For three days in May, tens of thousands of people crowdsourced the control of a giant, animatronic squid. Eight independently-controlled arms struggled to work in concert as it attempted to run a pizza parlor and man a production line. And it was all part of a brilliant creative campaign by Old Spice. How in the world did marketing get to this point?

This story starts with a platform called Twitch, though similar stories can be found for Snapchat, Reddit, Facebook Live, and a handful of other youth-dominated media. Twitch is often labeled as “people watching people play video games.” While this is functionally true, it demonstrates a shallow understanding of the 100M user platform that Amazon purchased for a billion dollars in 2014.

Twitch is about communities, united by a shared interest in a particular video game or “broadcaster.” Its value comes as much from interacting with the broadcaster and other like-minded members as it does from the gameplay itself. And those members communicate through chatrooms in a language that is thoroughly and deliberately obtuse to outsiders.

In 2014, a Twitch broadcaster built a system into his chatroom that parsed through comments and translated them into crowdsourced player movements in the video game Pokémon Red. After 16 days and the collective contribution of 1.16 million community members, they beat the game. The idea became a phenomenon, and it spawned several dedicated channels used for social experiments, including the currently-active StockStream, in which a user is letting Twitch crowdsource the allocation of a real $50,000 stock portfolio (it’s up about $2,300 or 4.6% after a week and a half, compared to 1.0% for the S&P 500).

While there are native advertising opportunities within Twitch, using them without proper context can expose brands to the wrath of a skeptical and extremely vocal community. Last summer, Bomb Pop ran a pre-roll ad across the Twitch network, presumably inspired by the thought “the kids are on Twitch nowadays, and kids like Bomb Pops.” The self-unaware, 30-second spot of children on a playground stood out like sore thumb against a backdrop of action-packed video game trailers and energy drinks, and the community predictably sighed.

The advertising world is very good at buying ads based on demographic and behavioral profiles. In a few years, 84% of display advertising will be bought programmatically because it yields proven results. Yet my concern is that we are optimizing toward an artificially constrained inventory at the expense of exploring new platforms and marketing opportunities that are not so easily manipulated and which represent the communities of choice for a new generation.

I understand how we fell into this trap. We as marketers preach to our clients about disruption and the need for digital transformation, not realizing that we ourselves are at risk of being disrupted by focusing on short-term performance over longer-term innovation. Allocating budgets to DSPs that can buy programmatic inventory is safe and effective; doing something groundbreaking is risky and uncertain.

When Old Spice first started to explore Twitch, it was a welcome relief from teed-up gaming campaigns and facepalm-worthy demographic ads. It was clear that they had taken the time not only to look at the data about Twitch, but to understand how its community operates. They understood that Twitch is at its finest when its users can rally behind a cause because they had seen Twitch Plays in action.

So in 2015, Old Spice dropped a real person in the middle of a forest and had the community determine his – admittedly, heavily scripted – actions for three days. You can read the articles about it on Ad Week or Digiday, but those are predictably myopic, declaring it as a win for targeting an elusive demographic. If you really want to know how and why it worked, I recommend this post from the notoriously brand-unfriendly Reddit.

Then they followed it up two years later with a giant, octopodal robot. It was ridiculous theatre. It really didn’t work, in the strictest sense. Food flew everywhere, tentacles had literal minds of their own. But it was also glorious, and it deserves respect from the marketing community. Not the kind of respect that comes from admiring their ability to get in front of Millennials, but the kind that comes from their continued resolve to opt for audience-relevant creativity at a time when automation is so readily available.

Keep buying your programmatic display ads. They work really, really well. But take a cue from P&G and Old Spice and spend some time immersing yourselves in the platforms of the future, where modern ad strategies fall flat, and where true, creative-driven marketing can shine once again.

Photo credit: Dan Silva

Posted by Michael Dowd

I have spent years of my career leading B2B technology reviews on behalf of Fortune 100 clients. I have used many tools and strategies to get an objective view of their performance – live demos, feature comparisons, review panels, trial implementations, Forrester Wave reports. And while each of these methods has its strengths, there is one question that they still struggle to answer: will this company be there for my clients when I need them, both now and in the future? To answer this question, I have often explored an unlikely source – their social media. Though sometimes an afterthought for B2B companies, there are several compelling reasons for them to maintain a high-quality, active social media presence:

1) It shows a brand that is committed to its values

Uber, Dollar Shave Club, and Betterment are just three of the companies striking fear into the hearts of established companies with modern ideas that threaten to disrupt traditional practices. As a result, many brands are on the back foot and responding emotionally to market conditions. While I firmly believe that companies need to be adaptable (see point 3), they shouldn’t sacrifice their brand to do so. I choose to invest in B2B companies whose business model will be intact 12, 24, and 48 months from now, and a lack of consistency in branding casts doubt upon that company’s future. Are they spending an increasing amount of their time chasing a millennial audience at the expense of my interests? Are they biasing content toward a B2C audience? By contrast, a brand that has a consistent, resonant identity throughout their social media campaigns inspires confidence in their direction, particularly when coupled with messaging that indicates their commitment to my business.

