Mark Higginson

The web is a social artifact.

This short manifesto covers what I hold to be self-evident about modern marketing practices, particularly related to online activity.

This piece about how people's attention flows on the web highlights the fundamental misunderstanding that causes almost all online marketing to be ineffective.

The blog that follows consists of a series of short posts that support my arguments.


22 August 2013

When people really care

Further to my last post I thought it useful to contrast “the 3rd most engaged with UK brand on Facebook” with an issue people care about.

Frack Off’s Facebook Page has been heavily focused on the protests at Balcombe. In early August the number of ‘People Talking About This’ was running at 240% of people who had ‘Liked’ the Page. Presumably many of those people have now Liked the Page as follower numbers are up, yet ‘People Talking About This’ still stands at a high 87% of total followers.

Frack Off

Compare this to Jaguar’s Page. Many more people have ‘Liked’ the Page, over 2.2 million. ‘People Talking About This’ stood at 3% of those total ‘Likes’ on the day I checked. This is woeful but entirely typical of a ‘brand’ effort. Many of those interactions were coming from the Indian contingent that ‘Like’ the Page, whomsoever they may be.


‘Liking’ a ‘brand’ is likely a signifier of something around personal identity that the individual wishes to represent. It does not appear to represent a desire for the elusive ‘engagement’ that marketers keep banging on about with little evidence of any success. People don’t care about brands; they do care about issues. Brands are generally too bland and frequently too close to negative issues to be able to meaningfully interact with people on topics that are important to them.

Let me know what you think on Twitter


21 August 2013

How many cars do you sell in New Delhi?

I get a strong sense that many marketing campaigns are about holding a mirror up to the business paying the invoice and murmuring complimentary things. I refer to this as ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’; as long as the marketing department looks on-the-job it’s in no-one’s interests to ask awkward questions.

This presentation from ‘We Are Social’ about work for Jaguar is entitled ‘engaging the right audiences’. This means by the end of the presentation the viewer should understand who the correct audience is and what is meant by ‘engagement’. We Are Social divide the audience into people who are able and want to purchase a Jaguar and ‘cheerleaders’, an ‘aspirational’ audience of fans who can bring “enormous value”.

In terms of ‘understanding the audience’ what is presented is not anything specific to Jaguar. “Strong visual content works best”. This is a given. Across several sites I’ve worked on comprising some 1,000 plus posts I have found that those containing video content were five to seven times more likely to be clicked on and image content, where the image or images were the focus of the post, were three times more likely to be clicked-on than a text-only post. Likewise, the recommendation you ask questions on a platform that allows for a response is not an insight. Making the content thematically relevant is also generally a good idea! I expect to see more than a demonstration of common sense from someone delivering an analysis of paid-for work.

The other promotional work is all pretty standard-fare, if you have the budget. Tease the product launch, get a celebrity involved, sponsor something people like, e.g. a sport, offer a way of experiencing the product, and so on. What is left ambiguous is how ‘We Are Social’ were involved in actually creating this stuff. For instance, a Ridley Scott film to promote the car will pretty much generate interest all on its own. You don’t need an agency to ‘make this social’. Same goes for using Lana Del Rey. They have pop-cultural resonance, which is why you pay them a lot for the association. People will then talk about it anyway; what matters is how the perception of the association is shaped. That would have been interesting to read about.

However, perception is not measured in numbers of ‘fans’. A statement such as “The 3rd most engaged-with UK brand on Facebook” is only relevant if the audience doing the engaging is going to buy the product or strongly influence people who might buy the product, as ‘We Are Social’ themselves identified. Facebook tells us that the most popular city that people are from who are active on the Page is New Delhi and that the most popular age group is 18 to 24 years olds. This is borne out by checking who ‘Likes’ each post. Now, perhaps this is due to Jaguar being owned by Tata but I leave you to draw your own conclusions about whether the ‘right audience’ has been ‘engaged’. I would have been more interested if the increase in fans in Jaguar’s target markets had been indicated, but I imagine the ‘need for client confidentiality’ would be cited. If I were Jaguar I’d be having a hard look at this. I don’t see the “enormous value” here and the lack of evidence of subsequent sharing makes the definition of this as ‘social media’ debatable.

tl;dr The web makes it fairly easy to check out the claims people make. Don’t take what is said at face value. If there is data available see whether there is a trend. If people are able to comment on something check how many comments have been made and what they say.

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20 May 2013

It was all fantasies and delusions based on naive interpretations of consumer behavior by people who had a whole lot of ideological commitment to the web, and very little experience with real world marketing.

