Content marketing's AI future
AI writes the next chapter in marketing, the return of the mascot, LinkedIn shame, 7 rules of the metaverse, pumped up kicks and more.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms 14.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
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I had to go back to Saskatchewan this week. For those of you that need a geography lesson, here's a link. It is a land of big skies, warm, hardworking people and ice-cold snow that goes “scrinch” underfoot, which has a nice, mantra-like effect on a long winter walk.
The visit afforded me the opportunity to see media habits of people that are not like me, by virtue of commitment or priorities. It turns out some people don't mind commercials. Nor do they seem to mind watching shows at a designated hour, which I found surprising. You want to help them with this but, as an aside, software inside of TV's is a must now. While all flat screen TV's seem the same, a flat screen TV without software (or Apple or Roku appendage) is the equivalent of a flip phone. They are dumb and the cable box next to them doesn't make them much smarter. So you have a problem.
Another aside. If advertising people want to feel better about the future of the 30 second spot, recently released NFL ratings might offer some relief. The game is architected for interruptive advertising. Ad soaked broadcasts haven't seemed to get in the way of ratings dominance. In 2021 NFL games accounted for 41 of the top 50 programs, with viewership up 9% over 2021, a period that saw linear TV viewership fall 10%. It's been a good season. Watching football helps us feel like everything is ok even if it's not.
Sports are the exception in advertising. Elsewhere, the genie is out of the bottle. After you pull advertising from a media format, it’s pretty tough to put it back in again. Anyone that has Sirius radio in the car learned that long ago. This fact is making mass interruption tactics impractical, obviously. A friend shared some data on this. In 2021, maintaining flat 75% reach with liner and nonlinear media mix would cost about 73% more that it did in 2018. Which is why frequency feels even worse than normal. I saw so many truck ads while in Saskatchewan, it's no wonder there are so many on the road.
Advertising’s AI future
Something else caught my eye this week that portends advertising’s future. It was an AI (artificial intelligence) bot from a company called Shuffle who's podcasting app is designed to make shows more engaging and social with live chat, listening parties, etc. Turns out if you train the GPT-3 powered AI chat bot on a podcast transcripts, you can create an experience that starts to feel like a real human conversation with the host. It might not pass the Turing Test, but it's getting frighteningly close.
AI is a deep rabbit hole if you want to indulge your curiosity. I wanted to learn more about the practicality of replacing copywriters with bots, so I spent some time with an AI powered writing tool called Jarvis. The promise is to "Let Jarvis Write Your Marketing Copy for Free." Jarvis is a workflow tool and robot in one. Think about it as streamlining the writing journey between a composition environment, web search, information retrieval and synthesis.
Type "Five exercises to improve your tennis game." Jarvis completes the rest of the copy for you. Choose to simplify the output with a handy "explain for a 5th grader" button. As a sign of things to come, you can set tone of voice with choices like witty, sarcastic, bold or secretive. Or you can ask Jarvis to imitate personalities like Gary Vee or Joe Rogan. Even Oprah.
A year or so ago an enterprising 20 year old made a blog with the same technology. It fooled a lot of people. Here's what he learned:
The trick to generating content without the need for much editing was understanding GPT-3’s strengths and weaknesses. “It's quite good at making pretty language, and it's not very good at being logical and rational,” says Porr. So he picked a popular blog category that doesn’t require rigorous logic: productivity and self-help.
From there, he wrote his headlines following a simple formula: he’d scroll around on Medium and Hacker News to see what was performing in those categories and put together something relatively similar. “Feeling unproductive? Maybe you should stop overthinking,” he wrote for one. “Boldness and creativity trumps intelligence,” he wrote for another. On a few occasions, the headlines didn’t work out. But as long as he stayed on the right topics, the process was easy.
Porr says his experiment also shows a more mundane but still troubling alternative: people could use the tool to generate a lot of clickbait content. “It's possible that there's gonna just be a flood of mediocre blog content because now the barrier to entry is so easy,” he says. “I think the value of online content is going to be reduced a lot.”
If one had described these capabilities a decade ago, they would have seemed positively sci-fi. Shit’s about to get more real. Current AI executions like GPT-3 are considered “narrow AI” offering task-based automation to solve specific goals. Next generation Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) aspires to understand and learn an intellectual task in much the same ways as the human mind, getting much closer to consciousness. If you have a couple of hours, this conversation between Lex Fridman and Ben Goertzel dives deep into the progress here. It’s worth a listen.
Everything is content now
Where might this lead us? Marketing evolves along two lines, media and message. Over the past 30 years, media has moved from mass to niche, and more disruptively, from linear to on-demand. Naturally, message follows media. It was the shift to on-demand that really shook things up, forcing the industry to kick its reliance on interruption. Which meant advertising could no longer be about the advertiser. Marketers had to find value for the audience. Broadly speaking, this is referred to as content marketing.
Which is one of those terms that means everything and nothing and invites cynicism outside the ad world. Content marketing is what you are reading right now. Doing it well is difficult because interesting content is hard to make. The short term instinct to shill often trumps the promise of longer term brand value and loyalty. And harder to outsource than the creative marketing artifacts of old, the 30 second spot. Making short, funny ads for TV constrained the creative process and allowed you to contract wildly talented and well paid storytellers. Their product could be made once and repeated endlessly. Content marketing works best when it is made inside and extends to core values and sentiment of an organization.