2) It shows a brand that is able to respond in real time to needs and events

A brand that is able to address current events in near real-time demonstrates that they have not only the thinking, but the organizational structure to act quickly. That response needs to go beyond superficial and show an understanding of how events are affecting customers at that moment. Can I expect this to have a negative impact on my business? Is there an action I should be taking? This kind of feedback assures me that someone is managing my account at a strategic level and they are equipped to handle the real-time fluctuations in data that drive my company. Social media is the best real-time medium to promote these insights, and it is a valuable way for brands to look proactive to their customers.

3) It shows a brand that has enough thought leadership to stay relevant over time

B2B platforms move at the speed of technology, which is to say exponentially. The market leaders of now can easily become the laughing stock of next year, and much of this is attributable to a complacency about the future of their sector. I don’t necessarily expect the companies of today to have an offering that addresses emerging technology – like virtual reality, augmented reality, or even Bitcoin – today, but I do expect them to explore the impacts of these technologies on their company and their customers. Social media provides a forum for them to promote their status as innovators with an awareness of the future in a way that a static roadmap cannot. This can be done explicitly through thought leadership pieces, but also implicitly through the intelligent use of emerging social media platforms. This is the difference between a brand that has a Snapchat account versus a brand that understands how to use Snapchat to engage its customers. I am not impressed by the former – in fact I would argue it is a detractor – while the latter demonstrates a company that knows how to invest in emerging technology in a meaningful way and is actively exploring its potential.

Of course, none of this matters if your social media isn’t reaching its intended audience. For that, you need well-structure campaigns using best-in-class technologies to drive qualified traffic toward meaningful conversions. Read here about how to structure your social media campaigns for success so that you can focus on getting the right message out to your prospective buyers.

Michael Dowd is the Executive Director of Digital Strategy at Maark, where he coordinates new product development and execution for our clients. Mike brings with him eleven years of experience in agency-side digital marketing, during which he provided guidance on marketing technologies, platforms, and strategies for more than a dozen Fortune 100 companies across the B2B, retail, and automotive industries.

Download our new white paper, The Search and Social Advertising Playbook for B2B Marketers, to learn how to stop participating in search and social, and start converting.

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Photo credit: Pexels

Posted by Michael Dowd

The term “clickbait” has negative connotation because it implies that the payoff – whether that is a product, information, or an experience – doesn’t match the sales pitch. But there’s nothing wrong with enticing someone with winning messaging, backed up by compelling content, and no medium is better equipped to deliver upon that promise than paid search.

My distaste for platform-side metrics like clickthrough rate and cost per click runs deep, and any company that holds these up as end-game success metrics is selling you snake oil. Clickthroughs can be manipulated with lousy messaging. CPC can be manipulated by relegating yourself to non-competitive niches. Neither option says anything about how good that medium is at driving your business goals. This is doubly true for B2B companies, where sales cycles can take years and engagements can last a lifetime. Your company mission is to show that you understand your customer’s business intimately, and a botched landing page experience can express an ignorance or irrelevance that persists in the mind of the customer. Fortunately, paid search provides all the foundation necessary to create a meaningful relationship with those customers.

Paid search marketing is the most personal medium available to B2B advertisers. Social media often gets this title because of its potential for informal, back-and-forth communication, but it is also clouded by trolls, complaints, and agendas. Paid search is pure. At its core, it’s an individual asking a question – implicitly or explicitly – and presenting brands with the opportunity to reply. How well you are equipped to answer that exact question in that exact moment separates a sale from a missed opportunity. To position your brand with a winning response, you need to properly interpret that user’s question and provide both a compelling hook and content that supports your claims of authority. The latter is where too many brands fall apart.

The language of paid search is the keyword. In isolation, it’s a single request, but aggregated over time and matched against site-side data, they reveal how customers think, search, and interact. This “machine learning” aspect of search is beautifully illustrated by Google’s Knowledge Graph – the snippets of concrete information that Google serves up in response to implied search intent. These can be anything from Wikipedia definitions to structured data containing the height of a celebrity. This is the bar against which all content-driven campaigns should measure themselves. While Google is the expert on many topics, you are the expert on your own customer. Are you equipped with the content, technology, data, and campaign structure to respond directly and convincingly to the questions that your customers are asking?

