Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Short Takes: 4.30.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • CNN T-Shirts: Barbarian Group launched CNN Shirt, a fun and smart extension of the CNN Web site. Make your own shirt by selecting from the headlines on CNN, and your shirt will include the headline plus the date and time the headline was posted. I like the concept; it's a great way of attracting an atypical demographic to a news site, involving visitors in a unique way, and creating an additional revenue stream for CNN. Of course, I'd like the site a bit more if it worked properly. Twice this afternoon (and with two different browsers) I clicked "Add Shirt" for two fun headlines--"Terrorists: 'Why we want to kill you'" and "Teen too young for 'come hither' pose?"--and neither time would the site add the shirt to my shopping cart. Cool ideas and slick design are great, but they're not worth much if the execution falls short.

  • P&G Lets Consumers Weigh In on Marketing: Ad Age features a fascinating article about how P&G is letting consumers "Act as media planners." Following Starbucks' efforts to involve consumers in ideation, P&G has created two toll-free numbers that consumers may use to weigh in on specific media buys. The first line permits consumers to share their feelings about P&G sponsoring "hip-hop programs on MTV and BET laced with profanity, liberal doses of the 'N word,' and scenes (that) degrade and objectify women." The second line asks callers to support or criticize the story line on "As the World Turns," from P&G Productions, which featured fairly passionate kisses between daytime TV's only gay couple. This program leverages Web 2.0 ideas of transparency and involvement, but uses a phone number. Shall we call it Phone 2.0?

  • Minipreneurship Filmmaking: On the E:TB blog, you've seen several mentions of the way music artists are tapping into social networking to raise money for recording projects, but this is the first time I've seen that model applied to filmmaking. Artemis Eternal is a planned science fiction short that is involving film fans around the world in the financing and production of the movie. The interactive site tracks the lifecycle of the production, providing an idea of what's been accomplished and what is next. You may donate as little as $1, but $100 will get your name in the credits and on the site as a "wingman." The video below taps into the energy of social media and minipreneurship to describe the project.

  • Tracking the Blogosphere: Last week, I shared some tools for tracking and graphing mentions on Twitter and Facebook. Here's another graphing tool, Trendpedia, which permits you to compare the mentions of various terms across the blogosphere. The chart at left shows a comparison of "Stan Getz," "Miles Davis," and "Hannah Montana." (Bloggers must be a jazzy bunch--until Miley posed for Annie Leibovitz, it's remarkable to note how closely Miles and Hanna tracked!) The site's interactive graphs permit users to click on the graph and see a listing of the mentions for a given date and search term.

  • Beatboxing T-Shirts: Included in Creativity Weekly's Top Five this week was this quirky microsite: UT Loop. The site declares that "A T-shirt is more than a T-shirt. It's an expression of who you are." It then makes the point by allowing site visitors to make their own simple musical sequences by selecting from a worldwide mix of hipsters wearing T-shirts. The microsite is fun, features a clean design, makes excellent use of interactivity and video, is focused on the audience, and makes clever and subtle statements about the brand and its customers. Plus, UT doesn't miss the opportunity to leverage consumers' desire to share by providing a widget tool for including custom mixes on other sites. My simple loop is shown below for your enjoyment.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Microsites Done Right

Last month I read a rather ridiculous editorial by Sean X Cummings, Director of Marketing for On iMedia, he groused, "I do not even know where to start with my rant on microsites." But, somehow Sean found a place to start, and rant he did.

In his tirade about microsites, Sean sets up a straw man when he says, "the only reason you are probably creating one is that your main website sucks." In fact, there are several reasons to create a microsite, even if your main site is excellent. For example:
  • To create an experience: The point of most brand or corporate sites is to provide information and to do so, the site requires structure--consistent page structure (so that consumers know what they're seeing) and intuitive site structure (so that visitors know how to get through the site.) But what if you wish to create an online experience that engages rather than informs? What if you want to convey emotion rather than data? A microsite featuring games, video, exploration, and interactivity can encourage the sort of emotional engagement not usually available within the confines of a larger and more structured informational site.

  • To promote a new product: Introducing a new product via microsite can provide a way to give more information about and more focus to the product than is possible within the framework of an existing corporate or brand site. Think of this sort of microsite like a new product launch packet or glossy sell sheet that a company produces, even though it includes the same product in its catalog. In the same way, a microsite may complement and supplement the information on the brand or corporate Web site.

