Brian Wong is co-founder and CEO of Kiip (pronounced "keep"), a rewards network that is attempting to redefine mobile advertising via a platform that leverages “moments of achievement” in games and apps to simultaneously benefit users, developers, and advertisers.
Wong spoke recently at the Internet Marketing Association’s Impact14 event, in Las Vegas. One of the most interesting points Wong made during his talk was something that applies to all marketing and advertising in this digital age: “When technology made it easier to deliver marketing messages, we forgot about respecting the consumer. And when you don’t respect someone, you lose permission to talk to them. It’s that simple.”
After skipping four K-12 grades, Wong received his Bachelor of Commerce from the University of British Columbia at age 18; shortly after he became one of the youngest people to ever receive venture capital funding. CMO.com followed up with this wunderkind to delve a little deeper into permission marketing, serendipity, and his “moment” strategy.
CMO.com: First, tell me a little bit about Kiip and what you saw as a need in the digital marketing space.
Wong: The idea really came, first, from looking at the rapid growth of mobile gaming activity. You know, I found myself on planes, and I noticed that everyone who was awake was playing games on their phones or pads while pretending to work.
And I was like, well, that’s interesting. What is it about mobile gaming that’s so enticing? I then noticed that there was this “achievement moment,” when leveling up or hitting a high score took place. And then it hit me—it was like, wow, so this is where people are actually happy on their devices. What if we take these moments when people were actually happy, and instead of having an ad there that wasn’t necessarily recognizing that happiness, find a way to actually build on top of that happiness? That’s kind of where the idea for Kiip was born.
CMO.com: Well, that’s really kind of the Holy Grail for marketers—to hit that interaction, that experience, with the customer at the right place, at the right time, with the right thing.
Wong: Correct. I think when you look at the moment as an insight, it’s less about just the word and more about the fact that, with the connected generation, we are obsessed with instant gratification. We really live through these behaviors in real time because our phones are so optimized for addressing those needs, whether it be communication, social networking, even ordering food from the car. I think, for brands, understanding this new vision of mobile is key.
CMO.com: Are you specifically focused on a younger demographic, or do you think this holds true across all demographics?
Wong: All demographics. I always make it clear that I’m not trying to be ageist or generationist. I think everyone who is using a smartphone is in the same generation. This makes us all the connected generation, and that connected generation is so powerful because of our understanding and our capability. We almost have a superpower now because we have this thing in our pocket.
But it’s also a big fear for a lot of marketers because they think they’re losing control and all that other stuff I’m sure you’ve heard before. What I’m trying to do is bring back the control to marketers by saying, “When you understand the moment that people are experiencing as they’re using these devices, you actually have better insight as to how your brand can play there.” You’re not going to command the attention of every one of your consumers every minute of every day. But if you know what they’re doing, and you can be a part of that and participate—and in the Kiip model, it’s via some form of serendipitous award—it could be quite powerful.
CMO.com: So is it basically context-based?
Wong: One hundred percent. Let’s say I’m Gatorade, and I want a fitness moment. Imagine someone then in your fitness app logging a run and serendipitously being acknowledged and rewarded by Gatorade. That illustrates the power of knowing the moment that is occurring, and then bringing a brand in there in a way that’s very organic and respecting of the consumer.
The one thing I would add is that every single one of our rewards is serendipitous, so everything is surprise and delight. Now why did we choose that? Well, we want you to use that running app because you want to use a running app, not because you want the reward. I think you might have seen other marketers take the, I would say, more transactional approach to rewards and incentives—let me use this to make you do something, in other words. But I’d actually rather say, let the consumer be who they are, and then be there to accommodate them.
The one line we love using, by the way, is, instead of having the rewards define the behavior, we prefer to have the behavior define the reward.
CMO.com: That’s interesting. When I heard you speak recently, one of the topics that piqued my interest was the idea that marketers and brands are losing their permission to market from the customer. Could you talk a little bit more about your thinking on that loss of permission and what we can do?
Wong: Yeah, well, that could be an entire article, in my opinion. I feel like that is a conversation for not only myself to weigh into, but everyone who has either played in the traditional marketing space or is attempting to innovate more. I guess why I came up with that line was, when you looked at the way advertising used to play in our lives, it was very content-driven, emotion-driven. You watched a great TV show, the ads were entertaining. It was almost telling you that, hey, laundry detergent exists now. Your life is so much easier.
And that’s kind of the golden days of advertising. I think what happened was that, when technology made it easier to deliver those messages, we forgot about respecting the consumer. And when you don’t respect someone, you lose permission to talk to them. It’s that simple. I think what’s happening is we almost forgot that respect is required because we’ve had some wiggle room, but that room is shrinking to the point where consumers are paying money to remove ads.
I think the first signs of this came from the TiVo generation. Skipping ads. But that was just the early days. Now you’re seeing full-blown ad blocking. It’s kind of frightening for marketers. This is a crisis—millions of people every day paying money to remove us as an industry.
