Is fake news caused by direct response marketing? And what is the real solution for marketers and content providers?

As someone who works on holistic approaches to marketing, political communication, and media content, I pay close attention to ideas that can help to make these disciplines work together to build a better society, so Doc Searls’ work on “fake news” and bad content intrigued me. But I was disappointed by the broad brush he painted toward direct response marketing and the use of data in advertising. He made it sound like DR kills puppies and babies, which like anything I admit it can be used in the wrong way, but it can be also used responsibly and profitably. Much of this starts with the product and the mindset of the marketer, which is outside the scope of the discussion here. I agree that a lack of true knowledge substituted for adtech knowledge and a massive drain toward adtech and away from media relationships is a terrible place to be and that better media, better funded, can produce a better society. And I will concede that tracking of a person’s every whereabout online (which MUST be differentiated from response tracking, think the 800# in an infomercial that traces to the station you saw it on) can be viewed as creepy by some consumers, even though many and possibly the majority of consumers like targeted ads, but we have to recognize the reality of today’s media landscape and the benefits targeting offers for consumers, advertisers, and media properties. Advertisers want response and ROI and even with a corporate social responsibility approach, you have to show value in a way that looks valuable somehow. That is why I still recommend that some clients (in particular low-budget small businesses) use digital targeting, but do so carefully, and as budget increases, work toward alignment rather than algorithmic targeting.

He claims that adtech and direct response marketing are the cause of all things evil in media content and old-fashioned brand advertising is the best fix along with widespread implementation of ad blockers or tracking blockers. I personally don’t use such products as I find value in seeing products related to what I have already expressed interest in, which appears to be the mentality of a large portion of consumers, which lessens the significance of the “tracker” element of this debate. I feel that this anti-tracking crusade may have latched onto the fake news issue and its societal implications so as to gain traction, as any good activist group should. There is a true critical issue of the relationship between content and advertisers, which can impact quality, that matters more than the tracking component Searls tends to emphasize and if we don’t view targeting as anathema then we can focus more on that issue.

First, we have to understand why dollars have gone into a certain media methodology that has these negative externalities. That starts with knowing that brand advertising is not the right fit for many media spenders and understanding how this can actually be a good thing for creators, especially smaller ones that may deliver quality content that is not “mass-market.” On the client side, when an advertiser has a limited budget, they are more likely to want to see results from their campaign more readily so as to replace their funds and this is where DR can help by allowing for attribution of sales to media buys. This is nothing new or creepy and having this approach available allows for new competitors with less dollars than the dominant brand to attain good results and allow the public to try their products or services. Allowing new market entrants that cannot afford a massive brand campaign has its own prosocial benefits, as much as people of certain political persuasions try to dismiss this.

For smaller media outlets, DR allows for revenue that they would not otherwise get because their audience doesn’t reach the thresholds needed to justify a massive brand spend. But if an advertiser sees good response, they can pay per inquiry, per thousand impressions, or a spot rate based on results from a test campaign. They get value and the media outlet can sell space they wouldn’t normally be able to. And the consumer gets the specific content they want instead of what only “the masses” watch. Ironically enough, the quality, deep-dive content that anti-fake news advocates want may not be that which gains “the masses” that your core CPG brand advertisers whose names you recognize on store shelves want. Look at the ads cable TV news channels air, including CNN and MSNBC, there are both brands and DR, and a more targeted variety of ads called cable interconnect that are often for local businesses that need to only target a certain kind of consumer in their area. So DR and DR hybrid advertising can help your “good content” thrive, especially when the audience is engaged and interested in the kinds of products being advertised, typically for “deep news” this is premium financial products and B2B services (think Vistaprint and their promo codes for business cards).

Instead of the Tracker Wars (not to be mistaken for the skateboard truck debate of similar name), I suggest for advertisers that have more than sufficient budget room and want to seek a path away from ad tech-based randomized placements, which I understand may not be everyone, a return to fundamentals of what consumers want from content and how that relates to their response, hence the ROI advertisers attain. This is regardless of the targeting modality used – I believe that the most targeted ad in the wrong context can produce poor results and even backfire.
The only way to get money away from “fake news” and other forms of low-quality content is to prove that the ecosystem which it is supported by is not worth what brands think it is or to show factors that negate value and to provide an end-run around it. I believe that quality, well-curated content can show greater value for advertisers than “fake news” and volume “quasi-content” by first having a greater value with the audience as shown by greater engagement and hence response. Since we have reached “peak content,” the only way out is to promote quality content through quality curation. If something is good, it’s probably good enough to pay for in some way or another. And that doesn’t have to be through pushing and shoving advertisers into an approach that does not give them what they are looking for, but by showing a clear case of value and benefit, which is what our profession is supposed to be about in the first place.