  • To focus on a specific audience: Typical brand or corporate sites must cast as wide a net as possible, but if a brand has specific sub-audiences to which it wants to appeal, a microsite provides a way to fashion content and experiences more specifically.
Here are some examples of microsites that get it right. Of course, I cannot vouch for the ROI (another of Mr. Cumming's rants), but you can easily see how these microsites fit a specific need and do more than can be accomplished within a typical information-driven Web site.
This microsite, promoting Sunday evening parties at the Hard Rock Las Vegas, shot like lightning from man to man in our agency, helped by healthy doses of bikini-clad women and excellent use of Flash and video. The site got guys talking about a trip to Vegas, accomplishing the purpose of the microsite.

The Hard Rock could have (and in fact does) have information about poolside shows on its Web site. But as dynamic as their primary site is, it doesn't compare to the experience of

This microsite satisfies all three of the purposes noted above: It focuses on a specific audience (young men and women who like to party), it introduces a new product (or in this case reintroduces a regular Sunday night party), and it creates an engaging experience.

Why create an engaging exeprience? Because showing young men beautiful women and allowing them to hear hot music is a better way to engage their emotions than merely telling them about it. And because this sexy, high-energy site creates the sort of enthusiasm that encourages visitors to share the site with others. Even a good microsite needs promotion, but a great microsite will multiply that traffic and increase reach without additional spend.
Let's say you need to market a product that is essentially a pair of pliers. Of course, you launch a product Web site, but you find that doesn't exactly set the world on fire. What to do? Launch

This Addy-award-winning site turns the common frustration of opening annoying packaging into a funny microsite. The site focuses on faux case studies of people who lost their cool trying to get through packaging to the product they purchased.

This site creates an experience about a product that otherwise might not get noticed. Much like the famed "Will it Blend?" series of videos, this microsite is an engaging way to make a point and get attention about what otherwise might be an overlooked product. The case studies, representing a cross section of demographics, also successfully convey the product as fitting a need for everyone.
There is no product as inherently experiential as travel, but trying to convince travelers to overlook price and instead choose one travel destination over another has proven an enormous challenge. Sounds like an excellent use for a microsite!

Carnival Cruiselines supplemented their information-rich primary site with a fun and engaging rich media site called The site gives site visitors a first-person tour of a Carnval cruise ship. You can order a drink (with a parasol, of course), play craps (a simplified version), or check out the beach. (As you dip your toes in the ocean, you can enter your zip code to compare your temp with the average temp in the Caribbean today.)

Even though the primary Carnival site has more information than any person could possibly want, this microsite appeals to consumers' emotions. It invites exploration, just as one does on a real cruise ship. The microsite experience engages sight, sound, and the imagination, and in the process sells the idea of cruising more than all of the newspaper ads that will appear in this Sunday's travel sections across the country.

Mr. Cumming's rant isn't all wrong. I agree with the need to measure ROI of any site (or marketing effort), and I generally concur that a great microsite should stick around for more than just a couple weeks and months. Launching an engaging site and then pulling it down is old-school "campaign" thinking; in today's online and marketing environment, constant engagement should be valued over quick hits.

If you know of other great microsites, please share them!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Short Takes: 4.27.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • SMS Content That Focuses on the Audience: MediaPost's Mobile Insider has some interesting observations about UO TXT, Urban Outfitters' SMS messaging program. UO is using text for more than just coupons and alerts; members get notices about bands, receive free ringtone downloads, and participate in text polls and slogan contests. This might sound like a lot of SMS messages to old fogeys like you and I (sorry, I am making an assumption about you, aren't I?), but to the target demographic, the "media mix" is working. It's an interesting way to utilize text but before considering if it is right for your brand, it's very important to remember that this program perfectly fits a specific demographic. Plus, one has to wonder if this sort of program will be as successful once hundreds of brands are peppering subscribers' phones with these sorts of text messages. UO TXT is getting lift today by being an early adopter and finding a unique way to use the medium.

  • If You Don't Know What MMO Stands For, Start Here: Digital Trends has a video series called Players Only, where it covers the growing phenomenon of gaming. This week's video is about MMOs, Massively Multiplayer Online games, which merge aspects of gaming, the Internet, virtual worlds, and social media. Formerly the purview of geeks, MMOs are going mainstream and, in fact, are skewing more female than male. The video doesn't touch on what this means to marketers, but it's still an excellent primer if you're unfamiliar with MMOs and if you still think of gamers as teen males sitting in isolation at their PC or gaming systems.

