Monday, March 31, 2008

Short Takes: 3.31.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Ian Schafer is CEO of Deep Focus, an agency that has launched its own social media division. He has some insightful things to say on the subject of social media. He defines it as, "Involvement. Passion. Influence. Connectivity. Collaboration." He notes, "Social media is a difficult-to-control participatory media, which makes it an environment that makes advertisers uncomfortable. And you know what? Good. Advertisers that can accept that they are in an uncomfortable relationship with their customers (and want to improve those relationships) are the ones that are most ready for a foray into Social Media.” And finally, Ian notes, "But they have to stop thinking about Social Media efforts as ‘campaigns’. Campaigns have a beginning and an end. Relationships can go on forever if you respect and cultivate them." Check out more of Ian's perceptions and ideas on Agency Spy.

  • How do you make a billboard experiential? Some OOH companies seem to think that going digital makes billboards more attention-getting. I think the sharp, glowing billboards will attract eyes a bit more than printed billboards for a short while, but soon they'll fade into background noise. But here's some creativity out of Idaho: Billboards for Paramount, a home builder, not only attract attention but communicate something a bit more personal through the use of mannequins.

  • You've learned what Deep Focus thinks of Social Media; now hear what Strawberry Frog has to say. (They're the folks behind the ScionSpeak site that we wrote about last week.) AdPulp has a worthwhile White Paper from the agency that includes thoughts such as, "Social Media Marketing... (is) a failed concept because brands are limited in their approach to social media marketing; they engage in practices that are alienating to users, and do not provide useful services for consumers. Marketing + Communications is no longer a 'broadcast' or 'mass media' model. Consumers expect a dialogue with marketers, and reward those companies that subscribe to this philosophy." Strawberry Frog shares dos and don'ts for social media and predicts the future of Facebook--check it out.

  • Wikipedia recently hit a milestone--10 million articles. A little over two million of those articles are in English, with a total of 253 languages represented on the site. The 10 millionth article was a Hungarian biography of 16th century painter Nicholas Hilliard. Wikipedia can seem like such a natural use of the Internet that one forgets what a revolutionary experiment in social media it is. Founded in 2001, the site offered a way for Internet users to help build and maintain a public encyclopedia. It took three and a half years for Wikipedia to hit one million articles, and three and a half years after that the site crossed the 10 million mark. It's future is never quite clear, and the Wikimedia foundation is turning into the 21st Century version of PBS with frequent pledge drives; it is now considering how advertising might finance future growth without compromising the site's integrity.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Short Takes: 3.30.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Movie theaters are going to new lengths to try to stay relevant. For example, so-called "Red Band" trailers, which feature R-rated scenes from mature movies, have long been banned from most movie theaters, but now Regal Entertainment, the nation's largest chain, will be permitting the edgier previews. It's all part of an attempt by movie theaters to provide customers with a better experience. This article from BrandWeek also shares info on the growth of 3D movies, pre-movie trivia contests entered by text message, and National Cinemedia's technology that turns moviegoers into "human joysticks" to play an on-screen game. With consumer video technology creating better movie experiences at home, theaters have to remember they are in the entertainment experience business, not merely the movie-showing business.

  • Old media is taking a page or two from the new media playbook. Last month, NBC tried to take an internet phenomenon and turn it into a TV show. quarterlife was a popular scripted net-only show consisting of 8-minute segments. As a 30-minute show on broadcast TV, quarterlife failed in a spectacular fashion, providing the lowest ratings the network had seen in 17 years. Some felt this called into question the strategy of moving content from the Internet to TV, but I believe differently. I think the problem was that 8-minute segments was what young audiences wanted for this kind of content. Now MTV is trying alternative-length programming on its network. Learning from the success of Robot Chicken, the net is airing original series with run times of just two to six minutes. For some types of entertainment, brief content is the experience that matches the brief attention spans for Internet-weaned youth.

  • Wine is an experience unto itself, but what about ordering wine? That process hadn't changed in years, until Adour, a restaurant in New York's St. Regis Hotel, opened. Looking to differentiate itself by making selecting wine an experience, Adour has a new touch-sensitive, interactive wine experience. Wired calls it, "Minority Report meets Sideways." I find this an interesting way for a restaurant to create an experience that customers will remember!

  • The "Got Milk?" campaign, introduced back in 1994, is rolling out the 2008 iteration, and this time it's going social. Aiming for teens, the campaign will use a MySpace profile to introduce milk-enhanced rock star, "White Gold," who sings about his love for milk. I'm not sure how this will work--first of all, the 70s-era hair band approach seems more likely to appeal to folks older than their teens. Also, the song lyrics are funny but heavy handed. Gauge for yourself with the music video below.

    (It's funny: the
    creative director at San Francisco-based Goodby, Silverstein & Partners brags about 100,000 people having seen the YouTube video in the past month; meanwhile, this inane video for has been seen almost half a million times in two days! In viral marketing, everything is relative.)

Twutter: Twitter Clutter (Or Has Twitter Rewritten Rules of Communication?)

Most of my peers complain about being overwhelmed with communication. Voice mails go unanswered. Social and professional obligations go unmet. Email "in" boxes are overflowing; and keep in mind, we're not talking about one "in" box but many.

Americans already spend more time--two hours per day--with email than virtually any other country on earth . And, 48 percent of Americans feel their lives have become more stressful in the past five years, at least in part due to the constant flow of communications.

So clearly what is needed today is yet another new form of communications, right? Enter Twitter.

If you're reading this, you probably know what Twitter is, but I find most of my less-connected friends in the real world have never heard of it. Twitter is a micro-blogging tool. What that means is that Twitter allows one to create brief 140-character-long text messages that immediately get shared with anyone who has chosen to "follow" you. Followers will see your messages, or "tweets," along with the tweets of every one else they follow, on their Twitter home page or, if they choose, on their mobile phone via SMS message. People may send tweets from or from their cell phone.

You will find my Twitter home page here. If you visit, you will see what I've twittered and what the people I'm following have twittered. Here's what you'll find out about me (if you visit shortly after I post this): I recently had a debate with a friend about smoking. I worked on Saturday, but don't mind because I'm happier being busy than the opposite. On Friday night I heard Kiss singing "Beth" while shopping at Walgreens. And at KMart I purchased a 64mb USB drive for just $1.

If you click the "With Others" tab, here's what you'll find out about those I follow: "
Ingrid Michaelson is covering Creep." " OH: its like money but monetized." " I like guitar players who don't use picks." And, "guy from my son's old preschool just bought us a round of Guinness."

If you're a sane person, after reading the last two paragraphs you should be thinking, "Who the hell cares?" In fact, I use Twitter and that's what I think! And herein lies the problem with Twitter--what worked when Twitter was small is going to fail as Twitter grows.
According to TwitDir, there are just shy of one million public profiles on Twitter, and Twitter Facts claims that the number of Twitterers has increased close to 50% in just four months.

As more and more people use Twitter, Twitter will be increasingly threatened with Twutter, a term I coined to mean Twitter Clutter. (Yes, I said I hate buzzwords, so sue me--it's one word that is easier to type and shorter than two words.)

As I add friends who are new to Twitter to my follow list, or as more strangers have followed me and I've reciprocated, the flow of random, inane, meaningless information is adding to my communication overflow rather than aiding it. I am getting more Twutter than I am relevant communications, and this is a problem. One of my mottoes (which you'll actually find among the thoughts I twittered recently) is: Communication without relevance is noise. I don't know about you, but my life was plenty noisy already before adding a new flow of Twutter!

I've spoken with some of my Twitter friends about Twutter and shared some ideas for how we can reduce Twutter, but I've received a surprisingly assertive counter-response. I think early adopters come to feel each new tool is "theirs;" Hence, the way they use it is correct and everyone else simply doesn't "get it."
One friend accused me of thinking I "can dictate how others use Twitter." (Geez, it was only a suggestion!)