Direct response is alive and well, and that is not as bad as it sounds, if you know how to work with it. And branding principles and direct response are not some massive dichotomy of good and evil. Many agencies that engage in direct response work are embracing the term brand response, since the line between DR and brand advertising has blurred in an attempt to understand how to gain the best ROI. Ultimately, the advertiser wants to see results from their campaign and that is their right for the money they pay. We shouldn’t berate advertisers and implicate them as the root of all evil for wanting ROI, but we should reasonably point them in the best direction to gain their preference without messing with ours. I do believe that being nice often works well for business.

My solution for advertisers looking to test a more thoughtful approach to digital DR and targeting starts with investment regardless of platform being largely centered upon Relationships between media (including Rep Firms or networks, which can help solve some of the friction between smaller media and clients) and agencies (or advertisers) directly to know what they are buying – authenticity is currency in digital media and can strengthen the value of the campaign in proportion to the effort you put into it. These multiple layers of confusion as to where your media spend is going from DMP to XYZ have to be culled in one way or another in some human way. Random ad placement like that which ad-tech can produce offers random results. Better placement strategies should result in better response. Embrace testing as a primary method of checking your effectiveness in such an endeavor.

Use distributed ads like ad-tech sparingly as the lowest end of campaigns if you want to be more conscious of such things.

The model, which I will call Aligned Brand Response, would work kind of like this (this is a very rough model that must be revised based on results), adjusted of course for client objectives:
“Alignment assured brand response” would get about 50% of the buys. This is a context wherein the product “looks good” and “makes sense” rather than just “finding the person wherever they may be,” the mindset of adtech.
“Screened potential match media,” meaning media that isn’t perfectly aligned but worth a test campaign to see how response is impacted would get 30%.
“Conscious remnant,” meaning programmatic digital buys that are random but controlled as best as you can with digital tools, 20%. Cheap media aka remnant aka scatter buys can help companies trying to grow, and in fact I believe that digital DR for lead generation with low-cost media buying may be the best-kept secret of small business marketing, but as powerful as they are, you need to check that power.
All of these would be adjusted based upon response and good judgment of intangibles related to responsibility. When the exact placements are not assured, they would be checked or at least randomly checked (particularly with any spikes in lead source or audience source, the most important time to check) after the fact with post-logs to rat out and block distribution to those media the client’s responsibility policies prohibit.

Cheap media buying is the lifeblood of niche media and allows for consumer choice and growth of new properties. Ad networks and the digital media adtech landscape is a primary source of revenue that shouldn’t be taken away for content people value but maybe not a ton of people do. Response testing by category is a good anonymize way of knowing what may or may not work on an automated level. And the more response being driven through a lesser known organization, the more eyeballs need to be put on it to check for malfeasance. The key is that “less trusted” media should make less money. The “clicks” from a less trustworthy source should cost less because the quality of response may not be as good. But pay better once you are sure there isn’t anything bad behind the digital curtain.

On the publisher side, the publishers with quality content and highly engaged audiences need to use their leverage to place ads that do not allow for leaching of their audience to other properties. We can surmise these properties will often be must-buys if evaluated individually so they can drive some of the policies by changing how they sell.

There need to be a few pioneer brands, just like there has been with DR hybrid accounts on television, that step away a bit from the ad tech-dominant model of quasi-random placement and use something different to show that this model does not work as well as that something different. And I don’t personally believe that “no targeting” is better than responsible targeting, and studies do show that many consumers prefer targeting over Searls’ preferred strict brand approach. As with any opinion research, you have to be careful in not oversampling an impassioned minority, and that seems to happen in the no-tracking-ever echo chamber quite a bit.

You need not throw the DR out with the bath water. You also need not throw niche media onto the side of the highway to hitchhike to Hollywood for the chance to be exploited (in more ways than one, see MeToo) in order to protect quality. Just simply care about what you are doing and where your ads go to. That solves most problems most of the time. Not caring causes them. It’s not a lack of intelligence because you will find it if you are looking, it’s just not considering something important that gets businesses and organizations in trouble in marketing and other areas dealing with their “public interface.” This is all pretty simple, the more you care about where your customers see your brand and how they see your brand, the better choices you will make.

If you need help understanding the strategic alignment of your brand to media, how that impacts response to your marketing, and your consumers’ values and preferences, feel free to contact Off Speed Solutions at 657-206-0736 or at

Posted on: April 10, 2018, by :

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