These keyword-driven conversations shape the way that we respond to customers – not just within search, but across all media – because search is the only medium in which we are able to capture the entire conversation from customer intent to company response to customer engagement. We learn from the successes and apply that messaging to other campaigns. And we learn from the missed opportunities, where intention is not met by value, and we build new experiences around it on-site and across campaigns. This isn’t easy, and it requires departmental coordination across IT, marketing, design, and finance, but in a B2B world where single engagements can lead to thousands or millions in lifetime value, you simply can’t afford to disappoint the customer at any point in their journey.

There are many delicately balanced components in this holistic customer conversation, but they all rely upon a solid foundation of campaign structure and tactical execution to ensure that the bait comes with a comparable reward. In our new white paper, Maark explains how to execute well-structured campaigns using best-in-class technologies to drive qualified traffic toward meaningful conversions.

Michael Dowd is the Executive Director of Digital Strategy at Maark, where he coordinates new product development and execution for our clients. Mike brings with him eleven years of experience in agency-side digital marketing, during which he provided guidance on marketing technologies, platforms, and strategies for more than a dozen Fortune 100 companies across the B2B, retail, and automotive industries.

Download our new white paper, The Search and Social Advertising Playbook for B2B Marketers, to learn how to stop participating in search and social, and start converting.

Download Playbook


Photo credit: Edho Pratama

Posted by Jason Ocker

You did it. You have a well-defined strategy. And you built a tightly developed and vetted story around it. You’re already ahead of most B2B marketers.

But now it’s time to start mercilessly changing that story. Like what George Lucas did to Star Wars.

Starting in the 1990s, in time for the 20th anniversary theatrical re-release of his trilogy, creator George Lucas took advantage of the latest digital technologies to make a galaxy of changes throughout the three movies: Greedo shoots first. Hayden Christensen is ghosted in at the end of Jedi. Entire characters are removed. New characters and lines of dialogue are added. Ewoks blink. The Sarlacc gets a beak and tentacles. Darth Vader’s eyebrows are removed in the unveiling scene at the end of the trilogy. Scores more.

And that’s exactly what I’m suggesting you do for your audience. Remove Darth Vader’s eyebrows.

If a story isn’t resonating with your audience, change it. If it’s not driving sales, change it. If it’s not positioning your company as thought leaders in the industry, change it. If it’s working perfectly, well, don’t change it. That’s being a little too much like Lucas. But B2B marketing stories shouldn’t be static, and they should never have a “The End.”

Wait. But weren’t/aren’t people angry at Lucas for these revisions?

Yes, yes they were/are. But the difference here is a crucial one.

Aside from the fact that this Star Wars analogy is closer to a business changing its product (since the Star Wars story in this case is the product and not technically a path to one), Lucas’s changes seemed mostly whim-born and internally motivated. They certainly weren’t based on any objectively interpreted data.

And that’s exactly what should dictate changes to a B2B marketing story. More specifically, immediate data culled directly from your audience. That’s how you find out if a story is resonating or driving sales or positioning your company or solution appropriately.

But getting that data has traditionally been a problem for businesses. Normal methods of gathering it are painful sales and customer surveys and subjectively interpreted anecdotes from the field. Dinosaur stuff. By the time that sort of data comes in and gets synthesized into actions, the old, un-optimized story has been out there too long, especially in today’s fast-moving digital world. B2B marketers need more immediate, relevant data from their audience to adapt their stories effectively and quickly.

And the channels for that specific type of data? Paid search and social.

Like CGI for George Lucas, paid search and social are the most cutting-edge tools for B2B marketers looking for better data. Paid search gives you an immediate and direct insight into the way that customers think about an industry, their own challenges, and your solutions, down to the very language that they use. Social media is where the conversation is happening, where thought leadership is established, where brands are elevated or lowered, where opinions and reactions are circulated non-stop.

These digital channels are highly immediate and extremely relevant. This is where your audience lives and acts.

Today, many B2B companies flirt with paid search and social. It’s a check-the-box activity, one almost begrudgingly added because search and social is obviously such a force of modern culture. Most B2B marketers are far more comfortable with antiquated methods of promotion like print and banner ads, despite all the evidence against their effectiveness and the lack of return of any useable data. Also, admittedly, using search and social well in a B2B context is difficult.

It’s more than just hiring a social media manager. More than just opening an AdWords account. To be able to use those channels, you have to design and build an internal infrastructure that is able to access the search and social data and respond to it accordingly, to set up that cycle of ever-refreshing outbound content and inbound data.

But in today’s digital world, regardless of the difficulty, it’s vital for the success of any B2B marketing initiative. For all the reasons above, but also because that data doesn’t just change your story, it has the potential to change your strategy and the product or solution itself.

