How (and Why) Ted Talks Work

We all know TED. Over 1,800 (available) 12-18 minute talks over 34 years. We know the format: conversational, casual dress, few images, a bare stage, a Big Idea.

There’s more. There are no devices allowed in the TED room. That’s why people pay attention.

And it turns out, they have a structure. I’ve made a hobby of Hollywood form, and there’s also TED form.


Of course, I’m not the first to notice this. There are dozens of blogs on how to nail your TED Talk, and like most blogs these are written too fast: embrace mystery and wonder … start and end strong … be yourself … and so on …

More useful — if rather twistingly meta — are some TED Talks on how to give a TED Talk. These get us closer to it.

* June Cohen (a TED producer) emphasizes keeping your personal story in the center, not rushing and staying non-technical

* Gordon Kangas stresses that you want to change the audience: inspire them to do something

* TEDx’s own how-to-give-a-TEDx pounds on the call to action at the end.

TED Talks aren’t meant to inform or entertain so much as inspire action. This is the existential difference between a TED Talk and a corporate speech. Perhaps it should not be.

Think about two of the more memorable TED Talks, ones you’ve heard even if you haven’t, if you follow me. Brene Brown on vulnerability and Amy Cuddy on the “power pose.”

They both had a simple message that could be:

  • Summarized in 2-3 words
  • Inspire positive action

That is:

  • Brown: “Be Vulnerable!”
  • Cuddy: “Stand with Power!”

Imagine casting your corporate talks as 2-3 word action statements. Would it work? How could it?

This leads me to the three reasons I think the TED Talk format is so durable:

  1. They are short
  2. They don’t use slides
  3. They are more pep talk than lecture


So I watched a bunch of popular TED Talks and sketched out their structure. There are seven parts. (I’m being reductive here, since there is variety in 35,000 global multi-lingual talks; but you’ll get the gist.)

These are:

  1. PERSONAL ANECDOTE – start with a personal story that expresses, yes, vulnerability and makes you seem human
  2. STARTLING FACT – make a startling statement that is true but not widely known (e.g., “If you eat a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, you will immediately gain half a pound” – true)
  3. BIG IDEA – this is up to you, amigo
  4. ARGUMENT – present your case in a logical sequence, structure as 3-4 mini challenge-solution narratives – i.e., present a challenge … a solution … another challenge … a solution … rising and falling like Freytag’s pyramid
  5. “IN CONCLUSION …” – summarize what you just said, quickly
  6. HOPEFUL FUTURE – describe a beautiful vision of a better tomorrow if only we could all do something … but what?!
  7. CALL TO ACTION! – one thing you want to inspire the people to do

The key here being to inspire. People aren’t amused into action. They aren’t informed into action. They are inspired. The rest is up to you.

See you back stage at TED.

The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Marketers

It has been 14 years since a little-known Utah State University professor named Stephen R. Covey published “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which went on to sell 25 million copies and become the gold standard of the self-help genre. It is hardly Covey’s fault that his habits now sound like common sense, including advice to “be proactive,” “begin with the end in mind,” “think win[1]win” and “sharpen the saw” (that is, keep improving).

But as earlier self-help guru Dale Carnegie said, “The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.” In that spirit, and inspired by Covey’s own list, we suggest seven common marketing practices to avoid.

No. 1: “Bias for Research”

Ineffective habit: “Don’t make a move unless it has been validated and revalidated with primary, secondary and tertiary research. Discount hypotheses. Move methodically down internal pathways. Don’t field anything without unanimous buy-in.”

Consider Apple, whose founder Steve Jobs famously said, “We do no market research.” Jobs preferred to rely on the wisdom of his team, believing that consumers could not predict their own needs. Contrast arch-rival Microsoft, known to do extensive research before launching a product, such as the Windows Phone. Gartner estimates Apple’s share of the worldwide mobile phone market is 14.2% versus 3.3% for Microsoft.

Or take the case of television advertising campaigns, routinely subject to extensive copy testing before and after launch. Multiple studies have shown that the correlation between advertising pretesting and in-market results is weak and even negative. The U.K.’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) concluded, “Ads which get favourable pre-test results actually do worse than ads which didn’t.”

Why? Some answers were brought to the surface 40 years ago by Alan Hedges in his classic “Testing to Destruction.” Hedges argued that market research often forces people to construct rational justifications for irrational decisions, happens too late in the development process, and takes place under artificial conditions.

How to break this habit: Hedges’ answer, which still rings true, is not to avoid testing altogether, but to use it judiciously, with full knowledge of its limitations.

No. 2: “Always Be Closing”

Ineffective habit: “Treat every customer as a target. Do what it takes to convert. Pelt them with promotions and pop-ups. Make them register for access to anything. Put prominent links on your videos. Don’t waste time getting to know them too well. Pull out a contract at ‘hello.’ Practice ‘sign and dash.'”

An oily salesman in the film “Glengarry Glen Ross” spells out the mantra of “A-B-C,” as in: “A[1]always, B-be, C-closing.” Unfortunately for him, there is evidence that, unless you’re willing to be a perennial down-market discounter (“Everything on sale, all the time!”), strong-arm tactics undermine consumers’ perceptions of your value and the meaning of your brand.

One study showed that using an aggressive “closing technique” on prospects may increase one-off sales but tends to diminish trust, lowering the long-term value of the relationship.5 Trust in sales, marketing and advertising has been falling anyway over the past five years. For example, Nielsen’s latest “Trust in Advertising” report showed that 53% of people globally “don’t trust” television advertising, and 67% say the same of online advertising.

How to break this habit: It turns out that the solution to diminished trust is what people have been telling their significant others for years: Just listen. A different study on “perceived salesperson listening behavior” showed that, if people believe a salesperson is paying close attention to them, the result is “greater anticipation of future interaction.” Listening principles can effectively be applied in a digital context.7 Start with trigger-based CRM, adaptive site experiences and active social monitoring.

