advertising

Facebook Pixel Tracking

This morning Nieman Lab had a really good piece asking whether if there was a certain amount of hypocrisy coming from certain news organisations castigating Facebook for leaking data, when at the same time they’re helping Facebook collect more data on you.

Recall yesterday, when I said that some of Facebook’s data was missing from the download, and I highlighted Facebook Pixel? Quora is a good place to go and have a look (Note: Quora itself has a Facebook cookie):

The pixel is a transparent, 1×1, unique image file that can be embedded on pages outside of Facebook (unique = 1 per advertiser account). That image file, however, sits on Facebook servers. So, each time it is loaded, it increments counters on Facebook’s side.

And each time the pixel file is being seen by a user… Facebook servers can see which browser is used, which machine and which IP address. In other words, they are able to reconstruct that signature – they know which Facebook user has seen the pixel.

In essence, the Facebook Pixel lets you then target people who visit your site when they’re back on Facebook. And of course, Facebook now knows that you’ve visited a particular site, deepening the picture they hold on you.

And Facebook also has the Facebook Audience Network, which basically extends Facebook’s advertising business beyond the bounds of the Facebook website. In particular, they’re targeting mobile sites and apps.

Using the EFF’s excellent Privacy Badger browser plugin, I looked at some of the UK and US’s biggest news websites to see which ones allow Facebook to track you. This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea.

Sites with Facebook Cookies

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • Forbes
  • The Daily Mail
  • The Sun
  • Metro
  • The Times
  • The Economist

NB. These are at time of writing.

It must be said that I’ve not really gone into detail about Facebook’s business model here, but it gives you an idea.

And there’s a wealth of data being collected by many companies beyond Facebook – and a multiplicity of ad tracking cookies going around. Upwards of 20 cookies on a website is not unusual. Sometimes they’re just there for analytics purposes. All the advertising networks use them, with Google and Facebook being by far the biggest networks globally.

And there can be good reasons to use tracking cookies. This very site uses Google Analytics to count the number of people who visit, for example. I’ve embedded Vimeo videos and Flickr images on this site, and they have tracking codes built into the code I copy to this site. If you comment, there are various ways you can log in, and they have tracking codes too. I’d prefer there not to be, but if I want to properly use those sites’ services then I have to play ball with them.

While everyone kind of knows that the pair of shoes they looked at over lunch, but didn’t buy, is now following them around the internet, and that must be using some kind of tracking information, I’m not sure that many of us really understand how widespread this is, and how much data is being captured about us.

[Update: In related news, Mozilla has announced a Firefox plugin that stops Facebook tracking you around the web. Useful if you’re not already using something like Privacy Badger or Ghostery.]

How Podcasts are Being Listened

Podcast listening metrics have long been seen as something as a bone of contention. In the digital advertising world, they’re seen as inferior to metrics delivered by other parts of the industry, because while you can be pretty sure a podcast advert has been delivered, you can’t be sure that it has been heard.

As a consequence, the emerging podcast sector, especially in the US, has had to battle the advertising industry to gain full acceptance. This has meant that a large majority of current podcast advertising is led by direct response advertisers i.e. coupon or offer codes when you sign up to buy a product or use a service.

Advertisers are happy to go along this route because they can easily track how successful a particular campaign has been on the basis of sales made using the various coupon codes.

That’s great as far as it goes, but it leaves a large chunk of the advertising market on the table. If you watch a TV break or listen to a commercial break on the radio, you won’t normally get quite as much direct response activity, particularly from national advertisers. Ford knows that you’re not going to buy a new car right now, and in any case, the price will be a negotiation between the customer and the dealer, and probably not subject to a 20% off coupon code! They just want you to consider a Ford the next time you buy a new car.

FMCG products (Fast Moving Consumer Goods such as washing powder or chocolate bars, and often referred to as CPG products in the US) make up a significant chunk of consumer advertising, but largely go unheard on podcasts because there’s no easy way for marketers to track whether an ad for a detergent placed on a podcast has been successful and shifted product.

That’s not to say that the success of traditional television advertising is easy to track either, and advertisers continue to happily spend billions on that medium. It’s not for nothing that the most famous quote in advertising is, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Of course, ironically, while digital is supposed to be the ultimate targeting device, it turns out that P&G, one of the biggest FMCG advertisers on the planet, has decided that it has been attempting to target far too much on platforms like Facebook. That’s perhaps not surprising because, well, everyone needs to buy washing powder and toothpaste, so advertising widely would seem to make the best sense (see the Ad Contrarian for lots more on this).

