Although there will be plenty of summaries coming out of SxSW Interactive 2017, many of these will address broad trends and themes, without digging into the detail of specific sessions. 

Because of this, I thought it would be interesting to provide a summary of some of the interesting debates I attended last week.

These looked at the areas of ad blocking, influencer marketing, social video, content distribution, and the thoughts of Joe Biden, former Vice-President of the USA.

Ending The Ad Blocking Wars

The panel for this session included representatives from Brave Software, The New York Times, Digital Context Next and The Christian Science Monitor. They considered whether publishers can improve the ad experience to persuade readers to turn off blockers? Or will add blockers bring about the end of the free web?

As you may imagine there was no simple solution to this conundrum. The two biggest players in the digital space (you know who they are) are not affected by ad blocking and therefore are not bothered by its effects. 

Although ad blocking is plateauing (at least in the UK), the real squeeze is on smaller publishers, the little guys getting caught in the middle. These organisations are caught in an imperfect storm, made up of greater reliance on ad revenues and lacking the engineering investment levels and knowledge to respond to the threat.

As a result of this, there is a real possibility of local, smaller publishers, starting to disappear. This could create a regional ‘news desert’ as even more people seek their news from social media. Currently 44% of Americans use Facebook as a news source and the number is rising. 

There was also a discussion around different types of ad blockers. Much of the debate tends to be around the big players, such as AdBlock which has 200m downloads; but there are other providers with different business models. Brave Software (represented on the panel) doesn’t just remove ads – it replaces them with new ads and splits the revenue between publishers, users, network partners and the company itself.

Brendan Eich from Brave suggested that this software is the first ‘post-bad’ ad blocking solution. Still early days for this, 'softer' ad blocking model and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Predictably, content was identified as a way to get around this challenge. The NYT emphasized the importance of engaging content – ‘pull instead of push’ – and advised strongly against using technology to push advertising onto consumers.

Sponsored ‘native’ content is not necessarily the panacea to solve this problem, as publishers often tag creative to acquire more data; these are then identified as ads and therefore blocked. 

Ad fraud was a serious related issue discussed, with an estimated 23% of global video traffic being served to robots. 

The Hundred Thousand Dollar Snap(chat)

The panel for this one was ShopStyle and Neiman Marcus, who considered the opportunities and challenges arising from social commerce, as well as the growing importance of influencers, particularly within retail.

The background to this is the change in consumers’ consumption of media and the importance of the mobile channel. 30% of all time online is spent on social and 60% of that is on mobile.  

As is often not the case, influencer activity should be approached in the same manner as any other communications campaign. It is not safe to assume that a single endorsement – ‘one and done’ – will do the trick. An effective frequency of ‘seven’, was mentioned as appropriate to the fashion retail sector. As with other channels, planning should be considered over an extended activity period, not as a series of one-offs. 

In addition, activity should not undermine influencers connections with their followers, and these retail influencers can be initially incentivised through special deals to offer to their followers. 

An interesting analogy compared the purchasing process for expensive items, such as for a Chanel bag, to the dating process; where buyers return to the store to view and interact with the product over time. In instances like these, iterative influencer messages can be effective in moving an individual closer to purchase.

Strategies need to be different across separate social channels. Facebook is all about advertising, whilst Instagram benefits from a more organic approach. Snapchat is the new kid on the block and the hardest to measure. 

Above all, brands need to work out when to act as themselves, or through influencers in the social space. What are the key KPIs, how to measure these and how to ensure valuable content lives effectively beyond social channels? 

Social Video and The Future of Consumption

Representatives from Vox Media, Vice Media and the New York Times joined this panel to discuss how social media is impacting video journalism. This session made very clear that Facebook is now the platform for video consumption. 

The NYT identified Facebook as ‘the stage’, and the essential channel for engagement and getting time with its audience. A major focus for NYT is around Facebook Live, which is being used to provide real-time coverage of news events. They are even looking at using this channel to create crowd-sourced investigations, a kind of mass citizen journalism.

The upside of the live video phenomenon is that brands have an opportunity to powerfully engage with a massive audience, using current, exciting and rapidly changing content. 

The downside of live unedited content, is a concern around quality and the loss of editorial perspective. As a result, insightful user comments can be important to create context; but recognising this may not always be the case, Vice has indicated that all user comments are monitored in real-time.

More controversially, the The Young Turks news channel is allowing users to pay to have their comments listed. Although the rise in importance of user comments can be seen as a democratic trend, allowing a financial bias on inputs would seem rather less altruistic. 

Another concern is that a publisher brand cannot easily prevent incorrect stories or unsuitable content being viewed. They can provide a retraction or an alternative perspective later on; but this may be seen by many fewer people. A good example of this would be the SourceFed Hilary Clinton conspiracy theory

For me, this progression towards an ‘always-on’ society is worryingly redolent of Dave Eggers' book, and now film, The Circle.

In any event, the benchmark for how quality video is defined is changing rapidly as we transition from a ‘TV-centric’ to ‘mobile video-centric’ world. In the digital space, where everyone with a phone is a director, quality is now less about production values and more about the story, speed and authenticity. 

Separate approaches to video content are needed across different channels. For example on Facebook a ‘raw’ approach is more appropriate and authentic. Episodic content on Snapchat is popular, with bitesize ‘episodes’ being used to tell a story in a manner entirely fitting to the medium. 

With live video, there is also a greater ethical onus on brands to decide what they will show and what they will not. A good example of content that could be considered to be on this demarcation line is Snapchat’s coverage of the conflict in Mosul.