No. 3: “Begin at the Beginning”

Ineffective habit: “Who doesn’t like a surprise? When designing your marketing strategy, start with Wired magazine’s “What’s Hot” column. Do the same tomorrow. Put out fires. Focus all your attention on pain points, and don’t worry where you’re going. You’ll get there.”

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely studies the forces that cause us to drift toward obesity, insolvency or this-quarter business strategies. He calls them “present-bias focus,” a mental cost-benefit analysis that tells us a Sno Ball now is worth more than long-term health. We are inherently irrational, he says, and “the basic essence is the trade-off between the short term and the long term.”

Increasingly impatient shareholders aren’t helping. In a recent McKinsey & Co. study, 63% of executives surveyed said pressure to produce short-term results is increasing. However, a study sponsored by Europe’s Insead showed that this pressure often results in gaining short-term market share at the expense of long-term competitive position.

How to break this habit: Stephen Covey’s idea to “begin with the end in mind” was not a call to mindless optimism. It is a call to focus on long-term outcomes. And it anticipated recent studies showing that the best antidote to both short-term thinking and long-term overconfidence is a realistic, detailed anticipation of likely challenges and how to address them. Successful athletes visualize the race itself, not just the winner’s podium.

No. 4: “Fire the Know-It-Alls”

Ineffective habit: “People who know a lot about a certain subject can be opinionated and difficult. Who needs that? There is no ‘Ph.D.’ in team. Expertise is expendable. The smartest person in the room is the youngest. Why? Because he gets it. What’s ‘it,’ exactly? Nobody knows.”

Perhaps because of its relative youth as a discipline, digital marketing has a predilection for youth. Younger people are assumed to be more adept by virtue of their age — and, by implication, older workers’ digital skills are suspect. Although proof is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that marketing department layoffs hit older workers harder, and organizations may have a hidden motive to perpetuate the cult of youth: Young people are usually less expensive.

Skills are skills, of course, and youngsters can be extraordinarily adept. But evidence shows that there is no inherent advantage to being young in the workplace. Studies have shown that age is not well-correlated with job performance or creativity. And other studies show that the number of years of higher education and job experience a person has are positively correlated with strong performance appraisals, and negatively correlated with unproductive behaviors, such as absenteeism and substance abuse. Moreover, experienced marketers have the advantage of having seen trends and markets rise and fall, leading to a healthy skepticism.

How to break this habit: As one metastudy from Oregon Health & Science University concludes: “There is more variability in work performance within age groups than between age groups.” So the solution to this bad habit is to focus on the person, not the person’s age.

No. 5: “Repeat Yourself”

Ineffective habit: “What works best is what worked best. Whatever the product, service, channel, technique, creative or execution — if it worked before, it can work again. Refresh, don’t revise. You know what you know, and that’s all you know. You know?”

The business boneyard is littered with companies that held on to a winning formula well after it had wilted. IBM clung to mainframes, Kodak resisted digitization, Dell was late to the mobile millennium. As Microsoft’s Bill Gates observed, no leader in one technology era has gone on to lead in the next. “Success is a lousy teacher,” he says. “It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Consider Jill Barad, who tried to promote educational software at Mattel using the same techniques that worked so well for Barbie dolls. The results disappointed in part because software has very different marketing dynamics than dolls. Likewise, many U.S. automotive manufacturers clung to higher-margin trucks and SUVs late into the first decade of this century, even as the consumer scaled back.

How to break this habit: The secret to breaking this habit is not knee-jerk innovation but an unsparing analysis of market dynamics. Studies of the impact of innovation per se are ambiguous, showing (not very helpfully) that it works when it works. As Clayton Christensen argued in “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” few companies want to disrupt their own businesses. Winners are those, like Netflix, that are willing to undermine a dying market (DVDs by mail) to capture one that’s emerging (streaming entertainment) — that are willing to reinvent themselves on the fly.

No. 6: “Ask ‘What Would Google Do?'”

Ineffective habit: “Best practices are best — that’s why they’re called best practices. Apple and Google do everything right. No matter what business you are in, ask yourself, ‘What would [big popular company] do?’ Example: ‘How would Google groom dogs?'”

Not long ago, a digital marketing strategist found himself experiencing an eerie sense of deja vu. He had a meeting with a major airline about its e-commerce strategy, and the airline’s chief marketing officer said, “We need to become the Google of airlines.” Later that week, the strategist was meeting with a consumer packaged goods company, whose digital marketing lead asked, rhetorically, “How do we become the Google of breakfast cereals?”

These true stories highlight a common marketer’s mistake: assuming success can be dragged and dropped from one context (and industry) to another. Great companies surely have a lot to teach. Apple’s design aesthetic is something that designers are crazy not to study. But companies become great because their products and marketing exhibit their truth, not somebody else’s.

How to break this habit: The way out of this trap is to answer a question that is much harder than “What would [hot brand] do?” Namely: “What would my brand do?”

No. 7: “Think Win-Lose”

Ineffective habit: “Marketing is a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers. You know which one you want to be. It’s not complicated. Play to win. Bad-mouth competitors, and ‘borrow’ their ideas. Extract every cent from customers. Be cheap.”

Business is ablaze with sports metaphors, telling us to crush the competition and go for the gold. In the words of a Nike television commercial that aired during the Olympics, “You don’t win silver, you lose gold.” What can be forgotten in the hyperbole is that sports is actually a highly cooperative endeavor. If teams did not agree to abide by a lot of nit-picky rules, the game itself would cease to exist.

Economists studying game theory problems, such as the well-known “prisoner’s dilemma,” tell us that the most effective strategy — the one most in each player’s self-interest — is to be consistent, transparent and reliable. Economist Robert Axelrod describes such behavior as “the evolution of cooperation.” Today’s marketer lives in an increasingly engagement-intensive, always-on environment, in which customers are nurtured over time, and partnerships, such as co-branded media, are increasingly common. There is one important caveat. Cooperation is important only in games — or relationships — that are intended to last. “Winner take all” is a short-term strategy.

How to break this habit: You are welcome to think in terms of winning and losing when negotiating with customers, suppliers, vendors, consultants and agencies. Just make sure you’re not planning to do business with them again.

