Three Business Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Three Business Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Advertising

One year ago, could you have predicted that our economy would come roaring back and that more than half of the U.S. adult population would be vaccinated against COVID-19? I sure didn’t.  As we approach the midyear point in 2021, I am grateful for family, friends, co-workers, and our clients at a time when many people have suffered loss. This is also a humbling time. In 2020, many business owners were facing uncertain futures. It was not easy to understand what was around the corner, and sometimes we were flat-out wrong when we attempted to look ahead. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say we’ve learned some things. I have shared below some of my own lessons learned based on my experiences at True Interactive:

1 Conventional Wisdom Is Flawed

Conventional wisdom says that during uncertain times, people save more and live cautiously. And during the pandemic, people did save. But they also spent. (And invested — the stock market soared.) Consumers spent in ways that make sense in hindsight, but not necessarily so at time. For example, consider the surge in spending on home maintenance and groceries as people in lockdown focused on home repair projects and learning how to cook. Or think of the surge in short-term travel. Americans could not board airplanes and go to far-flung places (especially big cities), but they did take shorter trips to smaller towns and parks. That’s a reason why Airbnb saw a big turnaround in its business later in 2020 after suffering a downturn initially. Businesses that allowed conventional wisdom to dictate their decisions were in for a surprise.

2 Predicting Future Behavior Can Be Dangerous

There was no blueprint for predicting how people would behave and how businesses would make decisions during a global pandemic. When a national emergency was declared on March 13, 2020, in the United States, agencies such as True Interactive could have been forgiven for predicting hard times ahead. After all, during uncertain and difficult times, businesses often scale back their advertising and marketing budgets. But that didn’t happen to us, thank goodness. I could not have predicted that our digital media clients would experience a spike in demand – not once, but many times in 2020. I could not have predicted that one of our clients, a photo-sharing app, would benefit from people living in lockdown and spending more time at home working on craft projects. And certainly the predictions of economists were not useful. The pandemic required businesses to think differently. To be flexible and agile – relying less on long-term predicting and more on agile planning, meaning that we constantly examined our performance, keeping an open mind to revising our plans from one month to the next.

3 Real-Time Analytics Rule

I mentioned that we needed to be more agile in our thinking. We could do that because we relied on real-time analytics — data such as clients’ conversions and website traffic that told us just how well they were performing. As I mentioned, our digital media clients saw spikes in demand. Fortunately, they were watching their numbers in real time just as we were watching their digital ad performance in real time. The analytics did not lie: those clients were doing just fine during the pandemic. Not everyone was, though, as anyone in the travel and tourism industry can attest. The reality of 2020 is that each industry was affected differently, and even inside industries, businesses were affected in different ways. Many retailers suffered greatly, but others prospered because they benefitted from services such as curbside pickup. The truth was in the real-time numbers. Anyone who relied on historic data was at a disadvantage.

Real-time analytics are serving us well now. We know that travel and tourism is back – not because of what we read in the news, but what our client data says.

Onward in 2021

At True Interactive, we continue to grow thanks to great clients and an incredibly talented and committed team. And we will continue to learn – together. In real time. What are your lessons learned?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Why Streaming Companies Are Embracing Ads

Why Streaming Companies Are Embracing Ads

Advertising

Amazon got all the headlines with the news of its $8.45 billion acquisition of MGM on May 26. But days earlier, HBO Max made an announcement with equally big ramifications for streaming companies and advertisers: the launched of a tiered version in which consumers will pay less for a subscription that includes advertising. The news raised eyebrows. After all, HBO has essentially been known as something of a “walled-off garden”: freedom from advertising has been practically a calling card for the television network since its origination. The new offering is the latest example of a streaming company introducing ads — and a sign that HBO is paying attention to trends and consumer behavior. Let’s take a closer look at the news.

Ad-Supported Streaming Is Gaining Ground

HBO is clearly aware of a shift to more ad-supported services in the streaming realm. And as noted by CNBC, Nielsen data supports the uptick: “In January 2021, 34% of U.S. households that had video streaming capability used ad-supported streaming services, up 6 percentage points from January 2020 . . . That applies both to ad-supported on-demand video platforms and linear streaming.”