And it’s not as though there aren’t other problems with advertising in the digital space including fraud and ad-blocking amongst others.

Anyway, the US podcast community is trying to gain more acceptance among the advertising community by working to ensure that everyone measures podcasts the same way, which is very sensible. While this might seem straightforward, in reality, counting podcast downloads is actually a case of interpreting server log files.

This week the IAB has released its Podcast Ad Metrics Guidelines, to both explain the challenges and to ensure that everyone counts podcasts the same way.

The document itself is fairly readable and it’s has a few interesting facts that are worth examining in more detail. It’s probably a first iteration of a living document, with a working group sitting behind it.

One interesting piece of information is the detail of how podcasts are consumed. Five groups on the working party submitted data about podcast platforms, and a table was published as a result, which I’ve reproduced below. Note that the data was based on April 2016.

Platform requesting podcast fileRange of market share %
iOS - Apple Podcast App45-52%
iTunes8-13%
Browsers6-14%
Stitcher2-7%
Everything else12-30%

NB. It’s not explicitly clear if these are US-only figures, or global numbers based on a number of firms based in the US. The partners are Podtrac, Blubrry/RawVoice, WideOrbit, Libsyn and PodcastOne, all of whom I believe are available globally to podcasters.

What I found especially interesting is that Apple isn’t quite as dominant as I’d previously thought. At least in terms of apps used to listen, with a cumulative 53-65% share of podcasts which is lower than the ~80% I had previously thought it might be.

That’s not to say that Apple isn’t vitally important in the transmission of podcasts. Many non-Apple apps use the iTunes Search API to populate their apps with a current list of podcasts. If you’re launching a new podcast, there are a lot places you want to list it. But first and foremost, it’s still the iTunes store if you’re trying to maximise audience reach.

The other interesting question is about downloads versus streams. The report goes into some detail about this, and of course different companies can do this differently. While “traditionally” an app has downloaded podcasts in the background for later playback, today apps allow you to “stream” directly as the podcast downloads.

Beyond that, there is in-browser listening where often a podcast player appears on a webpage and is played back from there. The chart above shows that as much as 16% of podcast plays are listened to this way. Depending on the technology being employed, an in-browser podcast player might be a proper streaming solution, or it might in fact be simply pulling an mp3 to a wraparound player. The user will not notice the difference.

What’s interesting is how this compares with other research on podcast listening and the emergence of the “click and listen” model. A recent Edison Research/Triton Digital report showed 59% of podcast users saying they click and listen immediately, as opposed to just 15% saying they subscribe in the traditional manner.

download

These numbers seem to suggest that although people are actually mostly listening through traditional podcast platforms like podcast apps, they’re actually choosing to download and listen at the point of consumption. It’s for that reason that so many podcasts implore listeners to subscribe, because if you’re relying on click to listen, then it’s entirely likely that listeners will miss episodes of podcasts.

But I’d also love to dig deeper into the numbers in the chart above, because the opacity to the regular podcast listener of how podcasts actually work means they may not actually know what they’re doing or how the audio is getting to them.

I say this because the chart above suggests that 38% of people either subscribe or manually download to listen later 42% of people say they listen to podcast two days or later after the podcast has downloaded. Add in a proportion of the large percentage of people who listen with 24 hours of a download, and you have a larger number of people listening via a download-and-listen-later method than say that’s what they do.

download (1)

Separately, the podcast hosting company Blubrry has crunched the numbers of how its own podcasts are delivered as best it can.

Blubrry defines four different categories of distribution:

Mobile apps – which can both download and “stream” (i.e. download to listen instantly)
Desktop apps – mostly for downloads, and most likely iTunes (accounting for 80% of listening in this category)
Desktop browsers – where you can either “stream” from the page (in this instance an HTML wrapper around a hosted mp3 file, as opposed to a properly streamed file as the BBC often provides)
Mobile browsers and TV apps

Blubrry estimate that within the 71.6% of mobile apps consumption, 39% is accounted for by the iOS Podcast app. And half of that is streaming rather downloading. Whereas of the desktop browsers, two thirds is streaming, while a third is downloaded.