What Does ‘Real-Time Marketing’ Really Mean?

This article originally appeared on the Salesforce Marketing Blog 3/28/23

If you’re like most marketers, you’ve been hearing the term “real-time” a lot lately. And you’ve probably been wondering, what is real-time marketing? Are we delivering content in seconds? Milliseconds? Even faster?

It can sound like marketers need to live in the world of the Oscar contender Everything Everywhere All at Once. Not necessarily. What matters is that you reach your customers when they need to be reached, with the right experience. Real-time marketing is not so much having all the answers all the time, but giving customers what they need, when they need it. 

What is real-time marketing and how does it use real-time data?

A search for “real-time marketing” reveals a grab bag of definitions. They range from the vague (“systematically responding to your customers”) to the prescriptive (“focusing on … customer feedback”). It seems as though nobody knows what time it is.

Let’s start with the difference between real-time data and real-time marketing. Real-time data is processed and available for use right after it’s captured. That’s milliseconds. For example, the GPS on your phone captures your location and recommends a driving route in real time.

But while it’s important to capture and process data quickly, it’s not always necessary to act on it right away. This is especially true in marketing, when the customer drives the journey. Real-time does not have to mean right now. It’s delivering the information when the end user needs it. That could be seconds or even hours later. 

Travel and hospitality is a very time-sensitive business. If a customer’s digital profile isn’t accurate at the moment, it can trigger unfortunate events. When this happens, a passenger misses their flight or doesn’t get the right seat — and airs their grievances on social media.

When a customer changes their seat or flight on the airline’s app or website, they expect it to show up in their experience right away. When they later go to a kiosk or a service counter, or call customer care, they expect — quite reasonably — that the service agent is up to date. The customer also likely assumes the airline won’t send them irrelevant emails or offers. 

This example shows us the difference between real-time data and real-time marketing. Real-time systems should update customers’ profiles right away. On the other hand, real-time marketing should happen at whatever speed is the right one for the customer — whether that’s today, in five minutes, or next week.

There are implications for the marketers’ back-end data processing systems and resource requirements.

When the customer is on the website or app, they expect their actions to be processed in milliseconds (under a second). But there’s no reason the contact center can’t be updated in seconds and the email system within minutes, right? 

Managing response rate requirements can lower costs and complexity, as long as they don’t impact the customer experience.

What do marketers mean when they say “real-time”? 

On most occasions, when marketers say real-time, what you really mean is right-time. What is real-time marketing, really? It’s delivering the right data at the right time, to the right systems, to better connect with customers.

  • Right-time is doing what is needed to make each moment count for the customer
  • Real-time is collecting and processing data with no delay

The only reason to make this distinction is there can be major technical and organizational costs to imposing real-time requirements on the marketing team. Some teams have resources to handle it and some don’t. 

It’s more important to make strategic investments into the systems that need to be real time — for example, your personalization platform and customer data platform (CDP) — and understand what’s required elsewhere.

How can you set your real-time data priorities? It helps to remember that marketing has two basic modes:

  • Respond: You’re reacting to customers when they’re already engaged. They’re on your website, in your app, poking around on a kiosk in your store.
  • Inspire: You’re trying to get the attention of customers and prospects when they may not be thinking about you. You send emails with offers, show ads on Facebook and Instagram, etc.

In most cases, it’s the ‘Respond’ mode that needs you to address customer concerns quickly. On the other hand, most ‘Inspire’ activities are pre-planned and benefit from complete and curated data that does not need the hyper-warp-speed investment.

But in some cases, real-time responses can even be counterproductive. Take an abandoned cart email. Not many of us would react calmly to a reminder email — or, even worse, a text message — a mere few milliseconds after we decided to leave. That’s what we mean when we talk about real-time marketing.

What can you do with a CDP using real-time data?

When you’re making decisions based on real-time data, you’re able to respond to customers in ways that make sense to them. Upgrading your customer data platform to one built on real-time data can help make sure that you have the answers your customers want — when they want them.

Doing this can not only make for happier customers, but improve your bottom line in a cost-efficient manner, too. After all, what is real-time marketing but a timely way to meet customer needs?

For example, a customer might make a purchase on an e-commerce website that puts them into a high-value segment. The segment change can trigger — right away — that person’s entry into a journey tailored to high-value customers. You can then target them with the right ad the next time they’re scrolling through Instagram.

Recently, we announced Data Cloud, our CDP that uses real-time data to make real-time marketing easier for companies. Making the most of real-time data can help you improve customer journeys.

Anyone considering a CDP to support real-time data management should ask how well it will support their “right-time” requirements. Just having parts of the customer journey happen in real time may not be enough. For example:

  • First-party data: Many enterprises already have a trove of first-party data, and it should be easy to make use of it in real time with your CDP.
  • Data actions: Marketers have different ways to communicate with customers, and these different methods (or channels) need to receive rapid signals from the real-time CDP.
  • Partnerships: Reliable and easy-to-use integrations with key partners also helps eliminate friction in the data transfer process, where third parties are needed (such as for data enrichment, media activation, and auditing). For example, we recently announced integrations with SnowflakeAmazon SageMaker, Microsoft Azure, and others on the AppExchange.

Any lingering confusion about what is and isn’t real-time fades in importance when we pose a better question: What does the customer really need from us right now?

The Truth About Cats & Dogs (in Ads)

A version of this purr-fect article originally appeared in The Drum on Feb. 13, 2023, a few days after Super Bowl LVII aired. A picture of my photogenic muse Jerry appeared at the end (as it does below).

While some people say the Super Bowl was a close game, it really wasn’t. Dogs totally dominated cats in the USA Today AdMeter poll.

The Farmer’s Dog came in first with a time-travel tail – uh, tale – that showed just how good dogs are at nuzzling our emotions. Amazon’s bad-dog-turned-angel saga took third.

And where were all the spokescats? Not feline the love. One provided a whisker of comic relief in a Google Pixel ad, where a sour puss pointedly removes a dog from a photo with AI. Probably out of jealously.

