Marketing in 2019 — the Year in Review

2019 is coming to a close, and that means vacations, shopping, and best-of lists. It also means that it’s time to take a look back at the world of marketing in the last twelve (ish) months to see what worked, what didn’t, and what’s new in the ever-shifting world of content and digital marketing.

Political Ads on Social Media

We’re not here to get into a big argument about politics — save that for the Christmas dinner table — but suffice it to say that the shifting landscape of political ads on social media will have some major ramifications going forward.

First, the problem: political advertising is an unstoppable juggernaut of cash — worth nearly $10 billion next year, according to the Wall Street Journal — and there are very few (if any) safeguards around what an ad can say. One ad makes accusations about a candidate, another fires back with its own, and before you know it we’re all drowning in videos with scary voices and out-of-context quotes.

Twitter’s solution was simple: ban them all. No more political ads, period. It’s a simple solution, if a bit heavy-handed — you can’t spread disinformation if you can’t spread information at all — and it’s gotten Twitter quite a bit of flak from both ends of the spectrum who think their voices are being silenced.

One notable exception is that ads that don’t talk about a specific candidate or piece of legislation will seemingly be allowed. That means politically-oriented groups will be able to talk about issues like climate change, gun control, civil rights, abortion, and so on, as long as they don’t directly endorse a specific person or bill.

Facebook took a different approach, which was to essentially wash their hands of the whole issue. Rather than banning political ads (and missing out on all that revenue) or curating them to make sure they didn’t contain false or misleading information (a herculean task), Facebook has announced that they’ll let politicians post any claims they want — even lies.

That hasn’t gone over well. Senator Elizabeth Warren posted an intentionally false ad claiming that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg supports Donald Trump (he doesn’t) in order to call attention to the problem, and several hundred Facebook employees have signed onto a letter begging Zuckerberg to reconsider.

How will this all shake out in the next year or so leading up to the 2020 election? We’re not sure. But it’s safe to say that a substantial chunk of the online marketing space has been uprooted.

Google Updates

In other news that won’t surprise anyone, Google continued to push updates to its search engine, ad platform, and sorting algorithms. For years now, Google has been trying to make its search engines “smarter” in the sense that they can better understand the intent of a search without needing the searcher to spell out exactly what they want. This year’s changes are no exception.

The BERT Update

BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, which is a mouthful — hence, BERT. The gist is that this is a piece of software designed to help Google’s algorithms better understand what the words in a sentence mean in a broader context, the way humans do.

Here’s an example: a few months ago, if you searched for “how to catch a cow fishing,” you’d get mostly results about cows (the four-legged mammals). Google didn’t understand that in New England, “cow” is a slang term for an especially large striped bass, a popular sport fish. Now, the same result turns up fishing-specific results, explaining that chunking bunker is one of the best ways to land a trophy striper.

For a lot of us, “bass” can mean several different things, “chunk” usually isn’t a verb, “bunker” is where you hide when there’s a tornado, and “striper” is an old-timey nurse — but for fishing enthusiasts, this is exactly the advice they needed.

Lead form extensions

Another trend that Google has shown in recent years is the effort to keep people within the Google ecosystem, rather than just diverting them to a search result. Not so long ago, searching for a restaurant just turned up their website. Now, you can see a detailed explanation of their style, costs, reviews, physical address, and hours. You can even make reservations and see a menu without ever clicking through.

Lead form extensions are another tool in that toolbox. We all know the importance of having our web visitors fill out forms with basic information so we can contact them later, but now they don’t even have to visit your site to do so. Users can simply click on an ad to sign up for an email or get a quote, without ever leaving the results page.

Gatekeeping slow websites

According to Google, more than half your potential visitors will leave your site if it takes more than three seconds to load. Speed — or the lack thereof — is a killer, and Google doesn’t want to serve sites that don’t work for their users.

To that end, Google will start testing a system that inserts a loading page and a warning — “site usually loads slow” — when users click on a search result for a slow site. The assumption is that users will abandon sites that receive the warning, incentivizing website owners to clean up their act.

We don’t know exactly how all this will look or which rewards fast sites may enjoy, but it’s another example of Google flexing its market dominance to shape the web.

There have been a few other Google updates this year that may or may not affect marketers — bidding strategies, nofollow links, and other link attributes — but even if these don’t make a difference for you directly, they’re a good reminder that the landscape of SEO is always changing.

Some Great Marketing Campaigns

Marketing and advertising have been around for centuries, but every year, someone finds a way to pull something new out of their hat. Here are a few of the best ideas we saw this year.

WeTransfer — Please Leave

Every website in the world wants you to stay longer, click on more pages, and use more features … right? Not in this case. WeTransfer helps you organize and move huge files without zipping them, quickly decide how to share them and for how long, and track who’s downloading them.

With this campaign, WeTransfer gets right to the point of their software: “when you’re in here, you’re not out there.” In other words, WeTransfer’s tools are so easy that you can use them quickly and then stop using them, giving you more time to do the things that matter.

Dominos — Points for Pies

Domino’s Pizza has been at the forefront of digital marketing in the fast food space for a while, and this year was no different. In April, Domino’s introduced the Points for Pies program, which allowed people to gain Domino’s loyalty points by submitting pictures of pizza. Those points could then be redeemed for a free pizza.

The kicker: you didn’t even have to submit a photo of a Domino’s pizza to get the points. In fact, you didn’t need to submit a photo of a pizza at all — a photo of a photo, or even a photo of a crude MS Paint drawing, seemed to work just fine.

While some people called this a loophole, a hack, or a glitch, Domino’s knew what they were doing — drumming up conversation about their brand, getting people to download the app, and cementing their position at the top of people’s minds when they want a quick bite to eat. Not bad for the price of a few (thousand) free pizzas.

Gillette — We Believe

Gillette’s old tagline, “the best a man can get,” wasn’t sitting very well in the modern world. It was associated with classic, rugged manliness with a hint of misogyny — if you shave closer, women will be attracted to you, or at least that was the idea.

In 2019, Gillette flipped the script and launched a new tagline: “the best men can be.” The new idea, along with the video that accompanied it, encouraged men to hold each other accountable for bad behavior and expand their definitions of what it means to be a man in the first place.

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The ad generated its fair share of controversy, as any ad that addresses thorny social issues is sure to, but the response was mostly positive. The times are changing, and Gillette is doing its part to keep up.

Looking Forward

This is the part where we fight the urge to make “2020 vision” puns like everyone else on the internet. Marketing, especially online, is a constantly shifting landscape. But that landscape is built on a stable foundation — new ideas may come and go, but they have to be anchored to the same basic principles year after year or they’ll just fade away.

So don’t worry too much about the latest trends and fads in the marketing world. Keep an eye on them and take advantage if they make sense for your company, but don’t lose sight of the basics. Know your audience. Be consistent in your branding. Be authentic in your message. And make content that people genuinely want to read.

We’ll see you next year!

 

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