All in all, bespoke podcast applications, whether on mobile or desktop platforms, account for 85% of podcast listening.

Returning to the data in the IAB paper, what it also makes clear is that bespoke podcast apps – e.g. apps created for a particular podcast or podcasting company – are not very popular. The advantage to the podcasting companies is clear – they can properly track listenership and advertising consumption. But to the listener the benefits are less clear. It means one more app on your phone, and the app probably won’t let you listen to other podcasts.

All interesting detail about how people actually listen to podcasts.

Do You Know What Product Placement Is?

Ofcom has just produced a slightly dry sounding report on “UK Audience Attitudes Towards Broadcast Media” based on some of its Media Tracker findings.

If you work in UK commercial radio, then the good news is that most people don’t think you’re running too many ads right now.

advertising

51% of commercial radio listeners say that present levels of advertising don’t bother them, with 12% saying a little more would be OK. Incredibly a further 5% say you could add loads more advertising without it bothering them. On the other hand, 27% say that there are already too many ads. So I’d be very wary of upping advertising levels – especially with a competitor set – both BBC and paid-for streaming services – that carry no ads.

All well and good, but I think the key finding in this report is actually about Product Placement.

Product Placement Logo

This is the logo that was conjured up when Product Placement was first introduced in the UK in 2011. The idea is that the logo is incorporated into the opening and closing credits of any programme containing Product Placement, including during break bumpers.

So you will see it on programmes ranging from This Morning and Coronation Street to Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and I’m A Celebrity… By November of last year, ITV had used it for more than 4300 hours of programminmg.

Fine, so it’s an additional revenue stream for commercial broadcasters, and it offers “brand integration” (marketing buzzword alert) like no other form of advertising.

When Product Placement was launched in the UK, there was an advertising campaign across most UK commercial stations to explain what it was, and to introduce the logo.

Ofcom – Product Placement from Laurie Smith – Director on Vimeo.

Yet since then, further campaigns have been far and far between. And that’s evident from Ofcom’s findings on awareness of Product Placement.

Just 15% of adult viewers could correctly identify the Product Placement logo.

That’s bad, but I’m actually amazed it’s that high.

Furthermore, 67% of viewers claim to have never seen it. Remarkable, given that it’s appeared at the start of some of the biggest shows on television in the UK.

Product

There is no international sign for Product Placement which might help, since in the US, viewers are alerted via a note in the end credits. Of course, end credits are often shrunk or compressed. And that’s before you get to music videos and films.

It feels to me that a slightly opaque logo hidden in a busy opening credit scheme is not really doing anything for viewers. Either give up telling viewers altogether, or properly announce the fact that programmes contain Product Placement. Failing that, broadcasters should continue to alert viewers properly about what the symbol means, because 15% is an awful result.

The Tow Center Guide to Podcasting

Headphones in Studio 2

There’s a terrific new report that the Tow Center for Digital Journalism – an institute within the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It has published called A Guide to Podcasting. It’s an unashemedly US-centric view of the podcasting market in 2015, detailing the history of the medium, and presenting a series of case studies of big US podcasting operators.

It’s well worth a read if you’re curious to see where podcasting stands today.

The report is long, and I’m not going to go into it in full. Instead I thought I’d pull out a few key findings, and add some of my own thoughts to them. Some of them are things I’ve talked about before, but in each instance, I think they’re especially worthy of note.

The massive skew in mobile podcast consumption towards iPhones. The Tow document quotes a LibSync report that shows that there is currently a 5.4 to 1 ratio in favour of iOS devices over Android ones in the mobile market. Whereas the report notes that there something like one billion Android devices set against 470m iPhones.

I’ve stolen this wonderful (US focused) chart which illustrates this perfectly.

PODCAST15_clammrfuture_android

Note that this report seems to have been written before Google announced its entry into the podcasting market. But the report does note that there’d be likely to be developments between the report being completed and it being published. The Gimlet case study also misses out on their recent second round of funding.

67% of US podcaster are aged 18-34. They know how to use the technology. It’s not that it doesn’t appeal to other audiences as my septuagenarian father can attest, once he knew how to use the BBC iPlayer Radio app on his tablet. So it’ll be interesting to see how ages broaden out as podcasting increases. In the meantime, the 18-34 audience is one radio broadcasters are very worried about losing.

