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Looking Back at SOPA – What We Did

Two weeks ago, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill garnered an immense amount of media attention as digital protests culminated in the 24-hour blackout of Wikipedia’s English site. Visitors to the site were redirected to a page with a message titled: “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge” and a link to educate readers more about the bill and its affect on the Internet–including giving courts the power to ban advertising networks that have links to infringing websites.

Much of the buzz–online and otherwise–was full of rumors and innuendo, and proponents of both sides clamored to get their points across in the mainstream media. An article posted recently on Forbes.com cites that SOPA is bad for small businesses, while Lamar Smith, the Texas Representative who introduced the bill pushed to set the record straight with a post on FoxNews.com.

As a content marketing and recommendation company with countless links between our network sites, we knew this issue could have direct and significant implications for any number of the thousands of publishers and marketers who use our tools. But more importantly, because of this, we also recognized an opportunity to use our technology platform to distribute relevant news articles about SOPA and educate content producers and readers what this bill actually means.

So, two Thursdays ago, we added articles discussing SOPA to our syndication network to help readers quickly find additional content, spread the news, and hopefully spur thoughts and productive discussion about the bill and surrounding issues. As always, the relevant links were presented as recommended content below articles and blog posts that already touched on similar topics.

We believe that regardless of the position one takes on SOPA or other important issues, the rapid distribution and flow of information through online networks is what drives the Internet’s success. At nRelate, we’re continuously thinking about our role in the marketplace of ideas and new ways to leverage our platform to help educate people on important issues–whether it’s breaking news, or helping to highlight a public service announcement or charitable cause.

Ethics and the Future of Brand Marketing

Given my background (and for those of you who know me well), I often reflect on the role that ethics plays within our business of content marketing and the larger realm of marketing and advertising.  I think there are three sides to this (and lucky you, I plan on writing on each of them in the coming weeks).  nRelate and other content marketing companies face ethical issues — from who is allowed in a syndication network, to how customer information is used.  Today, though, I want to focus on another side, the content marketers.  Content marketers come in several forms and one we are seeing an overwhelming interest from lately at nRelate are brands.  Beyond just being able to reach customers with content, I want to focus on something that may have been lost under the radar and something that should be applauded – brands are beginning to view content marketing as a way to integrate an ethical component into stakeholder messaging (yes, really).

Traditionally, brand ethics fell under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility (CSR).  For many companies, ethical boundaries in advertising were something to stretch, and organizations like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) to monitor.  Even as prominent brands like McDonald’s strive to improve their products and reputations, each new round of advertising would often be criticized as being false or misleading.  One need not go far to find evidence of this – a recent Financial Times article illustrates this ongoing battle between corporate marketers and watchdog groups.

On the flipside, Coca-Cola, another consumer facing behemoth has embraced content marketing with its new marketing strategy, Content 2020.  In a Content Marketing Institute blog post, Joe Pulizzi summarizes Coca-Cola’s new marketing objectives.  Coca-Cola’s primary goal is to move from creative excellence to content excellence and “create the world’s most compelling content.”  First and foremost, this content must tell a story, provoke conversation and “earn a disproportionate share of popular culture.”  Most intriguing however, is what I would argue an ethical mandate, that Coca Cola’s marketing content must “make a commitment to making the world a better place and to develop value and significance in people’s lives.”

The idea of content with an ethical purpose breaks away from the traditional marketing and advertising practices of generating brand awareness through commercial repetition or generating revenue with links to “irresistible” tabloid articles.  Coca-Cola states that it “can no longer rely on being 30-Second-TV-Centric.”  Does this mean that companies will completely abandon traditional mass advertising?  Not likely.  In fact, right now brands including Coca-Cola are gearing up for the holy grail of advertising platforms–the Super Bowl.  USA Today reports that NBC has sold out all commercial airtime for the game, and the average cost for a 30-second spot was $3.5 million.

That being said, I don’t believe ethics in brand marketing is mere lip service–especially online.  The smart brands (and companies) are looking at the long term value of ethical content.  As we all know, Internet advertising is still a young medium and it is continually evolving.  As content marketing becomes more prevalent, hopefully that will increase the role ethics plays into Internet marketing and advertising overall.  Brand initiatives like this make me happy we are working in content marketing and not in other forms of advertising.