  • Olympic Sponsors Fight Back: This year's Olympics was already proving a challenge to sponsors due to Tibet issues. This challenge got even worse when activist groups focusing their attention outside of China began to try to embarrass sponsors into action. Last week, Mia Farrow’s activist group, Dream for Darfur, issued a report card that criticized most of the major Olympic sponsors. One cannot fault Dream for Darfur for caring, but what is the link between Olympic sponsorship and the tragedies in Darfur? This tactic could backfire and encourage companies to withdraw rather than engage in additional and necessary international activities. Furthermore, it might be that Dream for Darfur finds itself more on the defensive than do the sponsors. For example, Coca-Cola is fighting back: "For an organization that has not eased the suffering of a single individual on the ground in Darfur to criticize those who are helping thousands every day is more than ironic." Read more on the New York Times Web site.

  • Starbucks Shakes Up Entertainment Unit: A month ago, we explored how Starbucks fumbled the ball with their music offerings. The program started very small, with shops offering CDs from unique and independent artists that fit well with Starbuck's brand, but as they sought to expand the program with less focused and more mainstream artists, their music program began to falter. This week, Starbucks showed to the door the executive who ran their music program since 2004. Starbucks reiterated its commitment to entertainment as part of their brand, but how these changes will affect the brand's music program remains unknown. The right music offerings will bolster consumers' perception of the coffee shop chain and will increase entertainment revenue, but continued hawking of the same music consumers can find elsewhere will dilute rather than help the brand.

Timeshifting American Idol Out of Relevance: Users in Control

The LA Times wants to rain on American Idol's parade. AI, currently in its seventh season, has remained firmly at the top of TV ratings. According to Nielsen, both weekly episodes of AI beat every other show on TV last week, drawing six million more viewers than the runner up, "Dancing with the Stars" and nearly eight million more than TV's top scripted show, "Desperate Housewives".

You'd think this would be a reason to celebrate for AI, but according to the LA Times there are dark and dangerous clouds forming over the ratings champ. "Could it be that the singing smash, which has entirely reshaped television over the past seven seasons, is finally proving mortal?," it asks. The basis for this question is that "Idol" has slipped 7% in average total viewers compared with last season, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.

Every popular show eventually slips, and perhaps it is AI's time to advance into the equivalent of broadcast middle age, making room for younger, more relevant TV programs. The LA Times cites "show fatigue" and says, "Some fans are seeing the program as less essential than it was a year or two ago."

There is undoubtedly some truth to this, but I think there's a larger trend at work here. First of all, I believe Idol is retaining more of their viewers than the LA Times (or Neilsen's broadcast ratings) acknowledge. That 7% decrease in total viewers equates to around 2.2 million people, but what about those who "time-shift" the show? Nielsen is now tracking how many people consume a show not at the time it is broadcast, but at a later time by using their DVRs.

According to Nielsen, in the week ending April 8, 2007, 2.46 million people time-shifted "American Idol." That number had grown to over 4 million in the week ending April 6, 2008. So, the show lost 2.2 million live viewers and picked up 1.6 million time-shifted viewers. That's still a downward trend, of course, but nowhere near as bad as what the LA Times indicates.

The growth of time-shifting is far more than just an interesting trend of the DVR era. It should also be a wake-up call to TV executives and advertisers: Consumers are more in control of their media consumption than ever before, and if TV is to remain relevant (to both consumers and advertisers), it's going to need to change to reflect consumer wants and needs.

It's not that hard to glean consumers' mindset from the time-shifting data. Over 70% of the people who time-shifted AI watched it on the same day it was broadcast. Why? It isn't that this many people were too busy to watch it at 8 pm but found they had time at 9 pm. The reason is (obviously) that consumers are demanding and creating for themselves a better viewing experience.

AI has done little to change up its format over the years. Tweaks have been minor, such as shedding a cohost and permitting the contestants to play instruments. What hasn't changed is the format of the show. Each episode continues the tradition of bloating the running time with fluff. This week Tuesday night, the five remaining singers will give performances totaling less than 20 minutes during the hour-long show, and on Wednesday night, it will take AI 60 minutes to announce the departure of a single contestant. Those of us with DVRs will reduce those 120 minutes into less than 30 watchable and interesting minutes.