It turns out, there’s a good reason for the double-standard. Cats and dogs evoke different emotions in people and can be used to inspire specific actions in marketing.

  • Dog actors actually inspire us to make connections, take risks, and share our personal space
  • Cat actors put us in mind to purr-chase more insurance, protect our homes and families, and prep for doomsday

So says a first-of-its-kind study which tries to quantify the impact of cat and dog talent on consumer behavior.

Dogs Say YOLO, Cats Say YOWL

Half of U.S. households have a dog and one-third have a cat – a number that continues to grow. One in five households even found a new furry friend to rescue them during lockdown.

And we are big spenders, not just on our pets. Pet owners tend to be more affluent, healthier, more confident, even better-looking (meow).

Pets appear often in entertainment, from Puss in Boots to every perfect-family-with-an-SUV TV spot, especially if it’s in the snow (cue adorable baby Bernese mountain dog). But the impact of our four-footed friends on our attitudes and behaviors hasn’t really been clawed over until recently.

The current study – a collaboration among universities in the U.S. and Hong Kong – wasn’t yet another meme about cat-people vs dog-people. It showed that dogs and cats actually evoke a chain of emotions in most consumers that is both different and predictable. They prime the message pump.

For decades now, many researchers have adopted an idea called regulatory focus theory, which claims there are two basic consumer mindsets:

  • Promotion – focusing on gains, success, YOLO, being all that we can be
  • Prevention – focusing on safety, preserving what we have, personal security, avoiding risks

Now we consumers aren’t all one or the other – except in the case of some fussy outliers – but have a mindset that can be shifted by social cues and marketing messages … which brings us to pets.

”This stream of research suggests that a promotion-oriented eagerness system better captures dogs’ temperaments and behavioral characteristics, whereas a prevention-focused cautious system better describes cats’ temperaments and behavioral characteristics.”

In fact, advertisers already intuited the study’s findings before it appeared. (And they exhibit a subtle anti-cat bias, which cats will remember when they take over the world.)

Cats are often used in dark and dyspeptic scenarios:

  • Wells Fargo demonstrating “suspicious activity” on cards, pushing alerts
  • Sainsbury’s (U.K.) Mog the Cat, disappointed by an empty dinner bowl at Christmas, warning us to shop early
  • That alarming All-State ad where Mayhem cat-thropomorphizes from human to feline while his home decomposes around him

Meanwhile, of course, dogs tag along with kids in the sunshine and spread nothing but golden light and joy:

  • Wells Fargo, this time with Regina King and a golden retriever promoting a cash-back rewards card
  • Subaru Ascent … which featured no fewer than seven adorable goldens outside a condo sign-posted “The Barkeleys” and … I rest my case.

Cats, Fight Plaque!

The researchers got their human test subjects primed with dog (or cat) questions and images, putting them into the promotion (or prevention) mindspace. Then they asked them if they would buy toothpaste that would “freshen breath” (or “fight plaque”).

Not surprisingly, the dog-primed promotion-focused pack preferred the fresh-breath feature. The cat-primed prevention-focused pride wanted to take a swipe at that plaque.

Other scenarios found that the dog-primed pack was significantly more likely to:

  • Participate in a lottery
  • Buy stocks (vs funds)
  • Buy vitamins that made wellness (vs prevention) claims

On the other paw, the cat-primed group was more likely to:

  • Stay away from high-flying but risky stocks
  • Put a higher value on preventative health services
  • Spend more for products with prevention claims

The experiments controlled for factors like personal pet ownership, preferences and even mood. So again, it’s not just more cat-people-are-shy propaganda. Rather, it’s evidence that there is some stereotypical behavior in animals that triggers semi-unconscious associations in people. These associations in turn nudge consumers into a particular general mindset, which can bolster certain messages.

So now we have some guidelines for our feline- and canine-themed campaigns. That’s something to howl (or meow) about.

Check out my podcast!

If you didn’t know, for the past 18 months or so I’ve been hosting a podcast with the inimitable Jill Royce on the topic of ad-tech history. It’s called #PaleoAdTech and we’ve been blessed with a roster of ad-tech titans, from the pinballing pioneers of the dot-com days — now-forgotten blazers like AllAdvantage, AdAuction and FlyCast; and well-remembered disrupters like DoubleClick and — to the makers of a more recent past, like AppNexus and MediaMath.

Wondering where ad servers, DSPs, DMPs, SSPs and all the other Ps came from? Join us as we regularly offer 30-minute chats with fascinating founders, co-founders and otherwise intriguing entities. Find it:

More Surprising Secrets Behind Taylor Swift’s Brand

Taylor Swift has a way of breaking things: records, superlatives, hearts, and even – when she committed the previously inconceivable magic of occupying all ten spots on the Billboard Top 10 with tracks from her 10th album Midnights – herself:

She also broke Ticketmaster, apparently startled by demand for the 2.5 million tickets available for her 52-city ‘The Eras’ tour, her first since 2018.

“It’s a function of Taylor Swift,” said the CEO of the largest shareholder in Live Nation/Ticketmaster’s on CNBC. “We had 14 million people hit the site, including bots….” Even non-humans love Swift.

What’s her secret? After Midnight dropped at, of course, midnight on October 21st, Swift became the most-streamed artist with the most-streamed album in a day on Spotify, breaking records set by her own Red (Taylor’s Version) and 2020’s folklore.

By now, it’s clear Taylor Swift’s only rival is herself.

“Taylor Swift is nearly unimpeachable as a human, role model and brand,” Aaron Kwittken, Chief Executive of the PRophet, told The Drum recently.

As a brand – setting aside her artistry for a moment – Taylor Swift is a global phenomenon. Capital One, Target, Starbucks, Keds, CoverGirl, Diet Coke, Apple, Comcast, American Greetings – just a partial list of partners who have contributed to her estimated $400 million net worth in recent years.

Make no mistake; she’s a marketing engine. And it turns out brand Taylor Swift has a definite playbook, refined over her fifteen-year career. She still has a lot to teach marketers.

