This is the Marketing BS weekly briefing. Moreso than most weeks, much of this briefing builds on yesterday’s essay, "Trump, Vegas and Plausible Deniability". You may get more out of this content if you read the essay first. The interview this week is with Rachel Porges, former CMO of Lavian bakery. Onto the briefing. It was a heck of a week…
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- Black Lives Matter: With respect to yesterday’s essay, a couple of readers asked “what about Black Lives Matter? Didn’t they use the same type of ambiguous taglines as well?”. I think yes? “Black Lives Matter” itself is primarily a signal to raise the status of that marginalized group. “Defund the police” is a signal to lower the status of the police. What’s interesting to me is that it is adversaries that have taken the slogans literally (i.e., “Who is going to prevent crime when we have no police?”), and the sloganeers themselves who have needed to defend themselves by claiming the slogans do not mean what they say. This is the opposite of what we have seen with “Make America Great Again”. Trump’s organization can claim, “Who doesn’t want to make America great?” and it is his adversaries that need to point out what the slogan infers rather than outright says.
- Banned from all platforms: Shortly after the invasion of Capitol Hill, Trump was banned from Facebook. Twitter suspended him for 24 hours, but then proceeded to ban him indefinitely for his tweet that he would “not be attending the inauguration” (another example of the words themselves being innocuous, but with an inferred meaning - at least according to Twitter - that his followers should attack at the event since their fearless leader was not going to be there). Within a day Parler (the social media network that was not moderating/censoring content, and was becoming the central coordination platform for right wing protests), was banned from the Android store and suspended from the iTunes store (and banned 24 hours later when they did not create a moderation program within Apple’s time limits). That was followed by being kicked off of Amazon Web Services (hosting) and Twilio (Email authentication) [Why this is bad for Parler and cannot be easily fixed y moving somewhere else]. By the end of the weekend Trump and Trump’s organization/followers had been denied access to Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Discord, Pintrest, Stripe, and Okta (rumors that he was banned from Pornhub and digitally removed from Home Alone 2 on Disney+ seem to be untrue - at least for now). More thoughts below.
- More Platform action: Dow Chemicals has created a “black list” and has said they will not donate to any member of Congress who objected to the certification of the presidential vote - forever. Hallmark is asking for its campaign contributions to Hawley and others returned. Rudy Giuliani is losing his New York State Bar Association membership (but not Bar Mambership). Cumulus media has ordered its right wing radio hosts to stop pushing election conspiracies with thread to be removed from the network. The PGA is banning Trump golf courses from future events (including the planned 2022 Championship that was to be played on a Trump course). Simon & Schuster canceled their contract fo publish Senator Hawley’s book. Deutsche Bank, Trump’s “bank of choice”, has decided to no longer do business with him. Facebook is moderating ALL content mentioning “stop the steal”.
- Plausible Deniability: NOT banned from Twitter was the Chinese Embassy who last week tweeted out justifications of forced sterilizations (“emancipated from being baby-making machines”) and genocide (“improved population quality”). Meanwhile, SciHub HAS been banned from Twitter due to an Indian court case.
- Cameo: On a completely different note, last year I wrote an essay on how Cameo is disrupting the celebrity spokesperson industry. The platform had a VERY good year in 2020.
- Parler: As if the de-platforming was not enough, Twilio’s press announcement exposed gaping security flaws in the app. There was backdoor access that allowed every users private information to be downloaded (including personal names, email addresses and geolocations). It is all being posted to Reddit. More details on how it happened. And Sarah Mei has a fascinating thread on the deep background of how the technical stack was built. Parler CEO believes this will be the end for their business. Meanwhile the app “Parlor” (with an “o”) has spiked in popularity on App stores. Parlor allows people to have impromptu video conversations with strangers about selected topics. Those are going to be some angry conversations… Also: Here is a summary of the communication happening on Parler (with an “e”) leading up to last Wednesday.
- Wack-a-Mole: After @realDonaldTrump was shut down, Trump apparently tried to tweet to his followers through other means and Twitter admins kept shutting down more and more alternate accounts. Meanwhile as Parler was being shutdown, Gab - another non-moderated social network - has spiked in popularity.
- Innovation: Moderna announced three new vaccine programs based on mRNA (the technology they used to build the COVID-19 vaccine): Seasonal flu, HIV and Nipah.
- iCar: Bloomberg claims that Apple’s self-driving electric car is NOT coming in 2024 as previously reported and is AT LEAST 5 years away.
