Marketing BS Weekly Briefing: January 20, 2021
Boycotts, digital spending, privacy, sperm shortage, breakfast growth, history of the bonus, lost in space and more...
This is the free edition of Marketing BS. Subscribers received yesterday’s essay on Censorship and the Limits of Free Speech. This week’s two-part interview is with Aimee Johnson, CMO of Zillow. Subscribers will receive both parts of the interview.
This week’s sponsor is Flatfile.io
Think of the last time you imported a spreadsheet. Did it work the first time? Nearly everyone has dealt with formatting messy CSV or Excel files. It's a pain! Enter Flatfile Concierge. Turn data onboarding into a collaborative experience with intuitive workspaces. No code required.
Interview: My interview by “World Class Performer” went live last week. I tried to be at least a little insightful.
GOP Boycott: Lincoln Project is compiling a list of all the companies who are halting all donations to the “coup caucus”. 43 companies as of January 13th - mostly the largest companies in America.
Apple Podcasts: The company that effectively created the format is finally doubling down on podcasts. There are two thesis on why podcasts may monetize much better in the future: (1) Shift to paid podcast subscriptions, (2) Better ad monetization through self-serve targeting platforms. Spotify has charged ahead with both models. Amazon’s path is unclear (The company acquired Wondery earlier this year). Apple’s bet, in keeping with its anti-advertising rhetoric seems to be on the subscription model. This may be a case of strategy pushing the company away from where the real opportunity is. Meanwhile: A Citi analyst has looked at Spotify’s podcast acquisitions and argues that the bet is “failing”. I think the analyst missed the point. Spotify is trying to get to critical mass to own “the” podcast advertising platform. There is no way to judge that success of failure yet based on currently available metrics
Cannes Lions Festival: The creative advertising festival has announced it will be in-person this year. Easy to say, but I expect SOMEONE is planning a contingency plan. (Recall the Olympics were to be in person last year, until they were not)
Tropicana: I came across this old story from the NarrowScale newsletter. In 2008 Tropicana changed its packaging. It dropped the “orange with a straw in it” image for a “sleeker, more modern look”. Sales fell 20% and the orange juice reverted to the old design. One more example of why you don’t change your branding because your marketers want another resume bullet (yes, I am talking to you WarnerBrothers!)
Digital Advertising Spend: Digital advertising is continuing to gain share on traditional media. And within digital Google, Facebook and Amazon are gaining faster than everyone else
Superbowl advertising: While viewership is likely to be down this year (almost all sports is down this year, and the social component of the Superbowl is obviously going to be muted), the ad rates are UP. The average cost of a 30-second spot is estimated to be $5.6MM, up 7% from 2020. It is harder and harder to reach a broad audience, and even a smaller superbowl is better than anything else. Supply meet demand.
Andreesen Horowitz: The venture capital firm is dramatically expanding their media business. “unapologetically pro-tech, pro-future, pro-change”. Another example of the merger of product and media.
Disneyland: While it seems everyone is moving from single-purchases to subscriptions (including Disney with their streaming offering), Disneyland is going in reverse. Disneyland is ending their annual pass offering and the parks are going back to pay as you go. Subscription makes a ton of sense for the parks if it has excess capacity, but if not, they can monetize better by charging per use (especially if combined with variable pricing based on demand - which is just getting started)
Boycotts: Fox News was subject to a number of advertiser boycotts of their various pundits last year. It did not seem to impact their bottom line. Fox News revenue was #1.32B (up 9.7%) vs CNN’s $773MM (up 11.7%) and MSNBC’s $723MM (up 0.8%). Boycotts are great for feeling like you make a difference, but not so great for actually impacting anything that matters.
Forbes as Substack: Forbes is launching a paid newsletter business - kind of like Substack, but with higher barriers to entry, more editorial support, and a 50% take rate (vs. 10-13% for substack). Forbes will have to be very good at customer acquisition acceleration for any top writer to sign-up for this, but maybe they can be?
A/B Testing: HBS has an article exploring the impact of incorporating A/B testing software into a start-up. All the data is before vs after which they suggests “avoids selection effects”, but clearly does not (the companies are selecting to add A/B testing software - that choice is NOT random). But it is interesting none the less. One finding: A/B testing the small stuff seems to free up management to think MORE big picture. This makes sense - no need to argue about the colors - the RCT can take care of that, instead worry about what product you should be offering and what price point.
WhatsApp: As WhatsApp moves to become more of a commerce platform, the messaging app changed their terms and conditions last week to allow businesses to collect shipping and credit card. This did not go over well. Facebook has a trust problem with the media and this (benign) change set off a flurry of scare pieces. Telegram and Signal downloads spiked on the news, and Facebook rolled back the changes. T&Cs are not a marketing problem that should not be left to the lawyers.
Flo: Flo was sued by the FTC over its selling of fertility information to advertisers. Flo settled, while admitting no wrongdoing. I get it seems creepy for advertisers to know you are pregnant, but are targeted ads (vs. random ads) really something we DON’T want?