1. Be an Anti-Brand

The first single from the 13-song Midnights was called “Anti-Hero,” which Swift claims is about her “insecurities.” (Remember that number 13: it’s important.) In many ways, Taylor Swift is an Anti-Brand.

Traditional branding calls for a definite identity, promise and voice. It requires research-driven lines in the “brand space.” But Taylor Swift doesn’t have these things – she’s more of a “Blank Space” on which any of us, no matter how different, can see anything we need to see, especially ourselves.

Earlier this month, Midnights sponsor Capital One revealed two spots for the World Series called “Multiple Taylors,” featuring versions of Swift from 1989, Speak Now and others. It recalled the cryptic video for her song “Look What You Made Me Do,” from Reputation, unleashed at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards, which featured fifteen versions of Swift, from the Red ringmaster to the stunned victim of Kanye’s notorious trophy-snatching.

She dared to ask us: “Who is the real Taylor Swift?” And the answer: We all are, pick the one you want.

She’s an oddly malleable brand, ideally suited to an age of creators, remixes and memes. It makes sense that there are multiple versions of two of her albums, with at least four more to come. Another celebrity, Ryan Adams, famously rerecorded her entire 1989 himself.

And then there are the lookalikes: it’s possible to become TikTok famous just for looking a little bit like Swift. And the oddly Teflonish quality: famous people who seem to want to feud with Swift somehow end up fading away (like Katy Perry) or on stage at one of her shows singing a duet (like Hayley Kiyoko), best friends forever.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim talked about totems as supernatural objects within which tribes can see themselves. Brands like Taylor Swift are totems for the age of TikTok.

2. Make Your Fans Do Work

It’s not easy being a fan of Taylor Swift; just ask us. Between buying $75 pajamas at her Official Store, waiting on virtual lines that break, and pre-ordering 13 copies of the expanded 20-song Midnights (3am Edition), there’s barely time to decipher all the clues she’s left in her TikToks, lyrics and Insta captions.

Mainstream fans might not know it, but Swift has long embedded Baroque ciphers into her marketing materials. She does this to encourage social media action, conversation, digital engagement – and of course to repay our attention.

Swift’s code-work started early. Her first album, Taylor Swift, released in 2006 when she was 16, featured liner notes with random capital letters, embedding messages like “Date Nice Boys.” She told the Washington Post: “That’s how it started, and my fans and I have since descended into color coding, numerology, word searches, elaborate hints, and Easter eggs.”

Examples abound – so many, in fact, that at least one commentator has ranted that “people treat Taylor Swift’s albums like they’re the damn Da Vinci code!”

Many of these Easter eggs are simply rewards for the faithful, references to outfits and props from previous albums. In the video for “Anti-Hero,” a stand-in breaks a guitar from the Speak Now tour, and a character wears a dress from Fearless. Others are aimed at completists: there are four versions of the vinyl album cover for Midnights that can be tiled to build a clock.

In her more Gothic Reputation phase, Swift packed the video for her first single with references to Mean Girls, her “Out of the Woods” video, a dollar bill she won in a notorious lawsuit, snakes and tea referring to various Kardashians, and so on.

It’s all harmless fun but can get hyperbolic in an overwired age. Swift’s fans often work harder than required, locating clues that aren’t actually there. Last September, the NFL made the mistake of issuing an announcement at midnight. Immediately, Swift’s conspiracy-minded cadre built a widely-reported rumor that Swift herself was going to be the half-time show at the Super Bowl because – well, of course – Taylor Swift owns midnight.

The announcement had nothing to do with Swift. Sometimes midnight is just midnight. (Rhianna is doing the half-time show.)

There’s a sociological theory that the successful cults are those that make their adherents work harder. Brand Taylor Swift is annealed by all the work we put into it.

3. Master the Art of Suspense

On October 7, thirteen days before Midnight‘s release, Swift started posting videos on TikTok under the title “Midnights mayhem with me.” The singer pulled titles from a bingo cage at random, announcing them and providing backstories. At the same time, Spotify co-branded billboards appeared in New York City and London with enigmatic snippets of song lyrics.

As the Drum’s Audrey Kemp wrote recently, these tactics were part of the masterful rollout of Midnights.

Swift has always made the most of withholding and releasing facts most prized by fans: release dates, album and song titles, co-stars. Last year, for Fearless (Taylor’s Version), she combined suspense with her penchant for puzzles, tweeting a video of a vault filled with scrambled letters. These were unscrambled by the intrepid to reveal the names of collaborators Phoebe Bridgers, Chris Stapleton and Ed Sheeran, and song titles such as “All Too Well.”

For 2019’s Lover, Swift provided both a Monday and a Saturday version of the mystery. She admitted the video for “ME!” contained the (unknown) title of her next album, but fans rejected “Lover” because it was too obvious, appearing in huge pink neon letters on the top of a building. The album was called Lover.

Then some sharp-eyed owners of her official calendar noticed a butterfly stamp on April 13 (there’s 13 again), and thirteen days later, Lover‘s first single debuted.

This kind of suspense makes her releases more poignant. Combined with a sense of scarcity, carefully cultivated through the ticket-buying (or not-buying) process, it puts Swiftys into a state of near-continual brandemonium around these key launch windows.

So brands, be like Taylor: malleable and flexible, demanding in a way that rewards close attention, and above all unpredictable. Taylor Swift is in show business, of course, but now so is every brand.

Note: a version of this article originally appeared in The Drum on November 23, 2022.

Pivot to Reality: Why Elon Musk Will Learn to Love Advertising

Elon Musk does not have a love-hate attitude toward advertising: he hates it. At least, that’s what he said – on Twitter, of course – back in 2019: “I hate advertising.”

This may be a curious attitude for a new media mogul whose most recent acquisition – that same Twitter – is almost entirely ad-supported.

But it turns out that Musk is not alone. The history of major ad platforms is littered with righteous founders who did not like the business they now own. In fact, it’s difficult to find a founder who expressed any fondness for ads, let alone ad tech.

