Former Virgin online marketing head on the future of online advertising

Alex Hunter is an independent digital ninja, brand consultant and angel investor who built a grassroots marketing campaign for Virgin America before heading out on his own. He shares his insights on getting large brands online, paywalls and what the future of online advertising might look like.

MB: Should online publishers be looking at more innovative ways of generating revenue online?

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AH: There are so many digital options available; from wap sites and apps, to websites, to Facebook pages, to viral video campaigns, to email campaigns – how does a brand decide what to prioritise, what to tackle first and which is the best fit for their brand?

The temptation is to go out and be everywhere at once. Especially if you are arriving at social media late in the game, so the legacy brands make this mistake often. And the chances are that you’re gonna fail because it’s too thin on the ground, the medium is too quick and there are no resources to continue conversations you start with consumer. So you’re not gonna keep up.

You’re going to upsets consumers so rather take a breath and listen. Find out where people are already talking about you and then gauge the tone and the type of conversation. Maybe its Facebook, Twitter or a niche blog. But it’s crucial to find out where your customers already exist.

MB: Do you agree with the new push for paid content we are seeing among many traditional online publishing brands?

AH: My gut as a consumer says no. But I can understand why it’s happening. You have to protect content. I think the traditional media need to get smarter about monetizing content. But on the other hand, with paywalls, page views may be dropping by 90%, as some people are saying, but if they’re monetising the paid views by 150% they’re winning. But it does run against the ethos of a shared web.

Look, I would rather see them do this than see the publications go out of business. Some people are getting it right. They guys at Forbes say their subscriptions are going through the roof because their print is complementary to their web, and both play to the particular strengths of the mediums.

MB: Are publishers leaving innovation in online advertising to companies like Google, Apple, Admob and Facebook?

AH: No. The innovation is coming from blogs. Endgadget, Gizmodo, Techcrunch, they’re the ones who are innovating. Not that Time, Newsweek etc are not. But the really interesting stuff is in the blog space.

And I think it’s because they had to fight all the way up from non-existence, which makes them great at adapting to conditions.

MB: Will banner advertising as a medium ever be able to hold its head up high with other major advertising mediums such as TV and radio commercials?

AH: Banner not so much, but the internet as a platform, yes. Banner has remained stagnant and we are getting pretty good at ignoring them now.

But Facebook ads platform is showing amazing potential. It’s customisable, preference based, targetable, all of which makes it a hugely powerful tool. And the structure to cost is good.

So that’s definitely the space to be watching.

MB: Do you think traditional online publishers could offer more than their main staple, which is banner advertising? What more could they do here?

AH: Trends show that we trust our friend’s recommendations more than we trust recommendations from companies. How can online publishers and companies tap into this?
I talk about ‘do you listen to recommendations from your friends or from a paper you never read anyway?’ Obviously you listen to your friends for a number of reasons: similar taste, circle etc…The nice thing about the social web is that the definition of friends has expanded exponentially. Through Twitter, Yelp, etc. we can post our thoughts and get relevance and recommendations from our friends.

And then we can respond instantly. Conversion goes through the roof.

MB: What will the industry look like in 10 years time?

AH: Kind of like the film, Minority Report. It will be highly targeted to the individual.
Some other things that I think will happen:

1) Consumer is going to release far more info into the wild and we’ll be targeted.
2) Ads will feel less like ads and more like recommendations.
3) Ads augmented with “x number of friends have done this or that”
4) Smart brands already do this already. Will become pervasive.
5) Philosophy will trickle on to tv when Hulu etc. go mainstream.

MB: Which new technologies most excite you?

AH: Mobile. People have been saying that for ages but it’s really starting to happen now.

Another one is location technology and the whole gaming nature of it.
Starbucks, McDonalds have already figured out the potential of geo-location software because information about behaviour and location of your customers are right there to use. You can target the customer perfectly. It’s mind-blowingly powerful and for advertisers, the chances of consumers reacting to your ads is huge.

MB: Why, in your opinion, is Google not cracking the social networking game?

AH: They’re thinking about it. It clearly bothers them that they’re not getting it.
Google do a lot of things really well, but I think it’s true that the most valuable things have come out of experimentation. Their best stuff came out of the 20% rule where people work on their own projects. Even Adwords came out of that.

But things like Buzz and Google Wave are engineered for engineers by engineers. They had insanely smart people working to impress each other. If Google gets into social and does it well, at this point, it will probably be through an acquisition.

MB: What in your opinion will be the next Google, Facebook and Twitter?

AH: I don’t see too many gargantuan things in the near future. Niche things.

I’d be surprised if Foursquare and Gowalla weren’t acquired soon.

MB: How did you end up in your current field?

AH: I have run my own brand consulting, angel investing firm for about a year. Before that I was head of online for the Virgin mother brand,
So in all, I’ve probably had about 6 or 7 years in online.

The interest in marketing and branding stuff came from customer service. My dad was always into the Tom Peters.

MB: What is the most fulfilling project you have worked on?

AH: Launching Virgin America without a doubt. I joined when our reception was just a foldaway card table. Those were the early, early days. I got to work with mind-blowing people. We developed the company from nothing. High highs and low lows. I remember the feeling when our application to fly was denied.

The Grassroots campaign was also exhausting but exhilarating.

MB: What was your biggest failure and how did you deal with it?

AH: My biggest failure was probably working on a 50-year old company in the health and wellness sector. They were so mired in process and tradition that they couldn’t move out of it.

My biggest failing was not pushing hard enough, not overturning legacy thinking and just doing it.

MB: What do you love most about your job?

AH: Best part for me is the angel investing, and the company advisory. I love working with smart, enthusiastic people who are not necessarily in it for the money, but who just wanna go and get it done. They just wanna make people’s day. It’s very rewarding to do.

MB: Why did you attend the Tech4Africa conference?

AH: There is so much innovation going on in Africa, especially in South Africa. The rest of the world isn’t always hearing about it. I’ve been coming here since 1997. I’ve seen innovation going on, and there is now an opportunity for the people who are creating magic here to make it known on a global stage. It’s time for everyone to feed off each other and to share solutions.

MB: What would you most like Tech4Africa attendees to take away from your talk?

AH: That you may not ignore your brand at any point in its existence. Branding is often handled lazily. But your brand is a physical manifestation of all that you are.

Big, established brands need to respect the social media. Consumers drive the brand so let go and embrace the web as the most powerful platform they will ever have in their existence.

MB: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing African tech growth?

Infrastructure limitations, same issue as UK. Not a whole lot of people in the investor space who understand tech and web. There is a huge vacuum of people who are willing to open their wallets and get into the web tech space. Wonderful ideas are dying on the white board.
There needs to be a support network in place.

MB: What advice would you give to a tech start-up trying to get a great idea off the ground?

AH: Meet your peers. Network. Share ideas, challenges, solutions. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who are having the same problem you are. Just do it. It doesn’t have to be polished. Put it out there and allow it to get traction.

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