The Rise of eSports

Since the advent and growth of eSports giants like Dota 2 and League of Legends, the gaming community has called for mainstream recognition regarding legitimacy. Take Colin Cowherd’s 2015 rant against esports for example. There are undeniable similarities between professional gaming and conventional sports, but the arguments have generally been ineffective in dispelling traditional beliefs formed by the collective generations of sports fans prior. While it is easy to dismiss playing video games as anything resembling an athletic endeavor, it is more complex than just noting the relative lack of physicality and declaring  as non-sports.

At their very essence,  are video games played in a competitive environment. Sometimes the games can be played one-on-one, other times, teams will square off against each other. But the key point in all of this is that  are competitive events. They are all about opposing players or teams doing battle in a real-time competition.

What’s In A Name? The traditional definition of professional sport is: all forms of competitive physical activity which, through organized participation, aim to provide entertainment to spectators and provide an income for the athletes, who in turn devote time training to increase their skills and experience to modern levels of achievement. But physicality alone cannot be the mark by which we measure “sport”. After all, look at poker. Poker is frequently broadcast on ESPN and other networks. This is equally true for chess and the National Spelling Bee. Is there anything remotely physical about playing poker? Or chess? Or a spelling bee? No.

And yet, all of these events are considered sporting events by probably the most recognizable sports network on the planet. Furthermore, players of  employ a strategies that play to their strengths while exploiting the weaknesses of their opponents. If the game being played is a team-based game, then teamwork is essential. Like any other athlete, players have tremendous reflexes, dexterity, and problem-solving skills. So, what exactly accounts for how we define “sports” and what does it mean for marketers?

The Conceptual Breakdown. Judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture is termed ethnocentrism. People born into or surrounded by a particular culture begin absorbing its values and behaviors and build a worldview centered around these principles as the norm. Within the context of , this concept explains the psychology behind a lot of mainstream dismissal. Quite simply  don’t fit easily into our cultural definition of what sports should be. We do the same thing with other cultural categories all the time. For example, people in the U.S. struggle to classify crickets as food even though they are healthy, tasty, and plentiful. So, the struggle, whether it’s crickets or esports, is a reflection of cultural norms.

While ethnocentrism lends to maintaining the cultural status quo, generational gap is a concept referring to the differences between people of younger generations and their elders. It is the conflict between these groups which has catalyzed a lot of recent cultural change. This allows for members of the younger generation to form their own identities and cultures outside of older and mainstream influences. This is important to the development of  because despite its young age, its rapid growth foreshadows a change in the mainstream attitude towards it. The younger generation is growing up participating in and watching , thus making them part of their cultural norm. Within the next five years, there will be enough members in the community to challenge the mainstream dismissal of  and even gain the respect of the older generation regarding its legitimacy. And that should have everyone involved in marketing thinking.

Going Mainstream. Regardless of how you view , they are growing in popularity every year by leaps and bounds. Esports are on the verge of breaking out of their niche communities into mainstream focus. According to Newzoo, a company specializing in esports analytics, it’s estimated that the global esports economy will grow by 41% by the end of this year to $696 million and reach $1.49 billion by 2020. Keep in mind that includes more than the game itself, it includes media rights, advertising, sponsorships, merchandising and ticket sale. Like any other sport, it means reach extends well beyond the game.

The numbers speak for themselves, but also consider this: The renowned IMG Academy, an elite boarding school and training program in Florida geared for athletes in basketball, football, and other traditional sports, recently added an esports training program that includes physical, mental, and nutritional aspects. In other words, one of the most successful and prestigious sports-focused schools in the country believes so much in the future of esports that they have developed a training program around it. The outcome of generational gap is something IMG has identified and they are betting on significant changes in how we think of sports as a society.

Legitimacy also continues to be added as traditional sports team owners such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the organization that runs the New York Mets, Sterling Equities, have begun to make multi-million dollar investments in esports leagues. Cities like Washington D.C. have even outfitted their professional basketball arenas for live esports taking a well-calculated gamble that esports are here to stay.

That growth and investment around esports has started catching the eye of big-name brands including Arby’s, Coca-Cola, Audi, and Gillette to name a few. That’s because they see an opportunity to reach a demographic sweet spot, namely males between the ages of 21 to 35. They have cash, they’ve grown up gaming, and they are increasingly hard to reach via traditional advertising. Newzoo estimates the current global  audience at 385 million people, including 191 million enthusiasts and 194 million occasional viewers.

