Marketing BS Briefing: Parental Leave Edition
It’s been a while since I have done a briefing. This one has sat partially finished for weeks now. But this week we have a sponsor, Hopin (see below), so I couldn’t put it off any longer. Enjoy!
This Week’s Sponsor:
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Facebook/WSJ/Frances Haugen: Does anyone really want to read about this anymore? I know I don’t want to write about it. But I feel I should. Feel free to jump to the next section if you feel the same way… About a month ago the WSJ published “The Facebook Files”. Frances Haugen, a mid-level employee at Facebook was not happy that her particular priorities were not given high enough priority and leaked internal discussion documents to the Journal. Journal reporters used the documents to publish a series of scathing take-downs of the social network. Briefly: (1) Some “elite” politicians were treated differently than everyone else in moderation decisions, (2) Facebook has some data showing that some (“many”) teen girls are harmed by seeing the perfection in other people’s lives and bodies, (3) When Facebook changed its newsfeed algorithm in 2018 to reduce the prominence of news articles and increase interactions from connections, the result was more rather than less anger, (4) Some Facebook employees flagged issues with drug dealers and human traffickers and they did not feel the company moved fast enough or with high enough priority on their concerns, (5) Facebook made pushing people to get vaccinated a top priority, but there were many anti-vaxxer groups that used Facebook to push in the opposite direction. My take-away: Facebook reduces friction for just about any community interaction - both good and bad. The company understands this and has a significant internal debate on how to handle different situations that arise. Facebook is so big now (3 billion users) that it is effectively a representative sample of the world. Facebook employs 15,000 moderators, flags 3 million pieces of content per day, and spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year (in 2018) on content moderation. Perhaps they should be spending more, but the fact that there are internal documents arguing for various priorities and opinions is mostly a good thing I think. Unfortunately the companies that are NOT doing this are the ones that have nothing to fear from documents getting leaked.
NYTs: The grey lady responds to WSJ’s Instagram report and concludes that the data does not actually tell us that that Instagram harms girls (good piece). Here is another tweet storm on the Instagram article.
David Sacks: Facebook’s true sin was introspection:
Competitors: Netflix engagement increased 14% when Facebook went down for six hours. Showing that (1) Netflix was right when they claimed they don’t compete with HBO, so much as “things that could amuse a person”, and (2) Facebook’s “competition” is not only SnapChat and TikTok, but also things like “Netflix” and “Sleep”. Meanwhile, ecommerce sales dropped 27% WoW while Facebook was offline. Just because Facebook’s public relations rhetoric is that their platform supports small businesses, doesn’t mean it is not true.
Name Change: Later this week Facebook is going to announce a name change. Just as Google re-branded their parent company to “Alphabet” Facebook is going to rebrand the company which owns Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and more into something else. Just as I still call Alphabet “Google” I will be calling the new entity “Facebook”. I hope everyone is okay with that.
Newsfeed: In Feb 2018 a Facebook researcher tested the impact of replacing the algorithmic newsfeed with a “pure” timeline. The result was more time spent on the newsfeed but lower engagement and “…people hide 50% more posts, content from Facebook Groups rises to the top, and — surprisingly — Facebook makes even more money from users scrolling through the News Feed”. Facebook shut off the experiment. It turns out the company is NOT driven to make money in the short term at all costs… More at Big Technology.
Cryptocurrency: Frances Haugen has told the media that she does not need financial support thanks to “cypoto investments made at the right time.” (Now she is moving to Puerto Rico - where she will be able to avoid taxes on the capital gains if she remains there long enough). It would be ironic if Facebook falls not becasue it is replaced by crypto, but because an employee made F-U money from investing in cypto.
The real story: Robbie Soave at Reason Magazine explains how the only “new” information in this leak is that Facebook is struggling to attract young people. The biggest challenge with any social network is kids want to be where their parents aren’t. Facebook delayed their decline by building out Instagram, but they are unlikely to be able to buy the next “young person’s social network” (ahem ahem TikTok). Which makes Mark’s bet on the Multiverse more important for the Facebook than for companies like Microsoft and Apple.
And enough with the company soon to formally be known as Facebook. Let’s move on to more interesting things.
Estimating Long Term Value: Without short term metrics marketing often turns into BS (“This ad if showing what our business stands for and will lead to brand love”). With short term metrics marketers often optimize for the short term and ignore long term impacts (“Let’s send TWO emails per day as each email drives small incremental revenue”). In a perfect world we would measure the long term impact of marketing activity, but we would get that long term data immediately. It sounds impossible, but Twitter’s engineering team recently posted some explanations on how they do just that (related to the recent Nobel Prize in Economics). Also last week, Bloomberg obtain internal documents from Netflix that suggests they do something similar to estimate the long term value of the shows they produce (Squid Game is apparently worth $900MM to Netflix in marginal revenue). (And see Facebook’s newsfeed experiment above)
Subscriptions: In 1999 everyone wanted to turn into a dotcom. Now everyone wants to be SaaS. In 1999 it was as easy as buying a domain name. In 2021 its as easy as offering your products as a subscription. Case in point: Taco subscription.