To some extent, where we are now with the internet and with advertising in particular, often reminds me of Hobbes’s Leviathan.  Just as in the physical world, we have learned the value of social contracts (explicit or implicit), in the new virtual world that is starting to take shape.  Specifically with brand marketing new “social contracts” will be formed between marketers, content marketing companies, and consumers.  Credit to Coca Cola and hope that they continue to push this initiative and stay true to their mandate.  Here at nRelate, we happy to be a part of that already and in our own way, and like Coca Cola, we are trying to make the world a better place and developing value and significance in people’s lives.

Looking Back and To the Future: Year-End Summary

As 2011 draws to a close, we at nRelate reflect on the relationships we’ve built over the past year with partners, investors, and the thousands of publishers and marketers who use our technology to share content and reach audiences around the world. We also look confidently to the future, as shifts in web navigation, and the rise of interactive marketing and mobile devices continue to shape the social web.

2011 Highlights

In our first full year of business, we achieved inspiring growth with just a handful of employees and relatively modest budget. In a competitive environment, we solidified our marketing network, and in our 2011 Year-Over-Year User Growth announcement, reported an average increase of more than 1,000 percent across multiple metrics including total active sites, widget impressions, click-throughs, impressions per second and clicks per second. We finished the year with 17,500+ sites in our network, and these numbers motivate us to continue to deliver the best content plugins available and provide users with unrivaled customer support.

Looking Forward

A recent Ventana New Media press release on Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch reported that analyst firm Forrester predicts that by 2014, interactive marketing spending in the U.S. will near $55 billion and represent 21 percent of all marketing spending. As content marketing and recommendation continue to play an influential role in this larger industry trend, we remain well positioned to excel by soliciting feedback from our users and continually improving our products and technology.

Smart phone, tablet, and other mobile device usage rose at a staggering rate in 2011. Andy Rubin, Google’s director of mobile platforms recently reported that consumers activate 700,000 Android devices every day–nearly double the numbers reported last year. As mobile device usage continues to grow, marketers need to think about how to reach audiences and monetize content on the mobile web. We currently offer the only content marketing platform optimized for mobile web browsers, and our mobile click-through rate of 4.3% generates over 400,000 monthly clicks on over 10 million impressions, with significant room for further optimization.

We’re excited about nRelate’s future and leave you with this TMG Custom Media blog post with five content marketing New Year’s resolutions to think about for next year. We wish everyone a very happy holiday season and a prosperous 2012!

-Neil Mody, nRelate Chief Executive Officer

The Next Generation of Advertising Consumption

As we enter 2012 and look to the future of advertising, marketing, and media, it may behoove us to briefly set our sights backwards. Thirty years ago, an MIT political scientist named Ithiel de Sola Pool wrote about media convergence well before many of us ever watched cable TV, spoke on mobile phones, or even knew what the Internet was. In fact, most Millennials, the generation that grew up using these technologies, hadn’t even been born. In his 1984 book Technologies of Freedom, Pool asserts:

“A process called the ‘convergence of modes’ is blurring the lines between media, even between point-to-point communications, such as the post, telephone and telegraph, and mass communications, such as the press, radio, and television. A single physical means–be it wires, cables or airwaves–may carry services that in the past were provided in separate ways.”

So the concept of different media outlets and marketing channels comingling isn’t new, but it does underpin an emerging trend in advertising and marketing.

As technology continues to move at breakneck speed, it’s hard to know exactly “what’s next.” However, we do have evidence that the age of pop-up and banner ads is steadily declining–especially among younger demographics. Smart consumers know exactly what they’re looking for and are increasingly resistant to bombardment of irrelevant, unsolicited messages. This is the age of QR Codes, Geo-Fencing, and other technologies that allow consumers to explore and receive marketing content on their terms. As a company with a product to sell, or a producer with content to share, you must be equally smart and provide audiences with messages and sales opportunities they want, as well as deliver where and when they want it.

