Islands in the Stream, That Is What We Are

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What do you call search, email, and display advertising? Are they channels? Advertising formats? “Categories”?

Regardless, they are the three “traditional” digital marketing areas that have received the most focus and each are full ecosystems unto themselves with billions of dollars being spent, major network players, many, many software vendors, and a lot of specialized expertise.

While search and email have largely been used for direct response marketing, and display is largely fueled by brand marketing, all three are mature, sizable, and growing markets.

Here are some stats from eMarketer, September 2012:

  • Total digital ad spend: $37.13 billion growing 13.9 percent year-over-year
  • Display: $14.98 billion growing 15.2 percent year-over-year
  • Search: $19.51 billion growing 17.2 percent year-over-year

Generally, these channels have similar characteristics.

  1. They require segmentation or a focus on a specific audience. A keyword, email address, or publisher/content.
  2. They require creative for the “ad unit.” A search ad, email, or banner.
  3. They require a post-click landing experience, whether a landing page or website.
  4. They require analytics across all three to prove and improve performance.

Additionally, budgets are managed in two consistent ways: “working” dollars spent promoting the ad units themselves, primarily in search and display; and “non-working” dollars spent on software, creative/asset production, and consulting. Lastly, all three have been “mobilized,” meaning all campaigns must now consider not only desktop but also smartphone and tablet contexts for both ad units and landing experiences.

Admittedly, this is vastly oversimplified, as there are many nuances, but fundamentally these similarities and foundations hold true.

Well, there’s a new channel in town and it’s already valued at ~$4.5 billion and growing at 80 percent year-over-year.

“Stream,” or advertising in social streams like the Facebook news feed or Twitter stream, is the next full-featured digital marketing channel. And while it shares the same basic foundations as the other three digital categories, there are a few things that make it completely different for marketers.

The Similarities

Led by Facebook and including Twitter, LinkedIn, and Tumblr to a smaller extent, marketers can develop ad units or “posts” that can be targeted at key audiences with media dollars.

In an interesting amalgamation of search, display, and email, the units range from text only to amazing rich media with many options in between. Creative can be delivered organically to those who have opted in.

Stream advertising also requires a landing experience post-click and the options here vary from rich media where the engagement and actions happen within the stream to Facebook apps and websites.

Lastly, marketers require the ability to understand and improve performance across reach and frequency, engagement, and conversion. In-stream advertising, as with the other three digital means, requires the aggregation and analysis of data from third-party networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), from the ad creative itself, from the landing experience, and all the way through conversion.

As Facebook has dreamt, “working” dollars are flooding into stream advertising and the uniqueness of the social context is also driving significant growth in production dollars, especially around content creation.

While still young, stream advertising is maturing with billions of dollars being spent, major network players, many, many software vendors, and a lot of specialized expertise.

As Rob Jewell, founder and CEO of Spruce Media, says, “Facebook is a must buy for all marketers at this point.”

The Differences

Unlike search where we go to find something, email where we manage work and life’s logistics, and display where we’re interrupted while reading other things, streams are where we go to be social personally and professionally, to discover news, content, and products, and where we share back out to our networks.

Streams are deeply personal places, especially on mobile, and for the most part we only allow invited or relevant guests in. This is most similar to email but drastically different from search and display. We are rarely in our streams to shop, for example, but we are open to discovering new products or sharing something we just bought because we love it.

What we see in our streams is determined by a mix of what we’ve opted in to, what our friends like or have done, or what we’ve shared in our profiles or through behaviors on the social web. For marketers, this is a context that requires the integration of owned media, earned media, and paid media to be successful.

In stream advertising, we can’t create a small set of ads and push them out to the same people over and over. We can’t even assume that the same person will see the same ad twice. This requires that we develop campaign and content strategies around a core theme or business outcome. For example, publishing and promoting a new reason to opt in to your email list every week for a month is a smart, simple, and effective stream advertising campaign. We must engage first, then offer simple but mutually beneficial conversion options optimized for desktop and mobile. This formula, while familiar, is special in the stream context.

Every ad unit in the stream is “native.” A tweet is different than a Facebook photo post, which is different than an Instagram video. There are no IAB standards, email delivery best practices, or search ad limits in the stream. For now, every network has its own post types and is always developing new ones. For marketers, this means that they should work with agencies and vendors that have deep partnerships with the big networks and whose job it is to keep up. Like SEO and email consultants who understand the latest Google algorithm changes and CAN-SPAM rules, look to stream advertising experts to help guide and manage your campaigns.

Why Does This Matter?

Marketers must start thinking about streams as a new channel on the level of search, email, and display for a few important reasons.

First, to change our frame of reference a bit. Most marketers think about streams as places for customer service and community management – where we post cute photos, polls, and contests in an effort to make loyal customers feel special and get them to share. Sure, these work, but when we begin to apply our full strategic and creative resources to reaching and converting our key audiences in their streams, we begin to do remarkable marketing that is much more likely to drive business outcomes.

Marketers should explore the stream advertising ecosystem more deeply. It’s easy to see self-proclaimed social media gurus, a million vendors selling the same social media management tools, and a dizzying amount of new metrics to translate into business value. But this market is maturing very quickly and there are many agencies and vendors that are forging the next generation of tools and best practices. If a vendor or agency isn’t able to articulate how paid, owned, and earned come together to drive success in the stream, they’re not leading and you should think twice about working with them.

It’s so easy to think that social = Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Shifting this to the stream, a channel unique to social networks but not owned by a single one, makes thinking about and executing marketing strategies a bit easier. Sure, we think about Google first and then take down our campaigns to Bing, Yahoo, etc. We may start in the Facebook stream but much of the work will transfer easily to other networks, especially as they develop.

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