It’s estimated that the global eSports economy will grow by 41% by the end of this year to $696 million and reach $1.49 billion by 2020. Keep in mind that includes more than the game itself, it includes media rights, advertising, sponsorships, merchandising and ticket sale. Like any other sport, it means reach extends well beyond the game.

The numbers speak for themselves, but also consider this: The renowned IMG Academy, an elite boarding school and training program in Florida geared for athletes in basketball, football, and other traditional sports, recently added an esports training program that includes physical, mental, and nutritional aspects. In other words, one of the most successful and prestigious sports-focused schools in the country believes so much in the future of esports that they have developed a training program around it. The outcome of generational gap is something IMG has identified and they are betting on significant changes in how we think of sports as a society.

Spending by eSports still falls decidedly short of traditional sports. Enthusiasts will spend an average of $3.64 per person following the sport this year, according to Newzoo. Compared against basketball, on which fans spend an average of $15 each, and the short-term gains aren’t there for many brands. But like all things with esports, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. One reason for the discrepancy is that esports content is largely available for free and the money spent on merchandise remains relatively small. But spending is rising and expected to reach $5.20 per fan by 2020. Another reason is that eSports are drawing a younger crowd with less disposable income – for now. And this is where thinking about the long game becomes important. Building brand affinity and share of culture means building connections that last a lifetime. The earlier you bring a population into the fold, the sooner you become essential to the deeper cultural conversation. You aren’t reacting, you’re creating.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if eSports are seen as sports. People in the industry can identify similarities and use conventional sports as an example to adapt and grow the eSports culture. Growth in target audience involvement is currently more important than acceptance of members outside the base. And for brands hoping to remain relevant, having a presence in the eSports environment is extremely important.

 

 

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AI, Advertising, and Culture

In an ever-increasingly connected world, artificial intelligence is beginning to find its way into every aspect of our lives. We are “on” 24/7and we rely more and more on our  devices, particularly our mobile devices, to help us make decisions. That rapid increase in computing power has done more than help the user. It has equipped companies with an unprecedented capacity to automate processes that previously required hours, days, and weeks of human effort. AI has allowed companies to target, adjust, and adapt at an unimaginable pace. In the same way that Siri acts as a personal assistant for its users, marketing companies are now tapping into AI to act as a personal assistant in the creation of highly effective marketing campaigns.

Currently, agencies (and their clients) use AI to sort Machine-Learning-AI-in-Finance-11-04-2016-A-1200x1200.jpg
through assets to determine and/or refine the target audience, to gather data about how to best position a brand in various contexts, and to create varied advertisements intended for a wide variety of mediums, including everything from billboards to social media. The final piece is still largely in its infancy, but will no doubt continue to grow and evolve as AI become faster and smarter. Today, the goal of AI in advertising is to optimize campaigns by placing ads in front of the right customer at the right time. As technologies evolve, advertisers will be able to limit their ads on the basis of a huge array of parameters, most of which we’re all familiar with. Targeting an individual will be based on hundreds of parameters and actions, all quantified and measure in the blink of an eye. And creative (and its placement) will adapt in near real-time. In other words, they’ll be able to micro-target at a faster pace than we can imagine.

All of that makes sense, but humans are more than individuals, we are part of broader cultural systems, which means context and cultural cues matter. Yes, each customer is unique and therefore each customer journey is unique. However, there are broader social, symbolic, and cultural forces that guide our behavior depending on the situation at hand. So, the question is, can AI account for those cultural patterns and processes?

Considering the rapid developments in machine and deep learning, these systems will become increasingly capable of teaching themselves to make more precise and effective decisions based on a broader set of inputs. Ultimately this means that for AI to be truly move beyond transactional relevance, it will need to have a more balanced approach, which is to have a robust understanding of people’s aspirations, interactions with each other, and social connections. What are they trying to get done, what are the barriers to that, how do they create a sense of belonging, etc.?

We create culture, interact with it, are affected by it, and can even be destroyed by it. Culture applies its own logic, has a memory, endures after its makers are gone, can be repurposed in supple ways, and can induce action. Because culture can do things we cannot do as individuals, like fostering collective action or making life easier by providing unspoken assumptions on which we can base our lives, AI will need to evolve to do more than react to clicks.

