Lessons from Silicon Valley

Part of the Three Ships mission is to disrupt and innovate, and it’s my job to monitor the continually evolving web for ways to do exactly that. So last month, I traveled to Silicon Valley for a research trip to uncover new innovations in marketing and discover ways to better use four digital linchpins: Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube.

Weaving a New Web

Some big themes emerged from the trip. The structure, content, and usage of the web is changing. Here’s how:

More than ever, online micro-tribes are being built around common interests. These tribes are forming around two-way conversations. Companies can optimize their online presence by engaging in a combination of “blast communication” (i.e. writing op-eds) and two-way communication (i.e. Twitter chats).

Audience targeting in every media platform (particularly LinkedIn) is getting increasingly better. For a decade, Google has had great search advertising products, but over half of the products we discussed with LinkedIn are less than six months old. There is tremendous innovation happening at LinkedIn.

The web is moving from text to images and video, and will end up at Virtual Reality and immersive experiences. The implications for marketing are obvious: more video content, more interactive experiences, and more visual experiences (such as live online events). Live streaming tools (i.e. Meerkat, Periscope, Blab.im) are game-changers for brands and personalities. They allow for two-way conversations between brands and fans or followers and help to build authentic relationships through the immediacy of un-edited, real-time footage.

 Old Dogs, New Tricks

While these new tools and their experiential impact on users are certainly game-changers, several of the most interesting conversations involved established platforms. Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube may be ancient in web-years, but they’ve also proven their agility again and again.

Google

The Alphabet reorganization is generally well-received at Google. The core Google search business is increasingly more about execution than innovation. They have segmented all of their customers and are trying to gradually gain share of spending with their mid-market segment (spending less than $4 million per year). They have huge share in search and are fighting to ensure they maintain that share in mobile.

Facebook

Facebook’s core strategy is using its rich demographic data for high-quality advertising targeting. Google knows very little about people (except what they are searching for, which turns out to be extremely valuable). Facebook knows everything about people (from all the data each user shares). While Google answers a user question, Facebook is basically interrupting a user with its ads. Thus the Facebook advertising team is working hard to partner with large advertisers on taking a more appealing storytelling approach to its ads.

In organizational form, Facebook increasingly resembles Alphabet. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has hired a number of senior leaders, and he is managing each product as an independent P&L. Zuckerberg is challenging the teams at WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger (the spin-out of Facebook’s instant messaging application) to each build billion-dollar businesses. He is delegating more and more in an effort to empower senior leaders to build their business.

LinkedIn

Once one of the most slow-growing of the social networks, now has eight times more unique visitors than The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. The LinkedIn network reaches more C-suite and “business elite” users (approximately 700,000) than any other measured site. As a result, if you want to be an influencer in your industry, you should use LinkedIn as a dynamic platform rather than as merely an online resume. You should post.

The ideal post length for LinkedIn is 750–2,000 words. LinkedIn recommends making two substantive (long-form) posts per month. Users can most easily grow and connect by jumping in the conversation; commenting on other popular LinkedIn articles is a good way to optimize your presence and contribute to the community.

LinkedIn has been slower than Google and Facebook to develop advertising products for marketing products and services, but they are increasingly focused on this area and have tremendous new innovation. Their newest product allows users to leverage LinkedIn first-party data to target in-network display campaigns across various publishers (including Forbes, CNN, ABC, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, to name a few).

YouTube

YouTube is one of the fastest growing fiefdoms in the Google empire. There is tremendous excitement about it. Shareability is the sine qua non of a great YouTube video. Snarkiness, humor, and remixes (or remakes) of other videos also work well.

While major advertisers are migrating million-dollar spends, YouTube allows highly shareable ads to be recorded inexpensively and then overlaid on relevant content—all on a pay-per-view basis. Thus, unlike LinkedIn, it is possible to trial smaller YouTube advertising buys.

Staying Ahead

The pace of innovation (and creative destruction) at these companies is rapid. Marketers need to keep up, both by staying on top of the changes and by leveraging them to customers’ benefit. This may mean a sea-change for some companies; those without video departments, for instance, will need to re-think their priorities. Companies also need to be able to focus on the forest and the trees at the same time, taking a microscope to their audience targeting while simultaneously creating bigger, more technically complex interactive experiences.

It’s a good thing marketers love a good challenge, isn’t it?