The advent of ad-supported services is just the latest chapter in the so-called streaming wars, which have been raging over the last year and a half as media and tech giants rolled out their versions of competitors to Netflix and Amazon Prime. Ad-supported tiers have become part of that contest, as streamers gauge what balance of ads consumers will tolerate — for a lesser fee.

HBO Max’s bid to navigate that balance is HBO Max With Ads, which at $10 a month represents a $5 discount to HBO Max’s ad-free subscription. Even with the discount, HBO Max is still one of the pricier alternatives out there. As CNET observes, “HBO Max’s $15-a-month ad-free pricing goes up against Disney Plus at $8 and Netflix’s cheapest plan at $9. Even among the services with discounted advertising-supported tiers, Hulu and Paramount Plus both charge only $6.”

But Julian Franco, vice president of product management at HBO Max, is confident that consumers will appreciate the dynamic their ad-supported platform creates (if at a higher price point): in Franco’s estimation, viewers won’t be bothered by the ads at all.

In some cases, that’s because even on HBO Max with Ads, there may not always be any. Franco explained that the amount of video advertising one sees — that is, the ad load — may vary depending on what one watches. Programs licensed to HBO Max, like Big Bang Theory, will have ad breaks. But programs that originated on HBO’s regular network won’t feature bumpers or spots during playback. Bottom line: HBO Max estimates that typical ad load for an ad-supported subscriber will clock in at just under four minutes per hour. If this projection holds true, HBO Max will be honoring its vow that it will have the lightest ad load in the streaming industry (NBCUniversal’s Peacock currently holds that crown, with an ad load of five minutes per hour).

Why Are Streaming Companies Introducing Ad-Supported Options?

In part, it all goes back to the streaming wars referenced earlier. More people are online watching content, a phenomenon that really picked up during the online surge of 2020. Streaming companies are competing for those eyeballs — and trying to entice viewers by offering ways those consumers can pay less.

Another factor: it costs a lot of money to operate a streaming service, whether you are producing original shows and movies (like Amazon’s new Lord of the Ring series) or buying rights to someone else’s content. Ads help defray those costs.

What’s Next: A Prediction

Will more streaming companies adopt advertising? Possibly so. But Netflix may not be able to pull it off. Netflix is spending billions to create new content, and the company has gradually increased subscription prices to recoup some of the costs. Netflix does not dare introduce advertising to its 200 million subscribers who are already paying a premium. But offering a lower-priced subscription with advertising may not attract enough subscribers at a time when its customer base is plateauing. I predict that Netflix will be sold to Apple. That’s because Apple has deep pockets and is eager to achieve brand cachet, which it lacks right now.  But Netflix has plenty of brand cachet. I could see Apple buying Netflix but allowing the company to keep its own name. Time will tell. But the day is coming.

What Advertisers Should Do

How should brands respond in this evolving environment? We suggest:

  • Consider the different options available. According to CNET, HBO Max intends to embrace some unconventional ad formats, including “pause ads,” which come up only after viewers have paused playback for at least 10 seconds, or a “branded discovery” option that places a sponsor’s banner at the top of a page of recommendations. Think about what format best serves your brand.
  • Use analytics to monitor the reaction to ads. The industry is still learning how receptive people will be to ads — and if different approaches, such as HBO’s effort to provide a more “high end” ad experience, engender a more positive response.

Contact True Interactive

Eager to learn more about this new world of advertising in the streaming world? Contact us. We can help.

Walgreens Doubles Down on Its Advertising Business

Walgreens Doubles Down on Its Advertising Business

Advertising

In December 2020, Walgreens launched its own advertising business, Walgreens Advertising Group, wag.  Now Walgreens is doubling down on advertising by expanding wag’s capabilities into over-the-top (OTT) services, connected TV (CTV) and traditional linear TV across 100 apps and 10 supply-side platforms, with an inventory of 2.5 billion daily impressions. This development demonstrates a growing trend of retailers using their customer data to provide advertising services.