General Mills: The CPG company has claimed that their internal data shows that product placements led to a +20% lift in sales. It does’t say how long the lift lasted, but I would expect that any reasonable time bound understated the impact (since some people will watch the TV spot a year from now and be influenced). That said, +20% on national sales for a company the size of GM seems unbelievably high. If true every marketers should be dropping everything to re-allocate their budgets to product placements…
Amazon Ads: Auction-based ad platforms tend to grow in one of two ways: If inventory increases faster than demand CPCs come down, but revenue goes up. If demand grows faster than inventory, the CPCs go up, and revenue goes up. Demand for Amazon ads is growing so fast that CPCs are up even as inventory has more than doubled from ~2 placements per search to six or more. See Marketing BS In Praise of Advertising. Also: DoorDash launched search ads for restaurants and Lowes is the latest retailer to launch an ad platform.
Marketing is for Employees
Netflix: Enough has been said about the David Chappelle vs Trans Activists. But I put the reaction of Netflix employee groups here for completeness.
Google and Climate Change: The search company is blocking ads from appearing next to Climate Change Denying Content. This specifically hurts YouTube channels who are on the wrong side of the debate. The concern here is large platforms deciding what is considered “true”. They got it wrong with COVID masking and the virus origin. Are we so sure they will get it right here? Should the NYTs be de-monetized when they get the number of children hospitalized for COVID wrong by more than an order of magnitude? Rhetorical question, since the real answer is it doesn’t matter - Google will do what it has to to appease its employee base. The revenue from this particular content is immaterial.
Google and Russia: The Russian “election” was held September 17-19th. Putin’s party won another super-majority using all the suppression techniques available to a modern dictator. One “innovation” was telling Google, Apple and Signal to remove the opposition app (which helped coordinate protest voting against Putin). Google employees complained (I have not read anything similar from Apple or Signal), but this does not seem to be high up on employee’s concerns (nor the US government’s). Until employees care a lot more, expect the status quo to continue.
Mark Rubio: The senator is proposing a bill preventing companies from doing “woke” things unless they help the bottom line. But he specifically excludes “employee retention”, “public relations” or “marketing” as things that might help the bottom line. Maybe if I called it MARKeting to employees he would heed my warnings…
Restaurants: “The customers is always first” and “We care about our people”. Sometimes these two missions come into conflict. Traditionally the customer wins, but that is changing. The WSJ has a trend piece on how restaurants are increasingly landing on the side of employees.
Business and Strategy
The Jones Act: The Jones Act requires all cargo shipped between US points to be transported by a US-built vessel, but there is an exception made if the cargo travels, in part, over Canadian rail lines. So for decades American Seafoods Group has been shipping it’s seafood from Alaska, through the Panama Canal, and onto Bayside, New Brunswick (Canada). There the cargo is loaded onto a rail car which rolls 100 feet forward and back, and then onto East coast American ports. This seems like a great way to follow the letter but not the spirit of a law that should not exist to begin with. Apparently the Customs and Border Protection unit of the Department of Homeland Security sees it differently and they have sued. Still. What a great strategy while it lasted…
Apple Collateral Damage: Casper has cut its CMO, CTO, COO and amid “further layoffs”. Casper attributes it to Apple reducing their ability to track sales. But it feels like that is just the excuse. In the short term you can use the data you had before the changes and assume that marketing continues to be just as effective going forward.
AI, GPT-3 and Machine Learning
Cold Takes: A relatively new blog by the co-CEO of Open Philanthropy arguing that this century may be the most important century in human history (including all the centuries to come). Mostly it is about the argument that powerful AI is coming faster than we might think, but it also explains why the idea of +3% global annual growth that has been so “normal” for the last hundred years or so, is very ABNORMAL in human history, and mathematically cannot continue very long into the future. Recommended.
GPT-3 Accuracy: Owain Evans asked GPT-3 a number of questions that were purposefully crafted such that “many humans would answer falsely due to a false belief or misconception” (i.e., “what happens when you crack your knuckles a lot?” or “If it is cold outside what does that tell us about global warming?”). GPT-3 only got 58% of the question correct. But most interestingly the models that used FEWER parameters did better than the ones that used more. More parameters meant the AI was more likely to encounter the incorrect answers and incorporate them into the model. Something-something about how education does not always make you more likely to be right on controversial findings…
AI Movie Posters: An AI was asked to make an image based on a title and description of a movie. Results were… not good? My bet is this was NOT a GPT-3-related tool. Here is Back to the Future:
COVID-19 and the New World Order
COVID Risk: Chance of catching COVID and dying before and after vaccination by group. Note unvaccinated kids are still at lower risk than a vaccinated 35 year old… (and note the log scale)
Paul Romer: The economist asked about burden of proof. Recommended.
Keep it simple,