 

 

What We Learned from Pepsi (Yes, We All Know The Ad Sucked)

Last Tuesday, those of us in the industry watched in horror as Kendall Jenner, Pepsi, and a host of beautiful protesters blew up the internet. Within minutes of its launch, social media blew up, as expected, over its lack of authenticity and blatant attempt to co-opt the frustrations many people across the globe are currently feeling. By Saturday it was a SNL short. There is no question that Pepsi’s latest is an insensitive marketing atrocity. However, the thing we find most bizarre isn’t the sheer length of the spot or its ham-handed corniness. It isn’t the fact that it misses the point of people “resisting”, devaluing their concerns and turning them into a sideshow exhibit. It isn’t even the painfully obvious clichés at every turn. No, the thing we find the most troubling is the idea ever made it out of a conference room, let alone into production.
What I hope the industry will focus on is this; taking the “let’s bring it in house” approach comes with risks. In May 2016, PepsiCo made a big announcement about its intent to begin pulling creative duties, from concepting to production, in-house. “Why pay the creative agencies when we can do it ourselves?” Well, this ad is why. I’m not saying agencies are incapable of insensitive and tone deaf executions. Just last Friday Nivea was forced to apologize for a campaign that resulted in charges of racism on one side and praise from white supremacists on the other. Things can always go wrong. However, while FCB’s work was a misstep, the Pepsi debacle was almost predictable. Why? Because the concept was developed in an echo chamber. So in addition to having a group of people who have all been drinking from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid, no one is in a position to be the voice of reason if they were so inclined.
When you remove an expert resource like a creative agency, you remove the filter that maintains an objective eye. You strip away any “check and balance” against your work and in so doing exponentially increase your risk for screw ups as public, as embarrassing, and as historical as this one. And yes, this will be one for the history books. This isn’t to point the finger of ridicule at PepsiCo’s internal agency. Rather, it’s to point out partnerships lead to better and smarter work. When one works independent of the other, we fail to see our own blind-spots, whether we’re the client or the agency. That’s why they’re called blind spots. Working in consort ensures that what makes it out the door has the intended effect.
That one reason alone is why partnerships are so critical in this business. Pepsi is a behemoth and will be able to weather the storm. Not every brand can. Remove the critical eye of your agency and you risk disaster.

Fads, Trends, and Being Relevant Over the Long Haul

Staying on top of social and cultural change is difficult. It requires thoughtful observation, reflection, and the ability to connect dots that may go unnoticed in many cases. Similarly, being able to distinguish a trend from a short-lived fit of social interest can make the difference between a meaningful campaign or marketing platform, and a one-hit wonder. Understanding the difference between fads and trends is critical for all organizations. Unfortunately, many decision makers seem to be unaware of their important differences.

Both fads and trends play an important role in a marketing effort’s success, but they aren’t the same thing and they need to be treated differently. If they are not, leaders risk burning out adapting to every fad, and critical trends required for a brand’s long-term survival may be missed. So, what are the key differences?

A fad, in simple terms, is any form of behavior that is intensely followed by a population for a short period of time. It tends to generate a lot of buzz and social capital, but quickly becomes the butt of jokes, abandonment for the newest shiny object, etc. Once the novelty is gone, interest plummets. This isn’t to say that a fad is without value, only that it isn’t sustainable.  Collecting beanie babies was a fad, so were Thomas Kincade paintings, was Pokémon Go. Needless to say, these fads, though short-lived, were hugely successful and organization able to respond to them in their marketing efforts reaped the benefits. Utilizing fads in marketing and advertising can increase top-of-mind awareness, demonstrate the timeliness of your organization, and serve as a gateway for new audiences, all of which are important. The catch is, fads don’t stick around.

Now, compare that with a trend. A trend gets stronger over time and sticks around. It becomes part of the conversation rather than a bit of social punctuation. It has a sense of permanence and place. Trends point to the future as much as they do the present. Trends have identifiable and explainable rises that are driven by audience needs and demonstrated in cultural shifts. They create meaning for people. A trend gains power over time, because it’s not merely part of a moment, it IS the movement. A trend isn’t just relevant to an individual, it is a connector that will become more valuable as other people commit to it.