Recently, a lot of content producers and marketers are talking about “content marketing,” or how producers and marketers can collaborate to use content as a sales channel. At its core, content marketing is based on basic integrated marketing communication theory. If you want to be a savvy marketer, you need to consider “brand contacts,” or where your brand touches your audience’s life. These places of contact are called “touch points,” and they exist in multiple communication vehicles that include television, radio, print, and online (blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, eNewsletters etc.) Content marketing doesn’t mean you simply disguise ads as content, but instead, engage consumers and audiences in a targeted, relevant manner. For example, you could take a thought leadership position on a topic and share content without actually selling anything. In the event that you do promote a product, you should explore new channels that will most likely reach your audience where they already are.

A December 5, 2011 New York Times article titled, With a Click of the Remote, Impulse Purchases highlights this emerging trend of smart content marketing. Verizon FiOS launched a new service last week that allows certain viewers to purchase products they see on shows they’re already watching with a click of the remote. While shopping from television isn’t new, this service available on the History Channel allows people to buy branded items the moment they see a similar item featured on shows like “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars.” In the article, Rachelle Zoffer, director of content acquisition and programming for FiOS stated: “The products will be contextual to what you are watching on television.” “Our goal is to put things on television that enhance the programming and create value for our subscribers.”

Although Verizon is offering the service in a limited launch market, this model could lay the groundwork for similar content marketing campaigns across television. Now is the time to think strategically about how to integrate intelligent content into your marketing mix. The fundamentals have been around for decades, but the “how to” of content marketing is evolving and open for discovery.

The Future of Web Navigation is Clicking

Navigating the web has become more intuitive, and in some ways is easier than ever before. However, the enormous, continual flood of new web pages, articles, and blog posts can make it difficult to find exactly what you’re looking for. Whether you type keywords into a search bar, explore links from your friends, or click between news-site articles, there’s a good chance you spend a lot of time sifting through content that doesn’t interest you.

The three main ways that people navigate the web are: search, social recommendation, and clicking direct links between pages. All three tactics have attracted companies that work around-the-clock to help you land on pages you want to visit and content you want to read or view.

Search is the primary way people move about the web, and it would appear that Google has won the nav-game–leaving the rest of us to spend our lives trying to figure out how to get our site or product to show up on the first page of search results. Google made search intuitive, easy, and fast. Their 6 minute Evolution of Search video is a decent look at the past and present status of search, as well as the company’s vision for the future. However, as the web continues to evolve, social recommendations will likely continue to eat into Google’s market share.

Social recommendations already drive an increasing amount of Internet traffic. Facebook and Twitter both offer recommended links that humans have vetted (for the most part), and allow people to find more appropriate, personally relevant content. Through the lens of this post, these platforms are a crowd-sourced mechanism for link and content curation and web navigation. Facebook has integrated with news properties to suggest articles based on what viewer’s friends are reading. These new article-sharing widgets are further evidence that Facebook is poised to be another important tool people use to move around the web.

The third way that people navigate the Internet is via direct links between different web properties. Traditionally, this was a tedious, manual process that required users to create direct links between large publishers or sites. More recently, there are ways for publishers to distribute their content around the web that circumvent Google and Facebook and allow visitors to simply travel from site to site without visiting a search page, or being directed through a social hub or branded widget.

Rather than have an editor or web producer at a large publisher manually link out to partners, companies such as nRelate make it possible for publishers and bloggers to get their best product–their content–in front of readers who are most likely to click through and visit that article. In this way, a type of technology that wasn’t even available just a few years ago is now responsible for millions of monthly visits for thousands of sites.

If you want to see an example of the influence these companies have on web navigation, just have a look at any site’s profile on Alexa, and select “Click Stream” (Example site on alexa: nytimes.com: You’ll typically see the top two referrers are Google and Facebook. Under that, you may see Yahoo, Bing, Twitter, and a mix of other publishers. While Google and Facebook own Search and Social, companies like nRelate exist to make traffic move seamlessly between content and enhance a publisher’s ability to control his or her own traffic.

The Internet has never bowed to the status quo or stuck to the norm. It’s a place for continual adaptation, upheaval, and power shift. While Google has lead for a long time, Facebook has gained significant ground and shaped how people move around the web. And, not to be discounted, companies such as nRelate have also staked their claim in driving traffic between websites.

Finally, tablet and smart phone screens make it even more necessary to have a search- free way to navigate the web. With the rise of more non-search related ways to find information, we may very well find ourselves searching a lot less and clicking a whole lot more.