The response from the early Twitter adopters can be paraphrased as such: "I am not going to change how I use Twitter, so you can simply decide whether to follow me or not." They are, in fact, quite correct; they can say whatever they want and I can follow them or not. But isn't the idea of communication to be heard and understood? Is it up to our followers/listeners to find relevance in everything we say? Or is it up to us to Twitter/communicate in a way that will be relevant and encourage followers to stay followers?

In short,
does Twitter absolve the age-old responsibility of the communicator to make sure the message is valued and understood by the listener? I don't think so. I believe Twitter will continue to grow for a period as its newness attracts people, but eventually the constant flow of vapid thoughts will overwhelm users, and they'll do that listeners have always done in every medium whenever relevance is lacking: They'll tune out.

Just look at how we "follow" (to use the lingo of Twitter) in other media: No one tries to listen to every radio program or watch every TV show; instead, we seek out the things that are relevant and interesting. Everything else is noise and is ignored. And this puts the onus on those TV shows and radio programs to be relevant; they don't ignore the wants of listeners and viewers but are constantly seeking to make their content every more relevant to keep and attract an audience.

We Twitterers have an opportunity to create or destroy a new form of communications, but we cannot change the rules of human communication. If we insist what our followers think isn't important and that it is up to them to see relevance, we'll be like TV shows that are canceled. Our followers will "cancel" us in one of two ways--they'll either stop following or, in the worst-case scenario, they'll decide Twitter is all useless Twutter and simply stop using it.

There is certainly plenty of precedent for people abandoning once popular online communication tools. Over ten years ago, was one of the first social networking sites to be successful on the Internet. It had one million users (hmm, the same size as Twitter is now) before crashing and burning in 2001. People moved on to other social networking sites they found more useful and relevant, and in fact this chase from one tool to the next has never stopped: People went from SixDegrees to Friendster to MySpace and now to Facebook. But today, Facebook is looking noisier and less relevant, and I suspect within two years we'll see yet another social networking tool--one that provides more usable features and relevant info--overtake Facebook.

The future of Twitter is in the hands of we Twitterers. We can continue to share whatever random thoughts pop into our heads and hope people find it interesting. (For example, according to TweetScan, a Twitter search engine, a dozen people in the last hour have posted about using, cleaning, or decorating their bathrooms. Interested? Didn't think so.) Or, we can take lessons from centuries of human communication experience.

Much like bloggers have, Twitterers must find a way to be relevant to others, or we'll encourage people to tune out from us or from all of Twitter. I'd suggest we look to TV for the kind of models that will work in a broadcast medium like Twitter. For example:
  • Comedies: Twitterers who consistently share funny things will find many followers. But, it better be darn funny. You have to Steven Wright or Mitch Hedberg, not the embarrassing amateur down at open mic night.

  • News Opinion Programs: People crave interesting insights on the news, which has made Meet the Press the longest-running show on TV. (Sixty years and counting!) Those who share pertinent and insightful thoughts will provide tweets worth following.

  • Breaking News: I think it's important to note that Twitter first got buzz during the 2007 South by Southwest festival when people who couldn't attend found they could be kept informed via the tweets sent from Austin. This use of Twitter as an instantaneous news tool for amateur reporters is interesting, but only when there's interesting news to report.

  • Personality: There is a precedent for sharing one's personality, but this is a bit of a trap. How many personality shows have come and gone? Arsenio Hall? Leeza? The Martin Short Show? Simply put, you (and I) aren't as interesting as we think we are--at least not all the time. We're not David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah. And even they don't share everything they do or each random thought as it comes into their heads--they plan and write carefully in order to hold viewers' attention. Is this what you're doing with your Tweets?
Some would argue there's room for a category of Tweets not based on a broadcast medium: personal tweets to keep friends up to date. They may be right, but I'd suggest we already have ways of keeping our close friends informed--we talk to them, see them, and email them.

Our communication with friends is one-to-one and personal, not broadcast and impersonal. Just think of how seldom you send a single email message to your entire address database, and you'll see what I mean. For a decade you've had the tools to say the same thing to everyone you know simultaneously. If you never or almost never took that opportunity, what makes you think Twitter changes anything?

I happen to believe Marshall McLuhan's famous saying that "The medium is the message." You may think you're keeping friends informed and reinforcing relationships, but personal relationships cannot be created and fostered using a broadcast medium. Our friends are our friends, in part, because we care enough to speak to them one to one.

Twitter, I am confident, will find a place, but I believe this will happen not because communication-obsessed early adopters create Twutter by puking every and any thought into Twitter but because we use this communication tool to communicate effectively. Starting today, I am going to strive to be more cognizant of how I can add value to those who follow me on Twitter and not assume every thought I have has value.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Social Networks Will Fail (At Advertising)

Picture this: You're walking down the street, run into a friend, and start a conversation. A salesguy sees you stop and takes the opportunity to interrupt your discussion to try to sell you something. Annoying, right?

What about if the salesguy overhears you talking about your frustrations dating and jumps in to sell you a subscription to a dating service? Slightly less annoying, but still annoying.

Okay, what if the salesguy instead just dances around your conversation waving a poster-sized print ad? Okay, you get the idea.

These are exaggerated but not inaccurate analogies of what is happening on social networking sites these days. Storming out of nowhere just a few years ago, sites like Facebook and MySpace have become two of the most popular Internet spots. But there's a problem: All this popularity, buzz, and traffic isn't equating into profits for these sites.

These sites are acting as a mechanism for interaction between people. In the minds of participants, the sites are about them and not about the site owners or advertisers (which, I'd suggest, is in fact the mark of a pretty good site). But, just like like email or the watercooler, the fact people use Facebook and MySpace for discourse doesn't guarantee they'll be appropriate and effective places for advertising. Social Networks will need to find other ways to earn a profit.

We Americans like to act like the Internet is ours, but there's a social networking site that's bigger than Facebook and MySpace combined: China's QQ has as many subscribers as there are people living in the US (although this may be inflated by folks with multiple accounts). And get this--while U.S. social networks struggle to find profit, QQ made an operating profit of $224M last year; in contrast, the hottest site of 2007, Facebook, lost $50M last year.

You might think QQ has this social network advertising nut cracked, but their profit doesn't come from advertising (for the most part). Just 13% of their revenue comes from advertising; the rest comes from the sale of digital goods, games, and mobile services.

Back here in the states, the latest feeling is that widgets will provide social sites with a substantial source of revenue and profits. But, as an article on IHT points out, "the widgets currently in fashion are very 'lightweight' and do not command the loyalty of their audiences." In other words, widgets have to move beyond simple fun and games and begin to provide visitors to these sites something they'll value--something that will enhance the social experience rather than detract from it.

So, let's return to our analogy. There you are standing out in the heat and sun having a conversation with your friend. A smart entrepreneur sees this and thinks he can provide a nice venue for your future conversations. So, he builds a building and invites everyone to stop to have a fun time with friends. To make money, he plasters the walls with advertising.

It works--to a point. People enjoy the venue and he has lines out the door, but our enterprising entrepreneur finds he cannot make enough money off advertising. So, he hits on an idea--he can sell all these people glasses of Miller Lite! The idea is a twofer--not only does the owner make cash hand over fist, but his customers find that beer enhances their social interactions. He calls his idea Beer Activated Rap Session (or BARS, for short).

Sorry for the awkward analogy, but the idea here is a sound one. Social Network sites are lacking in creativity; they think they can advertise their way to profitability, but that's because they think of their users as users rather than social interactors and their traffic as traffic rather than discussions. With more creativity and focus on providing tools that enhance users' lives and social interactions, the increasingly crowded and confusing Facebook and MySpace could improve online dialogs rather than adding more and more noise to those communications.

Short Takes: 3.28.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • iMedia and Peanut Labs demonstrate a classic example of sampling bias with their Gen Y survey. Asked, "What one key media platform could you not live without?", 56% replied the Internet. Care to guess what medium was used to collect this data? You guessed it--they asked online surfers visiting social networking sites. I don't doubt the Internet is the number one medium for the under-30 set, but I wonder if they'd get different percentages if they asked kids hanging out in malls or reading newspapers (the media an astonishing 2% said they couldn't live without).