But when revenues are required, attitudes change; call it a pivot to reality.

Here – in alphabetical order – are the origin attitudes of the great modern ad businesses. What’s the lesson? We change as we grow? Maybe. Or maybe, like Musk, we all need to learn a little respect.


“Advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product or service.”

Jeff Bezos, founder (2009)


“If a business [i.e., advertising] is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.”

Tim Cook, CEO (2021)

Facebook (now Meta)

“I say it’s time to start making money from theFacebook but Mark [Zuckerberg] doesn’t want advertising. Who’s right?”

Eduardo Saverin, co-founder (2004), quoted inThe Social Network

Google (now Alphabet)

“… [W]e expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers.”

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders (1998)


“If we were to just build a product for advertisers, we would have no consumers.”

Kevin Systrom, co-founder (2012)


“Silcon Valley is not particularly good at marketing.”

Reid Hoffman, co-founder (2021)


“We want to be the safe respite where you can explore, get stimulated, have fun, enjoy, relax — and have none of the controversy around exploiting users with advertising.”

Reed Hastings, co-founder (2020)

Oculus (now Meta)

“It’s not clear right now that advertising is the right model for virtual reality anyway.”

Palmer Luckey, co-founder (2015)


“I got an ad this morning for something I was thinking about buying yesterday, and it’s really annoying.”

Evan Spiegel, co-founder (2015)

WhatsApp (now Meta)

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

Jan Koum, co-founder (2014) [channeling Fight Club]


“We are probably the last people in the world that want to do this [i.e., advertising], but it will be tastefully done, and that will keep it free to the users, like TV.”

– Jerry Yang, co-founder (1995), quoted in Inside Yahoo by Karen Angel

Note: a version of this piece originally appeared in The Drum on Nov. 22, 2022

How To Build a Future-Proof Ad Business

Advertisers only wish we knew as much as people seem to think we do. “Surveillance” is a mysterious term and surely overstates the case. But it is undeniable that the rules are changing, perception is a mounting problem, and it’s time to think ahead. How?

One company leads the field with its provident tactics. Already a significant — if not yet dominant — media player, it is assembling the components of a powerful offering and has much to teach us all.

(1) Start with Your Brand

This won’t be easy. The ad business has long had trust issues, which did not start with GDPR and CPRA. Celebrations last year that advertising was now merely the second least-trusted profession (after politics) were just sad.

Publishers know that trust in media is down. On the demand side, faith in companies and institutions is in breathtaking global decline.

But there is an exception: a $400 billion-earning company that has managed to persuade most of us that it’s not part of a menacing “data-industrial complex.” Apple is the world’s most valuable brand, according to Interbrand, up 26% since 2020, well ahead of its competitors.

How? They raised awareness for problems most did not know existed — such as mobile app ID, I.P. address and email “tracking” by marketers — and then provided a solution. In a single release (IoS 14.5 for ATT), Apple went from enabling to solving a problem. Its brand as neighborhood watch for the web extended to TV spots showing creepy characters stalking us on our phones until a superheroic ATT intervened.

Lesson: Counteract trust erosion by investing in a brand of law and order.

(2) Make the Opt-In Positive

Apple has championed the opt-in model of consent, arguably influencing pending national privacy legislation. Opt-in presents the consumer with a mandatory choice to accept or reject (opt-in or -out) whatever is requested.

The challenge here is well-studied, although not by advertisers. It even has a name: “The Paradox of Privacy.” As it turns out, there are a lot of cognitive biases that affect a person’s decision in that magic opt-in moment.

We are lazy (“can’t think about this right now”); overestimate how much data is collected about us (“tracking me around the web”); underestimate the benefits (“what is ‘relevance,’ anyway?”). In short, quite logically, we lack both time and data to make a good decision.

Very few people watch ads by choice, and nobody endorses tracking. The most successful modern platforms — paid search, social in-stream, retail media — are not optional. Opting-in to ads is a default on sign-up.

A meta-study of dozens of academic studies of the privacy paradox concluded: “Privacy attitude was best predicted by internal variables likes trust ….”

And that’s why the language on the opt-in box itself — the experience around the decision window — is critical. Apple knows this.

As we all know by now, the required headline for the required ATT prompt read: “[‘Brand’] would like permission to track you across apps and websites owned by other companies.”

We note that tracking is not a benefit, and no rational actor would agree to it, even with time to think.

When it came to describing the rewards of targeting in its own environment, Apple provided more benefit-centric headline text and copy: “Personalized Ads … help you discover apps, products and services that are relevant to you.”

Lesson: Frame the benefits of behavioral data collection in positive terms.

(3) Focus Down the Funnel

The cookie and mobile IDs may be engaged in one of the longest death scenes in history. But pointed targeting and powerful measurement are more possible than ever — in controlled (“opted-in”) environments, sometimes called gardens.

Digital ad money was always further down-funnel than linear, and it’s getting more so. People forget that paid search is still half of digital ad dollars, and it’s a strong signal of intent. Retail media is more than a trend: connecting ads with purchases is as outcome-based as ads can get.

Building up a campaign, smart marketers start with (1) moments closer to the point of sale, and (2) outcomes they can track. They build out from there, into intent and targeted awareness (like CTV) and then less controlled environments like late-night cable for reach.

Apple’s media business starts with Apple Search Ads for app installs in the iTunes store, an estimated $5 billion business. Exempt from ATT, Apple can tie these ads to app installs and in-app activity. (Compare this with the brand-focused, abandoned iAds project.)

What comes next? It added hero placements on the App Store’s opening screen. It also offers ads in its News, Podcasts and Maps apps. Maps in particular offers direct-response opportunities tied to location.

That long-rumored DSP and network could allow Apple to bring some of this helpful intent information to ad targeting in apps it doesn’t own.

Lesson: Future-proof ad businesses start with direct response ads.

(4) Focus on “Non-Ad” and Peripheral Placements

There are ads that are ads that don’t seem much like ads. They’re more likely to be acceptable even to more paranoid web surfers and even to regulators. Paid search is an example, I think: despite Google ingesting some of the most private material on earth, consumers don’t seem to think it’s a problem.

