Why marketers need to learn to speak blockchain

Odds are you’ve already heard about how blockchain will transform marketing. And for brand builders who want to be ahead of the curve, it’s always a good idea to embrace the future rather than run into it head on.

It took 10 years for digital to move from next big thing to big thing. It took at least five years for mobile to make the same leap. With blockchain, however, there are already indications it can drive real positive change in advertising in terms of better targeting, less fraud, more consumer trust and much more control over data privacy.

PepsiCo recently completed a trial using blockchain technology to run programmatic ad campaigns that avoided the usual pitfalls of viewability, brand safety and fraud. The verdict? A 28% increase in efficiency, made possible by smart contracts based on verified ad impressions. It’s a good start, and just one way the technology that built cryptocurrencies can change the way marketers do their jobs.

Details of the Pepsi project, in partnership with Mindshare, were released just after the Blockchain Research Institute (BRI) brought its Blockchain Revolution Global event to downtown Toronto this spring. The content tilted towards supply chain, fintech, medical records, education credentialing and, of course, lots of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. But there were several sessions on blockchain and marketing that offered great takeaways.

“Next big things” always generate a lot of hype. But Jeremy Epstein, CEO of Never Stop Marketing and a presenter at the conference, insisted that the blockchain buzz is warranted.

Epstein, who authored a paper for the BRI on what the CMO needs to learn from this disruptive technology, predicted that it will be as impactful to marketing as the birth of the internet. There are several key areas to watch, he said: transparency and measurement (for engagement and ad spend); safety (for fraud and privacy); e-commerce and authentication.

Based on a few presentations and a panel at the BRI event, here are five ways all marketers should start thinking about blockchain, so they can speak the language and ride the wave:

#1 Don’t overuse the B word

A bit like Fight Club, the first rule is don’t talk about blockchain. People get bored when they hear it and tend to jump to the conclusion you’re a Bitcoin punter. Generally, don’t get lost in the weeds over the tech talk, cautioned Emily Coleman, a blockchain specialist and past CMO at Shapeshift, a crypto exchange. Focus on what you are doing for the user and consumer; how does it improve your product and service. “There is a lot of noise, so what makes you stand out?”

The best way to have your pitch to media go dead on arrival is to use the word blockchain, warned Lana McGilvray, then a principal at BlastPR and advisor to the CMO Club. “The future is really about how does [blockchain] make a CMO a super hero.” That means talk about how the technology is driving lift and results, not about the technology.

#2 Bring back consumer trust and safety

Epstein likes to call blockchain the “trust machine” that will transform advertising, data analytics, branding and customer experience. The goal is to regain the promise of data for good, the premise being that the technology is based on a distributed ledger of encrypted agreements that stays intact to bring transparency and authentication. That’s applicable whether you’re buying ads, collecting data, sourcing suppliers, doing micro-payments, creating legal contracts or distributing music royalties.

For marketers, recent data breaches and consumer privacy violations have eroded trust in a big way. “I think there are good apples and bad apples in every industry, and I think the best CMOs [and] agency leaders … have always wanted to do things right,” said McGilvray. Blockchain can help rebuild that trust.

Tracking, in particular, has become oppressive and left consumers with nowhere to hide, said Hilary Carter, managing director at BRI. “Where we find ourselves now is in a surveillance economy, and publishers like Facebook and others are so intent on capturing the tiniest of details about who we are so that they can target us better—it’s actually unsettling.”

#3 Better targeting = more pull, less push

“For so long, advertising has treated people as targets and not as people,” said Carter. She looks forward to leveraging technology to reinvent that model, where advertising is no longer pushed at people, and marketers instead develop more of a “direct relationship with consumers.”

That kind of change requires users and customers to feel safe in sharing their data, opinions and survey responses, and actually become a part of the experience of “co-creating” a brand or product, she said. The key is that it’s a pull-driven process, at the consumer’s own volition and because they care about the outcome.

How that can happen will involve assurances of safety, and one way to get there is with “privacy-first” browsers that take away the power of the internet’s current gatekeepers—the ISPs and web browsers that have free access to your web data. Another way for users to take control of their data is through decentralized app networks like Blockstack. Blockchain technology is an enabler in both cases.

Based on blockchain controls, users can more easily set permissions on which data get shared, under which circumstances, and what they want to receive in terms of ads or offers. That could be one big step forward toward the elusive, true anonymization of personal data. It also sets up the potential for consumers to be compensated when a permitted third party monetizes that data externally. That means we won’t just have a right to control our own data, but also to sell it for personal profit.

#4 More transparency, less fraud

There is a good reason Pepsi and Mindshare conducted their recent study. Ad tech has created new ways to target, but the various players are also middlemen eating a lot of profit margin while playing loose with ad fraud. Marketers have gotten wiser and have started asking questions, said Duri Alajrami, vice-president of marketing at Moneris, a leading payments firm.

“Those hundreds of billions of impressions that you buy—as a company like Moneris—every year… Are those truly worth the money you are investing in?”

Alajrami is most excited about blockchain because of the potential to bring absolute transparency, which will enable advertisers to see the value of the media they are buying—one of the goals Pepsi and Mindshare have been setting out to discover.

“What we’ve started to discover is the challenge of realizing value is not just about measuring properly the traffic and the impressions and the audiences and the engagements we are getting, but also being able to… obtain a certain level of transparency in terms of the audience that we are engaging with and the media that you are buying,” he said. “Blockchain is truly the beginning of the democratization of value” and signals the beginning of “true respect for the customer.”

#5 Hold your CMO job for more than two years

The C-Suite rolls over a lot, but no position rolls often as quickly as the CMO. If blockchain can help with efforts to prove results, it may extend career lifespans. “I think the three biggest benefits [of blockchain] to CMOs are things we have always wanted for career longevity,” said McGilvray.

  • CMOs want access to knowledge: “We want insights and when you have access to a ledger and you have secure data and the ability to get that insight in a better way, that’s really powerful.”
  • CMOs want efficiency: “It doesn’t feel good to know, whether it’s through an agency or brand direct that 44 cents on every dollar is not going toward what you’re paying for,” she said, referring to one of the common calculations of media spend going to ad tech in the programmatic ad system.
  • And CMOs want tremendous relationships with consumers: “I think blockchain offers all of that.”

David Thomas is business media consultant and past editor at Marketing, MoneySense and other media brands.