AI could become the first-ever case study of what happens to a #1 show that ignores the newfound power of consumers with DVRs. The producers would be well advised to recognize that a profound revolution in media consumption has occurred since the show debuted in 2002. Back then, virtually no one had DVRs. In December of 2005, DVR penetration in National People Meter sample homes was less than 1 percent. One year later, DVR penetration in NPM sample homes reached 11.4% and as of February 2008, this figure stands at 21.4%. It doesn't take a TV guru to know what will happen to time-shifting and ad viewing as this number exceeds 50% in four or five short years.

Without a profound change to AI, the producers could find themselves in a situation where both consumers and advertisers begin to defect in greater numbers. Consumers will grow weary of the enormous weekly time commitment and the unimportant content, and more will timeshift (or they'll simply tune out). Advertisers, recognizing that consumers are fast-forwarding past their ads along with AI's fluff, will begin to pay less for spots on the top-rated show. Thus, producers could get squeezed by both consumers and advertisers, a cycle that will of course cause the show to stumble its way toward cancellation.

There is an alternative, but it will require producers to recognize that the consumer is in charge and to introduce substantial changes to keep the audience engaged. I'm not sure AI's producers have the guts to do what it takes--after all, they thought that changing the stage set would be a big deal for viewers--but here are some ideas AI might consider to create the right experience for 2009 consumers:
  • Shrink the running time. People will tune in live (and watch the ads) for a tight, entertaining, and exciting 30-minute show. I think it is interesting to note that just three 30-minute programs are in the list of top 20 shows that are timeshifted.
  • Fill the show with content about the singers. Conversely, AI can keep the hour-long running time if they'd put the focus where it belongs--on the contestants. Simon's been grousing the show lacks singers with personality, but it's clear there are interesting people up on stage; AI's brusque "behind the scenes" introductions for the singers seem contrived and fail to give much insight about the real people for whom consumers vote.
  • Be truthful. Among the reason viewers are departing from the show this year is that they're finding more accurate info about the singers from the Internet than they are from AI itself. AI's clumsy failure to admit right from the start that some of this year's contestants have a professional singing past undermined the trust (and insulted the intelligence) of the viewers.
  • Get Interactive. Currently, AI uses the Internet for little more than promotion of the show. Permitting voting online would help to increase participation. (Some people fear online voting may be subject to manipulation, but it can't possibly be worse than their current system.) And in the era of growing transparency and user-generated content, why do we only get tightly controlled interviews with the contestants rather than letting them blog about their AI experiences, sharing the fun, the work, their hopes and their anxieties?
My prediction is that if AI doesn't announce a shake up in the format of the show, it will not be at the top of the Nielsen ratings by the end of the 2009 season. The show still has legs and could continue on the air for many years to come; after all, Survivor is still in the top 20 shows on TV in its 16th season. But the growth in DVR usage, timeshifting, and ad-skipping may also cause AI's decline to occur more steeply than for others top-rated shows in the past. The solutions are available to AI's producers, but it will take a recognition of a changed media landscape and some bold moves to keep the show on top.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Social Media Research Tool Day

Today must be Social Media Research Tool Day on the Internet, because I found two new tools to help you track trends and buzz in social media.
  • Graphing Twitter: If you're a Twitter user or just care to know what people are chatting about on the microblog site, check out Twist from Flaptor. Simply enter terms separated by commas, and you can see a graph showing mentions in Twitter over time. For example, I checked out Obama, Hillary, and Idol, and found that following a Pennsylvania Primary spike, Idol as of today is getting more mentions than either presidential candidate.

  • Graphing Facebook: Want to know what people are talking about on Facebook? Go to Facebook Lexicon. You must be signed into Facebook to access it, but once you do you can enter terms and chart the number of occurrences of words and phrases on "walls." I checked the same terms as above and found that poor Hillary is regularly out-mentioned by both Idol and Barack.