- Facebook glasses: Facebook’s new "smart glasses" will NOT be AR-enabled. So what’s the point? From Andrew Bosworth (Facebook CPO) talking about parents trying to record memories with their young children: “By the time you get the phone up, not only have you probably missed it, but if you don’t miss it, you’re probably watching the real event but through your phone. If you have the right technology, it can get out of the way”. So it looks like these will be video glasses - kind of like what Google launched in 2012 but bombed when no one was allowed to wear them anywhere. Not sure how Facebook will handle it not. Maybe we are less worried about privacy invasions nine years later?
- Healthcare from Amazon: The Amazon/Berkshire/JP Morgan healthcare partnership has shut down. Innovation is hard. Innovation in healthcare is very hard. Innovation with shared oversight across three giant companies is apparently impossible. Expect Amazon to take another stab at this without the burden of the partnerships
- Wyndham buys Travel+Liesure: Another merger of a product company with a media company. Who was it who said we would see more of this? :)
Marketing to Employees
- Banned from all Platforms: The invasion of Capitol Hill was an extreme event. It provided the impetus for Twitter and Facebook to ban the outgoing president from their platforms (and for many brands, tech and non-tech alike, to express outrage at the incident). But it also led to all the major tech companies to ban alternate methods for his followers to communicate. While I clearly fall on the side of “invading Capitol Hill was wrong”, removing hosting from Parler and kicking the social network off of both app stores due to “lack of moderation policies” is a lot more questionable. But from the point of view of companies marketing to their employees it makes a lot of sense. What happened last week was shocking, and it was particularly shocking to the types of young employees who are working at these tech companies. The revenue generated from Parler is insignificant, but the cost to have them on the platform from an employee retention perspective is significant. Parler’s moderation policies were unchanged from two days earlier, but the impact on employees changed dramatically - and so the tech companies acted (It helped that everyone else acted too - so no one company could take the heat for shutting the app down). This also explains why the Chinese Embassy has NOT been banned from Twitter. At least for now China’s treatment of its own citizens is not top of mind for young American professionals. The long term consequences of these actions are unclear, but they are very likely to be very significant. Here is how the ACLU responded. Here is the (poisoned by his rivals) leading opposition leader of Russia on why banning Trump from Twitter was a bad idea.
- Re-branding: New logos are usually a sign of marketing teams who are out of ideas and want to do SOMETHING. There were a plethora of them last week - Pfizer, the CIA, Burger King, General Motors. All bad ideas. But Goldman’s choice to rebrand their small business lobbying conference, previously called “Storm the Hill” was likely the right choice.
- Google Advertising: Melinda Byerley (CEOof a digital marketing agency) claimed that one of her clients was told that if they increased their paid search spend, they would get a lift in their organic listings. Danny Sullivan (Google’s search representative) claimed that this was not true and that the rep would be given a “very firm reminder” that is does not work that way. But in some ways the rep was right. Even if paid search advertising does not directly impact organic results, it will, if it works, lead to more brand awareness. More brand awareness generally leads to increased direct-type-in and branded searches. Stronger brands also have customers spend more time spent on site and have higher conversion rates. All of THOSE are signals that Google uses to determine organic search positioning. Non-Google marketing spend (i.e., television advertising) will do the same thing. It’s just a matter of direct vs indirect impact. When you are an effective monopoly you need to be careful with you “ambiguous claims”
- Why doesn’t advertising work (more often): Great summary by Jenni Romaniu: (1) Failure to reach, (2) Failure to brand, (3) Failure to to be buyable. Most of time these failures are “self-owns”.
- Netflix and Distribution: CobraKai was originally released on YouTube Red (the premium subscription component of YouTube) in 2018 and 2019. It was a huge hit for the platform at the time but interest had died off. Last August the first two seasons were released on Netflix, and its popularity spiked dramatically. It was as big on Netflix when it was 12-24 months old as it had been during its original release. And in media, popularity breeds more popularity as people want to watch what other people are watching. More context here. Season 3 was released on Netflix (NOT YouTube) on January 1st and is a top ten show in the country.
- Bundling Bundles: Struum aims to do to video streaming what Apple News attempted to do to print media. Paying subscribers ($10/month) will get access to a selection of content from the long-tail streaming services. Instead of an “all you can eat plan” subscribers will get 100 credits/month to watch content (enough to watch ~1 program/day). Prediction: This will be a disaster…
- Status Quo Bias: Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution shows how powerful the status quo is. Public Health Experts were upset about the idea of “first dose first” (the idea that we get out the doses we have to as many people as possible rather than holding back “2nd doses”), but then the Biden administration began to shift to exactly that plan and none of those who were fighting the idea days earlier protested. We have built a society that is very afraid to break from “this is the way we do things”. This is a far broader problem than just public health. So much of marketing is just doing exactly what we did last year.