  • Speaking of survey bias, one problem inherent with every survey, no matter how scrupulously compiled, is that participants can only give answers based on what they think they know. Euro RSCG Worldwide turned to hypnotists to get past this bias to gather information for Volvo. Volvo was consciously associated with safety by every focus group, but when hypnotized, some deeper and less positive associations were uncovered: Many revealed that Volvo also equals being middle-aged, an idea that "for some people was suffocating." Read more about this fascinating data-gathering technique on BrandWeek.

  • Best Buy is entering the brandertainment business with "Making Your Kitchen Cook With Sara Moulton," featuring Gourmet magazine's executive chef. The series will be syndicated across StudioOne's 190 partner sites, including AOL and several local CBS and Fox TV station sites. While no costs were discussed in the press release, it seems likely Best Buy will reach highly-receptive consumers with interesting branded content for a fraction of the cost of a traditional ad and television media buy. Check out MediaWeek for more details.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"How much does viral cost?"

True story from this week: A peer of mine received a call from a client. He was working on his FY09 marketing budget. One of his brand managers was interested in experimenting with viral marketing, so he asked, "What should I budget for this?"

I understand the interest in testing viral techniques, but asking how much "viral" costs is like asking how much a car will cost. You could buy a 22-year-old Ford Bronco with 171,000 miles for $450, or you could purchase the Bugatti Veyron for $1.7 million. Both vehicles will get you from point A to point B, but the two satisfy very different emotional and logical needs.

The cost of a marketing program that is intended to achieve extended reach by being passed from consumer to consumer depends on a variety of variables. These include: Your current brand strength and positioning, your target audience, the reach you wish to achieve, the message you want to deliver, and the risks you're willing to take.

Two of my favorite viral marketing examples use video and demonstrate the range of investment that viral campaigns can entail:
  • BMW Films made a splash in 2001 with a series of custom mini-movies directed by A-level directors, all featuring BMW vehicles as integral to the plot. The first year the films were produced, 2001 sales numbers increased 12% and the movies were viewed over 11 million times in four months. The exciting films, which reportedly cost more than $10 million to produce, went viral and received a huge amount of publicity. Below are two of my favorite movies: the delightfully nasty "Star," directed by Guy Ritchie and featuring his wife, Madonna; and the supremely exciting yet surprisingly somber "Ticker," directed by Joe Carnahan and featuring Don Cheadle with cameos by Ray Liotta, F. Murray Abraham, and Dennis Haysbert.

  • On the other end of the spectrum is a simple series of online videos that promote a seemingly unexciting product: A blender. Blendtec produces the world's most powerful blender, and to prove it, they've produced a series of humorous videos putting the product to the challenge. I've not seen any data on the cost of this viral program, but my guess is that they've spent in the low-to mid-six figures for a campaign that's been viewed and shared tens of millions of times. The single video below, featuring an iPod, has been seen over 5 million times on YouTube. The campaign led to appearances on The Tonight Show and other programs, and revenue streams now include branded merchandise such as T-shirts.

I mentioned that one of the factors that impact the budget and success of a viral marketing campaign is the amount of risk a brand wishes to accept. Looking at the videos below, you can't help but note the risks. BMW shows its cars being driven in very dangerous manners, with the product beaten until nearly destroyed; one sequence shows a car's gas tank leaking and the pool of gas set ablaze. Think you'd ever see that in a traditional ad campaign? And Blendtec's attorney's must have had a field day with their concept--What if people try this at home and get inured? What if people take the challenge and find the blender doesn't performance as advertised on ridiculously impervious items?

Not all viral campaigns involve a high degree of risk, but smart risks can pay off. The point of any viral campaign is to create an unexpected experience--something so unusual, exciting, sexy, or funny that people will want to share and talk about it. If you create no experience, there can be no viral effect.

Of course, viral programs can also be launched for less than Blendtec's, but these two very successful campaigns demonstrate how a viral brandertainment program can take vastly different forms, approaches, and budgets.

What Is a Brand Worth?

A brand is intangible. You can't see it (although you can see components of it). You can't touch it (but you can feel it). And it doesn't appear on a company's balance sheet or income statement (although it can substantially impact financials).

Despite that, you can put a price on it.

That's what Interbrand has been doing for years. Each year, they gauge the value of the world's strongest brands and release a report. Check out the 2007 report to see the top brands (Coca-Cola in on top with an estimated brand value of $65 billion). The list is informative, but what interests me more is the methodology Interbrand uses to ascertain a brand's value. For everyone who thinks branding is an exercise in managing the invisible for imaginary gain, the rigor will be surprising and informative.

Interbrand starts by estimating current and future revenue from the brand, and then they subtract operating costs and other intangibles, such as management strength and patents. What is left is the revenue flow derived directly from the brand itself. They then apply a proprietary measure of how the brand influences customer demand at the point of purchase compared to industry benchmarks. Finally, a discount rate for the future earnings is applied to determine a current brand value; this discount rate varies based on the brand’s ability to secure ongoing customer demand (loyalty, re-purchase and retention) and thus sustain future earnings.

Not to minimize the time and effort that goes into it or the unique processes and evaluations Interbrand uses, but the brand valuation process is pretty straight forward: What will the brand earn? Remove costs and other intangibles. Figure out the role played by the brand in the category. And then discount that flow of net income to a Net Present Value based on the future opportunities and threats it faces.

The 2007 report is lengthy and interesting, containing many analyses of particular brands. For example, Interbrand compliments Google's Brand Management for "maintain(ing) a sincere and consistent feel to everything that it does," despite rapid growth and frequent brand extensions. Also noted is something I believe to be vitally important, even with brands not built on person-to-person interactions: "Google has revolutionized the way it screens employees to ensure that everyone who comes through its door is ‘Google-worthy’. Inevitably, it’s become bigger and more complex, but this has done nothing to dilute the recognition and desire that the business is still held together by Google ‘glue’."

Last year's report also compliments Starbucks (although the brand has fallen on some harder times recently). Recognizing that "every single experience counts," Interbrand says that Starbucks has such an "embedded role in people’s lives that any evolution of the brand can be truly wrapped around its customers, rather than simply broadcast in 30 seconds and the Sunday circular."

Both Google and Starbucks are brands built with Experiential Marketing (XM) concepts, and they demonstrate how different XM can be for different brands. Both obsessively focus on the customer experience, making sure every touchpoint communicates the same set of brand values. The experience of one is simple, almost spartan, but totally functional and focused on the consumer. The experience of the other is rich, warm, and engaging--but equally focused on the consumer.

I highly recommend you peruse the lessons and insights from Interbrand.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Short Takes: 3.27.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Is this the dumbest political ad idea ever? A company called Spot Runner has an interesting ad model. They offer a library of ready-to-use TV spots from which small businesses may select; paste in a logo, tweak the voiceover, and viola--a professional-looking ad ready to be placed on local TV. What seems like a fine idea for a small clothing store or pet boutique strikes me as a lousy idea for the unique world of politics, but Spot Runner is now offering stock TV ads for politicians. Given the highly personal nature of politician's records and stands--not to mention the importance of transparency and trust in candidate selection--this strikes me as a bad and potentially fatal idea for a candidate. If I were running for office, I'd rather my constituency see an awkward but genuine spot of me talking rather than get caught with a cut-and-paste tough-on-crime-in-anytown ad like this.

  • We couldn't agree more! has an interesting article entitled, "Digital Media Issues: What to Watch in 2008." Dave Friedman of Razorfish says, "The digital media business is no longer simply about buying ad space. It's about distributing experiences through social networks, videos, widgets and applications; branded content; and ad placements." He has other insightful forecasts about the online world in 2008, so check out the article. (I like the article, but isn't it cheating to wait until the year is a quarter completed before making your predictions? Here's one of my '08 predictions: Bear Stearns is going to collapse!)

  • The New York Times has an article about a cool little viral campaign for Scion. Launched by Strawberry Frog, gives users the opportunity to create their own coat of arms, using hundreds of cool designer components. The campaign engages their target audience's love for customizing their rides. You can download your artwork, or arrange to pay to have the shield painted on your car. That's my Scion coat of arms at right.

