Have you ever clicked on an interesting-looking article or cute listicle, only to realize it’s “promoted content”?

Or been scrolling and saw something you really liked and actually wanted to buy, and then realized a targeted ad had actually worked on you?

I always have a moment of “gotcha” annoyance when that happens, as though I’d let my guard down and allowed myself to be manipulated. Even though I know the scale and complexity of that manipulation machine, and just how much it already knows about me to drive those recommendations.

Is this the “relationship” brands want to build with prospects and customers? On one level, though, at least the intentions of those ads are clear: They want my clicks and want me to buy stuff. And then they’ll harvest and sell my data about what I clicked on and bought…

Remember back when there was so much talk about building relationships, increasing “engagement” with customers and getting people to “join the conversation”?

This made sense to the people developing those programs. But in the early days when this type of marketing was a more primitive, blunt instrument, it often made little sense to the average person. We just wanted to buy socks or get our oil changed, and had little interest in a tête-à-tête – or ongoing relationship – with the provider.

Fast forward a few years, though, and things have definitely evolved. Influencers ink multimillion-dollar deals for brand partnerships and sponsored content, typically built on a foundation of their chosen online media platform. Those who’ve really made it have their own branded product lines, which they can shill via the platform that made them famous, or even beyond into retail outlets.

Which is kind of curious. If you’re a famous YouTuber who got your start and all your exposure on that platform, are you solely the brand, or is YouTube also part of the brand? Would fans follow you elsewhere or consume your content as avidly in a different medium?

Maybe, I suspect, especially if that medium provided something new or more. Like it gave the impression of greater access or further engagement between star and fan.

Because a lot of fans do feel like they have a relationship with these people, and will happily buy whatever they’re selling, despite the fact that they have never actually had a personal interaction and likely never will. One bit of brilliance, though, is that the impression of a one-to-one star-fan relationship means there’s no visible gatekeeper to dampen enthusiasm.

Fans will also shell out for earlier or more exclusive access to their favourites’ content, which can also make them feel like they’re bigger fans or more dedicated to their fandom. That part of the model isn’t an evolution, though. Celebs have been cashing in on that for centuries.

For a lot of those stars, direct acknowledgement of partnerships or sponsorships is pretty much part of the brand. Though as far as I am aware, it’s still considered bad form – online especially – not to be open about sponsorship. People are also often very explicit that something is not sponsored when waxing rhapsodic about it.

But it can get slippery, too. I’ve also seen posts where someone’s talking about a company or product they love, and there’s no mention of sponsorship. But then they end the post with a discount code. Which, presumably, they got from the company, so there’s some sort of relationship there. And resulting sales would result in affiliate revenue, sooo… 

The pandemic has and will also spur evolution in how companies engage in more traditional sponsorship, especially for things like events. Consider conferences. There aren’t any at present, at least not as we’re used to them. So how are events that have moved online going to approach sponsorships?

What’s your silver, gold or platinum agreement going to get you? I know a lot of companies that are iffy about shelling out just to get their logo plastered on banners or merch. What value would a wholly digital sponsorship bring?

I’m not a big conference goer or organizer, so I don’t know how organizers are upping their game to secure sponsorships for online conferences, what they’re offering prospective sponsors, or what prospective sponsors would consider reasonable ROI.

I also don’t envy those whose job it is to figure it out. It’s already really hard to maintain attention for long periods just on regular video conferencing. But for online conference organizers to manage the technical challenges, present engaging content, keep attendees’ attention and leave them feeling their time and money investment was worth it, and create sticky brand engagement for sponsors… that will take some magic.

And then there’s an initiative like this. Which I am still trying to wrap my brain around, because per that article it keeps explicitly saying it’s not sponsored content, but it still feels like it.

Once upon a time corporate media would prominently feature the branding of the company paying for it. That it was marketing content was understood, which would either encourage or discourage viewing interest depending on various factors.

But to make media about the kind of people who are one of your biggest customer bases... while explicitly excluding such people from the project…? And for the resulting content to be “completely unbranded,” part of my brain just asks… why? What’s the point? It would seem there’d have to be a better one than, “Well, we just had all this money…”

But then my brain compared the initiative less to corporate videos, for example, and more to a company like Netflix. It makes tonnes of original content that isn’t about Netflix, though, like with influencers, the platform is key to the dissemination of the content.

It’s not an apples to apples comparison, but there are ways in which I can see the value of the resource expenditure and growth of the brand. Further evolution of marketing and our digital content landscape, which the proliferation of additional streaming services will presumably encourage.

I think B2B is evolving from business-to-business to brand-to-brand as well. This may seem like a subtle distinction but I’d argue “brand” has and can become a lot more valuable, broadly speaking, than “company.”

Brand relationships consist of a lot more than a product or service and the money paid for it. The very relevant psychology of influence is big business. And figuring out the best partnerships – the intersections of branding elements between companies – is and will be an ever-growing part of marketing strategy.

Who knows, perhaps in a few years we won’t experience moments of “gotcha” annoyance online anymore. We’ll have AI assistants who automatically take care of our shopping needs and wants for us. Will there be business-to-AI marketing, or communities? Will corporate AIs develop brand partnerships with influencer AIs to sell to consumers’ AIs? 

At least we humans won’t be completely irrelevant to our own consumerism. One could consider our online data trails from the clicking and the buying as the kind of building blocks of personal brands that would be of interest to the machines.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.