Podcasting really needs to broaden its user base. The previous two points are key parts of that – growing users beyond one type of phone, and getting those aged over 35 to listen. And the current audience can only listen to so many podcasts – something my inordinately sized PocketCasts library can attest to. Indeed the report suggests that it’s just six podcasts on average per week.

Slow and steady growth. As the report makes clear, podcasting has been around for a long time, and it’s had its moment in the sun before Serial came along (Season 2 out now!). The report includes a chart that shows podcasting as having had slow and steady growth since its inception.

The report goes on to note that the Serial phenomenom actually happened at time when the iPhone podcast app had just been separated out in iOS as its own app, and as the wider media was covering podcasts more. Both of these will have given it a healthy push.

I’d compare podcasting growth to UK DAB growth which has also been slow and steady rather than explosive as some consumer technologies have been. I wonder if this is a factor of audio? It’s not quite as sexy as video, but we still like it.

Searching for podcasts is an overall bad experience. iTunes is not great at surfacing podcasts beyond ones that are either popular according to its secret algorithm, or the handful that iTunes’ editors choose to feature on their site. Other podcast providers have similar issues.

The popular example of a company who manages this well is Netflix and its ability to aid viewer discovery. I’m not sure that’s the best answer – my experience is that all sorts of rubbish gets thrown at me. But I do hear very positive things about Spotify’s Discover playlist with regard to music listening.

Instead podcasters have to rely on social sharing and working within their own networks. Thus both Serial and Gimlet’s Startup launched by being included in the This American Life podcast feed.

That’s an opportunity only avaialble to a very limited number of podcasts and not at all available to those outside, say, US public radio circles. On the other hand it greatly aids those burgeoning podcast networks like Panoply and Gimlet. They can properly support and promote their own shows. An independent producer is going to struggle unless they have the budget to buy promotional airtime on those same shows – a route to market that others have taken.

One of the most exciting elements of Google enterting the podcasting space is what it can do with search. As well as utilising metadata, it’d be interesting to see if voice-to-text technology as utilised by Google Now, Siri and Amazon’s Fire and Echo devices, could be set to work on podcasts to provide more context for audio files, and enable discovery.

In car listening has its place. Cars are important, but it’s worth noting that while 44% of US radio listening is in car (according to a 2014 Macquarie Capital report), in other markets that aren’t as car-centric, it’s much less. For example it’s only 20% of radio listening that happens in-car in the UK. And in any case, new technology added in the car today doesn’t fully flow through the Car Parq (the industry term for all the cars on the road) for a number of years to come – 11 years on average in the US. In other words, just because a new off the assembly line car today comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, it’s going to take a while before everyone has the ability to seamlessly stream audio in their cars without a combination of 3.5mm jack leads, Bluetooth connectivity or even FM re-transmitters.

Data issues. Not only are mobile podcasts disproportionately listened to by iPhones/iOS devices, but the bulk of traffic is delivered via iTunes – 70% is claimed in the report. That’s both a blessing and a curse. Apple was a very early supporter of podcasting, and therefore everyone should be thankful for them. On the other hand, they have the whip hand when it comes to data. Advertisers would like more data, as would podcast producers. I’m certain Apple could provide additional data were they to choose to, but that would involve changes in user agreements and generally it’d be doing work for little to no reward. (Plus nobody needs and even longer iTunes User Agreement!)

The report notes that Apple’s most recent iOS update actually favours streaming over download, with the latter taking an additional click to play back. Streaming, of course, provides more data than consumption of a “dumb” mp3 file.

Meanwhile, as well as adding dynamic advertising into podcasts at time of delivery, another area that is being developed according to the report, is the use of tracking pixels. Now I must admit that I’m unclear how this will work. Ordinarily such pixels are used to track digital advertising in web environments where there is live data. So a hidden pixel is delivered and the fact that it was shown means that you have some data about where and when it was delivered. But pure podcasts are simply mp3 files. While they might have “album artwork” embedded within them, I’m not aware that this would allow for any tracking. Indeed, when you’re listening to an mp3 offline, there simply isn’t a feedback mechanism.

Within bespoke apps this might be possible, and certainly platforms like Spotify employ it, although the free version of Spotify which displays advertising requires internet access.