We Don't Need New Buzzwords, We Need Better Ideas

I'm a hypocrite. In one part of my brain I hate marketing buzzwords, and in another part of my brain I use them.

On this blog I use terms like Experiential Marketing (XM), Advergaming, and Brandertainment. When I use these terms, it isn't to try to convince you these concepts are something so bold and new that no previously known words could possibly describe them. In fact, I've already shared my opinion that XM has existed for centuries and that blogging isn't a trend but a normal extension of the human desire to be heard.

The reason I use these terms is to try to describe a particular marketing concept in as few words or letters as possible. I could say "Brand-sponsored gaming," but instead I say Advergaming. I would never try to claim that using games for marketing purposes is a pioneering trend; if you've seen "A Christmas Story," you know that Ovaltine was using games to market to kids before the advent of television.

But some people use buzzwords for a different reason. They believe they've discovered something brand new, as if some wholly original marketing concept escaped our attention for millennia. Each new buzzword is seen as being distinct from every previous buzzword (and from traditional marketing strategies). This is the thinking that sells books with catchy titles and gives stodgy magazines the opportunity to sell newsstand copies with snooze-and-you-loose cover stories that drive fear into the hearts of CEOs.

But when buzzwords are used as if the concepts are distinct and completely novel, they get in the way of good marketing. The trendy labels cause us to forget that we must base our concepts on solid marketing foundations. If this new concept doesn't adhere to old rules, we reason, why should we bother subjecting our ideas to rigorous and careful consideration?

Too much focus on buzzwords can cause meaningless arguments about what separates one buzzword from another. On an online forum in which I participate, marketing professionals engaged in a debate about the difference between viral marketing, buzz marketing, and Word-of-Mouth marketing. My thought is: Who cares? Does defining and codifying these terms help us to create better marketing ideas? (That was a rhetorical question--the answer is "no.")

And this is where I found my inspiration for my new motto:
We don't need new buzzwords,
We need better ideas.

I created a poster to remind myself of this, and I thought you might want one yourself. Feel free to click on the image below to download a PDF suitable for printing.

I will use buzzwords on this blog, but if you ever catch me trying to claim that something is so bold and innovative that it has rewritten the rules of marketing as we know them, please call "bullshit" on me!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Short Takes: 3.25.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:

  • Just yesterday I noted how the concept of email benchmarks are rather farcical because email metrics vary greatly based on many factors, including the method of collecting subscribers. Today, my close personal friend and email diva, Melinda Krueger, shares some thoughts on email opt-in approaches and dissuades readers from gathering subscribers in unethical ways. The diva says if you make the wrong decision, "Plan on a huge percentage of false email addresses... a lot of spam complaints that will damage (your) reputation with ISPs (and) severely impact (your) ability to get any email delivered... (and) low response rates." (In other words, don't make the wrong decision!)
  • In case we need to be reminded of the power of social media when combined with one disgruntled customer, here's a reminder from Microsoft. Nathaniel sent his broken Xbox 360 to Microsoft for repairs and it was returned in working order. Problem is, when he sent it, the game console was covered with one-of-a-kind artwork and special signatures from developers and others in the gaming community, but it was returned scrubbed clean. He (of course) complained on gaming sites, his story was reposted from one site to another, and the situation (deservedly) turned into a PR nightmare for Microsoft. Some companies might've been so concerned that taking special action would encourage other gripers that they might have simply let it blow over. To Microsoft's credit, they stepped up to the plate and did their best to make things right with Nathaniel. Microsoft only hit a triple, not a home run, because they never addressed Nathaniel's primary concern--what they'll do to ensure something like this won't happen again. (A simple promise to examine and improve service procedures--an effort that is probably constantly underway anyway--would've been sufficient for Nathaniel.)
  • Need any more proof that the Internet is putting more power in the hands of consumers? Check out If you need a plumber, realtor, or painter and live in one of ten select cities, this site could save you hours. Rather than calling service providers and waiting for them to get back to you, this site provides you with a number to call. Once you do, their automated service simultaneously rings a number of potential service providers and you are connected to the one who answer most quickly. Will this destroy the brands of service providers in these cities? I suspect not--the company that answers quickly, does the job right, and provides the best experience will earn the consumer's trust and repeat business. What do you think?

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Only Email Benchmarks That Matter Are Your Own

iMedia has a worthwhile article about the dangers of "keeping up with the Joneses" when it comes to email benchmarks. Spencer Kollas makes some interesting observations about how email marketers should be more focused on improving their own metrics rather than trying to ascertain and achieve industry benchmarks. As he says, "Say your industry average is at 88 percent, but you have a delivery rate of 92 percent. Does that mean that you shouldn't keep working to possibly get to 95 percent?"

While I agree with Kollas' observations, he doesn't really touch on the most troubling and confounding aspects of email benchmarks: There is no such thing as an objective benchmark. There are simply too many variables that impact email metrics to make it worthwhile to evaluate an email program against a single number that represents an industry benchmark or average.

For example, open rates can be significantly affected by whether list hygiene is managed well or not. I once worked with a client contact whose boss evaluated his performance based on the size of the company's email list. With the goal of growing the list to the largest possible number, no list hygiene activities (such as deleting email addresses that are unresponsive or bounced) were performed. This company's open rate was poor and delivery became difficult due to spam complaints, but they succeeding in building a mammoth list.

Another factor that can have considerable impact on open rates is the method used to collect subscribers. Email marketers who collect opt-ins carefully, gathering permission only from people who visit or purchase from the brand site, will find recipients more interested and more inclined to read email messages received from the brand. But email marketers who pursue more aggressive methods for collecting subscribers such as sweepstakes and contests (or who use foolish methods such as harvesting or buying email addresses) will generally add people to their database who are less interested in brand messaging and thus are less likely to open emails received from the brand.

Open rates--one of the most sought after benchmarks--can be impacted to a substantial degree by the decisions and management of the email marketer. For example, sending an email campaign that can achieve an amazing open rate is really quite simple; simply cull your list of anyone who hasn't opened your most recent two or three email messages. This strategy will result in your list being reduced by 90% and it won't increase the total number of emails opened, but the open rate you can achieve would be phenomenal.

Another factor that impacts open rate is the content and offers sent to the email database. If Brand A always sends offers of 50% off and Brand B instead sends messages extolling the virtues of their products, it is likely Brand A will have a higher open rate. This doesn't mean Brand A has a better email marketing program--in fact, constant deep discounting tends to hurt a brand and adversely impact profit--but if we only look at a single open rate benchmark, it is easy to see how Brand B might feel their email efforts were falling short.

Finally, there's the common bugaboo of any sort of benchmarking--are the companies against which you're benchmarking really in the same business? Take the travel industry: one might find an email open rate benchmark for the industry, but all travel companies are not the same. A company or agency that specializes in expensive adventure tours, which their customers may take only once every several years, will likely see a much lower open rate than a company who specializes in discount, last-minute packages to Vegas.

Ultimately, Mr. Kollas' iMedia article is correct--the only benchmarks that really matter are your own. A steady program of testing different email attributes and creative in a way that delivers incremental improvements based on your own brand and your own list is far more worthwhile than chasing nebulous benchmarks.

Games: They're Not Just For Kids (or Guys) Anymore

If you're like most people, you hear "computer gaming" and you immediately picture a certain type of teen boy clutching a gamepad and staring at a monitor. For the sake of marketers everywhere, I would like to join with those who are trying to dispel that musty stereotype.

Branded gaming, or advergaming, provides an excellent mechanism for creating deeper engagement with consumers. Perhaps the most publicized example of advergaming right now is CandyStand, a collection of "Casual Games" sponsored by Wrigley that receives 4.4M uniques a month (according to Quantcast). ("Casual Games" are defined as simple games that are easy to learn, feature simple rules, and don't require a long time commitment to complete.)

One of the keys to successful advergaming is to match the game to the intended audience. Not every audience is suited for an advergaming strategy, but before you leap to any conclusions, you should know that online games appeal to just about every demographic category. The stereotype that games are only for a younger male demographic is not supported by recent data, and this bias can cause marketers to overlook an Experiential Marketing (XM) strategy that is relevant to a wide audience.