CMO.com: Clearly there’s something going on here—we’ve run a couple of articles about it. But are marketers taking it seriously enough, and what should they do?
Wong: What I think marketers are going to do is be more annoying. When someone is ignoring you because you are annoying, you try to get their attention by being more annoying and maybe then they’ll pay attention. But it just doesn’t work long term. It might work temporarily, but it just isn’t going to leave a good taste in people’s mouths.
CMO.com: What will work, in the long term?
Wong: My words of encouragement to the marketing community are that we need to figure out ways to invent new permissions. Now, look at the past five years, when some of the world’s most successful marketing and advertising has been from companies with products that have essentially invented new permission. Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, essentially, the permission came from the fact that you were connecting me with my friends or family, and I thanked you for that. And then Twitter gave me such real-time access to the world and what was going on, and I thanked you for that. And Google, of course, you gave me additional information about what I was searching for and navigating the Web and getting what services and products I want. I gave you permission to tell me more about other products that I might want.
For Kiip, the permission we’re trying to invent is the whole magic of congratulations. The whole idea is when I congratulate you for something, or I acknowledge you for what you’ve done, you’re not going to interrupt me and say, “All right, stop congratulating me for something that I did.” People invite that. They want to feel like what they have just done is being acknowledged, and that is the power that we’re trying to bring into our model. And we are encouraging a lot of brands to attempt to leverage the idea. But it will only work in models that are responsible about how we reward, because if we reward every single time you do something, then it loses the allure.
CMO.com: Do you think that this is a whole new way to look at marketing, or do you think it’s just the “next big thing”? And is it unique to you and Kiip and what you do, or do you think there is a broader strategy here for all marketers?
Wong: This is a philosophy that every marketer can engage in. They can look across the consumer’s journey and understand that someone will feel something somewhere, and realize that that’s where you acknowledge them. That’s what I hope marketers can understand—that these moments are not an opportunity to promote some other product or hit consumers over the head with a coupon, but rather to know that they have actually felt something. That offers the opportunity for your product to really shine and be able to connect with them emotionally.
And I think that’s what differentiates a lot of products today. Let’s face it, there are a lot of technologies that are quite commoditized today—that is, the same functionality for multiple brands. But the ones that truly seem to understand how you feel are really the ones that we’re the most loyal to. That’s the type of subjectivity we’re trying to bring back into the equation.
CMO.com: So it’s really connecting with the consumer in a more authentic way?
Wong: Correct. It’s in a more human way. And that’s why I’m so excited about the concept of serendipity, because serendipity is quite human. That’s how we live our lives. That’s how we get delighted, that’s how we grow and create experiences. Anything preplanned or too contrived is where you lose the magic. So there are moments worth personalizing and moments where serendipity is key.
That’s why I think we need to start orienting ourselves around this currency of engagement. That isn’t just the click, that isn’t just the impression—we now are adding a layer of subjectivity that is truly human-driven. I think it’s the final frontier in how we create digital products to be more powerful.
CMO.com: What do you think is the impetus for this?
Wong: It’s all part of the evolution. I’m saying we’ve just arrived, we’re there now, where we can attempt to look at when these emotions take place. By the way, it’s the mass adoption of smartphones and the mass adoption of connected devices that has gotten us here, because never before has such a large percentage of the population held a device that can, in real time, understand when something occurred. And because we now know when something occurred, and we are constantly connected, we can address it. That’s powerful.
So the one-liner here is that, instead of real-time marketing, we call it real-time needs addressing. I think that’s where marketers should shift their mind-set. We’re not there just to tell you about products anymore. We, as marketers, have to address those needs because we have the ability to see the context now. That’s what’s so powerful.
CMO.com: So even beyond mobile and connected devices, the Internet is probably where this plays out as we go forward.
Wong: Absolutely. And it may be called something completely different. But imagine the generation that’s being born now. If you’re born in 2014, you don’t know of a world that doesn’t have connected cars, connected thermostats, connected watches, connected you-name-it. And that is a revolution that will continue, as cellular connectivity becomes more and more cost-efficient and devices are rolled out with this baked into it. I think the consumer expectation has always been that connectivity will be there. It’s just that we’ve been using the cell phone as a proxy, and I think that’s a good thing.
CMO.com: So, really, a new form of connecting with the consumer is needed in the digital world.
Wong: Absolutely. That would be a line I would actually say. And what I would add is that it’s our responsibility not to mess this one up, for lack of a better way to put it.
CMO.com: Do you have one final thought? One idea that CMOs and other heads of marketing might want to take on in 2015?
Wong: I would say it’s this: Attempt to identify some type of a “moment” strategy. You can call it whatever you want, but across all your products and channels there are consumers interacting with you. Audit where they are feeling something. You will encounter something quite powerful. And that’s where you can begin to unearth other opportunities that emerge.