Yet both Panoply, who have purchased the Audiometric software platform, and Acast are both talking about this technology. I’m curious to learn more.

Direct and foundation support is more normal in the US. Most US public television and radio is partly funded by viewers and listeners. The audience is regularly asked to dig deep and contribute. If you enjoy these programmes, then you need to pay is the message. That’s why this has been a key way a number of podcasts have supported themselves using a direct funding model.

But this is not something that’s “normal” in Britain and elsewhere. If there’s a pledge drive happening on TV or radio, it’s for charity. For some, it’s actually a bit “embarrassing” and runs against the traditional stiff-upper-lip attitude we have as a nation.

Now it’s certainly true that the landscape is changing, and more people are getting more comfortable asking for monetary support.

There is not really a history of foundations supporting radio and television services. These foundations just don’t exist in the same way in the UK, where spending of that type might instead be focused on visual or performing arts. Instead, across Europe, much public radio is supported by various forms of licence fee. Notably the UK television licence pays for all BBC Radio as well as BBC TV and other services. This is undoubtedly changing as podcast listening is not limited by borders (Hence I hear all sorts of advertising for products that are unavailable to me). And Radiotopia’s fundraising success internationally was such that it saw fit to hold supporters parties in various parts of Europe.

But philanthropy tends to reveal itself in different ways in different countries – so the US model does not necessarily work internationally.

Podcasters need to own their direct relationships with the audience. This is an important one. The case study on the Reveal podcast makes this point well. Obviously podcasts do have a relationship between themselves and their listeners, but they don’t own it. Without direct intervention, a podcast producer does not know who you are. And that places them at something of a disadvantage.

When you hear a podcast urge you to sign up for an email newsletter, like them on Facebook or even follow them on Twitter, that’s because these are they only ways they can form a relationship with you. As it stands, that relationship is actually “owned” by the podcasting platform – so Apple in all likelihood.

The reason that magazine and newspaper publishers have always been so keen on you taking out a subscription is not just that they have a guaranteed form of income, but that they get to add a name to their database. And they can develop a direct relationship from there. That could be selling additional products and services, or learning more about the audience.

Indeed a podcast producer needs to think, “What would happen if for some reason Apple shut down podcasts tomorrow?”

No, they’re not going to do it. But they could. It would be a painful, and very probably expensive business rebuilding that audience.

The only podcast I can think of that I subscribe to that knows who I am is The Cycling Podcast, because I’ve paid to become a premium member. They have my email address.

It’s the same argument some news providers have had with Apple – sometimes falling out with them. Apple owns the relationship (and takes a healthy cut of subscription revenues). The middleman has the keys to the castle.

In subscription television, the same is often true. It’s why BT Sport went around quite a convuluted route to get Sky viewers to register directly with them to enable the BT Sports channel rather than the less painful route of adding the channel via a few clicks of the remote control. Now BT knows who those Sky subscribers are. If they hadn’t taken that route, they’d have just known how many subscribers they had.

And finally, if you know who your customers are, you can also more easily shift platforms should you ever wish or need to in the future.

The ethics of podcast advertising is not straightforward. There was a very good recent episode of Gimlet’s Startup podcast looking at money and in particular what the company would and wouldn’t do. It’s really worth listening to if you’re interested in this area, as it explores many of the issues. Indeed Gimlet has always been very upfront about how they work advertising into their podcasts.

In the US, the most effective type of podcast advertising has proved to be presenter-read adverts. They tend to be delivered in the same tone as the overall podcast rather than from a specific script. The way the advertising is weaved into different podcasts can vary a good deal – the listener sometimes only belatedly realising that they’re actually hearing an ad. Sometimes specific music is used, or words along the lines of, “And now we must thank another sponsor…” But neither of these are always the case.

The presenter-read model can also lead to a lot of implied endorsement of products. Perhaps the presenter has indeed used the product and strongly recommends it. But are we certain? Indeed an earlier season one Startup episode also examined this area.

And what happens if a product maybe isn’t best-in-class? Their money is still good though…

Another “ethical” question is the use of native podcasts, or ad-funded podcasts. This kind of advertising is considered both very effective and profitable. There are clearly lots of companies now interested in having podcasts made for them.

But how do they get promoted? What’s the mechanism for launching them? Do you drop them into your regular programme feed? Or should potential subscribers be pushed in another direction?