Contrast search with a retargeted banner, which appears out of nowhere indicating it was watching me elsewhere. The retargeter knows much less about me than my search engine but seems to know more. Why? It’s overestimated. And it was widely noted that Apple Search Ads flourished after ATT limited retargeting last year.

What does this mean for your future-proofing ad player? What I’m calling “non-ad” ad formats are those that are ads but don’t feel like them. Look at product placement. These ads are growing almost as fast as CTV, are a $23 billion business, and are not even mentioned in the 11 Chapters of the of the GDPR text — which mentions just about everything else.

As AI gets better, weaving products into shows on Apple TV and network apps becomes appealing. Other trending formats don’t interrupt but marginalize ads, literally placing them around content. TikTok Pulse and Meta’s Reels released new “multi-advertiser” formats like this.

The real opportunity may be in shoppable commerce. These are non-ads in that they put a buy-now button on other content, like a show (or product placement). As mobile ad expert Eric Seufert has noted, commerce, retail and CPG are Meta’s largest verticals. Innovative units could shift some of that spending around.

Lesson: Future ads look more like buy-now buttons.

Note: a version of this piece first appeared in The Drum on November 9, 2022.

Your global ‘Center of Excellence’ could actually be sabotaging you

This article first appeared in The Drum on Oct. 11, 2022

Without appropriate cultural relevance, data analysis and distributed resources and knowledge, centers of excellence can undermine global success, writes Salesforce’s Martin Kihn as part of The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.

Parking garage spiral looking upward to skylight

/ Leon Seibert

Many of us remember where we were during the great chopstick scandal of 2018, when a storied luxury fashion maison launched three highly-produced videos on YouTube in China to support an upcoming show.

In them, models tried to eat traditional Italian food like cannoli and pizza using chopsticks, with predictable results: a hot mess for both the utensils and the brand, which faced a chorus of complaints from Chinese consumers on Weibo and other platforms, claiming cultural tone-deafness.

The brand quickly pulled the videos, canceled the show and has since lost share in the Chinese market. Part of the problem was a lack of localization in global brand messaging – or what one study of social marketing fails politely called “inadequate research.” The brand had a world-class marketing team, but it was back in Milan, the company’s de facto ‘center of excellence’ (CoE).

During a time of cultural sensitivity, global marketers must balance the imperative to build out such centers with a growing need for in-market nuance. There are new forces facing global marketers that call into question the conventional rush to build centers of excellence across almost every functional discipline.

It turns out, excellence may increasingly be found at the edge – not the center.

Four horsemen of the CoE-pocalypse

There is much logic and some evidence that CoEs can add value. Firms such as Gartner have long championed CoEs for marketing functions such as analytics and data science. They generally define a CoE as a discrete cadre of coordinated professionals with specific, uncommon expertise, who cross-reference ideas, disseminate practices and templates and function as a skilled resources for dispersed global operations.

So compelling is the impulse to the CoE model that it is difficult to find any doubters. Consultancies such as McKinsey routinely recommend establishing a CoE for advanced functions. For example, a recent McKinsey report on automation says: “A center of excellence is vital both as a source of expertise and to define priorities.” Meanwhile, the US Army has at least 15 CoEs for functions from missile defense to human resources.

Global marketers have taken the advice and adopted CoEs. A Gartner survey indicated that two-thirds of enterprise marketers already had an analytics CoE five years ago – yet this year, 26% of CMOs identified analytics as an ongoing capability gap. The same research revealed global marketers had a lot of swagger about their ’operational excellence’ (only 15% cited as a gap), due in part to CoEs.

Yet as the chopstick incident implies, not all wisdom can be centralized. And there are a number of rising forces that point toward the need for global marketers to question the march toward CoEs.

The four horsemen of the CoE-pocalypse are:

Cultural relevance: Local consumers require local nuance – and will take to social media if it’s missing.

Data bias: AI and machine learning models can inherit bias from data collection and processing methods, both of which can have a cultural dimension that is only now being recognized.

Knowledge resources: Many formerly ‘specialized’ disciplines – including reporting and campaign automation – are more common, with widespread learning resources.

Distributed workforce: More dispersed and hybrid employment models undermine some of the CoEs’ neo-Xerox Park ‘skunkworks’ premise.

To CoE or not to CoE?

How is a marketer to assess whether or not a CoE makes sense for a particular situation? As an ex-consultant, I’d be surprised if I didn’t propose a solution in the form of 2×2 framework.

CoEs are supposed to support: (1) availability of specialized skills; and (2) processes that can be run globally rather than locally. So by implication the axes of our 2×2 are:

Skill level: specialized v unspecialized

How hard are the skills to find in most global markets? If they’re rare and uncommon, or less rare in some regions than others, a CoE may be in order. As marketing teams get more sophisticated over time, fewer skills may fall into this area. (According to Gartner, the hardest marketing skills to find in the current environment are data and analytics, customer experience management and marketing technology; the easiest is social marketing).

Cultural proximity: embedded v not embedded in local culture

Is the function something that requires an awareness of how actual human beings talk, think and work in a specific context or not?

Another way to evaluate this requirement is in symbolic terms: How much does the function use global symbols, such as numbers, versus more culturally loaded symbols like words and images? If it’s mostly about numbers, a CoE could work – and if not, it may be time to reevaluate.

COE chart

So the CoE is most useful for marketing challenges related to data modeling and predictions, such as next-best-action and -experience – and for data operations and automation projects that can be standardized across regions. It is less useful for developing creative artifacts for specific regions and building media plans.

Let’s apply the framework to our original example. We see the capabilities required are video production and creative development, skills that are both locally available and deeply embedded in the culture – so, not amenable to the CoE treatment. On the other hand, were that same brand to implement a marketing automation system, it would be entirely reasonable to spin up a CoE for that.

As we go forth into our new world of global marketing, we should take care to discriminate non-human processes from very human communications and recognize that both standardization and globalization have their limits.