A glance at the Quantcast data for CandyStand may surprise you. Female visitors comprise 59% of CandyStand's visitors, and a majority of traffic comes from those 25 and older.

The feminine and older bent of CandyStand visitors is not unique among game sites, according to several studies of advergaming:
  • ClickZ reports that one-third of adults spend 10 hours or more playing games each week, compared with 11 percent of teens.

  • ClickZ also shares that video game players break into nearly equal thirds of under 18 year olds, 18-49 year olds, and 50-plus year olds.

  • Playing games is a more popular online activity in the U.S. than watching short video clips or visiting social networking websites, according to a report from Parks Associates. Thirty-four percent of U.S. adult Internet users play online games on a weekly basis, compared with 29% who watch short online videos and 19% who visit social networking sites with the same frequency.

  • According to Big Research, gamers come from all ethnic groups with Hispanics and African Americans making up almost 30% (29.9%) of the gamer market.

  • The Entertainment Software Association says that online games continue to grow in popularity. 51% of most frequent game players say they play games online, up from 19% in 2000.

  • And just today comes word from MediaPost that Consumer Product advertisements on Gaming sites tend to perform much better among women ages 45+ compared with younger females. And this is not a small audience, says the report. 8.3 million women ages 45+ say they access the Internet to play online games.

There are several ways to put a game strategy to work for a brand. Some brands find that creating their own casual games helps to encourage greater consumer engagement. For example, Viacom is investing $100M in an online casual gaming strategy that will extend TV and movie properties online. Says Michael Cai, the director for broadband and gaming at Parks Associates, "Sitting and watching Dora DVDs is quite different from playing Dora in a game. It’s definitely more engaging — and the brand affiliation is stronger — in an interactive setting.”

Other casual gaming sites exist to offer advertising and sponsorship opportunities. With 5 million visitors per month, Yahoo Games is a leading online gaming site supported by sponsorship and advertising. Of interest is that Yahoo Game's demographics further reinforce the demographic trends in casual gaming--65% of visitors are female and two-thirds of the site's visits come from people over the age of 35.

Games also offer unique opportunities to create brand impressions that are more relevant and conspicuous than typical online advertising; last year on Shockwave, players struggling with a jigsaw puzzle game could press the “easy button” sponsored by Staples to see a solution hint. And, in case we haven't yet beaten a dead horse about the diverse appeal of online gaming,'s visitors are 66% female with slightly less than half of visitors being between 35 and 54 years of age.

Advergaming provides a range of non-traditional ways for brands to reach consumers of all genders, races, and age groups. So, if you still think online games are for teens and boys, here's your homework assignment: Go to CandyStand, Yahoo Games, or Shockwave right now and see if you don't find a fun way to waste a few minutes. Or, click below to enjoy Blocky, one of the most popular games at Shockwave.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

We Don't Need to Understand Engagement to Measure It

This blog is all about creating brand-building experiences for consumers. The key to successful Experiential Marketing (XM) is engagement, but what is engagement? And can we measure it without having a common understanding of what it is?

I read an interesting article on iMedia that asks if it is necessary for marketers to settle on a common definition of engagement. Tom Hespos notes that several presenters at the recent iMedia Breakthrough Summit suggested such a definition would be a good idea, since "advertising's history is characterized by standard definitions... (and) adoption is contingent on the industry deciding on a common definition that is accepted by all."

Hespos contends (and I agree) that there is no reason for the industry to settle on one definition, because what constitutes engagement can vary so greatly from one brand, strategy, or medium to another. Unlike traditional media where the "engagement" is relatively straightforward--did the consumer see the TV, print, or OOH ad?--XM engagement can be defined in an endless variety of ways.

For a simple example, let's consider an event marketing program involving a pop-up truck filled with interactive exhibits, a sweepstakes entry, and a post-event email invitation to visit the brand Web site. Which of the following defines the "engagement" for this marketing program:
  • People who see the event truck?
  • People who enter the event footprint?
  • People who interact with one exhibit? Two exhibits? More exhibits?
  • People who enter the sweepstakes?
  • People who speak to event reps?
  • People who sample the product while at the event?
  • People who request more info from the brand or take some other sort of conversion action (such as a purchase)?
  • People who open the post-event email invitation?
  • People who clickthrough to the Web site?
The answer to the question, "Which of these define engagement?" is "All of the above." This small example demonstrates the futility of trying to arrive at a standard definition of engagement. If we can't define engagement in a single campaign, how can we hope to devise a single definition across the breadth of strategies that encompass the field of XM?

Part of the problem is that engagement isn't a single thing that is or isn't. In the language of statistics, engagement is not a dichotomous variable, which means an either/or situation; instead, engagement is a continuous variable, because a program can have a little engagement or a lot.

Furthermore, until someone manages to define an objective standard for measuring human attention, it would seem we'd face the same challenge trying to define engagement that Justice Potter Stewart faced in 1964 in trying to define pornography: He famously wrote that he couldn't define pornography, "but I know it when I see it."

Rather than trying to define engagement, those in the XM business should instead be focused on how to measure the effectiveness of their programs. For the most part, our current measurement methodologies are failing us. Much like traditional advertising metrics, too many of the success metrics in XM rely on tallying people rather than gauging how their attitudes were altered.

In traditional advertising, we measure reach (how many people saw an ad) and frequency (how often an average consumer was exposed to the ad), and in interactive and XM, we count the number of people who enter a footprint or visit a site and how many completed a paper or online form. The problem with these metrics is that, although they are cheap and easy to collect, they are focused on executional effectiveness and not ROI. They ask how many consumers saw or did something and not whether the campaign achieved any of the intended goals.

The need to measure the effectiveness of engagement is especially important because XM tactics will always lose to traditional media in one of the simplest of comparative metrics in marketing, Cost Per Touch (CPT). The cost to produce a TV spot and buy ad time that reaches millions of people is considerable, but when divided by the large number of people who are theoretically exposed to that ad, the CPT is quite low. But CPT for XM tactics is high--comparatively fewer people walk through a physical event or visit a site, so the CPT is greater for XM than for mass media.

Of course, even though CPT is greater for XM, so is engagement--which brings us back to the need to measure the value of engagement. Brand marketers understand that engagement is higher for experiential programs, but when faced with a limited marketing budget and substantial demands to produce results, it is difficult for marketers to justify investing in higher-CPT tactics without metrics that prove those tactics are worthwhile. It isn't enough for those of us in XM to claim and believe that the deeper engagements are worthwhile to brands, we have to prove it.

In the iMedia article, Hespos notes how smart marketers conduct what he calls "3D Brand Studies" to measure campaign effectiveness. While getting the study right can be complex, the approach is quite simple--take one control group that hasn't seen your campaign or been part of your marketing experience and compare their brand perceptions or actions against those of an experimental group that has seen your campaign or been exposed to your marketing experience.

If the experimental group has measurably higher brand awareness, brand preference, awareness of key brand attributes, or purchase intent, then you've taken a big step forward in proving the value of the program. Of course, this still doesn't really prove ROI; for example, what is the dollar value of a five-point increase in brand awareness? But even if this approach doesn't result in a definitive measure of ROI, proving real impact on brand criteria is a vastly more powerful thing to deliver to clients than are simple tallies of visitors.

While understanding how to measure a program's impact on consumer perceptions is easy, getting this done is a challenge for XM. Gathering data from control and experimental groups requires budget and careful planning, but timelines are generally compressed and the focus of those involved in executing an XM program is dedicated to the exciting consumer experience and not to the relatively dry subject of measurement.

But if XM is to prove its worth and demonstrate that the experiences we craft for brands and their consumers create real value, we must begin to take measurement much more seriously. XM agencies that understand this will create better programs and stronger value-based relationships with clients, while those that simply count feet and eyeballs will find themselves fighting a losing battle to earn their clients' trust and business.