If you ask different people these questions, the recent Startup episode suggests you’ll get different answers.

The current case to look at is The Message, which is paid for by GE and produced by Panoply. It’s an SF drama delivered in the guise of a presenter-led podcast. I’m not aware that the full podcast was placed in any other Panoply streams. Instead there were a number of promotional trails (in radio parlance) and ads promoting the series.

But it seems clear that there are no firm rules across the full podcasting environment and what some people will do, others will be uncomfortable doing.

Networks – them and us. The way things are working at the moment, the big networks are best suited to prospering. But what about smaller or independent podcasts? Is there a way through?

The beauty of podcasting originally was that it’s very cheap and easy to do. You can make a professional sounding podcast with an inexpensive microphone, a laptop and free editing software.

But in many ways podcast networks are raising the game. They have more resources, they have sales teams to sell advertising, and they can cross-promote their own new podcasts.

If you’re not part of a big network or broadcaster, you probably are at a disadvantage. You’re not out of the game – but like indie films versus studio blockbusters, or independently published books versus those from major publishers, you’ve got your work cut out for you. On the other hand, there are ways through.

More disruption in types of podcast is needed. It does feel like too many podcasts are just public radio programmes that might have previously existed given a fair wind and a friendly commissioner. There surely needs to be a wider range of podcasts dealing with a broader set of interests? Currently many of the more popular podcasts can feel very middle class. And that’s not surprising because it does seem like every half-decent producer in the US who was working for public radio has been poached by a podcast producer or network!

This isn’t necessarily true of all podcast types, but I tend to think it is true of the bigger shows in terms of listeners and awareness.

Finally the Tow Center report is also accompanied by a very smart interactive timeline telling the podcast story from a US perspective.

Something Digital Advertising Could Fix To Make It Work Better

You’re flicking through a magazine, idly going through page after page. You’re perhaps looking for an article, but as you scan the pages before you reach the article, something catches your eye. An advertisement. You flick back and read the advertisement. Then you carry on looking for something else to read.

You’re watching your favourite TV series. You’re watching on your Sky+ and you’ve recorded the show. You fast forward through the ad break at 30x speed. But something catches your eye. You stop and rewind. You watch the ad. Then you get back to your show.

You’re walking past a bus-stop and glance at an ad for a new film. You pause briefly to double check the release date. You’re interested in the film. You carry on about your day.

Three entirely possible situations. All three have happened to me. Whatever advertisers might like to believe, but you’re not really buying a magazine for the ads or watching a TV show for the commercial break (some fashion magazines maybe excepted). But from time to time, you’re perhaps intrigued or interested by an ad. And you can often go back and check an ad.

But in the digital realm, this often isn’t possible. I go to a site and quickly navigate to the first story I want to read on the site – perhaps it’s from a news index page. As I click to the next page with a story I want to read, I glance at ad and am vaguely interested. I know, it seems unlikely, but advertising does sometimes work, and very occasionally I see an ad that I’m at least curious enough about to read.

But I’ve already clicked through to the next page. Never mind. I hit the back button in the browser to get back to it, and… I see a different ad.

Time after time, and on site after site, when I go back a page, the ad has changed. Whichever network has dynamically served me something else. And the ad I was actually interested in has gone!

I’ve actually been known to hit refresh a few times to see if I get served the initial ad again. I usually don’t.

The system is broken.

The same ad should feature on the same page in the same session. If it doesn’t, then the site/ad network is missing a trick. Digital advertising has enough problems in trying to keep people engaged and having to come up with ever trashier techniques to get people to respond. So make it easier for me to actually see an ad I want to see!

BT’s Advertising

As the new football season rapidly approaches (even though it’s still only July), so the marketing spend of the various pay-TV operators ramps up. Sky is showing some fairly well-received adverts highlighting their Premier League heritage and super-imposing Thierry Henry into the video.

On the other hand, BT is busy trying to let the British public know that it’s home of the Champions’ League and Europa League from this season. To that end they’ve created one of the worst ad campaigns in recent years.

Their recent TV ads have all been of the faux behind-the-scenes variety. So we have Ewan McGregor (who I like) hamming it up about why BT is making such a tawdry ad when “they’ve got the big films” (Only in the sense that Apple/Google/Everybody has the big films for PPV), Jose Mourinho putting up with glitter cannons and so on.