- Fitbit Metrics: A recent study used a Randomized Control Trials to estimate the impact of using a f\Fitbit step tracker. They found people who got the tracker, combined with "Interventions including text-messaging and personalisation features” increased set count significantly more than the control group without the trackers (~+1850 steps/day). This shows the power of having a metrics dashboard that tracks what your company cares about - and then pushing that dashboard in a daily email to everyone in the organization. Having the numbers you want to influence front and center MATTERS. Too few companies do this.
- Tech Lawsuits: It seems so long ago this was the top news story… Axios has a nice summary of all the law suits in one place.
AI, Machine Learning and GPT-3
- DALL-E: OpenAI, the team behind GPT-3, has released samples from their latest text-to-image tool and it is… mind blowing? Just tell the tool what image you want (i.e., “a clock that looks like a Pokemon wearing blue pants”) and it will create a grid of a variety of images that match your request. Among other things this will be the way most companies design their first logo… Examples (but really- go and play with it!):
A T-Shirt with the word “Hogwash” on it:
- Natural language understanding: Microsoft has build a natural language understanding system that exceeds human performance on at least one benchmark (Humans score 89.8. A few months ago Google’s tool scored 88.9. Now Microsoft announced a score of 89.9 and apparently Google is close). These things sometimes take a long time and then happen very very fast. Alexa won’t be a joke much longer.
COVID-19 and the new world order
- Teamflow: A new company is trying to recreate the office experience in a virtual environment. You check in with an avatar, and slide it across your screen to your virtual desk. You can hear the sounds of people who are sitting near you. If you want to talk to someone, you get move your avatar to their desk, and ask them if they have time to chat, then the two of you move your avatars to an open conference room. Interesting idea, but I expect the final virtual work solution will not be a full recreation of the traditional office any more than film ended up being a recreation of traditional theater.
- Hopin buys Streamyard: Hopin was founded in June 2019 as a platform for virtual events. This put it in a good place in March as one conference after another was forced to go virtual. In November they raised their Series B round at a $2B valuation. Last week they announced the acquisition of Steamyard - a tool for adding graphics on top of your live video streams. The future of virtual events is uncertain, so Hopin is using the valuation it has now to beef up its offering (it “paid” 203MM Euros for Steamyard but has only raised $171MM, suggesting most or all of the transaction was in equity, not cash).
- Yale COVID arbitrage: Colleges are hurting now due to both inability to offer in person classes, and a dramatic drop in international demand. But for the most most prestigious schools even zero tuition revenue is a drop in the bucket compared to their endowments. Perhaps due to status quo bias these schools have still enacted austerity measures, but Yale is beginning to come around to the idea that there may be a short term opportunity to leverage their advantageous fiscal situation into a long term advantage by poaching key faculty from less well endowed institutions.
- Long term effects: Latest study looks at symptoms 6 months post COVID hospital stay. 76% still had one or more issues, most common being fatigue and muscle weakness. 13% had abnormal kidney function.
- Gorillas: Three gorillas in the San Diego Zoo have fallen ill with COVID symptoms and two have tested positive.
- Lying: Mark Ritson at Marketing Week argues that marketers looking for jobs need to lie about the effectiveness of digital marketing in order to get the job. I have not been in the job market in a while, but I expect a good contrarian take - if it is a intelligently communicated - will get people better jobs than BSing like everyone else appears to be doing.
- Rookie CEOs: HBR has an article claiming that experienced CEOs underperform first-time CEOs. They argue it is because the experienced CEOs are lazy and they “fall back on the playbook from their last job”. There may be something to that, but I expect the real answer is selection effect. Only 16% of CEOs are “first time CEOs”. The only time someone is hired to be a first time CEO is if they have the perfect background for the specific situation the company is facing AND the company is in a position where it is at relatively low risk to have a rookie take the reins. I would not be surprised if first time heart surgeons have higher success rates as well - it’s not because they are better, it is because they are getting the easier cases.
- Kitt: The original self-driving car from the 1980s David Hasselhoff television show is for sale at auction. Pay enough the The Hoff will even deliver it to you personally (self driving components not included. It doesn’t even have Apple CarPlay)
- Public Domain: In 2001 works from 1925 were about to become part of the public domain. But Disney worked their magic to protect Mickey and Congress extended all copy-writes from 75 to 95 years. But 2021 marks the year when things start moving forward again. As of January 1st all works from 1925 have become available for anyone to use, including the books The Great Gatsby, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Trial (Kafka) and characters like Nick Adams (Hemingway). Nick, a prequel to The Great Gatsby was released on January 5th.
Stay Safe and Keep it Simple,