Short Takes: 3.23.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • What does it take to market to young men? MediaPost has an interesting article entitled, "Markets Focus: A Very, Very Scary Place." The article shares information on Project Iris, a viral marketing campaign for the massive Xbox hit Halo 3. By using anonymous blog posts, email, and secret hints, Microsoft created an involving campaign that engaged the target demographic. Some of the innovative ideas included sending consumers to retailers' stores to collect hidden clues on Xbox kiosks and a fake Halo 3 book on Amazon, complete with an ISBN number and readers' comments. The campaign recognized a powerful fact about young men: Challenges and mysteries excite their psyches and engage their senses.

  • The best marketing isn't marketing at all. While not easily available to every product category, there are brands that find ways to build powerful experiences into their products or services; thus, the solutions and products they sell to consumers also act as their own marketing. I wrote about how the Disney-MGM's Tower of Terror creates powerful emotions of (safe and fun) fear that keep consumers coming back for more. Now comes word of another theme park attraction that continues to blur the line between consumer experience, function, and marketing. The Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit roller coaster will launch at Universal Studios in Orlando with some innovative features. The roller coaster's track will leave the park and race over the heads of consumers on the sidewalks of CityWalk, outside the theme park. And, riders will be able to choose their own music and claim a YouTube-ready video of their experience. These features position the product as its own advertising; a brilliant and impressive strategy!

  • In "Ad Agency Tries Chocolate Biz," BrandWeek shares how an agency, Brooklyn Brothers, is getting into the chocolate business. Says the agency founder, "One thing about running your own business is that it helps you understand each step needed to be successful, but also gives us an understanding of our clients needs." As an agency leader who is also a small entrepreneur, I find this comment very insightful; too often, people who've grown up within agencies do not and cannot appreciate the challenges faced by their clients. At the same time, this is a risky endeavor for Brooklyn Brothers. I've seen agencies attempt to diversify in this manner only to stumble; after all, their core competency is marketing, not engineering, manufacturing, distribution, quality control, and the myriad of other disciplines required to run a successful product company. What do you think? Brilliant strategy or distraction?

Blogging: The 32,000-Year-Old "Trend"

A week ago I railed against marketers who fail to recognize if their "new" concept will excite consumers or merely excite the marketers' own narrow interests. As an interactive marketer, I love "new", but as I said in that post, "'New' ideas based on traditional human needs and desires are gold, but innovations without that foundation are solutions in search of problems."

While experiential and interactive marketers must continue to innovate, they should always strive to understand how their "new" ideas can better satisfy age-old human wants or needs. This is the key to recognizing if a new idea will be welcome by consumers and will succeed, or whether the concept will fall flat and fail to provide ROI.

For example, take blogging. Everyone knows this is a hot new trend. But is it? Is blogging really something brand new, or merely an innovative application of technology that provides a new and better solution to human problems or desires that have existed since the dawn of man?

Here is a brief history of blogging:
  • Cave Painting: 32,000 years ago, humans began to paint the walls of caves. The exact purpose of the paintings are unclear, but it is certain the people who did the painting intended to communicate information to many others. The purpose may have been to tell a story ("look at how brave I was on the hunt") or religious ("don't tick off the rain gods"), but either way, this was the first recorded form of communication that was one-to-many, and thus cave walls were the first blogging medium.

  • Church Doors: In 1546, Martin Luther nailed a copy of the "95 Theses" to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation. The reason he chose that location to make his point is that church doors acted as the bulletin boards of his time. His document--which criticized the church for the practice of taking paid indulgences--was read by many, copied thanks to a new technology known as the printing press, and began a wave of change. One man spoke to many and altered the course of Western History.

  • The Printed Word: As noted above, the early printing press was partially responsible for Martin Luther's essay going from a single set of church doors to the eyes and hearts of many others. Two centuries later, the printing press was far more common, putting greater power to communicate into the hands of individuals. In the mid-18th Century, Thomas Paine famously self-published "Common Sense," his pamphlets that denounced British rule of the colonies. His treatise was instrumental in fomenting the American Revolution. Interestingly, a third edition of "Common Sense" included a response to criticism by the Quakers, which is reminiscent of the back-and-forth commentary found in modern blogs.

  • BBSs: Many of today's Internet users have no idea that people were communicating and sharing information from computer to computer in the pre-Internet 1970s to mid-1990s. Bulletin Board Services permitted people to dial in using modems and phone lines and post or download information. Unlike the interconnected Internet of today, BBSs were small islands of digital content and discourse. People accessing a BBS could share ideas and get in arguments, and this was so common that the Internet term "Flame" probably got its start in the days before there was a public Internet.
Those are just a few examples, but one might argue that aspects of "blogging" can be seen in everything from pirate radio stations that popped up around Europe and the U.S. in the 60s to the roots of theater, which began informally not with opulent performance spaces but with a few people wanting to tell a story (and, since theater was and is often allegorical, to make a point) to others. Wikipedia includes an interesting entry about Mass-Observation; "likened (to) blogging," this social experiment began in 1937 with ordinary U.K residents maintaining diaries and being interviewed with the purpose of documenting everyday life and opinions of the era.

I think it's important to appreciate that the most powerful "trends" aren't really new at all, but new ways of doing the same things we always have done. Interactive and experiential marketers who understand this and root their new ideas in basic human needs can create powerful experiences for brands.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Flip: Keep It Simple, Stupid

The Flip is the best-selling camcorder device you've never heard of. Slipping beneath the radar of most tech bloggers and media, this $150 device has captured 13% of the camcorder market.

It has been successful not because it has the latest gadgets, the largest memory, or the best picture quality. It's succeeded because it is stupid simple. And in this is a lesson to those of us in Experiential Marketing (XM) who are early tech adopters--the best experience for many consumers is the simplest, not the most powerful.

The New York Times article says it well: "Understanding the appeal of this machine will require you not just to open your mind, but to practically empty it. The screen is tiny (1.5 inches) and doesn't swing out for self-portraits. You can't snap still photos. There are no tapes or discs, so you must offload the videos to a computer when the memory is full. There are no menus, no settings, no video light, no optical viewfinder, no special effects, no headphone jack, no high definition, no lens cap, no memory card. And there's no optical zoom -- only a 2X digital zoom that blows up and degrades the picture."

On paper, The Flip would look like a non-starter to most of us, yet its one-button simplicity, low price point, quick start-up, and embedded USB port have made the camcorder a winner. In short, it's so darn usable that no one cares how it compares to other digital camcorders; it's literally created and owns a new category of product.

This is a valuable lesson to those of us in the XM field. It is tempting to brainstorm every value-adding idea under the sun and load XM programs with every bell and whistle possible. But simple and easy must always trump slick and cool; consumer attention is too difficult to earn and too valuable to lose it because your online or real world experience is overly complex.

I'm not suggesting high-tech, innovative programs are worthless; to suggest that would be to miss the point of The Flip, which is a pretty incredible piece of cutting-edge technology. Instead, the challenge we face is to use all that technology and brainpower to create experiences so simple, engaging, and welcoming that they grab and hold consumers' attention. The goal must be provide an experience so focused on the targeted consumer and the brand that the technologies and complexities seem invisible.

Much like the Nintendo Wii, the Flip provides a meaningful example of how technology can enhance consumer experiences only in combination with careful design and focus on the user.

Consumers, Marketers, Lawmakers, and Advocates Don't Get It

MediaPost is reporting on a pending bill in the state of New York that would regulate online ad targeting. The measure would require that companies monitoring users' Web-surfing activity for marketing purposes--which is pretty much every news and entertainment site--tell users about the practice and give them an opportunity to opt out. The bill also requires that companies get affirmative consent before merging personally identifiable data--names, addresses, phone numbers--with tracking information collected anonymously.

Of course, the article contains many quotes from both sides of this issue. "Absent consumer harm, why are we rushing to regulate this space--a medium that has been nothing but kind to consumers and provides free content and services to them?" says the fellow from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, making advertisers sound as selfless as Mother Theresa.

"The harm can be cumulative over time--like mercury poisoning from eating tuna," says the gal from the World Privacy Forum, equating the viewing of banner advertising with slow, agonizing, painful death.