The idea of filling the internet with content has impacted the marketing industry broadly. Obviously it’s easier for high interest categories than toilet paper, but the idea has been broadly embraced. Some invested in helpful service content, others branded entertainment, some sponsored live music. Publishers built studios to support its creation. Ad agencies talked about the power of storytelling. Native ad units created promotional space for it across the internet. Advertising and PR and customer experience became much more intertwined.
At its most ambitious level, content marketing is Apple and Amazon making entertainment, venture capitalists becoming media/financial hybrids. If you can do it for Enron, you can probably do it anywhere. BTW, Enron is looking for an editor.
It’s hard to compare most companies to Tesla, but it’s an example of high order content marketing through product innovation and mission. Most automotive companies invest about half of what they spend on R&D in advertising. Tesla puts it all back into the product. Their innovations are widely discussed online and inseparable from by a highly visible CEO ambasador, himself a content marketing meme machine on Twitter.
More broadly, now that the internet is the foundation for all marketing, everything is downstream from content. It’s how we talk to customers online. Content marketing's aspirations have been fully realized. Almost.
Innovation hits media first, but circles back
While the media side of our equation went through a breathtaking innovative explosion, creating the adtech industry where a user could instantaneously be valued and auctioned to the highest bidder, the content side has been slower to embrace advances in technology. For obvious reasons. Content is a revered craft and you are talking to real people. Personalizing messaging at scale was complex and imprecise. AI will slowly change this.
We are not far off a time when content created by robots is indistinguishable from much of what humans make. Clearly there is a line of complexity that starts with basic service content, evolves to have personality and point of view, ends in analysis and complex storytelling. But bots will soon be able to write a Lifetime movie.
Pull back a little and consider the social and technological trends that are driving the future and consider how this changes marketing. Build on AI advancements above that will enable mass creative personalization against infinite segments. Add experiential fidelity as environments shift from 2D informational interfaces to 3D immersive ones (the metaverse). Extend our ability to algorithmically quantify and price attention, the product of years of innovation in programmatic advertising. Recognize that brands carry values and POV just like people. Hey Mr. Mucus…
It's not hard to see the emergence of a marketing singularity as a place where full creative and media automation meet. It probably looks a little like a talking phlegm in the metaverse.
But singularity is never quite achieved in marketing because it is the one true competitive playing field where everybody looks for advantage. The canvas shifts but the variables are the same. Brands pay owners of attention chokepoints and confers of influence. Good marketers find advantage with cultural relevance and uniqueness. This does not change in the metaverse. It just starts to look different.
Robots write the next chapter
Modern marketing is about finding ways to create meaning and influence action across a network that you do not control. Good content marketing is being useful, interesting and entertaining enough that people choose to engage.
This does not change, though the way it’s created becomes increasingly automated. It scales with the help of friendly robots connecting to audiences of one. Talking to real people becomes a luxury good, like a hand stitched bag.
So content marketing evolves in two dimensions. One where the content becomes increasingly sophisticated and companies look like media companies, through investment in service content or entertainment.
Second, AI will play a big role in creating hyper personalized content, human like interfaces supporting real time interaction. As the internet morphs and becomes more immersive, these interfaces might look and feel more like people or characters. Virtual docents will guide you in ways that are helpful and entertaining, connecting content with shopping.
We lost the “context” plot with the rise of programmatic advertising. Context always matters, even more in the future I think. The more a message needs to find its way across a user-driven network, who is speaking matters. Context looks more like influencer marketing and a social club. It’s about what parties you go to and who you show up with. Especially in the metaverse.
Reach is the tough part. When it cannot be easily purchased and scaled, it relies on building franchise value over time. It begins with mission and point of view. It is sustained through an ability to render these ideas broadly with content and experiences. Data and ultimately AI are enablers of personalization. Reach is new marketing scaffolding enabling the dissemination and management of conversations at scale.
After last week’s newsletter, a dear friend complimented my efforts but accused me of “occasionally veering across the double line to incomprehensible bullshit.” I doubt this post gave him anything to change his mind.
Have a great weekend. Go Packers…/ Troy
P.S.: T-shirt of the week. Robots cry too. Get it now.
Five other things you should know:
1: LinkedIn people, you are all doing content marketing too, some better than others. My new friend Trung breaks the worst of your efforts down in Why is LinkedIn so Cringe?, including the admission that "CV Trung is a nob." We've all felt that.
2: The Seven Rules of the Metaverse from Tony Parsi. An optimistic and level headed interpretation.
Rule #1. There is only one Metaverse.
Rule #2: The Metaverse is for everyone.
Rule #3: Nobody controls the Metaverse.
Rule #4: The Metaverse is open.
Rule #5: The Metaverse is hardware-independent.
Rule #6: The Metaverse is a Network.
Rule #7: The Metaverse is the Internet.
3: A good way of looking at art on the internet. How a Gray Painting Can Break Your Heart from the New York Times.
4: I keep saying it. The metaverse is gaming. So is the blockchain. Microsoft bets $70B on the future with games.
On Thursday, January 20, Nas will sell future royalties for his music on Royal, the marketplace that offers collectors ownership in songs via NFTs. This drop was originally scheduled for January 11, but the demand broke Royal’s servers…
Royal’s value-add opportunity is to combine the intrinsic value of art with the investment opportunity of music royalties. That’s how it can set itself apart from a platform like Royalty Exchange, which operates more like the Toyota Camry of royalty marketplaces.
6: Foster The People’s Pumped Up Kicks reinterpreted as hair metal by British film composer John Murphy (featuring the voice of Ralph Saenz) in the fun HBOMax DC series PeaceMaker. Let’s rock.