Content Distribution Platforms – Friends or Foes?

The panel for this session included The Economist, Conde Nast International, The Young Turks and ABC News. They looked at how publishers are becoming more reliant than ever on content distribution platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat to reach new audiences. 

A good starting point for this session was mention of Emily Bell’s 2016 article Facebook Is Eating The World.

Facebook is the key platform under consideration here, as it increasingly becomes the place where online content is consumed. It’s importance and control over brand content has increased with the rise of Instant Articles, as opposed to publisher feeds, keeping traffic within the Facebook ecosystem. As an aside, Snapchat was seen to be on the rise but not currently a viable global option. 

With this is in mind, the panel considered that Facebook was both a friend and a foe. It was seen to be a friend in terms of providing a broad distribution platform and a foe with regards to its control over advertising revenues. 

According to Steve Oh of The Young Turks, the key to content success with Facebook is threefold:

  • Creating regular, relevant content
  • Swift use of new product features released
  • Focus on building an audience 

The Economist’s approach is to focus on bite size content that lures customers towards subscription, with news topics including ‘on this day’ and ‘famous quotes’. A specific approach is with ‘Vimages’, using Facebook to re-package magazine stories into video form.

One of the questions in the session, was how to keep up with the rapid changes at Facebook and the best ways to share content. There was no clear answer, but suggestions included looking for Newsroom tips, and Google Alerts pertaining to Facebook algorithms. 

Art + Science: Videos That Inform, Inspire & Scale

Finally, PopSugar's David Grant discussed what brand marketers need to know about creating video that engages their target audience at scale while delivering on brand KPIs. The session sought to explain the success of PopSugar in targeting millennial women.

The starting point for the brand's success is to understand, as does Snapchat, the increasing cultural relevance of the camera (as identified in this NYT article) and that humans naturally gravitate towards content that is made up of sight, sound and motion.

PopSugar creates videos that inform, and are created from a combined perspective drawn from its brand, brand partners and their data. PopSugar has created its own tool, Trend Rank, to help it identify areas of content focus, supply ‘velocity data predicting’ and find trends ahead of time.

Grant observed that, with video, companies typically have only one second to make an impact, so selected content has only that time to have an effect. 

Some examples of PopSugar's recent successful native content campaigns are: 

  • Doubletree by Hilton: ‘Find Your Happy’ campaign. Building on the fact that Hilton always leaves a cookie for its guests, PopSugar a campaign focusing on wider acts of kindness and generosity.
  • Garner Shampoo: ‘Photo Ready Mums’. Based on the insight that mums often take pictures of the family, but regret that they are not in the pictures themselves; this campaign shows how mums can be in the photos, and look great, with the help of Garner. 

Joe Biden

And finally, some lessons from the keynote speech of SXSW 2017 (and a totally inspiring moment) from Joe Biden, former Vice-President of The United States. 

Perhaps more recently famous for his (unwitting) appearance in a sequence of memes with Barack Obama, Joe Biden appeared on stage in Austin to raise awareness and seek support for his cancer Moon-shot agenda.

He discussed the progress made during Obama's presidency by the call for innovative solutions to tackle the barriers that prevent faster gains in ending cancer; and described how he plans to remain in the fight. 

This talk has a wider relevance for business because, as Joe Biden put it, organisations involved in the cancer treatment process had become ‘siloed by design’ and their ability to face the growing threat of this disease was limited by this lack of co-operation.

One of these silo-related issues was the low number of patients involved in clinical trials (only 4/100) as there was no system for companies to match the correct trial drugs to the correct patients and vice versa. In addition a database of patient learnings was not being effectively shared between hospitals.

Biden’s efforts to break down the barriers in the cancer treatment process are a lesson to organisations who may have similar silo problems. 

Organisations in this process have started to collaborate and other bodies have become involved in the fight. NASA is adding information regarding the impact of radiation on astronauts, and Amazon has provided free cloud data storage for the project.  

There is also focus on clear KPIs and where the biggest return on investment can be derived. As Biden said, of any process "where everything is treated as equally important, then nothing is considered important."

The key to the project’s increasing success (apart from the obvious profile of the promoter) is the open sharing of information, offering clear encouragement and, of course, giving hope.

Inspiring stuff and a lesson to all businesses interested in breaking down silos and identifying priorities.

Nick Hammond

Published 24 March, 2017 by Nick Hammond

Nick is founder of The Digital Filter and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with him via LinkedIn.

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Comments (2)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Re: A good example of this would be the SourceFed Hilary Clinton conspiracy theory. Not a good example, because SourceFed was actually right. Or right-ish.

The link to CNN has some good analysis, including this quote:
"Our autocomplete algorithm will not show a predicted query that is offensive or disparaging when displayed in conjunction with a person's name," a Google spokeswoman said. "Google autocomplete does not favor any candidate or cause. Claims to the contrary simply misunderstand how autocomplete works."

CNN claims this means that "To say that Google is trying to put Clinton in a favorable light by hiding negative search results just isn't true".

Wrong. Google put Clinton and everyone in a similar position in a relatively favorable light, because censoring these queries in autocomplete helps candidates with legal problems relative to other candidates with fewer or no legal problems.

Of course, the algorithm helped Trump too, but to a lesser extent, because his legal problems were not central to the campaign. I doubt it was deliberate, but the net effect was that Google helped Clinton as SourceFed said.

8 months ago

Nick Hammond

Nick Hammond, Founder at The Digital FilterSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Pete. Very interesting perspective. Thanks for taking the time to read! Nick

8 months ago

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