Everyone is right. And everyone is wrong. None of the parties--not the advertisers, the consumers, the advocates, or the lawmakers--totally get it. Nor do I, but let's explore the issues from the two different perspectives.

Privacy Advocates and Consumers:
There's a growing industry in consumer privacy advocacy, and the people who work for advocacy groups don't get paid to be reasonable. They fight tooth and nail for the idea that companies should never collect or use consumer data without permission. Their stance isn't unreasonable--how can one argue with the idea that people should be permitted to understand what's being collected and control their own data?

But the stance is also rather silly, considering how little consumers seem to care about this issue. Sure, when asked by survey takers, consumer will express concern about their privacy online; and then they'll post the most personal of data and photos about themselves on Facebook and MySpace.

And if all these consumers were really concerned about privacy, wouldn't they visit the privacy policies on the sites they frequent? Trust me, they don't. A 2002 survey about privacy found that nearly half of consumers assess the visual design of a site when determining the site's credibility, but less than one percent mentioned the privacy policy. (When's the last time you visited a privacy policy page? And when you were last presented with the choice of accepting a Web site or software user agreement, did you read it thoroughly?)

The fact privacy advocates are so vocal about an issue to which consumers have very thin personal commitment doesn't make it wrong, but it does mean they should be cautious about the ramifications of the bills they're pushing. Consumers don't understand that laws such as the one in New York could have a profound impact on their access to free information, features, and entertainment. If tomorrow,, and disappear because the New York law makes it impossible for those sites to find a profitable economic model, will consumers throw a parade for privacy advocates or run them out of town?

As for consumers themselves, they don't think much about the free entertainment and information they enjoy online and in other media, but they should. That free news and content isn't free to the people who staff news bureaus, pay reporters and cameramen, buy cameras and editing equipment, and maintain Web sites and infrastructure. And the problem isn't limited to the Internet; all those ads you're Tivoing past while watching "Scrubs" were supposed to pay the $2 million per episode it costs to produce the show. (Zach Braff doesn't come cheap, you know!)

If consumers stop paying for content with their attention, they'll instead need to start paying with their wallets, and this is what may happen if laws like the one proposed in New York are enacted. If CNN loses the additional revenue that comes from being able to target ads based consumer data, their available choices to compensate will include many options consumers won't like--going dark, charging membership fees, or finding more annoying and disruptive ways for advertisers to reach them, such as forcing them to watch commercials or see ads before accessing news.

Finally, I understand the legitimate concern about so much data being collected and maintained by so few organizations, but really how different is this than the way smart business has operated for centuries? Consider the proprietor of Oleson's Mercantile from Little House in the Prairie: He knew everything about everyone in town, including when their babies were due, what medical issues they faced, and the brand of their favorite tobacco; as a result, he could provide better services and suggest new or different products his customers would appreciate.

Wanting to know your customer in order to provide them with products, services, or advertising that might be more appropriate and welcome shouldn't be an earth shatteringly dangerous idea.

Marketers, Content Producers, and Web Site Operators:
Based on my thoughts in the previous section, you might think that I have some empathy for the plight of content producers, marketers, and Web site operators. I do, but not much.

Here's a simple motto to live by: Give consumers what they want!

Here's another: Address consumer concerns before lawmakers do!

The fact this is even an issue should be embarrassing to people who offer free content sites and the folks who advertise on those sites. Instead of being forced to take excessive and unprofitable actions by the state, they should proactively and unilaterally be taking moderate action. This action should include informing consumers on the value to them of online tracking, educating them on what is being tracked, and giving them some reasonable options.

Education is a big component of the problem. People hear about "Web site tracking" and they imagine far more nefarious and wide-reaching data collection than is actually being done. In most cases, the tracking and use of consumer data is as simple as: This consumer is looking at auto reviews, is 21 years old, and is male--let's serve him an ad for a Scion. Or, this consumer is looking at parenting pages, is 30 years old, and is female--let's serve her an ad for Huggies.

I don't agree with eMarketer, which claims the proposed New York law "could be a blessing in disguise," because the law will inevitably go farther and be more costly than would simple, common sense and voluntary actions on the part of Web site owners. However, eMarketer is correct in their assessment that taking some action could benefit Web sites: "Clearer opt-out and opt-in mechanisms for online display advertising will likely make it more effective. It's similar to e-mail marketing: opt-in recipients are hugely more responsive than those who have not agreed to see the marketing messages."

Some of those Web sites feel they are already doing enough, since they are voluntarily complying with seven-year-old voluntary standards. In fact, the new proposed law is almost identical to the voluntary standards in place on the largest and most trafficked sites, with the primary exception being the proposed law's financial penalties for violating the rules.

I'd suggest that merely adhering to the voluntary standards is not sufficient, not because I say so but because if they were sufficient, there would be no call for new laws. It is clear this situation is being mismanaged by folks who have a lot to lose. A proactive campaign to inform and educate and to provide reasonable choices to consumers may prevent much more stringent and problematic steps in the future.

I hope site owners and marketers use this situation as an opportunity to act. Those actions must extend beyond simply lobbying in Albany and include proactive steps that will put marketers in the lead on this issue rather than playing defense.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Short Takes: 3.20.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • We all know about UGC (or User-Generated Content), but how about taking all that desire to produce content that exists on the Web and taking it offline? That's the idea behind Everywhere Magazine, a publication composed entirely of user-generated content. Every month, the editors select the best articles and photos and lay out a new magazine. I'll be interested to see how this works--with so many people creating new content, the idea of finding related content, gathering the best of it, and repurposing it offline sounds like a winner. Read more in the Influential Marketing Blog.

  • Starbucks has launched an interesting site to involve customers in improving their experience. Visitors to My Starbucks Idea may submit ideas which are then voted on by the community. Starbucks will implement the top ideas and give credit to the person who offered the concept. While I love the idea of getting input from customers, I was surprised to see that Starbucks won't reward people whose ideas are implemented. I suppose the problem is that so many people may submit the same or similar ideas; still, if they can give credit to one person for an idea, you'd think they could provide a free coffee a week to people who provide a demonstrably great idea!

  • This article might be a little on the techie side, but I thought it was so well written, funny, and helpful that it was worth sharing. "17 Tips For Getting Bloggers To Write About You" provides some simple tips to Web developers and site owners about how to make it easy for bloggers to write about you (and by now we should all know how powerful blog links are for increasing traffic and for improving search engine relevance). The tips range from the obvious ("Have a permanent link" and "Put your URL on your images") to the controversial ("PDFs Suck") to the critical ("Don't worry about 'bandwidth stealing'" and "Enough with the legal boilerplate").

  • I am very impressed with a deceptively simply program launched by Acura to introduce their luxury cars to luxury-oriented consumers. Acura and W Hotels have formed a partnership under which guests, staying at any of the Starwood brand's 18 upscale hotels in North America, will be chauffeured to local spots in an Acura MDX. Each vehicle, a 7-passenger SUV priced at $40,195 and up, will be equipped with products found in W hotel rooms, including a bottle of Voss water and a W CD. Guests will be able to reserve the SUV at Acura-staffed desks in W lobbies.

Social Web Surfing

Several Web sites and tools are competing to become the primary one used by Internet surfers to collect and share links, including and StumbleUpon. is presently the leader in social surfing, but I've found a tool that I think is preferable to the others: Diigo. "Diigo" is an abbreviation for "Digest of Internet Information, Groups and Other stuff." (Don't blame me--I didn't name it.)

The Diigo toolset includes tools that not only permit you to save and share bookmarks, but also to highlight sections of Web pages, add your own annotations, and mark your bookmarks with tags. You can make all of this information accessible to others, which turns Diigo into more than just a social networking site or bookmark tool. For those who wish, it can become a research and collaborative research tool, perfect for knowledge sharing and gathering.

You can find my Diigo page at, but don't expect much right away. I just signed up and am building my bookmarks, tags, and annotations.

Check out and let me know if you like it or if you've found a different social surfing tool with better capabilities.