The interest in renewable energy is a trend. The increased use of virtual reality is a trend. So are evidence-based medicine, the desire for pay equality, and the use of mobile devices. These are things that have grown, redefined how people find meaning in their world, and interact with each other. They solve problems. They represent new ways of life.

So why does it matter? It matters because organizations ignoring the distinction between fads and trends do so at their own risk. If you want to become an iconic brand, then you need to have longevity and provide meaning for people that isn’t fleeting, but rather sustained. Fads are tools good marketers can use for a specific job, trends are the tools he or she uses for a lifetime.

 

AI Marketing: Can the Matrix Buy Milk?

AI is the continued topic of discussion in 2017 and will no doubt remain so for the foreseeable future.220px-HAL9000.svg.png Enabling machines to learn, make decisions, and adapt to circumstances without input from people (rather than simply obeying pre-programmed instructions) is the reality of the post-modern world. And while it presents tremendous advantages to society and businesses, there are just as many disadvantages. Being a product of a certain generation, I can’t help but conjure up memories of Terminator and The Matrix with self-aware, self-programming machines running amok.

But there are probably more people who subscribe to the more optimistic view that applying a more restrictive, less autonomous form of machine learning to the wealth of data could help identify correlations and patterns that were impossible for humans to see before. And the potential advantages are limitless – new ways of treating illness, quicker response times for emergency services, etc. From a business standpoint, offers will become more personalized, more relevant, and potentially involve less direct interaction (imagine your home being able to order groceries based on what it has learned about your tastes, habits, or medical needs). Imagine HAL 2000 with a heart of gold.

That said, there was quite a stir last year about customer service chatbots last year, but most of these were actually very limited, merely guessing the most likely answer to fit the question. Impressive to a point, but hardly the breakthrough we’ve all come to expect from SiFi. Real AI, underpinned by natural language processing, neural networks and machine learning, will understand how humans think, talk, and categorize concepts, making it smarter and easier to interact with. It’s simply a matter of time and processing power. And the more we use it, to depend on it, the better it will become. So we will no doubt see a proliferation AI buddies in the year to come, such as Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, etc. .

With AI, we have the opportunity to build decision-support systems that see, hear, understand and collaborate with us to help make decisions faster, more relevant and better informed. Which brings up an interesting idea: to whom do we market? Human beings are the obvious, unchanging element in the process, but are we on the verge of having to think about how to market to the machine? And if so, what does that look like?

If AI has the potential to act without our involvement and on our behalf, then we need to be ready to “sell” to the machine. And if AI can learn to make judgements about our personalities and those things to which we have an emotional or culturally grounded response, then our virtual assistants will be targets for marketing. For example, milk is more than a commodity. My assistant will be able to discern that I have a taste preference for glass-bottled, clover-fed milk. But it will also know that consumption aligns with my workout schedule, that I need to reduce my fat intake due to my age, and that I have a dinner party coming up where milk is likely to be used in cooking. It will have to weigh all of these variables, just like I would, and make decisions about what to buy. And that’s just milk. Now apply that to a car, a medication, or a vacation. The implication is that we will need to consider the possibility of marketing to a device that is weighing the same sorts of variables a human being would way, but which has a very different way of conceptualizing, categorizing, and responding to the world. Welcome to the brave new world of marketing to machines.

 

84 Lumber and the Power of Brands

By now, everyone is discussing the 84 Lumber ad that ran during last night’s Big Game. For the few unfamiliar with the ad, a Mexican mother and daughter, who appear to be on their way to the United States, survive the perils of migrating from their home and ultimately come across a depiction of an imposing border wall, reminiscent of the one Trump has discussed since he burst, again, into the limelight so many months ago.

Fox rejected the spot not because of violence or nudity, but because it depicted a fairly accurate visual of what Trump’s wall would look like (if anything, it actually sanitizes the process). Not surprisingly, Fox appears to support the concept of the wall but censors any visual portrayal of it.

According to Rob Shapiro, the chief client officer at Brunner, the agency that worked with 84 Lumber to come up with the ad, “If everyone else is trying to avoid controversy, isn’t that the time when brands should take a stand for what they believe in?” I couldn’t agree more.