What Walgreens Announced

Walgreens has touted wag as an effective way to leverage insights from 100+ million Walgreens loyalty members and one billion daily digital touchpoints with customers to create personalized advertising. wag provides businesses access to advertising platforms on Walgreens-owned and third-party channels, with the potential of achieving higher match rates versus the industry standard method of digital media buying. wag provides the ability to reach shoppers across digital display, video, social, streaming audio, email as well as Walgreens digital platforms and stores. On May 17, Walgreens announced that wag will extend its reach into television. According to Walgreens, the new capability consists of:

  • The addition of OTT & CTV inventory accessible via the wagDSP — a proprietary programmatic buying technology that integrates Walgreens customer and transaction data with dynamic creative capabilities and real-time optimization.
  • A first-to-market collaboration with OpenAP, and integration with the OpenID that enables brands to reach audiences powered by Walgreens first-party data as part of their television buys. Brands will be able to collaborate with Walgreens to execute against deterministic audiences now, and closed loop measurement will be in place by the start of the broadcast year.

Inventory is sourced through 100+ apps and 10 supply-side platforms with 2.5 billion+ available impressions daily, including access to inventory from key platforms.

Brands activating against this inventory can do so with all of the same functionality, optimization, and measurement capability as in digital video and display executed through the wagDSP. This enables people based media targeting, with measurement and real-time optimization.

Why the Expansion of Walgreens Advertising Group Matters

This news matters for two reasons:

  • wag’s expansion is part of a broader effort by retailers to capitalize on their own-first party data to provide advertising services. Retailers such as AmazonDollar TreeKrogerMacy’sTarget, and Walmart are all monetizing their first-party customer data by building ad businesses. Each retailer can give advertisers access to different types of consumers. For instance, wag gives advertisers access to consumers in the health and wellness space, and Macy’s is geared toward businesses wanting to reach fashion-conscious shoppers. We expect more of these platforms to emerge as businesses seek alternative ways to reach consumers amid the demise of third-party cookies, which are crucial for third-party ad targeting. With third-party ad targeting across the web threatened, platforms that give advertisers entree to shoppers within retailers’ walled gardens are more appealing.

What Advertisers Should Do

We suggest that advertisers:

  • Consider retailer-based ad networks as a complement to your existing digital ad strategy, not as a replacement. If your strategy focuses on Facebook and Google, for instance, don’t move your ad dollars over to a retailer network. Remember that Facebook and Google also already offer proven advertising products that capitalize on their vast user base. For example, location-based digital advertising tools help strengthen Google’s advertising services at the local level.
  • Do, however, monitor the effectiveness of your advertising on Facebook and Google amid the demise of third-party cookies and the onset of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency, which includes more privacy controls that may make Facebook ads less effective (which remains to be seen).
  • Learn more about the ad products that might apply to you – and those products are evolving, as the expansion of wag demonstrates. In addition, we recently blogged about how Amazon is creating more ad units. The time may come soon when advertising on the web means constantly capitalizing on walled gardens’ offerings.
  • Work with an agency partner that knows the terrain. For instance, at True Interactive, we help businesses advertise through connected TV, complementing our deep expertise with online advertising on Google, social media, and the retailer networks such as Amazon and Walmart.

Contact True Interactive

To succeed with online advertising, contact True Interactive. Read about some of our client work here.

Why the Google Ad Juggernaut Is Back

Why the Google Ad Juggernaut Is Back

Google

Google’s advertising business has come roaring back. In 2020, Google found itself to be in the unusual position of seeing a downturn in its advertising revenue for the first time in 29 years. That’s because a pullback in ad spending among Google’s clients, many of whom come from a travel/hospitality industry ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, hurt Google even as ad competitors Amazon and Facebook were reaping a windfall. But Google’s recent financial results show that the downturn was temporary, and Google will continue to exert an enormous influence on the advertising world.

