your current deal? Maybe you can reduce costs in some way, since third-party resellers are taking it on the chin right now. They’d be hard-pressed to avoid losing your business, so take advantage of the opportunities while you can. It’s also a great time to hear proposals from new distributors or brokers or affiliates who are also innovating to stay relevant.

Do some research/learn more about what consumers really want (or who your consumers will actually be)
It’s very likely that consumer behavior will be altered in many ways as we either return to normalcy or forge whatever the “new normal” will look like. This is the crucible of competition – find out why consumers may have chosen a competitor over your brand, and see if you can accommodate their desires. Is it price? Is it a personal touch? Is it the ingredients? Is it your location? You’ll never know if you don’t ask, and paying people for their opinion right now makes you look magnanimous as well as appealingly curious.

Think about a new approach to your advertising
We’ve seen many brands pivot to a more “we’re with you” approach in the last several weeks, and it’s likely we’ll see even more message morphs in the coming months. But maybe it’s time for a new thousand-foot strategy. Maybe it’s time for a new tone. Or a new face. Or something classic and familiar. The point is to zig when the rest of your competitive set is zagging (or lagging. Or sagging.  Or gagging.  This is fun.) At the very least, you’ll get more attention, and that’s always a good thing.

Develop at least three strategic marketing plans for your brand
It must be said that no marketing strategist is ever right 100% of the time. So make contingency plans. The marketplace will be different, so make sure you have plans to address whatever those differences might be. For instance, it’s possible one or more of your competitors may fold. So have a talk with your bank (or investor group) and be ready to acquire at a favorable cost (if that makes sense,) or to at least swoop in and grab the lion’s share of that brand’s customer base. It may not be so rosy, so consider what some worse-case scenarios might look like, and script responses to those as well. With so many unknown variables, you can keep your team focused and motivated by creating pre-coordinated plans and putting them in place for virtually any outcome.

Stay in touch with all stakeholders
Speaking of all of this, it’s a great time to have renewed and refreshed conversations with all your stakeholders. Let them know that you’re thinking ahead, and thinking positively. Let them know that they may be called on to think outside the boxes of convention. And most importantly, let them know that they will play a role in kicking the competition in the teeth, and getting ahead when all this uncertainty is behind.