Why are ‘Brands’ losing control of ‘context’ in the online World?

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Digital advertising is going through a bad patch at the moment. It has turned into pollution, which turns up seemingly anywhere as you browse, like so many plastic bags in our oceans.

Right now, Amazon is serving me an ad on my Guardian news app about something I searched for on their site yesterday; a tent, in fact. Because I am an oldster with fat fingers, I clicked on it by mistake and now I can’t seem to get rid of it. So, if the rest of this article seems to be written by someone who has anger management issues, then you know who to blame.

For brands there is reputational risk if your ad is seen alongside something unpleasant. Even if the worst does not happen, you don’t want your brand to turn up in some tacky clickbait site full of listicles in one of the grimmer corners of the internet. In the online world, brands are losing control of ‘context’. But it wasn’t always this way.

Context mattered in the idealistic naïve early days of the digital revolution Google search ads proved to be a great innovation because they are contextual; you are served an ad that is relevant to what you searched for at the right time. It shows respect for what you want. My last sentence feels like something written in a more naïve and idealistic time. That respect has collapsed.

All manner of ‘martech’ now offers brands ways to ‘win customers cost effectively’; a highly addictive promise to an under pressure marketer. The customer is now just a data point to be traded and has no say or agency in the matter (unless you use ad blocking software). For the uninitiated this is what (increasingly) happens: in the milliseconds before you see a webpage, a virtual auction takes place and advertisers bid for the chance to target and re-target you as you browse (this is called programmatic trading of online advertising and all the big players are selling it).


I find the phrase content marketing dispiriting as it suggests yet more digital detritus pushed out to widespread indifference. As you start to Google, you are probably not thinking: “Gosh, there is a shortage of information on the internet.” Content marketing can end up being yet more pollution.


Huge amounts of money are sloshing about – the likes of Google and Amazon are extraordinarily profitable and so many bad people are now trying to cream off some of it. ‘Fake news machines’, based in places like Macedonia, set up websites and then post lies and outrageous remarks in the hope that people won’t be able to resist clicking on them. And they are right. People find scandal and outrage irresistible; no surprise there. By using ad services (like Google AdSense), which place targeted ads around the web each click on this clickbait sends cash back to the ‘content creator’. This kind of thing is now happening on an industrial scale because it is 1) quite easy to do and 2) not necessarily illegal where the scammers are located.

Does content marketing provide an answer?

One way to escape the clickbait world is to create and manage your own content. Content marketing is most simply defined as brands creating things that people choose to look at, such as entertainment, short films, information, advice, useful services, reports on events, comments/discussions and games. It is a big mindset shift in which brands stop seeing marketing as something that is done to ‘target audiences but rather done for people’s benefit.

A new book by Laz Dzamic and Justin Kirby called The Definitive Guide to Strategic Content Marketing (now there is a title optimised for the search rankings!) grapples honestly with what it takes to be good at it. (Declaration of interest; I worked with Laz in an innovation team at Google and specially for Aurora readers I asked him to provide links to his favourite examples of content marketing and these are now on the Aurora website).

I find the phrase content marketing dispiriting as it suggests yet more digital detritus pushed out to widespread indifference. As you start to Google, you are probably not thinking: “Gosh, there is a shortage of information on the internet.” Content marketing can end up being yet more pollution. That’s the danger and the challenge. It is difficult to do well. So what does it take to do content marketing well?

1.) To stand a chance of success, you have to start with the ‘why’ questions

The internet can often feel like a vast ocean of unreliable but endlessly fascinating stuff. If you are going to add your drops to this ocean, you need to answer the ‘why’ questions: Why are we doing this? Why will our content be valued by people? Why are we a credible provider/creator of it? That is for starters. Next, you need a whole different mindset from doing ads.

2.) Use data for empathy

As people go about researching, choosing and buying (in any given category), they send off signals about what interests them and what they are receptive to in those moments. These ‘data signals’ are the starting point for human empathy. In that moment, do you just try to sell to them as target audiences or do you imagine what your fellow human beings will find fascinating and irresistible? Truth be told, it is very difficult to create content that the general public wants to look at – ask any newspaper editor, filmmaker, song writer, novelist, successful blogger or vlogger. It is a full-time job and even then, you have no guarantee of success, so what chance does a brand have?

3.) You will (probably) have to partner with people who know how to do it

Brands start way back in the race to create great content. In order to get to the start line, they will (often) have to partner with people who already have an audience and a profile – famous folk often. At Google, I advised brand owners on how to set up their own YouTube channels (to become media owners in other words) and I concluded that most of them should not try unless they were prepared to invest in a regular stream of great films and partner with successful YouTubers to boost their audiences.


Advertising is the business model of Google and Facebook. It also funds lots of free services that we value. Traditional media, like TV and posters, remain a good option in spite of heavy propaganda from the big digital players who are trying hard to position them as “the dinosaur option for the out of touch marketer.”


4.) Content marketing is a major strategic commitment

It is not a cheap option. It requires investment in strategy, planning, data analysis, partnerships and creation. Sure there are the occasional viral hits from stunts or some magical piece of new technology (VR is the great hope right now), but these are few and far between and difficult to repeat. So don’t fall for that snake oil.

So what are the right options for your brand? Content marketing is not for everyone, so what is the answer?

Digital advertising will have to clean up its act. The likes of Google and Facebook are being pressured to do so by the big advertisers (such as P&G and Unilever), who have threatened to withdraw their media spend in order to concentrate minds. TV advertising was rackety at the start, with a great deal of mistrust between brands and media owners (and so too are the early days of digital advertising).

Digital advertising is still young and can rebuild trust. There is too much at stake for this cleanup not to happen. Advertising is the business model of Google and Facebook. It also funds lots of free services that we value. Traditional media, like TV and posters, remain a good option in spite of heavy propaganda from the big digital players who are trying hard to position them as “the dinosaur option for the out of touch marketer.” Consider this stat from WARC: big brands in the US (those spending over $10 million) still spend 60% of their media budgets on TV ads. Why is this? Well, that is a whole other story. But one of the things traditional media does well is enable you to control the quality of the context for your brand’s message. Human psychology is unchanging; we judge people and brands not just by what they say but also by the company they keep and where they are seen.

The medium still is the message.

Julian Saunders was formerly a strategist in The Zoo at Google, Head of Strategy at McCann Erickson and CEO of Red Cell (a WPP creative agency). He blogs at www.joinedupthink.com and teaches brand owners and agencies.

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