Recently, Google’s parent firm Alphabet announced quarterly earnings that exceeded investors’ expectations. Although the growth of Google’s cloud computing business had a lot to do with Alphabet’s success, the rebound of Google advertising played a big role, too. Google’s advertising revenue rose to $44.68 billion for the first quarter of 2021, up from $33.76 billion the year before, prompting CNBC to note that the ad revenue spike was the fastest annualized growth rate in at least four years. So, what can we conclude form the turnaround?:

  • Google is benefitting from the popularity of video. YouTube earned $6 billion in revenue for the quarter, increasing 49 percent from a year earlier. Earlier in 2021, we predicted a surge in online video consumption, a reality that has been borne out during the pandemic. To be sure, online video is much bigger than YouTube, as the success of TikTok demonstrates. But as Google reported later in 2020, during the pandemic, people were turning to video more as a learning tool when in-person learning options were shut down, which benefits YouTube given the amount of instructional content that exists there. The only question that remains now is whether the popularity of online video, and, by extension, YouTube, will remain as strong in a post-pandemic world.
  • Google’s Knowledge Graph is becoming more powerful. The Google Knowledge Graph consists of all the sources of information that Google draws upon to provide search results to queries. It’s a wonky concept that people in the search engine optimization (SEO) industry follow closely. But the Knowledge Graph applies to advertising, too. When Google provides answers to searches such as “Where can I find a plumber near me?” or “Where can I find Anime T shirts?” Google draws upon sources such as Google Maps, Snippets, and a company’s Google My Business (GMB) listings (among other sources) to share information about relevant businesses. Well, guess what? Google is doing such an effective job tapping into its Knowledge Graph to serve up answers on search engine results pages (SERPs) that people are finding answers to what they need on Google without needing to click anywhere else. More eyeballs on Google SERPs means that Google can deliver a larger audience to advertisers through Google Search. As Google becomes an even stronger all-purpose search tool (hard to believe given Google’s dominance in search already), the company becomes even more valuable to advertisers.
  • Google is creating its own future. As widely reported, Google has intensified its war against third-party cookies that are essential for businesses to deliver ads based on a person’s browsing behavior across the web. As Google forces the demise of third-party cookies, advertisers will need to tap into businesses that possesses first-party data (such as Amazon) in order to continue to deliver effective personalized ads. And as it turns out, Google is sitting on a lot of first-party data through that Knowledge Graph I mentioned. When people use Google Maps, YouTube, and other Google properties, they give Google a ton of information about their search and purchase habits, which Google uses to create better ad products. According to Brendan Eich, cofounder and CEO of the privacy-focused browser company Brave, “The reality is that Google already has first-party access to nearly every site—via Google Analytics, ad words, Google Tag Manager, Google Maps, etc.—and that its users are being data mined for profit.”

All of this is not to say that businesses need to dial up their advertising on Google. We’ve always recommended that advertisers go where their audience is, period. At the same time, Google has demonstrated the wisdom of businesses taking the long view with their advertising. The Big Tech ad platforms – Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – have carved out a powerful space in the advertising world. Those companies are all big targets for critics, which has resulted in antitrust action and negative PR. But the negative PR can lead a business around by the nose, too, resulting in short-sighted thinking. The ad giants are not going away. If they’re important to your business – and I suspect they are if you’ve read this far into my post – don’t pump on the brakes in 2021.

Contact True Interactive

To succeed with online advertising, contact True Interactive. Read about some of our client work here.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Five Lessons From the 2021 Ad Spending Surge

Five Lessons From the 2021 Ad Spending Surge

Advertising

Ad spending is surging. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. companies are expected to spend 15 percent more on advertising in 2021 year than they did in 2020. That’s because consumer confidence is increasing, and the pace of Covid-19 vaccinations is accelerating. And digital is getting a bigger share than ever of the advertising pie:

Digital Share of Ad Spending

Announcements from technology giants and social media apps in recent days underscore just how much businesses are investing into digital advertising:

  • As we reported on our blog, Amazon Advertising and Facebook reported strong year-over-year ad revenue growth in their most recent quarterly earnings announcements.
  • Alphabet announced 32 percent year-over-year ad growth for Google, demonstrating an impressive rebound from a slump triggered by the pandemic.