When Not to Offer Interstitial Ads

Quick story about an interesting online service experience I had this morning. I receive an eWeek email daily and found that the content wasn't that pertinent to me. So, I clicked the "Unsubscribe" link and was surprised when instead of seeing the unsubscribe page, I was first served an interstitial ad.

Interstitials are pages that are displayed before and instead of the content one expects, and they usually are used to show advertising. I'm not a big fan of interstitials, but I also understand that content providers deserve to earn some cash in exchange for their valued content, and many find that banner and text ads don't provide the revenue necessary. Interstitials have the risk of being annoying, but at least they aren't as user unfriendly as pop-overs or -unders.

Even though I don't object to interstitial ads, I do object to being served one when my purpose is 1) functional rather than informational, and 2) to sever or manage my relationship with the site. Think of a real-life retail corollary: It's like stopping people on their way to make a return at the Service Counter and forcing them to see an ad.

It's easy to implement the code that can shunt anyone who is entering your site to an interstitial page. In fact, it may be too easy, because doing so for every page can get in the way of offering great service and can damage your brand.

BTW, while we're on interstitials, let me briefly share another pet peeve: If you are going to run an interstitial ad, get to the point immediately. Not merely quickly; get to the point from the very first micro-second!

It is a best practice to offer people a "Skip" button so they can proceed past interstitial ads, and most will avail themselves of that feature within a second or two. If you waste those precious first seconds on meaningless animation instead of answering the question, "What's in it for me?", you are wasting your advertising budget!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Dangers of Asking Consumers

I am a huge proponent of thoroughly understanding your customer and engaging them in a dialog rather than talking at them. But asking them the wrong questions can yield the wrong results.

For example, the normally reliable Nielsen Company recently issued the results of a well-intentioned but rather silly survey. Their study shows "that more than half of U.S. consumers would give up all forms of packaging provided for convenience purposes if it would benefit the environment."

It's tempting to think this is the case, but I have my doubts. For example, the survey indicates that one in four consumers would be willing to give up packaging designed to keep products clean and untouched by other shoppers. I'm sure this is how one in four consumers answered the question, but is it really what one in four consumers would do when offered the choice between a protected product and one that had been handled, smudged, and sneezed on by other shoppers? I guarantee that the lofty ideals of those 25% would go right out the window once they were presented with a real-life choice.

Another example is that just shy of one in three consumers claimed they'd give up packaging designed to keep products in good condition. Do you really think those shoppers would bypass a product sealed in protective packaging and instead select an eco-friendly, unprotected product in poor condition?

I try to do my share to save the environment, so I'd love to believe consumers really would act as claimed in this Nielsen survey, but I don't believe it. Asking people questions like this is bound to bring out their altruism, which is a form of survey bias called Social Desirability. This might be because of a subconscious desire to be a better citizen of the planet. Or, it might be a conscious desire to not have the survey takers think one is a gas-guzzling, tree-killing, fur-wearing, seal-bashing, planet-mangling cretin.

Either way, it seems to me Nielsen could've generated better and more accurate information by observing shopping behavior rather than gathering data from the sorts of questions that they asked.

Short Takes: 3.19.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Social networks aren't just for kids. According to eMarketer, affluent Internet users are flocking to social networks, too. The rate of affluent participation in online social networks increased dramatically to 60% in January 2008, from 27% in January 2007. The study noted that, on average, affluent US Internet users are members of about three online social networks and have 110 online connections through these sites. The report notes that luxury goods companies have been slow to embrace the Internet and now, "luxury needs to catch up quickly."

  • Apparently the affluent aren't the only people being ignored online. A new study finds that a majority of Internet users 45 years and older believe online content is focused on younger age segments. And more than two-thirds (72.5%) of respondents 45-54 years, and 83.2% of respondents 55 years and older say online advertising is focused on people younger than they are. The study also revealed the unsurprising fact that Internet use is still growing in older demographics: 62.8% of respondents 55 years and older say they are visiting more sites today in a typical week of web surfing than they were one year ago.

  • For a five-second reminder of the importance of design and usability as part of the brand experience, check out Stuff That Happens for a visual summary of an Apple product, a Google Web site, and your company's site.

Death To Headline Writers!

I don't know if I hate just those who write headlines or all journalists. The breathless hype they toss at some subjects (Second Life!) and the negative twist they put on others can really get in the way of communicating information.

Today, eMarketer cut its forecast for 2008 online ad spending 6 percent from its forecast in October. It now expects advertisers will spend $25.8 billion on Internet ads. eMarketer is forecasting growth of online ad spending between 16 to 17% per year from 2009 to 2012.

Now, I think we can agree that 16 to 17% annual growth is an impressive figure, can't we? Especially given the fact the weak economy is being factored into this forecast, I don't think this sort of double-digit growth is anything to sneeze at.

But that's not what you'd think if all you did is read the headlines:

Ironically, the article that appears on eMarketer's own Web site has an upbeat headline: "Online Advertisers To Spend Through Turbulence."

Those who write headlines just can't help themselves from either hyping or slamming Internet topics, but I suppose that's how they get people to click and read.

What Makes a Great Retail Experience?

Here's a brief article that is a roundtable of smart folks answering the simple question: What Makes a Great Retail Experience? The participants include some experts in creating retail experiences, including Frances Allen from Dunkin’ Donuts, Michael Copeland from Cabela’s, and James Damian from Best Buy.

You'll find their insights interesting, but the simplest and most obvious message was delivered by David Sommer of GroupM Retail:

This will sound simple, but a great retail experience is about paying attention to the shopper, first and foremost. There is now a dizzying array of new in-store vehicles—whether it’s digital screens or projection media or interactive kiosks. But the key thing about the retail experience is thinking about shoppers and their mission, making it convenient for the shopper, and thinking about whether they’re open to exciting, new things in the product categories they’re shopping.

Why does it seem so revolutionary to tell business to concentrate on their customer?!? Too many marketers are so focused on what they wish to tell the consumer or what they want from the consumer that they actually forget to listen to their customers and give them what they want.

This point is especially pertinent right now with respect to Retail Digital Signage (RDS). There's a lot of buzz about RDS in the marketing and retail worlds, and I'm concerned history will repeat itself. Just like with the first television sponsorships or the first banner ads, the newness of the RDS medium will attract consumers' attention, and its success will attract more marketing money. But soon our retail stores may become oceans of blinking, animated signs, all competing for attention and none of them earning it.

I love this comment from Mr. Sommer because if marketers' exploration of RDS and any new media don't start and end with an understanding of what consumers want and need, the early promise will fizzle into more consumer apathy toward marketing and very poor results for brands.

Check out more at Thanks to Erik from the Experiential Marketing Forum for sharing this link.

Short Takes: 3.18.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Scion is launching a cool tech-based experience in New York. Digital billboards in storefronts will show the Scion, and as consumers approach, the cars on screen will move farther away from them. Says the creative director for agency, Attik: "The more we can involve people in the marketing, the better. It's just more memorable."

  • It's a little ironic that I ran across this Wall Street Journal article tonight, considering I just criticized the auto industry for too often producing generic and ignorable advertising. Ford is attempting to win back customers who no longer will consider US-made cars. Says the article, "Traditional advertising campaigns have had little impact on consumer perceptions of the Big Three." So, Ford is going to work in collaboration with their dealers to build a grass-roots "army of Ford brand advocates" with the goal of making consumers "feel something" about Ford. It's been a long time since I've heard something out of Detroit that made me feel like an American automaker might mount a successful charge against the imports!

  • Reading the financial headlines will dampen your mood, but the picture continues to look rosy for Internet marketing. A new eMarketer report says, "Despite the economic rough patch, US online advertising will continue to grow through 2008. Online ad spending will rise by 23%." The report claims that search marketing will grow by 40% in 2008, but I am beginning to wonder if money can continue to flow into search strategies considering the fierce competition and inflation in PPC costs that most online marketers are seeing, even if they're buying "long tail" search terms. The report also indicates that rich media and video advertising is set to grow as a percentage of online ad spending, rising to 18.5% in 2012 from 10.2% in 2008.