LONDON // A chimp and a dog entwined in each other’s arms, or a hipster who finds love feeding a tiny puppy called Chloe.
Even the most cynical viewer will find it hard not to be moved by the animal stars of two of the most-shared adverts globally of 2015 – the first for Android phones and the second for the puppy food Purina.
Unruly, the video tech company that ranks the most-shared ads, is one of the UK’s fastest-growing tech-start ups and it is about to celebrate its first anniversary of opening in Dubai.
Unruly works with advertising agencies and brands to make sure that their videos are “hot” and achieve maximum shares.
It has developed algorithms to test how well a video will do and can predict its “shareability” and track its popularity after launch. It also has an automated video distribution platform for the Web outside Facebook and YouTube – known as the open Web – and a video player, which brands can use to put their digital content into articles.
“Typically a brand might decide that they want to put their TV ad online, to get more value out of it,” says Dan Best, the director of planning and activation at Unruly.
“Increasingly, though, brands are realising that social is a medium in its own right. They might want to create content specifically for social media.”
The business “that knows how to make videos go viral”, founded by an academic, Sarah Wood, and her husband in 2006, had been something of a secret in the London borough of Shoreditch until last September, when it was snapped up for Â£114 million (Dh596.5m) by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
With a hefty price tag, this deal showed News Corp’s desire to be at the cutting edge of digital publishing.
And in the British tech scene, it showed that a home-grown digital company could attract a global player without having to trek off to Silicon Valley.
Barry Dudley, a partner at Green Square, which provides corporate finance to the media sector, thinks the deal could be a good buy for the media giant.
“They have not only bought a well-regarded company with a track record of helping to create great content, they’ve also acquired some serious management talent, a very useful suite of analytics tools – it’s cheaper and quicker to acquire this capability than develop it yourself – and a company that’s generated over two trillion views for its content.
“The key, however, is whether or not News Corp can actually integrate Unruly into its businesses,” Mr Dudley says. “There’s little point in spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fashionable, high-growth companies if you don’t work very hard to ensure they enhance the business you already have.”
In the Middle East, Unruly has partnered Dubai’s Future Tech Media. The latter’s clients are drawn from western brands such as BMW who want to advertise to Middle East audiences, and home-grown brands, including the likes of Emirates, who want help to reach both local and international audiences. A lot of the media agencies who would be likely to work with Unruly in the US and the United Kingdom are also active in Dubai.
Mr Best says that while it is still early days, consumers in the Middle East are “super sharers”, in that they are more likely to share a post than people in other countries.
There are many points of similarity between Middle East and western markets, not least the misconception that it is only younger people – “millennials” in ad-land speak – that share content.
“There’s a huge appetite for social video across the region, with viewers more likely than the global average to engage with video content. According to data from hundreds of campaigns we’ve run across the Middle East, share rates and click through rates are three times higher than the global average,” Mr Best says.
One of the reasons Unruly is keen to be in the Middle East is that digital ad spent is expected to increase by 37 per cent every year in the region to reach US$1 billion by 2017.
“What you do find is that certain users will gravitate towards certain platforms. Facebook is the most popular platform for video sharing, followed (a long way behind) by Twitter and then Tumblr,” Mr Best adds.
Some of the emotional triggers Unruly identifies in other markets – pride, nostalgia, for example – translate even better in the Middle East than in western Europe. But there is also more sensitivity around triggers that would normally work in the West – some styles of humour, for example, can be tricky.
“What is different is nuances. Obviously, you also need to have a cultural sensitivity around things like alcohol and religion. But we have never had anything banned or blocked in the Middle East and everywhere in the world, if we are working with more controversial content, we would liaise closely with the client,” Mr Best says.
“We’re massively into brand safety because you have to be,” he says.
Unruly links brands with its network of people who are skilled at making content specifically for social media.
“You need a broader toolkit,” says Mr Best. “For a start, people are probably looking at the content vertically [on a phone] and timing is much more critical. You can’t make a funny video about something that happened three weeks ago,” he adds.
Unruly has statistics to show that the peak shareability for an ad is three days after launch, after that the chances of people sharing it plunge. After 12 days, the shareability of an ad is minimal and after 30 extremely slim.
The format through which video content is most often shared, is changing, too. For instance, in 2015 Snapchat and Instagram took off in the United States and Europe, as well as surging in the Middle East, attracting different audiences to Facebook and Twitter, still the dominant sharing platforms. “Advertising agencies and media buying agencies are familiar with making content for traditional media, but new social media has new rules,” says Mr Best. “You need a whole different range of collateral and there are a lot of myths about what works best in video, many of which we can bust.”
Simply putting your made-for-TV advert on YouTube will not cut it. For a start, three out of every four video views now takes place outside YouTube.
This is where Unruly comes in. By analysing 1.3 trillion video views and 116 million shares a day, Unruly both predicts shareability and programmatically targets custom audiences across video, mobile and native ad formats.
Looking ahead for 2016, the Middle East’s wider media industry will probably face a tough year, as low oil revenues feed through to lower budgets. But while the wider media environment is down, surging year-on-year growth in digital is still anticipated.
“We are now witnessing the fastest transition of ad budgets in history as marketers and agencies scramble to catch up with consumers’ embrace of the mobile way of life,” says Steve King, the chief executive of the media agency Zenith Optimedia.
Unilever’s chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, said last year he would push advertising into the digital space, in proportion to the time people in that market spend online. “I will drive Unilever to be at the leading edge of digital and digital marketing,” he said. “This is not because I have a love of digital. What is absolutely clear is that the consumer is spending more and more time engaging in the digital.”
Unilever, the world’s second-biggest advertiser, also wants to use digital and big data to help it bring new products to market. Its YouTube channel, AllThingsHair, provides hair tutorials with bloggers based on big data analysis of Google searches.
But the biggest worry for brands putting money into digital content is whether it will be seen – as ad-blocking technology finds more converts.
Brands do not want to throw their hard-won marketing spend at creating digital content that cannot get through ad blockers. Also, the sort of audiences who will block content tend to be the younger, tech-savvy affluent users that brands want to reach.
Mr Best admits it is a problem for publishers – newspapers and broadcasters – creative services industries and the brands themselves. “The consumer is saying no to the user experience.
“They are also unhappy with the way that their data is being used. People find it creepy that a pair of shoes you clicked on once follows you around the Web. There is an obligation on all the parties involved to work together to find a way that enhances the consumer experience,” he says.
There is, as yet, no solution to the ad-blocking problem.
But there is a fortunate side-effect: brands, encouraged by the likes of Unruly, are committed to making content on the open Web amazing to get eyeballs.
Next time you are tempted to skip the ad, think again. You just might miss a cracker.
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