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The Tyranny of ‘Scale’ – How scale keeps us playing by old rules*

caution tyrannymass media words old rules of marketing are dead

There it was, in HuffPo, in a listicle called “10 Tricks to appear smart during meetings”. Along with a recommendation to “Pace around the room” and to “Nod continuously while pretending to take notes” was number 6 on the list. This trick read, “Ask ‘Will this scale?’ no matter what it is”. And, it’s true – say this and people will think you are smart. But, unfortunately, it only perpetuates a fallacy.

You see, there’s an on-going illusion about scale. In Digital and mobile advertising, marketers, sellers and buyers are all participating in this illusion day in and out. That is, there’s a desire and demand for more and more impressions, more eyeballs and views, more tonnage reaching your target. But does this tonnage really reach the target? Is this scale actually useful, valuable or even real?

Firstly, let’s remember that the impressions represent only opportunities to view, not actual views. And these opportunities need to be discounted by the fact (or at least taken with the following gazillion grains of salt) that it’s been estimated that 75-85% of these impressions are deemed either fraudulent, unsafe, or unviewable, according to Julie Fleischer of Kraft. What’s left of that scale now?

In addition, let’s consider the exceptionally low (and dropping) click rate on desktop and mobile display ads. When you consider that “banner blindness” has driven click-throughs to less than 1/10th of 1%, it suggests that the message that is being scaled is not even being seen – or at least not being engaged with. Is this the kind of scale brands want?

The thing about this tyranny of scale is it relies on and adheres to the old model of Interruption. That is, gain access to as many consumers as you can and interrupt them with your message. A certain number will ignore you – others might notice you. But even those that ignore you might receive enough information to remember your message. This model worked for years and years – but should have died along with the digital revolution more than 10 years ago. Because consumers no longer simply ignore irrelevant ads (as they used to); they actively dislike them. And that has a negative splash-back effect on the brands.

I think that’s a key problem with scale – it generally trades out relevance to achieve mass. Instead, I’d rather address a smaller universe, but with content, context and consumer relevancy that drives conversion rates into the double-digits.

What is scalable are the many problems with scale:

You can buy scale, but you can’t buy engagement. Any publisher will sell you scale. You can aggregate readers, app users, game players, anything. The problem is that you’ll end up with a hodge-podge of disparate people, likely not prepared or interested in your ad. Scale, by definition, puts a premium on mass – and de-emphasizes relevance. In fact, a drive for scale essentially aggregates irrelevance. And irrelevance is the kryptonite of the digital era.

Not only that, but the modern media consumer is often engaged in his content or platform for a tactical, tangible purpose. Interrupt them at your peril.

Scale breeds irrelevance, which breeds loathing. The price brands pay for irrelevance is no longer avoidance, it’s animosity. Antipathy. And vocal dissension. I believe that it should be much more important to be relevant to some than irrelevant to many.

When people ask, “will it scale”, they are actively rejecting newer approaches and models. They are seeking the comfort of the past, and the seeming confidence of BIG numbers and lines on flow charts. But I have seen that ground-up or mid-to-low funnel approaches can also deliver big results.

Scale discounts the importance of value and impact. Especially when it comes to mobile advertising, the opportunity and role of advertising is increasingly one of adding value to the consumer. This added-value is likely not achievable when the goal is scale.

 

There’s a gigantic opportunity in today’s media world to drive new kinds of brand engagements. Leveraging new levels of data to deliver customized content, finding new ways to hyper-target customers, and partnering with publishers and consumers to create new kinds of value – it would seem we’re in a new, golden age of advertising. However, so much is still being evaluated and judged by that old model – “does it scale”?

Let’s always remember that just because something reaches a lot of people doesn’t make it good. At the end of the day, my belief is that relevance and ideas trump scale. Anyday.

* Originally posted in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily on 12/9/14

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