The Serfs of the Internet Take Power
I did something strange last month. I went to a two-day conference called MAD//fest (Marketing, Advertising and Disruptive tech festival) in East London in person. So, does that mean freedom at last from lockdown?
Not so fast. A few days later, my “track and trace” app told me to self-isolate for seven days: I had “contact” with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19 at the conference. I guess you could call this a “disruptive tech” experience – just not the one I had in mind.
The Story Matters As Much as Ever
Sir Martin Sorrell opened the conference sporting his relaxed, “very digital these days” look. His new company – S4C – is “a digital pure play” he tells us and so much better placed for future profits and growth than the old-style holding companies (like WPP which he used to run) encumbered by their ‘old media’ investments. Sir Martin has always been good at this kind of storytelling. Since nobody knows about the future, a good story is one way to show that you are on the right side of progress. Yet, his story does not bear too much analysis – as was evident from other speakers at the festival. Most media are digital now. Even posters – that most ancient of ‘old media’ – is in fact delivered digitally as ‘digital out of home’. Also, the creative product, which we used to regard as an old media craft, is now being developed with AI assistance. This is especially true when large volumes of response-type advertising is being developed and optimised in real time. But still, it’s his story and if he tells it often enough in the right places he will win the perception game – and boost the value of his company.
Existing Trends Speeded Up
Sir Martin’s other message was that the pandemic has simply speeded up trends towards a digital future. This was on display throughout the conference – with one stage dedicated to the stream of start-up pitches. Adtech companies tend to use mind numbing jargon to pitch their offer. Using my ready reckoner tech speak translation app I can boil it down to better and more accountable opportunities to reach the right audience; when that audience is open to communication; with something (content/ad/offer/experience/entertainment) that is relevant and motivating; to deliver a campaign is efficient, cost effective and delivers a return on investment
The principles of effective campaigning don’t change (they rarely do) but the practice is transforming rapidly. So, is there anything fundamentally different going on? Yes. To use jargon there is ‘business model innovation on digital platforms.’
Translation: Content creators are getting their just deserts (at last). The likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram used to get their content for free (pretty much). User generated content filled up their platforms – and the big platforms milked it for ad revenue. The creators got a bum deal. Of course, they did. Creators were many (and disorganised). Think of them as the Uber drivers of the web. The platforms were few and controlled all the eyeballs. But power has been shifting. The Economist explains “The serfs tilling the internet are increasingly finding that their output can command a price”. The most famous YouTubers, Instagrammers, Tok Tokkers and Twichers have huge followings as well as agents (and other professional advisors) who can help them get more value from and produce better content.
New platforms now offer content creators a much better deal – such as Onlyfans (video), Substack (newsletters) and Twitch (gamers). The big platforms have had to respond and offer both a better deal and more services to content creators. Failure to do so would have resulted in them becoming mere ‘promotional platforms’ used by creators to drive traffic elsewhere, where they can earn more. The creator economy is transforming – and the fuel is money, creativity and professionalisation.
Content Creators Become Entrepreneurs
What does this mean for marketers? Content creators are, increasingly, media entrepreneurs. They are more professional, more reliable and with considerable reach and influence – more likely partners for all manner of deals such as recommendations, co-creation, offers, as well as data sharing. This growing world of content creators is an opportunity for long lasting partnerships than advertising. Try googling ‘partner with content creators’ to see what I mean.
The daddy is Google with its YouTube platform, who explain the benefits: “Tap into loyal audiences by partnering with YouTube creators. Define the scope of your collaboration with a clear creative brief. Use creators’ relationships with fans to share your message with hard-to-reach viewers.” This was the kind of work I was doing at Google when I worked there five years ago. Today, there are excellent content creators on many platforms and adtech’ start-ups that will help you find and work with the right ones.
Clues to Success in Partnering with Content Creators
What did I learn at Google about finding the right partnerships? Here are key planning questions: 1) What are my brand values and which content creators align with them? 2) What are my audiences’ passions and what content creators are they loyal to? 3) What partnership with a given content creator would be mutually beneficial and flourish over time? In other words, don’t just look for quick results. The consequence will be short transactional relationships. (If you want quick results use online advertising. MAD//fest was packed with Adtech – AI fuelled of course –that promised better targeting, better creative and better results. The growth of adblocking – supercharged by Apple – is improving the quality of online advertising too.)
Content Creator Partnerships in Practice
A personal example. I am a history nerd and a loyal listener to several history podcasts. My favourite is “The rest is history”. One of the hosts – Tom Holland – also regularly delivers an explanation of a new service that offers individual mental health support via online counselling. Tom Holland is happy to recommend and support the new service because he too has suffered from stress. It feels like a symbiotic partnership rather than merely a paid for recommendation, which makes it more convincing. This maturing content creator economy will stimulate all manner of niche opportunities for new products and services in partnership with content creators. It is also a way for big brands to get closer to their customers through their passions and interests. Time to experiment for your brand, perhaps?
Julian Saunders is Founder, The Joined Up Company and former CEO, Red Cell (a WPP creative agency) and Head of Strategy, McCann-Erickson. firstname.lastname@example.org
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