It's time to break up the Facebook-Google duopoly

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In an era when two companies seemingly own the customer, it's no wonder marketers are seeking the elusive "third option," writes the chief strategy officer at iCrossing.

Was it a shock to anyone to see Spencer Stuart’s recent report noting that the average tenure of the modern CMO has slipped for the second year in a row? Heads of marketing are seeing their roles expand at a time when the pressure has never been greater to dually grow the brand and sales. The gray area of marketing’s impact replaced, perhaps, with a few more gray hairs.

These marketers sit at a crossroads. And I often find myself channeling their focus away from the causes of disruption (digital, social, programmatic, etc.) toward a deeper understanding how these forces have altered the foundations of marketing as we know them.

We are now in a consumer-led economy, where people are in control of how and when they arrive (or don’t) in a brand’s marketing mix. And the definition of a brand has shifted from being a set of beliefs and perceptions held by the customer to a self-directed set of experiences curated by those same customers in which your brand participates.

We need to look no further for the front lines of this monumental shift then the rise of the duopoly Google and Facebook have achieved in recent years. While both of these titans have been effective tools for brands big and small and willing partners on many fronts, the reality remains: they have much of the leverage.

This year, they will combine to own 60 percent of the digital advertising market and capture nearly 3/4ths of the market’s growth, according to eMarketer. And how can we even begin to quantify the massive trove of data each of these platforms owns about consumer behavior, activity and purchase intent?

Marketers have been right to worry about this paradox particularly in the context of asking, "are we getting what we are paying for" and "where is the accountability?" Hence why we’ve now seen some of the biggest advertisers in the world like AT&T, J&J and Verizon pull back their investment with Google in the wake of brand safety concerns.

Smart brands have come to accept that it’s the consumers’ world, and they just live in it. And in an era when two companies seemingly own the customer, it’s no wonder so much time has been devoted to seeking the elusive "third option." First, it was the Verizon/AOL/Yahoo mashup. Today, people are pulling for Snapchat. Amazon’s advertising potential looms large. Twitter may have been in the mix early on for a brief moment.

Yawn. Not one clear option to truly help today’s CMO power the growth of her business.

Until, now.

Marketers best defense is to take matters into their own hands and evolve into their own intelligent marketing platform. Brands need to become their own walled garden if they want to survive the age of digital transformation.

This begins by mastering their powerful, first-party data in an effort to understand customers like no one else. Data and insights have become the true competitive edge in business. Taking control over this currency involves putting the right technology in place to harness and organize vast troves of data coupled with a systematic approach to unlocking what that data says and taking meaning action.

And those actions need to be steeped in experiences for customers—those designed with their needs in mind and integrated into their routines: seamless checkout, mobile order for in-store pickup, chatbots with fictional characters. This is critical because in our tech-obsessed ecosystem, the smartest tools (and I’m including Facebook and Google here), don’t always offer the best user experiences. In a time when brands are looking for an edge over the tech companies, this is it.

That’s not to say ignore the platforms. Rather, marketers need to shift focus to make them work harder for their brands. This is done in two ways. First, unlock the opportunities for intent and intelligence gathering available in social and search to fuel a brand’s modern operation. Then apply creativity and innovation to the platforms in order to connect with people in new and differentiating ways. The Domino’s pizza-order emoji is a good example.

As cliché as it sounds, the complex challenges facing modern marketing today are truly opportunities for brands to differentiate themselves, stand for something and more closely impact the health of their business.

Now that I think about it, maybe Google and Facebook should be the ones worried.

—Anne Bologna is chief strategy officer at iCrossing.