Republicans: Why are republicans starting to finally turn against Trump? One argument is that he has “finally gone too far”. But Jonathan Bernstein argues a simpler explanation can be found with incentives: “During times of partisan polarization, party actors have an overwhelming interest in keeping their president as popular as possible. Most people vote based on party, and the president is the most visible part of the party. Therefore, it can be better for individual members of Congress to support their party’s president (and therefore prop up his or her popularity) even when doing so requires taking unpopular stances. That’s because the president’s popularity, and not the individual member’s popularity, is critical to election outcomes.” All that changed after the Georgia election.
Facebook: Ben Thompson at Stratechery has a good piece on how Internet 1.0 was about technology, Internet 2.0 was about economics and now Internet 3.0 is about politics. The media has been very anti-facebook, and one potential reason has always been that Facebook is an obvious competitor to traditional media’s business model (how many people get their news from the Facebook feed instead of the morning paper these days?). But it goes beyond that. Authoritarian governments like Poland and Turkey are using “progressive” rhetoric to fine Facebook for too much moderation, while countries like France and Germany are simultaneously attacking Facebook for invasions of privacy, being too closed, not moderating enough, and moderating too much. In the US the Democrats are upset withFacebooks “freewheeling” content policies, while the GOP is divided on what they want from the platform. In all cases it is less about the overarching principles, and far more about the incentives of the individual players. Ben argues this is the new norm for the foreseeable future.
COVID and the New World Order
MS Vaccine: Just as the space program got us freeze dried food and dust busters, the biomedical investments of the past year are going to lead to some unexpected discoveries. One potential breakthrough is a vaccine for multiple sclerosis. Expect more of this from the mRNA technique that was used for mare the Pfiser COVIC vaccine.
Closed Classrooms: Some good analysis on the “true cost” of classroom closures
Kids living at home: The percentage of 18-29 year olds living at home has been increasing since the 1960, but saw a step-change this year with the pandemic to the highest level recorded (52% vs a previous peak of 48% in the 1940s). The pandemic accelerated many trends and this is another one. I expect this will drop back down, but not fully reverse.
Sperm: There is a shortage of sperm as the standard supply channels - college campuses - have been shut down.
Snackmagic: From reader Jas Banwait, a short video of how start-up SnackMagic pivoted their business during the pandemic to go from $0 to $20MM in the last 8 months.
Breakfast spike: We are eating a lot more at home. Pancakes +25%, bacon +15%, waffles +20%…
History of the Wall Street Bonus: Christmas bonuses, in the form of a free turkey or merchandise have been around for a long time. In the 1890s Woolsworth shifted the practice to a standardized dollar amount based on tenure as a way to decrease employee turnover. JP Morgan took the idea to the next level and in 1902 wheeling in seven kegs worth of gold coins to distribute to him employees - many receiving bonuses as larger or larger than their salaries. The rest as they say is history (side note: Someday I hope to measure my wealth in “kegs of gold coins”).
Career Advice: Nick Huber has an interesting thread on career advice that you “probably don’t want to hear”. Some highlights: College isn’t worthless (“all of the successful folks who tell you college is worthless went to college.”), starting a business isn’t right for everyone, technology isn’t as far along as the media makes you think it is, and more. Recommended.
Positive externalities: Many of the best initiatives of marketing channels are that way due to externalities that you cannot directly measure. The Baffler has a piece on Diego Maradona, one of the greatest football (soccer) players of all time who passed away in November last year. It argues that Maradona was the greatest player of all time due to his externalities: “He may have been the best football player ever, not because of his individual genius, nor because of his team spirit, but because he inspired entire stadiums, spectators included… Messi is a genius who makes his teammates better, but Maradona’s gift was more precious: he made everyone believe they were great and could be greater"
Job Interview Lies: The WSJ attempts to categorize the types of lies told in job interviews. Interesting, but it lacks the data to make the story really compelling.
Lost in Space: Astronaut loses his wedding ring while in command module floating around the Earth. Colleague finds it floating outside of the ship - in the vastness of space. Amazing story.
Fractional ownership of collectable assets: The best investments get solid returns and are not correlated to the stock market. Easier said than done (EVERYTHING is correlated). But this explain the interest in more and more alternative assets. Generally these are available only to the wealthy. They tend to be highly opaque, illiquid and volatile - combined with high transaction costs to participate (it is a lot easier to buy a stock certificate in Amazon than it is to invest in a work of art or an apartment building). But there are more and more companies trying to reduce that friction. Mythicmarkets is trying to do that with pop culture assets. The idea is to buy fractional ownership in things like original artwork from Magic The Gathering, or graded copies of Fantastic Four #1. While I am long this type of investment in general (I have dabbled in premium collectable comics), I do NOT think the way they have set this up it is a good investment. But people “invest” in the “ownership” of the Green Bay Packers, so why not own a piece of the first appearance of Cyclops?
Keep it simple,