Why ‘Meaningful Interactions’ Should Be the Currency We All Trade in Today

Mark Zuckerberg is right, we need to focus people's well-being

Mark Zuckerberg recently announced sweeping changes to Facebook's algorithm. Getty Images
Headshot of Greg James

Facebook has been under fire for chasing dollars rather than ‘likes’, Marc Pritchard is sainted for trashing the “content crap trap” and every day another news story breaks on the ease of inadvertently attaching a brand’s content to racist, sexist or violent images—all in the (often automated) name of reaching ‘ever more accurate’ eyeballs for ‘ever decreasing’ CPMs.

So we live in risky times it seems, or at least a time when the overwhelming volume and variety of content that can be monetized has created a thrashing sea of opportunity or perhaps instead a classic issue of quantity over quality—and the tide has to turn.

The story goes that planning and buying media has never been more automated or more accurate—so why aren’t we in a utopian world of marketing ROAS being so incredible we’re all buying new Hamptons homes and spending the winter in St. Barts?

Well, over the past 10 years at Havas we’ve been tracking how ‘meaningful’ a brand is to consumers. Sadly, as we’ve published our findings every 18 months or so, we know from some 300,000 consumers surveyed that brands are losing their meaning, not gaining it. At this point, in the U.S., 74 percent of brands could disappear tomorrow and no one would care—practically everything can be substituted, switched or forgotten.

In those same 10 years, the single biggest boom in advertising opportunity has been digital reach—exponential growth year on year, month on month. The first Meaningful Brands survey was in 2008—a year when digital ad spend in the U.S. was $21 billion—today it’s forecast is over $90 billion. If it’s so much more accurate and compelling, why is it not playing a greater role in building meaningfulness for our brands?

The explosion of digital opportunity has done several things to media clients and agencies but here’s two that seem pretty important to me: Firstly, a move to digital-first planning and audience buying has inherently impacted the planning process for clients. In many cases the appeal of automation and digitization has led to a shift in resources away from traditional planning methods that can look kind of outdated in a universe that seems to hold all the answers.

Clients are generally less inclined to invest in workshop discussions around the customer mindset, journey and persona—why would they when analytics has the answers, right?

The second and more significant impact of the digital revolution is price. And here’s where Mark Zuckerberg, agencies and clients are all guilty. In Facebook’s case, post IPO, the business had to keep delivering new revenues as fast as it was delivering new users, but in mature markets like the U.S. Facebook was just that—mature—so revenue trumped experience and ad dollars were the priority. The user experience began to suffer as we chased these high-value eyeballs and ironically the very act of advertising on the platform so heavily degraded the value of Facebook to the user. We’re our own worst enemy.

So it’s not just Zuckerberg and Facebook who think we should return to meaningful, fulfilling content among a real community. The same is true for advertisers and their agencies—we’ve been able to find ever cheaper, ever more programmatic audiences, but we haven’t always really thought about how meaningful that content was to the audience or our customer. Yes there’s brand safety measures in place, but it’s about more than that today. Just because it’s a safe space, doesn’t make it meaningful.

How do we return to meaningful interaction? Well first, the media owners have a duty of care which Zuckerberg’s announcement makes clear—focus on the audience, the customer, the user, give them an experience they value, (longer term thinking than short-term stock market KPIS!).

For the advertisers’ part, and their agencies, today we have to recognize that well beyond reach and frequency, our metrics are relevance and recency—recent is key because the noise comes at us so fast as consumers, and relevance above all because as audiences and customers our choices are endless.

At Havas we believe that we actually need to rethink what we are all trading in when we plan and buy media. We are making Meaningful Brands more than a benchmark global survey, we’re creating a new currency with which we go to market, moving beyond a GRP to an MRP—a Meaningful Rating Point.

In video, that means we no longer buy just on how big a show’s audience is, but instead we want to understand how meaningful this content is to the audience, so we factor in how many episodes in a season the audience is returning for, how loud these followers are about the show on social media or how keen they are to watch—live, C3 or C30.

Digitally, meaningfulness is much harder to navigate. All of us are fickle but there are power-brands at play in media today that have begun to truly mean something to their daily visitors and Facebook may still be king among them. Zuckerberg’s return to the values of the Facebook community could help us all find more meaning for customers in where we place our brands and deliver better results that truly help us create value for customer, company and communities.

@greg_james Greg James is chief strategy officer of Havas Media U.S.