Amid this spending surge, we see some important lessons emerging:

  • Businesses that maintained their spending levels during the depths of Covid-19 in 2020 are at an advantage over those who pulled back and are now kickstarting their spending. Consumer behavior and sentiment are changing faster than ever. We predicted in 2020 that reducing ad spend during the pandemic would catch businesses flat-footed when consumer behavior shifted again – as it has done in 2021.
  • We’ve hit an inflection point with digital. As the stay-at-home economy takes hold, consumers are remaining online at higher levels than ever. As a result, online spending continues to accelerate. Businesses that asked, “But how long will the growth last?” in 2020 fell behind those that saw the surge for what it is: a behavioral change. The faster businesses adapt to those changes by boosting their online advertising, the sooner they’ll attract shoppers online.
  • The tech giants are experiencing a golden era. We’ve seen the tech giants – namely Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – experience heavy criticism in recent years for reasons too numerous to summarize in a blog post. And of course the specter of antitrust lawsuits looms over Facebook and Google (and Apple in Europe). On top of that, they’re at war with each other, and the demise of third-party cookies calls into question how well advertisers will be able to target consumers across these platforms. But guess what? Amid the blowback, the tech giants continue to run the table, as noted above. Smart advertisers aren’t allowing negative headlines to scare them away from the tech giants. They’re watching how these platforms innovate with new ad units that monetize the surging online audience.
  • Retail ad platforms are on the rise. Savvy marketers are capitalizing on the fact that retailers such as Amazon, Dollar Tree, Kroger, Macy’s, Target, and Walmart are monetizing their first-party customer data by building ad businesses. Each retailer can give advertisers access to different types of consumers. We expect more of these platforms to emerge, contributing to robust ad growth.
  • Social commerce is going to fuel more ad spending. As we discussed on our blog recently, businesses should capitalize on social commerce advertising tools such as Pinterest Product Pins, through which a business can connect its product catalog to Pinterest, filter and organize inventory, create shopping ads, and measure results; or numerous ad units on Instagram that make it easier for businesses to turn advertising into shopping experiences.

We urge businesses to take a fresh look at how your customers’ journeys are changing amid the rise of digital-first living and spending. Monitor performance closely as consumer behavior fluctuates. Businesses that invest in strong real-time analytics tools will have the upper hand.

Contact True Interactive

At True Interactive, we know how to help businesses navigate the complex waters of online advertising. Contact us. Learn more about our work here.

Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash

Why Advertisers Should Never Bet Against Facebook

Why Advertisers Should Never Bet Against Facebook

Facebook

Facebook has done it again. On April 28, the company announced quarterly earnings that crushed Wall Street’s expectations, demonstrating a remarkable resilience. Facebook continues to ascend as a premier advertising platform, too, second only to Google in terms of online ad marketshare. Let’s take a closer look.

What Facebook Announced

Facebook’s quarterly results were impressive by any measure:

  • Earnings: $3.30 per share vs. $2.37 per share forecast.
  • Revenue: $26.17 billion vs. $23.67 billion expected.
  • Daily active users (DAUs): 1.88 billion vs. 1.89 billion forecast by FactSet.
  • Monthly active users (MAUs): 2.85 billion vs. 2.86 billion forecast by FactSet.
  • Average revenue per user (ARPU): $9.27 vs. $8.40 forecast by FactSet.

The increase in active users is key. Demonstrating that it can continue to grow its user base helps Facebook attract more advertisers.

Why Facebook Is Succeeding

Why is Facebook continuing to grow quarter after quarter even amid controversies and threats from legislators and competitors? Here are some reasons:

  • Advertisers remain loyal to Facebook. Facebook said its impressive revenue growth came from a 12 percent increase in the number of ads delivered – and a 30 percent year-over-year increase in average price per ad. Even as businesses were being rocked by the pandemic and faced an uncertain year, they were willing to pay more for ads on Facebook. And why not? Social media platforms such as Facebook enjoyed tremendous growth in 2020 as the pandemic drove more people online. Advertisers wisely went where their audience was.
  • Facebook is monetizing its user base beyond ad targeting. This is important. By its own admission, Facebook’s ability to deliver targeted ads is being threatened by Apple’s app tracking transparency privacy initiative in which users of iPhones will now need to agree to allow a business to collect information about them – known as an opt-in policy. The world’s largest social network is upset because its advertisers will have a harder time tracking its users off Facebook and serve up personalized ads to them. But Facebook has been steadily finding different ways to monetize its app (and Instagram’s) beyond ad targeting. For instance, in its earnings announcement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg discussed how the company continues to build social commerce features. And Facebook’s Marketplace service, where users can buy and sell goods, continues to grow. These features keep businesses and people engaged on Facebook, generate more ad revenue for Facebook, and give Facebook a stockpile of first-party search and purchase data to deliver more personalized experiences.