Short Takes: 4.23.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Your Outsourced Insight & Information Department: Tom Martin is mad as hell, and he's not going to take this any more. Okay, he may not exactly be having a Howard Beale moment, but he voices his frustration that small agencies and marketers cannot get the same access to Insight & Information as the larger players. Rather than complain, he's setting out to do something about it. Tom has created Insight & Information, a site at which he is soliciting registrants to fund an outsourced research department. For $135 and $189 a year, you can be one of 5,000 select members to receive a monthly report that will "cover what you should be paying attention to, what you can ignore and suggest what you should be on the look out for in the near future." It's a bold experiment, and I'll be interested to see how many marketing professionals sign up. You can read more about Tom's frustrations and ideas on his Ad Age blog.

  • One "C" Is More Important Than The Others: Dave Friedman offers the "Six C's of Social Influence Marketing" on His list is fine--Content, Customization, Community, Conversation, Commerce, and Commitment--but there is little substance to his brief post. I would've found a deeper discussion more insightful, and sometimes Dave disagrees with himself. In the course of a few sentences he says, "There is one factor around social influence marketing that can give marketers more immediate satisfaction: commerce." But then he says, and I agree, "The community has not come together to help companies sell products." He also gives short shrift to the most important "C" of all--commitment. Social media is not well suited to short-term campaigns but instead is ideal for building relationships over time. It is this factor that has many suggesting social media is not solely the purview of marketing but also of the customer service and PR functions.

  • Does This Career Make Me Look Immoral? It will come as no surprise that I happen to passionately believe in the role of marketing in our world. Done right, it brings benefits to consumers, brands, employees, and shareholders. But every now and then I come across something that makes me feel a little uneasy about my profession. For example, while I believe marketing is appropriate for pharmaceuticals just like any other product, the marketing investment and tactics must be carefully considered so as to benefit and not harm the health of consumers. In recent months, I've seen a slew of news reports that raise some concerns about pharma marketing. For example, one study found that advertising may have more influence on prescriptions than science. Brandweek reports that the pharmaceutical industry spends nearly twice as much promoting itself as it does on researching new drugs. And another study claims some of Merck's academic reports about the arthritis drug Vioxx were written by company employees, and doctors were paid to put their names on the research. This sort of news is bound to shake consumers' confidence in the pharma industry in specific and the health industry in general, and it points to the need for better industry oversight and more established ethical practices.

  • Starbucks Giving It Away: Starbucks sure has been making headlines recently. They closed their stores to retrain employees, launched a consumer idea and feedback site, and now they're giving away their product. The wisdom of this strategy is debated in an article on Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, says "I think it's desperation." But Larry Light, former chief marketing officer at McDonald's, defends Starbuck's strategy of offering multiple free trials, saying "The first time somebody tries something new in package goods, we call it trial. The second time is retrial, and the third time is a repeat purchase. So just getting someone to try something once and hoping they will repeat is not as effective." Whether or not you agree with the giveaway strategy, one thing is certain: Starbucks is working harder than ever to earn consumers' loyalty. Notes Passikoff, "There was a time that they didn't need to coupon."

  • Miss Manners for Twitter: Some people have found Twitter addictive and indispensable. I still struggle to find substantial value with the service and have begun to cull my "follow" list of those people who simply share too much Twutter. For those who use Twitter, I highly recommend a visit to The Toad Stool, which offers a great list of tips for using Twitter. He addresses some of my pet peeves, such as when people broadcast a personal message directed at one person to their entire Twitter list. Other tips include, "Live posting from SXSW is one thing. Live posting from your dinner with your college buddies, quite another." And, "Tweeting that you’ve reached a new milestone in the number of people following you is always in poor taste." If you're new to Twitter, check out the list of "12 Ways to Improve Your Twitter."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Short Takes: 4.22.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Is UCG Dead? AdRants is always an interesting read. Most of the time I agree, but this time I don't. AdRants takes Red Bull to task for using a YouTube strategy that involves consumers uploading their own videos. Blogger Steve Hall declares User Generated Content (UCG) old and boring: "Memo to marketers: this idea is dead." He is incorrect; marketing tactics rarely die, but they can get boring when nothing new is brought to them. While tech early adopters may feel branded YouTube UCG campaigns are stale, they should remember how many consumers are still in the process of growing more comfortable with shooting and editing their own video. There's still room for these sorts of campaigns, provided the strategy is unique and creative, is focused on the right audience, and fits the brand. (Steve is right about one thing: "You STILL have to have broad-reaching awareness tactics like TV behind it if you're going to get anyone to participate.")

