Organic Reach Is Temporary: 4 Big Insights Shaping 2014

Well, 2014 isn’t yet half over and a lot has changed already. While I’m not surprised, it does seem like major changes with major implications are happening a lot more quickly.

I watch the digital marketing world closely and I see a few big trends emerging that I thought I’d share before they change again.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned so far in 2014:

Organic Reach Is Temporary

Now that Facebook and Google have clearly and significantly turned down organic (free) reach, it’s become clear that this was merely an early-stage tactic to attract and ensnare marketers. New platforms that rely on scaling users – Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. – use free reach as a hook to engage marketers and build fan communities. Once built, the sunk cost fallacy and the free reach cause marketers to invest more to keep growing, reaching, and engaging their rented audiences. This is the virtuous cycle pioneered by Google (albeit in a slightly different form) and perfected by Facebook. But as these businesses mature and the pressure to grow profits increases, turning down organic reach and turning up paid advertising is inevitable. And it works. Marketers will pay to reach high-value audiences and if they can consistently convert them, they will grow spend quickly.

The lesson here is that marketers must be well aware – and make their organizations aware – that organic reach is temporary. Today, growing your Instagram and Pinterest communities may be a good idea because you’ll be able to reach many of them for some time to come – but you’ve been warned – the time will come, at any moment, when building will end and advertising will begin and the value of what you’ve built will quickly diminish. This isn’t a trivial transition, either. There is a big difference between community management and advertising – across teams, tools, expertise, and costs.

Content That Converts

Organic reach has fueled the massive growth in digital content marketing. Google fueled the blogging revolution and Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have fueled astounding micro-blogging, video, and photo publishing growth.

As organic reach across platforms waxes and wanes and we’re forced to be more agile and dedicate more and more budget to driving the outcomes that matter, we must begin to think more strategically about the role of content in driving conversions. If we must pay to create and distribute content, we must also determine the value returned for the spend.

I love this little turn of phrase – content that converts – because it packs in so much. It begs the question: “What if we developed content with a focus on moving users toward key conversion actions?” How would our content be different if we focused on outcomes like email opt-in, lead generation, purchase intent, or even e-commerce sales or visits to a store?

While I could write multiple columns on content that converts, let me share a few sterling examples:

I’d drink anything this guy recommends.

Rich Storytelling:
NPR’s Planet Money makes and sells a T-shirt, which was a fascinating media/commerce convergence with a fantastic website. I bought a shirt the minute I could.

Audio is underused in my opinion, but people like Howard Stern, Jason Calacanis, and Slate – to name a small few – have personal relationships with their sponsors, the ads are presented by the hosts, and they come-off as authentic, compelling, and they all end with a clear call to action. Who doesn’t want a squatty potty? Check out Howard on Sirius, This Week in Start-Ups, and The Political Gabfest

Mobile, Duh.

I hesitate to add mobile to yet another digital marketing listicle but, of course, it’s having a significant and evolving impact on marketing and our careers.

As I’ve shared here before, we’re all mobile marketers now, yet many of us haven’t made the transition. As with the transition from organic to paid, the differences between desktop and mobile marketing are considerable. In the emerging world where the best way to reach mobile consumers is through social networks, a deep understanding of how each platform works, how mobile consumers engage and convert there, and how we as marketers can optimize the reach, engage, and convert cycle at every touch point is essential to success. Are you actively learning, every day, about what works for you in social and mobile? Not that you should abandon display, search, email, sponsorships, and everything else you’re doing, but you need to be building expertise on the small screen, duh.

Having built many websites and microsites over the years, I’ve found the natural constraints of mobile to be liberating. Admittedly, I work primarily on the mobile Web and not in apps. At the same time, the opportunity to engage and delight, to compel and drive real business value on mobile is immense. I believe we must develop our mobile marketing skills not only because of the overwhelming consumer trends but also because it provides digital marketers with an incredibly rich toolset and canvas to do our jobs.

Agencies Are Scrambling, Again

We need look no further than the Publicis/Omnicom merger debacle to see the confusion and structural problems in the current agency model. At the upper levels, there is a clear misunderstanding of the current and future reality of marketing and advertising and the role that large agencies and their holding companies can play.

As Avi Dan, a contributor to, shared in his smart and articulate article on the fiasco, “Scale is not as relevant as it once was.” And, “There was nothing in it for the clients.”

He goes on to make a case I’ve been making more and more recently, that advertising has gotten a lot more complicated. Instead of having more siloed experts at the table – brand, media, planning, account, creative, dev, analytics, etc. – from across agencies – e.g., digital, retail, PR, etc. – the emerging multi-channel, multi-device integrated campaign requires a collapsing of the stack. Small autonomous teams with inexpensive tools and a Swiss army knife of skills can run large-scale social mobile campaigns that drive real business impact. This is massively disruptive and the current agency model is ill-equipped to meet these needs.

I spent many years at Razorfish – owned by Publicis – and have worked with many agencies during my time at adidas and elsewhere. Many of my friends are dedicated and brilliant agency folks, but the system is broken and it’s the brands that are paying the biggest price.

As was hinted at when the merger was initially announced, the problem is data. What wasn’t clearly articulated was that agencies are at a significant disadvantage compared to brands and the existing and emerging ad platforms. While agencies manage massive media budgets and generate hefty fees for content strategy and production, they own none of the data that is driving the advertising of the future and enables all of targeting and performance optimization. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple have all the data and the smart brands have been or are beginning to build and capitalize on their own customer databases – sucking as much as they can from the big guys, from owned media, and from consumers themselves. At best, agencies are given access to brand data but more often than not, they lack the trust, expertise, and tools they need to really be iterative and data-driven. A massive merger would have done nothing to address this fundamental weakness.

Recent high-profile deals between the agencies and tech platforms are interesting and indicate some sense of this challenge. But from the outside, these seem to be primarily about the optics – “digital is important!” – and about preferred pricing than about innovation and data. A step in the right direction, possibly, but more likely the same old approach.

And while data is the fuel of the digital future, there are many other disruptions afoot that should be keeping the holding companies awake at night:

  • Programmatic advertising will greatly reduce the need for the existing armies of ad buyers
  • A complex and dynamic social mobile context requires agility between organic and paid, device forms and function, and the connection between virtual and real worlds through location awareness and “the Internet of things” 
  • Major digital television transformation

These are tectonic shifts for brands and the agencies they rely on to stay innovative and creative. A siloed constellation of agencies who struggle to work together, either “under a single roof” of a holding company or aggregated by brand managers, is a recipe for failure.

Change is accelerating and old (last week is old) models and theories no longer apply. In this environment, there is only one successful path forward – iterative marketing. Brands and agencies that develop the skills, invest in the tools, and execute data-driven marketing – drenched in feedback – are the most likely to succeed.

While at Razorfish I was lucky to work with and around the great MillerCoors chief marketing officer Andy England for a short time. Directly and through his team, we would consistently be asked the same question: “What’s working?” And then he would make a simple suggestion, “Let’s do more of that.” I am often reminded that it’s just that simple, and how hard a question it is to answer.

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