If you’re publishing marketing or journalism content this year, expect dwindling clicks and engagement. Here’s how you can stay connected to your audience while cutting your marketing spend.
UPDATE 19/02/20: Some predictions from this blog have been revised, downward unfortunately. More on the politically-charged digital landscape in this informative piece from The Atlantic: The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign. – DD
UPDATE 01/07/20: It’s worth noting that the “Storm” was forming months before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. The warnings about social media and web content remain true, and the emphasis on utility is even more relevant today. – DD
My first business blog of the year is a mixed bag with some bad news but plenty of optimism for those open to tinkering with their comms strategies. If you produce web content on a regular basis, you should prepare for what is definitely going to be a challenging year.
I’ll first get into the problem as I see it, followed by seven possible solutions for your organization.
Why 2020 will be challenging for marketers and all content creators
A certain amount of caution is in order for most brands given increasingly charged political tensions in media, particularly in the United States where it is an election year.
But my work isn’t political, you may ask, so why should any of this horrible stuff effect my marketing content?
Even on traditional TV, local American channels are running political ads throughout entire commercial breaks. There is so much money in US politics that marketing content related to anything other than expressions of support for Republicans or Democrats is squeezed out, given less prominent media space and therefore becomes less effective.
The effect on the web is similar. The advertising space available online is theoretically unlimited but our attention spans certainly aren’t, and often what’s trending are the biggest political spenders.
In 2020, you’ll have fewer opportunities to go viral than at just about any point in the modern web’s short lifespan.
Let’s go back to 2016, the last US presidential election year. To catch up on how that campaign changed online marketing, check out my Post-Trump Web blog and the studies I link to. Here’s one important quote:
A recently released Oxford University study found that Trump supporters share “the widest range of ‘junk news’ on Twitter,” and extreme far-right groups are the most active on Facebook. The problem is so serious that executives with Unilever, one of the world’s largest multinational advertisers, signaled this week that it “cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain … which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of its transparency,” (former) marketing head Keith Weed said, according to CNN.
The circumstances that led to the digital marketing “swamp” of 2016 have not improved. On the contrary, the world’s most popular social network has signaled in recent days that it’s opted to stay the course.
Unlike Google and Twitter which have adopted more ethical advertising guidelines, Facebook not only continues to accept funds from propagandists (or producers of “fake news”) but one of their executives recently bragged about helping to elect the US president:
You can read more about my thoughts on free speech within AI-powered social networks in a Medium blog (How to Solve* Your Free Speech Dilemmas) but suffice it to say, when individual voters are up against a superhuman propaganda machine capable of tailoring tens of thousands of messages for every conceivable subgroup in a matter of seconds, exploiting user anxieties identified through the surreptitious collection of personal data, the free marketplace of ideas becomes a bit of a fallacy on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, competing social networks.
In 2020, we have the chance to push our media platforms to do better by turning away from platforms with poor editorial controls and dangerously incompetent management. It starts with the inevitable slashing of web marketing budgets until Facebook and some other networks or outlets get their acts together; your organization may not be ready to divest yet but expect those conversations to begin this year as the presidential election campaigns ramp up.
The 2020 vote is unlike any other in terms of its impact on web content for one very specific political reason that marketers need to be aware of: the Citizens United decision on campaign financing, which has been in effect and upheld by US courts for the past decade.
In a healthier democracy like Canada’s, contributions to political campaigns are limited to about $1,600 for each adult citizen. Following Citizens United, the US essentially eliminated donation limits (to Political Action Committees), which allowed the billionaire Trump to get a head start on his Republican primary opponents before the 2016 election.
The Trump campaign spent about $100 million on digital advertising in 2016; they are projected to spend $1 billion this year with Democratic rival Mike Bloomberg having already spent $50 million. Expect partisan political messages from both Republicans and Democrats to clog up your social media feeds even if you are disinterested and don’t “like” politics.
There is only so much content we can expose ourselves to on a daily basis and the rebellion against screen time has begun. If social networks want to blindly accept as much partisan advertising as possible to boost revenues this year, the effect will be to alienate all other advertisers as well as users, most of whom aren’t heavily partisan and don’t want to engage with political content multiple times a day on social media.