Going forward, Facebook will continue to monetize that user base in creative ways – an example being the launch of several audio features that will generate revenue for creators and inevitably create a more engaged user base – which generates more advertising revenue.

 What Advertisers Should Do about Facebook

  • Continue to capitalize on tools to help you connect with your audience on Facebook. For instance, as Mark Zuckerberg mentioned to investors on April 28, Facebook launched Shops in 2020 to help businesses more easily conduct online commerce, and there are now more than 1 million monthly active Shops and over 250 million monthly Shops visitors.
  • As always, balance your advertising among the major platforms that continue to deliver value, including Amazon Advertising, Facebook, Instagram, Google, and Microsoft Advertising.
  • Monitor expected privacy legislation and the impact of Apple’s ATT initiative, but don’t overreact. Facebook continues to show a remarkable aptitude for managing threats from competitors and legislators.

Whatever you do, don’t count out Facebook regardless of what you read and hear about the headwinds the company faces. Facebook is not going away. It’s the world’s largest social media network for a reason. Follow your audience and engage with them.

Contact True Interactive

At True Interactive, we help businesses capitalize on social media advertising to build their brands. We can help you, too. Contact us to learn more.

 

Two Ways the Agency Role Changes in the Era of Automated Bidding

Two Ways the Agency Role Changes in the Era of Automated Bidding

Advertising Google

When Google announced Smart Bidding Strategies in 2016, clients and agencies alike were hesitant to hand Google full control of pay-per-click (PPC) campaign management – and with good reason. Although the auto bidding strategies were supposed to yield superior results, for most of our clients, we continued to outperform the Google algorithm by using manual bidding and optimization techniques acquired through years of PPC campaign management experience.

To Google’s credit, the company has continued to heavily invest in improving the algorithms used in its Smart Bidding Strategies and has also rolled out a variety of bidding strategies with different performance goals, seasonality adjustments for smart bidding, and enhanced bid strategy reporting.

With these advances in automation, the agency role in PPC management is also shifting in a few important ways:

1 Agencies Are More Strategic

At True Interactive, we have seen the value in using smart bidding strategies for many of our clients. But it is important to note that it is not a “set-it and forget-It” approach when managing PPC campaigns using auto bidding. In fact, we need to remain very involved in managing these campaigns. Although the smart bidding strategies have removed some time-intensive tasks such as manually changing keyword bids, we are spending more time on understanding clients’ business goals and finding strategic solutions to help achieve them.

Understanding the KPIs most important to our clients helps us determine the best bidding strategies to use to reach those goals. Google offers bidding solutions focused on maximizing conversions, achieving a target cost per acquisition, maximizing clicks, or optimizing for impression share to name a few. Each of these bid strategies will yield very different results. Setting a target cost per acquisition that is too low can throttle traffic and limit search volume, while maximizing conversions may result in dramatically higher cost per clicks and more spend. We have also seen huge swings in performance when changing campaign daily budgets, hurting overall results for days (and in some cases weeks) following the changes. By playing a more strategic role in understanding our clients’ business goals, we are a more effective partner in managing bidding strategies.

2 Agencies Apply Deeper Specialty Skills and Knowledge

Understanding the nuances of the smart bidding strategies is key to achieving strong results. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to smart bidding strategies. At True Interactive, we work closely with our clients to ensure we set up their PPC campaigns for maximum success. The campaign structure plays a key role as does determining the appropriate bidding strategy. Our team is committed to closely monitoring performance so that we can be proactive in responding to changes in key metrics. And because automated bidding strategies have removed the need for manual keyword bid changes, we have more time to focus on strategic changes such as ad copy testing, campaign experiments, landing page tests, customized reporting dashboards, testing different bid strategies, or modifying existing ones based on performance and using Google Analytics to better understand full funnel results. As a result, we apply more of our deep specialty skills and knowledge. Working in tandem with clients’ marketing teams ensures we are all working towards the same business goals and using our experience to help achieve maximum results.

Contact True Interactive

If you are looking for a partner dedicated to helping you reach your business goals, we would love to work together. Contact True Interactive to get the conversation started.

Photo by Maxim Ilyahov on Unsplash