/Mark Welker

2018 in Review

A renaissance of meaning

In January of this year, mere weeks into Facebook’s ‘fresh start’ following a year of controversy and criticism, the popular network announced an overhaul of its news feed in favour of ‘meaningful social interactions’. At the time, Zuckerberg said the network’s big focus for 2018 was ‘making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent.’ 

We as advertisers and marketers, trade in meaning. We have taken on this trade for centuries. By appealing en-mass to audience, we strive to pierce the thick epidermis of a culture and become relevant. If we did not shoot for meaning in every message we deliver, we would admit to a game of popularity defined only by comparative spend and accept that our work is entirely substitutional.

We want our work to be meaningful. For our clients. For our colleagues. For our bottom lines. But we crave it also because shared meaning is an outcome of language that is reserved only for humans. 

In the past, Facebook has defined relevance through binary signals; likes, reactions, comments and shares. We as advertisers were taught to follow and encourage these binary signals, and as we did so, the currency of these signals quickly deflated. Over the years, Facebook taught us to tune our creative engines to react to fractions of a second impulses, radar blips so fleeting that once magnified across the market, often come to mean very little to the bottom line. 

In 2018 Facebook introduced a more complex system of signals to weight meaningful content, which included interaction and discussion. It was both reaction to the network's recent woes, but also an admission; Facebook was saying we are losing relevancy to the very people who we rely on to fund our existence. We need to change.

Prior to 2018, when an advertisement appeared in a feed it did so often because of an archive of past choices made by others in your network, the consequences of which could not be predicted or expected by the end user. We experienced a kind of hyperinflation of past actions, with outcomes that were similarly devalued. 

Today, advertisers in Facebook are reminded to stake a claim to relevance by their current actions, rather than past associations, and appeal to an active rather than passive audience. In this revised version of the network, good content becomes the sum of what it can offer an audience. And where in the past video was reduced to mostly to its ‘billboard’ impact, now it too must justify not only its existence, but what purpose and role it serves an audience.

This is an exciting prospect for video. For a long time online video has grown in popularity, offering increased engagement and share of screen time as audiences across the spectrum consume from a more dispersed media smorgasbord. In March, Linkedin added native video to ads and company page updates, and 8 months later, the network is awash with new forms of B2B video. This update alone (long overdue) could signal the single most important push towards improving and evolving that sectors relationship to video since Youtube first launched. In an age where much B2B video output continues to be determined by senior management input over audience input, it will be fascinating to see how its many formats evolve.

After producing video for almost every other sector for the last six years, we too put our hat in the ring and produced a series of video formats for Instagram and Linkedin. Working with no budget and a corner of our office usually set aside for a bike rack, we shot, edited and launched 13 pieces of video content in four months. By and large, we are a team of producers and directors, hence getting in front of the camera and shooting it ourselves was a deviation few of us were looking forward to. But we did it. We thought hard about the kind of video we could produce internally that would make sense for our audience and that would offer something valuable. So far so good.

In June this year, working with The Shannon Company and our long time collaborator Director Thomas Hyland, we produced a series of online spots to support the governments Respect Women campaign. Thomas’ script for the series offered up a number of situations where women were subjected to disrespectful behaviour in front of a bystander. We listen in on the bystander’s internal monologue as they decide whether to speak up or let it slide. One of these spots quickly amassed 6 million views on Facebook in the first week of release with little to no paid promotion behind it.

The comments thread on that video built up thick and quick with varying views on the scenario depicted, and it wasn't always polarising agree or disagree opinion, but debate and discussion. Its effectiveness was largely in its ability to be interpreted, to ask a question of an audience open and willing to debate. In Facebook’s newly defined set of signals, this was meaningful interaction and the campaign was rewarded just so.

As content creators, a return to focusing on interaction and active response means a return to work that is more interesting to produce and has an impact for the long term. I wrote in a recent article that a brand that understands its audience, understands what it can offer that audience. Whether it is conversation, advice, support, a laugh or an emotional punch to the stomach, in 2019 I think online video will turn the corner of merely justifying its existence as a more engaging medium than text, and come into its own as format for intelligent and thoughtful craft. How a video engages, what each part of it meaningfully adds towards its goal, will shift into clarity for clients, agencies and creators.

In June of this year, almost simultaneously, Google and Apple announced new digital wellbeing kits for their respective mobile ecosystems, aimed at reducing screen time and promoting healthier phone to human interaction. Together with Facebook, it is perhaps fitting that the three companies that form the root ball for a global trend of disconnection and alienation, now make claim to the cure for their own affliction. 

Post the binge of the last 10 years, where growth alone defined each of these multinational behemoths, one could easily view these changes pessimistically as each company shifts strategy to secure its own long term existence. But this latest move is also hopeful to me, a signal that audience is reasserting power in a market that has come too used to relying on cheap tricks to guarantee exposure. 

I’m looking forward to a 2019 where audience needs in branded video content return to the forefront, just as they have for years in other mediums. I look forward to new technologies helping to inform that conversation, and to all the great work that will be rewarded for prioritising meaning as a way to achieve exposure, rather than the other way round.

 

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