Facebook’s approach is more in favour of free speech absolutism, which may be great for Trump, other massive spenders and a few of the most popular online populists but disadvantageous to even multinationals like Unilever, not to mention the average small or medium-sized business.
From one-person start-ups to sprawling corporations, there’s no giving up on the internet, so the question then becomes how brands can help the push for better content online. In the meantime, it will be important to maintain communication channels across a few platforms to hedge on an increasingly chaotic web.
How to stay connected to your audience in 2020
(while scaling back your marketing budget)
The content minefield that will be 2020 needn’t break the resolve of your marketer. Here are seven simple ways you can remain connected to your audience without breaking the bank on risky digital campaigns.
Minimal social media
I’m still hearing some SMBs are spending thousands on social media every month. Unless you are in direct-to-consumer retail and pushing out merchandise quickly, consider cutting your ad spend, particularly on Facebook. We saw the negative engagement trends begin in 2016 and even eliminated the position of “community manager” (social media specialist) in favour of original content-production; that is to say the creation of blogs, podcasts or other materials that add value to your website and not a social network’s engagement metrics. Some presence and original content are probably needed on your social profiles but you want to avoid housing all your best content on a platform you don’t own or have any control over; a platform, in Facebook’s case, that is becoming less user-friendly, less relevant and looking more and more like the cacophonous Yahoo! homepage circa 1999.
Inform first, sell later
As a PR firm that produces journalistic-style “Thinkbait” content, our approach to marketing is utilitarian and focused on the long-term development of communication channels. For many businesses, good PR can help overcome difficult conditions for traditional advertising. Before releasing a piece of content, even a tweet, we ask ourselves “how does this help?” Or, “is this content making someone’s day better?” Use your experiences to inform your audience with helpful consumer blogs or whitepapers on your areas of expertise. Give away a bit of your knowledge and that trust will be valued by your audience.
Take your PR private with newsletters
With growing anxiety and scepticism over social media, particularly over privacy concerns, maintaining private communication channels with your audience is becoming essential. While a newsletter can always be forwarded or otherwise made public, public relations risks can be reduced by curating your newsletter audience and working with PR professionals on messaging. Newsletters are also getting edgier, with fears of performative “mobbings” on public social networks creating a chilling effect for those who want to present new ideas.
Work with artists
Times of great social tumult produce great art. For many brands, art can be controversial, especially if the subject matter is political. It can be difficult for professionals and artists to collaborate; we often act as an intermediary of sorts. The artists creative vision must be respected but the client’s vision can’t be compromised either. The key is matching the right artist with the right brand, and the brand accepting a certain level of risk. Creating iconic marketing content, however, requires taking chances and plenty of creativity.
Open your doors with a free event
While pushing back against populist social media content with informative blogs and other forms of helpful digital content, the human touch must not be neglected. Professional services firms in particular are uniquely positioned to share their expertise in their communities. Small workshops, cocktails or even live-streaming events on social networks can help highlight your expertise while building good will. And, most importantly, if you are offering the gift of knowledge to your community, don’t ask for anything in return!
Charity is non-negotiable
In keeping with the altruistic theme, a simple reality about my generation, the Millennials, that all entrepreneurs must accept: Charity is not an option, it is a required part of any acceptable business model. If you aren’t giving away a bit of your time or donating resources to good causes on an ongoing basis, you are doing something wrong. With AI aiding in the creation of best practices across most industries, often the only differentiator between two professional services firms will be their leaders, and the team’s commitment to their community. All things being equal, any reasonable consumer would opt for a more charitable business over a less charitable one.
If you can’t beat ’em…
… join in on the more productive conversations arising out of the US election campaign, when appropriate. It’s totally conceivable for a Canadian entrepreneur or thought leader to piggyback on a trending American political issue, if the contribution is valuable and original. Conversations will be taking place on matters of law, healthcare, education, security, etc. Keep in mind this option requires careful preparation and quick execution.
To channel an old cliché or piece of wisdom, depending on one’s perspective, with crisis comes opportunity. It’s an important year for Americans and, since they are the world’s leading content producers, we in the rest of the world be along for the ride.
People will be looking for truth and meaning on the web in 2020. Can you meet some of the demand?
Dan Delmar is the co-founder and managing partner, public relations at TNKR Media.