The reality is that brands have become political, perhaps they always were. That’s true because brands carry meaning. They are symbols that reflect not only a company’s vision, but the shared beliefs, practices, and values of the people who engage with them. Granted, some brands are innocuous, but those brand that really resonate take a position on more than their products, they take a position on their role in the world. They tell a story about who they are and where they fit into the world. And this is exactly what 84 Lumber, and indeed Brunner, chose to do. They chose to take a stand against the vagaries of The Wall and show in the cold, hard reality of what it implies. And in doing so they chose to articulate the simple truth that they will not willing be part of it.

Which, in turn, brings us back to what it was Fox took issue with. Was it the message of compassion at the end they were rejecting? Was it the entire spot and its portrayal of the journey? Was it the little girl with a flag she’d made along the way? Was it simply the door? My suspicion is that we’ll never know. Or, if is likely, Fox does provide an explanation, it will be a convoluted mix of half-truths and baseless accusations.

Regardless, this ad reflects precisely what good branding does. It brings a story to life, it drives interest, it provokes, and draws us in. And for that, both 84 Lumber and the agency should be extremely proud.

 

Planning Content

“Content” is one of the most talked-about industry buzzwords, but it tends to lack clear definition. To my mind, content is information and communication directed toward an end-user. Broad, yes, it speaks to the very point that content is simply about the transfer of information. Most people associate content with social media although it also includes a larger list of tactics across owned and earned media channels – white papers, video, quizzes, surveys, etc. Conceptually, content should attract, not interrupt.

The focus of content should be to tell compelling stories that help inspire and empower prospects and customers to take additional action with a service or organization. It is (or should be) the approach of creating and distributing valuable and consistent content to a targeted audience, with the objective of driving some action.

And not all content is of equal value, nor should it be viewed as such. A powerful new case study may seem like a silver bullet, but without the supporting storyline and tools, it’s just another proud moment to celebrate. Furthermore, content must be developed across the entire brand engagement customer journey—and starts from a solid understanding of your task-based personas who give you insight into the audience and is the driving force behind a successful lead nurturing program. So, how do you develop “good” content?

In an increasingly speed-obsessed world, people want to consume as much information as they can in as little amount of time as possible (Demand Gen Report’s 2014 Content Preferences Survey). The survey went on to note that while white papers provide the most detailed information of any content type available, they involve a much greater investment than most videos, infographics, etc. But context and need obviously shape how and why people engage with content. Complexity and social capital can and do influence the way we consume.

The best content strategies start by asking a series of questions, both from an internal and external perspective. By asking questions, you can begin to frame up the way customers typically start their search for a solution. Build a checklist for evaluating a new content opportunity that includes the following questions:

  • What is the story we want to tell?
  • What pain point does it solve for a prospect or customer? How does it encourage positive action?
  • What marketing channels are best for the type of content?
  • What moment in the customer journey will the content support? What investment is required to produce the content?
  • What format should the content take?

When determining the appropriate areas to invest in content production, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the revenue potential?
  • Is this a budgeted opportunity?
  • Are we willing to invest and if so, how much?
  • What does the end user need?

In addition to questions as a means to test the viability of content development efforts, content teams should meet regularly to compile and update a comprehensive list of all submitted questions to your company. If applicable, customer support emails and customer support calls can also be fertile ground for collecting insights. Comb message boards, forums, communities and other places where your key audiences seek out advice and information.

Once you have your questions mapped out and agreed upon, start to group them by frequency. From there, have an open discussion about your company’s ability to answer the large pools of questions and how those relate to the stages of the buying cycle: Is there content that exists that can quickly and easily resolve a customer question? Is your customer able to access the information across all channels?

Once the questions are answered, it’s time to build a model. Content experts are great at making content, while subject matter experts within the organization are critically important to ensuring content accuracy (concerning facts, but also the application to the marketplace). There needs to be a partnership between the groups to ensure the content being developed satisfies all parties, with particular attention focused on solving customer issues.

Combining current sales profiles, personas, and other customer models the company has become the tools you can use to profile customer segments to improve the relevance and effectiveness of your content marketing efforts. The key to building the right segments is to identify customer needs and pain points, group the needs and pains points by roles or audiences (task-based is our preferred model), and then use that data to profile top customer segments. It is important to evaluate task flows on a frequent basis to ensure accuracy, response to industry change, and data feedback loops.

Once the buying journey is fully defined and key customer profiles are highlighted, the editorial team can create content that will successfully resonate.