A few years ago, it became crystal clear: the future of the advertising agency lay in the technology of digital communications. That was the easy part. We realized that we were at a point in a continuum where the content that consumers craved (and we relied upon to carry our messages) would slowly move away from the hard and bulky (print) and the linear and controlled (airwaves and cable). Content will ultimately bend to the will of the consumer who wants what they want when they want it. We have some hurdles to overcome, both technical and legal, but the future of media will be digital and the agency of the future will build digital directly into the heart of its organization. Then - and only then - an agency can truly say it is in line with the wills and desires of the consumer.
Which is cool and everything, but so what? But, the realization that we're heading toward a digital future is only being accepted at the most superficial level. We are prepared only to port the video that normally would have run on television over to run on Hulu. Digital television devices from Google and Apple and who knows who else potentially only offer more of the same excuses for advertisers who just want to get a message into the middle of content that asks people to go somewhere else and do something else, other than what they are actually, currently doing.
A key aspect of a digitally-driven content world: consumer have a vast array of choices. It's not that interesting that there are thousands and thousands of shows online. It is interesting only that you can find the one thing that you do want to watch. Or play. Or read. Or interact with. The point is we are experiencing the twilight of the passive viewer and the decision to spend time only watching whatever happens to be on. The big thing about media consumption today: people have made an active and conscious decision to do the thing they are doing because they could do any number of things instead.
Advertisers can no longer rely upon the fact that a viewer is simply there, watching or reading, and won't go away. Brands, therefore, must make a key shift. They need to stop thinking of themselves as destinations and start thinking of themselves as engines.
The Difference Between Destinations and Engines
The difference between destinations and engines is pretty clear. A destination is a place; an engine is a tool that helps you get to that place. In general, we have thought about advertising as being more about destinations. In fact, we talk about using ads for "traffic generation," as in we are trying to create a flow of people headed toward our destination.
That makes sense when we think about the networks of days-gone-by, which were large and complicated broadcast facilities that were under the control of a small number of people with special skills and access. But today, the networks that matter are created by individuals and their friends. Certainly they are using sophisticated technologies, but there is no special access or skills required to use Facebook. In fact, Facebook has rapidly been opening up the ability to control their network to individuals, with the launch of Pages and Groups.
Inside of these media spaces and personalized networks, the idea of being a destination is a challenging one, because, essentially, Facebook is the destination and people have decided already to be there. Destination is settled.
The opportunity then for the brand is to help add value to the already existing behavior. That's why you should start thinking about becoming an engine and asking the question "how can I help here?" rather than "how can I get them away from here?"
The FarmVille Principle
This truly is what has made FarmVille such an amazing success. Certainly, Zynga (the makers of FarmVille and many other games) could have created a self-contained online game and placed it on the Internet, similar to dozens of other online games. They then could use Facebook and any other channel to simply place ads to drive traffic back to the site to get sign-ups. They would then kick in a CRM program, sending e-mails to players reminding them to play and offer rewards if they got five of their friends to sign up.
That model is now dead.
The lesson of FarmVille is that by integrating into an experience that is all about sharing and connection, the marketing and the product get to be totally integrated. The idea is that they are making sharing and connections even better by giving you a new way to engage. They are not trying to pull people away from the experience they have sought out, but rather finding ways to make that destination-they-have-already-chosen even better.
If marketers and advertisers are ready to take advantage, not just of Facebook but of all new media channels, they need to begin to adopt this way of thinking. There are already enough destinations in the world. If you are going to create a new one, it really has to be pretty spectacular. But many of those destinations are not complete - there are ways that you can add value to them. In some ways, this is why the opening up of APIs to developers on so many sites and services represents a real new crack in the media channel universe.
Being an engine means that you are not only being an added value, but also get to come along for the whole ride.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014