Native advertising: traditional advertising on-line

Spot on about the ideological commitment; see the faux-naive idea of markets as conversations for a whole lot more on what amounts to a neoliberal ideal that was very attractive to some.

What has struck me about working in the area of online marketing is both how much of my work is really about public relations and how much I had to learn given I had no prior experience in this area. What was also surprising was how traditional PR was actually based on very simple principles with a lot of meetings and handwaving to confuse the uninitiated.

The wider point in the post I quote from above is that the current vogue for talking about ‘native advertising’, hand-in-hand with the dread ‘content marketing’, is that it is a very traditional concept. The savvy individual should be aware by now that not only do people ignore display advertising it is a sector riven by fraud. However, in the search for an alternative that works the physicality of the medium is still ignored. The reason a magazine advert ‘works’ is that the medium requires me to physically turn a page and I expect to have to turn the pages to proceed: it is full-page. A television advert ‘works’ because I have no choice whether the advert appears in front of my eyes or not: it is full-screen. A billboard ‘works’ because it is large: it fills my field of vision. That said, I think people are sensitive to when a marketing message is dressed-up as something else.

tl;dr This quote highlights the failure of display advertising as a medium that works successfully on the web and the lack of a satisfactory solution; adverts masquerading as editorial are unlikely to work any more effectively and are in fact even more indirect.

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27 April 2013

AmEx’s OPEN forum took four years to get 1 million people aboard and now gets over 150,000 unique visitors per month.

This quote is from a presentation about ‘trends’ in digital content. It was from a talk to the Content Marketing Association and is an example of the kind of assertion I see in many presentations of this type related to ‘brands as publishers’.

The inference of the above is that AmEx is running a successful content destination: 1 million members! 150,000 unique visitors!

Click. On to the next slide. But wait. Is this true? Is the presenter simply confirming a bias they already hold and members of the CMA are likely to have?

Let us visit AmEx’s OpenForum.

“OPEN forum is an online community for business owners, connecting them with insights, advice, and tools to help them manage and grow their companies.”

Is this a community?

Have a look at the sidebar and visit the posts under ‘most commented’. On the day I visited the five highlighted posts had no more than two comments each.

The most viewed posts had no comments on them. Strange.

Either this is a very quiet community with millions of page views or in fact there is no community here and no real readership. There is a big difference between visitors and readers; as I have previously highlighted they need to:

The OPEN forum Facebook Page shows 329,164 ‘Likes’ yet on the day I checked only 865 were ‘People Talking About This’. That is 0.26%.

Their Twitter Profile has 189,815 followers yet in the past month posts have averaged low single to double digit retweets. The highest was about 26 RTs. Have a look through the follower list and see what you make of the profiles of some of these ‘people’.

Their YouTube Channel has one very popular video with over 7,000,000 views yet the next most popular video only has 38,000; views then fall off a cliff. Judging from the stats this was because they probably paid for the bulk of those several million views on the top video. Anytime you see a chart that looks like a rocket lift-off and then a flat-line is a dead giveaway.

On this evidence I would be very cautious about using this as a good example. Yet here we have someone standing up in front of a bunch of people and repeating unreferenced ‘facts’ to support an argument.

Interestingly there seems to be no shortage of posts congratulating AmEx on a successful job despite no verifiable evidence this site is working as a community or content destination:

“Beginning in 2007, OPEN forum established itself as a leading source of business insight and advice.”

American Express OPEN keeps ‘pulse’ on small business with social media

“This enlightened perspective has made a runaway success.”

What Amercian Express’ Open can teach us about social media

“Tumblr is a vibrant channel for OPEN forum and it is increasingly becoming important for its business audience.”

AMEX OPEN Forum taps New York City’s startup community

None of these quotes are believable.

tl;dr It is disturbing, yet entirely typical of the marketing echo-chamber, to repeat these messages because it suits the narrative the industry wishes to create for itself. And marketers then stand up in front of audiences and propagate these messages, largely unchallenged.

I feel like the kid in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

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10 April 2013

After hundreds of stories and videos… we couldn’t be happier with our team’s effort… Storyboard has run its course for now, and our editorial team will be closing up shop and moving on.


Using stories as marketing and getting people interested in the result is hard work.

Tumblr is getting rid of the team given the job of “highlighting talented creators and their work, as found within and around the massively diverse Tumblr community” after only one year.

Update: Valleywag claims that Chris Mohney, the editor-in-chief who was getting fired, wrote the memo for David Karp annoucing the closure of Storyboard, which rather explains why it sounds the way it does.

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