But the nadir is the BT “house party” advert featuring lots of footballers and BT Sport presenters seemingly having a blast in some mansion. Only at the very end is it “revealed” that this is another fake ad with the same characters directing it.

It’s awful.

For one thing, it’s trying to have its cake and eat it. The makers think that this is actually a good ad. It has expensive production values. It has a cast of current European footballing stars (Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, David Luiz etc.). The two second “reveal” says to me that really they just wanted to make this ad anyway.

But what this ad actually says is that overpaid footballers live hedonistic lifestyles that none of us will ever have, and they’re doing it through inflated TV deals, pricing out younger fans from games. In short, it highlights everything that’s wrong with the game.

And was it a smart idea to include Franck Ribéry in the ad given some of his own past?

The makers may claim that their tongue is in their cheek for this ad, but I really don’t think it is.

The other problem is that it really doesn’t do the job of conveying BT’s European football rights at all. The ad just doesn’t do the job.

BT has quite a complicated message to convey about how to get its new football offering. As I’ve said before, the previous message was pretty simple: Get BT Sport free if you’re a BT Broadband customer.

Simple and punchy. It probably worked too, stopping Sky from gaining broadband customers.

Now BT’s more complicated message is: Get BT Sport for £5 a month if you’re BT Broadband customer watching via BT TV or Sky, or pay closer to £20 a month if you’re on Sky and don’t have BT Broadband, or get it free if you have BT TV too (although you need fibre for the full offering including 4K), or get it as part of the XL bundle on Virgin Media, and don’t forget that you’re “opting in” to the £5 deal even if you thought it was free, but you can downgrade to free if you get BT Sport Lite which just gets you BT Sport 1.

Clear?

In the meantime, this atrocious ad played out in just about every commercial break during Saturday and Sunday’s Tour de France coverage on both ITV4 and Eurosport. I couldn’t avoid it.

I would fire AMV BBDO, the creative agency that came up with this mess.

Around the Web

They’ve been there a while now.

At first, just a few.

But now they’re everywhere.

And the invasion is growing.

What am I talking about?

Content Discovery Platforms” typified by those “Around the Web” discovery link panels you often see on news sites and advertising supported blogs.

Essentially, these are the tables of links that sit under articles on many websites. You reach the bottom of an article and want to read some more. “Well, we’ve already thought of that!” In an Amazon-style of you-liked-that-so-you-might-like-this, they push you to click on the links.

Except that they’re not necessarily links to other stories on the same website. They’re links to paid-for “content” on other sites.

Now to be clear, there are many ways that this can work. Some sites insist that three out of four, or five out of six links are internal. It’ll just be the final click that’s external.

But other sites just have a list of links that are all external, and usually tangential at best to what you were reading about.

Essentially, they’re designed to look like the bottom of a MailOnline article, and indeed they usually feature the sort of stories that might easily pop-up on a tawdry site like that.

“Controversial ‘skinny’ pill”, “12 fun facts that are complete and utter lies”, “Local mums reveal EXTREME weight-loss trick.”

There are a variety of companies that market these things, with Taboola and Outbrain being particularly virulent popular.

More recently, I’ve noticed a lot of blogs that use Disqus to power their comments now appear with “sponsored content” within their comment sections.

Now it’s all very easy for me to take the moral high ground on this kind of thing. This blog isn’t here to make money – it costs me some money to host it. The most commercial thing you’re going to see is a very occasional Amazon link with affiliate coding for a book or DVD (although there have been so few of them, that Amazon has never cut me a cheque).

I know that many websites and blogs need advertising revenue to make ends meet. But it’s the lack of intelligence used by these plugins. The stories and articles they link to are the lowest of low-rent clickbait. They invariably feature women in a state of some undress, or unlikely bargains. In general, they actually bring the website I’m visiting into disrepute. I’m reading some smart piece of writing, and there at the bottom is a link to “50 of the Sexiest Scarlett Johansson Photos You’ll Ever See.” Really tawdry stuff. Why have you let this garbage onto your site?

Let’s put it this way, if this were the “cost” of running Disqus for my blog’s discussions, I would be seeking another supplier forthwith. Or frankly I’d do without comments altogether.

