1. The future is now… sort of
This year’s Web Summit in Dublin was a mind-boggling conflation of all the latest technology that looks set to change the world. Everything from wearables, virtual reality, 3D printing, driverless cars and drones was on display, leading some marketers to feel like kids in a sweet shop, overwhelmed with possibilities. The event organisers declared ‘the internet of things’ to be the biggest theme of the week, while former Apple CEO John Sculley suggested that connected devices and the ever expanding cloud will transform every developed industry over the next decade.
There are plenty of qualifiers to this, of course, with consumer adoption and regulatory approval still lagging way behind some of the most advanced tech. Jay Bregman, founder of taxi-flagging app Hailo, revealed details of his new, currently unnamed drones start-up venture, but acknowledged there are significant safety and privacy concerns to overcome before he and the likes of Amazon can start serving consumers with flying robots. Oculus Rift boss Brendan Iribe, meanwhile, was cagey about when his Facebook-owned company will launch virtual reality headsets for the masses, noting that there remain concerns over the user experience, such as the potential for motion sickness, and uncertainty about the system for uploading developer content.
2. Diversify around mobile
Plenty of big brands made open declarations at this year’s summit about their desire to partner with new tech ventures and extend their reach as digital content publishers. Coca-Cola was a notable example, with VP of innovation David Butler delivering a frank presentation about his company’s need to find new revenue lines in the tech world to shore up its stuttering growth. Mind Candy founder Michael Acton Smith was also clear about the extent to which his company, famous for the Moshi Monsters children’s social network, is keen to use the company’s brands to expand into new content areas including films, books and TV programmes.
“We want to broaden our horizons to become a family entertainment company,” said Acton Smith. He conceded that Mind Candy was initially slow to recognise the value of mobile and to invest accordingly, but described it as the future of the company. “Over the course of the next few years, most kids are going to own tablets,” he said. “Kids are the ultimate early adopters so it’s a hugely exciting audience to develop for.” Red Bull Media House’s chief commercial officer Alexander Koppel also noted that mobile is now at the heart of Red Bull’s huge media business, explaining that it provides the flexibility to offer different types of content including subscription-based editorial and branded games. “Our statistics show that over 50% of our audience are using mobile to engage with us,” he said.
3. Automation is not a marketing panacea
Programmatic buying has been one of the hottest topics in advertising technology this year, so naturally there was plenty of discussion about the revolutionary impact of real-time bidding and automated ad placements. Interestingly though, several speakers were keen to sound a note of caution about the impact of handing control for online advertising expenditure to algorithm-led machines.
Jeremy Bloom, chief executive of marketing software firm Integrate, noted that marketing remains an art, as well as a science, and suggested that marketers need to retain a degree of independent oversight when using programmatic services. “Automation won’t completely replace gut feeling,” he said. Oracle’s SVP of product development Reggie Bradford shared this view, noting that “the marketing cloud has created the opportunity for CMOs with a credit card to buy any solution they want, and that creates challenges in itself.”
4. Native advertising is working, but brands need help
The social networks got serious at this year’s summit as each set out their case to be the most innovative, engaging, and thereby the most attractive to advertisers. Twitter sent in head of global revenue Adam Bain, who said that the company’s surging revenues, up 114% in the third quarter, are indicative of a booming native advertising model. Brands are getting better at creating promoted tweets that users want to engage with, Bain suggested, and are catching onto the benefits “of being good, rather than just loud” in how they advertise on the platform. However there was also an acknowledgement that marketers want a wider ranging digital advertising service and confirmation that Twitter plans to offer this through the development of MoPub, a mobile ad exchange it acquired last year.
Pinterest also came armed with figures to prove the strength of its advertising offer, which launched six months ago with 15 beta partners including Kraft, P&G, L’Oreal and Disney. The social network now has around 70 million users and a re-pin rate on some promoted pins of around 10-20%, head of partnerships Joanne Bradford said. However the niche nature of Pinterest content, which provides a forum for people’s interests and online communities, means advertisers need advice on how best to optimise their native content.
“In categories like beauty, food, fashion and travel, we’re seeing that ads are being re-pinned at a higher rate,” said Bradford. “We’re trying to raise the bar and have promoted pins performing better than organic pins, so we’re running a series of workshops to help advertisers. Pins take on a life of their own, meaning that a lot of content from publishers and advertisers is still working really well.”
5. The privacy debate is damaging brands
This was the year of the Apple iCloud photo hack, when nude images of dozens of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Dunst were distributed to the world. With the shadow of last year’s revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden still looming large over tech firms too, the issue of online privacy provoked a feisty debate between ex-NSA lawyer Stewart Baker and the CEO of web services firm Cloudflare, Matthew Prince.
Baker argued that despite the backlash against NSA and GCHQ surveillance, research shows that the general public still has more trust in government organisations than in private companies like Google and Facebook. He also suggested that such companies are only paying lip-service to public concerns about privacy. “In some ways the big tech companies are picking fights with the government that they think look good,” he said.
However Prince insisted that scandals like the iCloud hack and Snowden revelations were forcing companies “to build a better web”. He added: “The tech industry has woken up and said we are in the business of trust, and we are losing that battle if these things are happening.”