And if you can do it well, you’ll be a better George Lucas.

And then Disney will buy you.

Jason Ocker is the Executive Director of Creative Strategy at Maark, where he oversees messaging and story across marketing strategy, digital campaigns, and product design for a range of industries, including finance, technology, government, health, life science, and telecommunications. He’s an award-winning author of five books, and has been featured at CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

Download our new white paper, The Search and Social Advertising Playbook for B2B Marketers, to learn how to stop participating in search and social, and start converting.

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Photo credit: NASA

Posted by Michael Colombo

Maark was born into a digital world. Back in 2000, the project that formed the company was for a home builder who was struggling to turn the process of making McMansions into something as repeatable and efficient as making Happy Meals. We believed the Internet held the answer. If we could bring every function of the business along with every customer and laborer into a single online system, then we could keep the whole operation on the same page in real time. At the time, the concept was incredible.

In the years since, it’s become obvious. Connectivity is ubiquitous. Nearly every activity, whether personal or professional, that we engage in involves the Internet in some way. The Internet has transformed us, and we are just now learning how to harness that transformation. As with most breakthroughs, the answer lies in the data. The activity of individuals and machines connected to the Internet is storable, parseable…even predictable. If connectivity was the first breakthrough, this Asimovian calculus on the Internet’s data is at the heart of the next wave of breakthroughs.

We already see this wave taking shape. While hype around big data, the Internet of Things, machine learning, and artificial intelligence is at a fever pitch, the surprising reality is that we are already seeing real-world execution. Enhancements in autonomous vehicles, AI-driven cancer diagnoses, industrial robotics, and, of course, advertising are just a few areas where we are glimpsing the future of data-driven automation.

For Maark, that’s an exciting shift. At our core, we have always wanted to solve the business problems that would deliver the biggest impact for our clients. And in the digital world that Maark grew up in, we have always solved those problems with creative thinking and technology innovation. A better story, a simpler interface, a new digital product or service, a more relevant brand, a better experience. Creatives and technologists working together – literally side-by-side – to make a real impact. This was, and continues to be, the vision.

Marketing, to us, has never been about ad-making - it’s always been about innovating. And yet, as we look at this next wave of data-driven innovation, we see a new paradigm emerging. Our clients have the opportunity to rethink what it means to run a digital operation in a world that’s gone from mobile-first to data-first. Nowhere do we see this innovation opportunity more clearly than, ironically, in ad-making.

In a data-first world, every advertising tactic should be judged in terms of its capacity for real-time measurement and improvement. Will it help you better understand your customer? Your story? Your solution? Can you connect it to the rest of your data to create a complete profile of your customer or to build a better mousetrap? If not, don’t do it.

That’s not to say that in a data-first world the creative “first principles” of marketing no longer apply. They do. A relevant brand, a narrative built rigorously and used consistently across all channels, and engaging interactive content are more necessary than ever to rise above the din of competing messages. However, the strategies for driving engagement with those messages should now have at their core the channels that deliver the best data.

A great story and world class creative that ends up in a glossy, where the best metric is ‘impressions’, represents spend that cannot be optimized. Whereas true digital channels – search and social media – combine the power of data-rich platforms with direct customer engagement to deliver better insights about segmentation, efficacy, customer intent, and corrective market feedback. Better data will lead to better outcomes in the hands of the real-time, analytics-driven marketing operation.

What that really means for our B2B clients is that, ultimately, the return on their marketing investments is determined to a growing degree by their success in these true digital channels. Search engines offer insight into the mind of the customer; how they think about their needs, and where they are in the buying cycle. And social media is the marketplace of ideas where every brand needs to compete for space in the minds of their customers. Getting these channels wrong means lots of wasted resources. It also means a wasted opportunity to make data mastery a core capability of their digital organizations.

That’s why we’re so excited to help them get it right. We want to help drive digital operations. We want to help make a big impact. By bringing together integrated strategy, creative, technology, advertising, and analytics SWAT teams, we want to help our clients create the engaging content that tells their story, distribute it effectively in the search and social channels, collect and interpret the data that matters most, and respond in real time to the market’s feedback. We believe this is the opportunity for our clients. Creating the operation that executes on this opportunity is challenging. It’s this type of challenge that created our business.

It’s the reason we’re here.

Michael Colombo is the founder and CEO of Maark where he oversees the overall direction and development of the agency as it continues to build its brand as a leading marketing and innovation engine for its customers. He has served as the executive lead in programs including corporate rebranding, solution marketing, sales enablement, digital transformation, and new product design for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

Download our new white paper, The Search and Social Advertising Playbook for B2B Marketers, to learn how to stop participating in search and social, and start converting.

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Photo credit: Paul Sableman