It wouldn’t be so bad if these adverts didn’t so heavily disguise themselves as editorial. In most media – magazine and television, for example – there has to be clear delineation between editorial and advertising. Occassionally you might see a piece that is an advertorial – written in the style of the publication, but clearly labelled as produced for a commercial partner. Or as everyone loves to call it these days “Native Advertising.”

This is becoming a problem. The editorial/advertising walls are being broken down, as we’ve seen from the recent accusations of the Telegraph from Peter Oborne.

In the case of Disqus, Outbrain and Taboola, it’s really not always the case that the reader knows they’re being subjected to advertising. Let’s face it – that’s why they do it.

Are you familiar with this logo?

adchoices

To be honest, you might not recognise it. That’s because it usually appears much smaller. Here’s a version I captured on my phone. This isn’t going to look great on your QHD screen:

Choice

In fact these logos are all part of something called Ad Choices “where you’re in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Often, this is the only clue that you’re really being served advertising.

For example, Disqus sometimes labels its offering “Around the Web” and also has a discrete “What’s this?” If you click on it, it reads: “Disqus helps you find new and interesting content, discussions and products. Some sponsors and ecommerce sites may pay us for these recommendations and links. Learn more or give us feedback.”

So that took an action on my behalf to establish that this might be advertising. I’m pretty certain it’s all advertising.

Sites using Taboola might have a “Recommended for you” section with some internal site links, followed by “Recommended from the web” alongside a tiny “Sponsored links by Taboola.” Clicking on that pop-up revealed: “This content was picked for you by Taboola’s recommendation engine because we thought you may like it. This content is paid for by our advertiser and publisher clients.” But the majority of the pop-up was actually about marketing Taboola itself with sections for Marketers and Publishers!

Samples of “Recommended from the web” currently displayed to me include “The Best Way to Make Extra Money in the UK” and “UK Store Sells iPads and iPhones for Pennies” – yeah, right.

Looking at a sample site that uses Outbrain (and many of the web’s biggest sites do use it), I get a Promoted Stories section featuring four “stories.” Samples I’m presented with currently include “Want to beat jetlag? Try these 7 tricks,” “10 Daily Habits That Will Give You Incredible Willpower” and “4 Reasons Why MBA Degree Is The Best In The World” [sic] – that last one suggesting that an MBA doesn’t necessarily require you to have a full grasp of the English language.

Below these are four internal site links, followed by “Recommended by Outbrain.” Clicking on that brings up a detailed pop-up that includes:

“Outbrain is focused on one thing: helping people discover great, interesting content.

“Any time you see a recommendation from Outbrain, you can trust that it will send you to a piece of high quality content. Outbrain links will never take you to a blatant advertisement so you can rest assured that by clicking one of our links (“we recommend” or “from around the web”), you will only experience great content.”

Hmm. So they’re not “blatant” advertisements. Shall we say “discreet” advertisements then? Clicking through to that MBA ad took me to what was effectively a content farm of mostly worthless “education” pieces with liberal helpings of Google ads. Essentially it’s worth someone’s while to pay to Outbrain to deliver Google Ads by proxy. And they say digital advertising isn’t the Wild West?

Outbrain also uses the pop-up to promote its services.

I’m sure that these “Content Discovery Platforms” work for their clients in that they have an advertising model that works for both parties. But surely even calling their backends “recommendation engines” is disingenuous?

Personally I think that these things cheapen websites much more than other kinds of advertising. Even useless retargeting advertising at least is obviously advertising.

I suspect that the reason they proliferate is because they get higher click-through rates than regular advertising. And that’s because they’re misrepresenting themselves and people are clicking through without realising where they’re going. Or they’re blatant clickbait and it’s only after clicking through that people that they’re not going to get a cheap iPhone.

Digital advertising is getting through “formats” at a rapid pace as they try new things, they work for a bit, and then they stop working. “Content Discovery Platforms” are probably another example of this and in due course they’ll disappear because consumer behaviour will mean they stop “working.”

It seems to me that this is parter of a wider need to understand that most people don’t or won’t interact with most advertising. We take it on board and move on. We don’t instantly pick up the phone or visit a website. Yet advertising does work, it just can’t all be proved with metrics instantly.

As I was about to publish this I spotted this Tweet from scientist, writer and broadcaster Adam Rutherford featuring advertising at the foot of an Observer piece he wrote. Because it would make sense to link through to the Express for “science” stories…

Says it all really.