Martin Kihn is senior vice-president of strategy at Salesforce Marketing Cloud. For more on what marketers and their partners need to do to succeed on a global level, check out The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.

How much is that influencer worth? The answer may surprise you

This article first appeared in The Drum US on August 31, 2022

We’re all under the influence.

Influencer marketing is the fastest-growing paid channel this year, after connected television (CTV), resilient even in the face of recession. As companies plateau their use of social media, 75% of US marketers plan to invest in influencers this year – up from 66% in 2020, according to eMarketer.

And it’s not about products-for-posts anymore – it’s big business. Global marketers spent about $14bn on influencers last year, including media. B-listers such as Joanna Gaines and Addison Rae enjoy multi-figure deals, while real-life stars including footballer Cristiano Ronaldo get an estimated $500,000 per post. And there are thousands of creators in niches from travel to beauty to – of course – cats who are paid an average of $100 per 10,000 followers per meow.

In a world where 50 million people call themselves ‘creators,’ there are a lot of options for brands to partner their way into feeds, tweets and videos. Influencers can provide creative content, access to elusive audiences, higher engagement and compelling social proof.

But there’s a problem. Brands using influencers, surveyed by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in 2020, admitted their top challenge was measurement. The situation is no better now. How do you know if you’re getting a worthwhile return-on-influencer (ROIn)?

Channels are not created equal

Measuring the impact of an influencer program is notoriously sketchy. It’s an emerging channel without industry standards. Although the Media Rating Council (MRC) has established guidelines for paid social measurement, most of the value of influencers comes from organic engagement – all those likes, shares and comments from followers and friends of friends that turn a snippet of video into cultural cachet.

Challenges with measuring ROIn include:

  1. Data collection: Brands without API access to influencer accounts rely on methods such as emailed screenshots for metrics
  2. Reach: It is difficult (read: impossible) to deduplicate audiences across platforms
  3. Engagement: Different platforms present different options (where TikTok garners likes, Pinterest culls clicks) and define ‘engagement’ in different ways
  4. Consistency: Agency partners often use proprietary roll-up metrics that can be opaque

Earlier this summer, the ANA released the first ‘Influencer Marketing Measurement Guidelines,’ taking a step toward standardizing organic measurement. Developed by the Influencer Marketing Advisory Board – formed in 2020 with reps from brands such as Puma and Target – it was based on meetings with 25 agencies and the eight major platforms (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube).

Brands that have been there will tell you that working with influencers is special – more like hiring an improv troupe than deploying a bot. Companies like control, but creativity is part of influencers‘ charm. So it makes sense to start by asking them how they measure success. A beauty star such as Huda Kattan might value video engagement, while a photo influencer such as Murad Osmann might care more about shares.

Most brands measure ROIn based on ‘engagement,’ a blunt sum of actions divided by exposures, aggregated across all the platforms in the campaign. But this method assumes every creator aims for the same responses, and it ignores the platforms‘ real inconsistencies.

Many roads to the rainbow

Using basic discipline, the hard-working marketer with an influencer program wants some combination of three KPIs:

  1. Awareness: This is driven by reach and frequency, generally available for each platform in isolation, but not across platforms; video views are usually counted here
  2. Engagements: These are measured interactions with the influencers‘ content, including likes and shares – often expressed as an ‘engagement rate’ (ER) or engagements per reach
  3. Conversions: Often the ultimate goal, this is likely undercounted and based on direct clicks through to the brand’s commerce site or other destination

Now, the ANA performs a public service in teasing out the vagaries of the platforms‘ self-reported metrics. Anyone who’s spent time parsing reports from social networks will appreciate this effort. Key differences among the platforms‘ influencer reporting include:

  1. Facebook and Instagram: For Meta-owned platforms, ER is total engagements divided by impressions, not including video views
  2. TikTok: ER is total engagements divided by video views, excluding replays
  3. YouTube: ER is the same as TikTok; however, TikTok counts any video that’s started as a view, while YouTube only counts a view after 30 seconds or 100% for its short-form ‘Shorts‘
  4. Twitter: Twitter is similar to Meta, but quote-tweet counts aren’t available via the API
  5. LinkedIn: ER does not include video views, which are counted after two seconds with 50% viewable
  6. Snapchat: Interestingly, Snap doesn‘t yet provide organic influencer reporting

Understanding the components of the platforms‘ reports unlocks comparisons. Obviously, an autoplay video view on Twitter isn‘t as meaningful as a video view on YouTube, and a retweet on Twitter is not exactly equivalent to a pin on Pinterest.

For awareness and conversion measurement, reach by platform and direct attribution are useful. They aren‘t perfect, since the former misses duplicates and the latter indirect attribution (ie people saw the content and converted later, or offline). But they‘re reasonable baselines.

The problem comes with the most important influencer metric: engagement rate. How can it be improved?

Worth the weight

The answer is by weighting the different components of engagement. Intuitively, we know that a like isn‘t the same as a share or a comment. It‘s easy to like a post – you just tap the heart, right? But sharing to your network is a kind of endorsement, and a comment – with the right sentiment – indicates more visceral involvement.

A principle I used when measuring the impact of social media for brands was one I took from the self-help guru John Bradshaw: “We give time to those things that we love.” Simple enough. Extending it to social platforms, I‘d argue that actions that take more time and effort should count more toward ROIn.

For example, the marketer can create a consistent weighting factor for different actions based on the time they take to complete. Say it takes a second to commit to and tap a like. Even a short, positive comment takes at least five seconds. And a share with a comment might take longer. Typical viewer patterns should be considered, and they will vary considerably based on the influencer and type of campaign.

The ultimate ROIn plan might include breakouts for awareness and conversion, and an approach to ER that considers weighting actions by their level of effort. (The ANA guidelines don‘t address weighting.) Of course, a detailed formula requires access to the platforms‘ API and permission from the influencer. Art, science and some social engineering are required.

But that’s what puts the ‘sure’ in measurement.

Martin Kihn is senior vice-president of strategy, marketing cloud at Salesforce.