  • Email Still Works: As if reinforce the point that tactics don't die merely because they've been around awhile, a new eMarketer report announces that email is alive and well. Half of US adult e-mail users surveyed said they had made an online purchase in the previous year as a result of permission-based marketing. In addition, e-mail was second only to customer reviews on Web sites for influencing online purchases. eMarketer's report also has words of caution to email marketers: "Consumers are increasingly willing to revoke permission that they have previously granted and that the bar for relevance remains high. About one-third of respondents... said they had stopped doing business with at least one company as a result of poor e-mail marketing practices." I don't know why any of us in the marketing field would need a reminder to stay relevant, but there you have it.

  • Caress Puts Words in Spokesperson's Mouth: Brandweek features an article about Unilever's new campaign for the Caress brand, featuring Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls. She's created a "Brazilian inspired" cover of Duran Duran's hit "Rio," which the brand is making available for download on Jon Cohen, co-president of agency Cornerstone, says "It's not just enough for brands, in today's crazy media landscape, to talk about the product. We had to leverage the music and talent to really bring this brand to life." I agree, but his thoughts don't square with the overly-scripted "interview" video on the site. Nicole says, "I teamed up with Caress Brazilian Exotic Oil Infusions Body Wash to encourage women all over the world to unleash the sensual spirit and charm of Brazil on their own skin. I am so excited to be here to remake my own Brazilian version of Duran Duran's Rio for the launch of the Caress Brazilian Exotic Oil Infusions Body Wash." No one talks like that and the singer looks uncomfortable trying to string all those brand terms together. This detracts from an otherwise strong brandertainment strategy.

  • Tour Earth the Twitter Way: This is more of a time waster than it is a pertinent marketing link, but you still may enjoy a visit to TwittEarth. The site presents an image of the planet, and every few seconds it shares a random Tweet, geo-located on the globe. In addition to being voyeuristic fun, TwittEarth is also an excellent reminder of how quickly social media tools such as Twitter can go global.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Short Takes: 4.18.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • A Billion Dollars in Internet Advertising is Wasted: The Internet is an exciting playground for marketers, but much of online display advertising is wasted. Banner ads have their place, but far too often they are used with too little thought, as if a marketing checklist says that X% of the budget has to go to online media, so it does. Extrapolating an Eyetools/Marketing Sherpa study, Steve Rubel of Micro Persuasions estimates that a billion dollars of online ad spend is wasted each year. The study finds that ads that appear "below the fold" are seen by only 25% of those who visit a page, and Rubel uses this data to estimate how much of the $5.1 billion that is annually invested in display advertising is totally invisible to Web surfers. The moral of this story is that creativity is needed to engage online consumers and care must be taken to evaluate media options, because not all banners are created equal.

  • Advertising Beside User-Generated Content Doesn't Work Either: Today appears to be the day for sobering reports on online advertising. eMarketer has an article about the failure of user-generated content (UCG) to produce significant ad revenue. Even though the number of consumers of UCG will increase from 94 million in 2007 to 130 million in 2012, "Advertising revenues are expected to stay (modest) for some time." The article quotes Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur, who said, “Nobody wants to advertise next to crap.” There is an element of truth to this, but I think there are bigger issues than quality. The most popular UCG is edgy, sexy, violent, political, or otherwise inappropriate for many brands. Plus, UCG is about consumer-to-consumer sharing; advertising beside or in UCG is as welcome as a TV ad inserted into the middle of your vacation video. All of this isn't to say UCG advertising can't be successful; just that it takes the right brand and creative to rise above the challenges.

  • Alternate Reality Games Draw Attention: iMedia has a lengthy article about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), a new genre of advergaming that uses the Internet to create involving experiences that often span the virtual and real worlds. ARGs bridge the gap between entertainment and sponsorship by engaging "the audience with the right elements of immersive storytelling matched with the right delivery mechanisms that allow suspension of disbelief and active participation in the experience." If that sounds like geek speak, check out the case studies shared in the article: "Dead Man's Tale," an interactive experience designed to showcase both Windows Live Messenger features and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," drew more than four million consumers who spent an average of 35 minutes playing the experience. McDonald's is currently sponsoring an Olympic-themed online game called The Lost Ring, which has attracted 150,000 players. ARGs aren't for every brand, but for the right brand and audience, ARGs can create the kind of attention and engagement other marketing tactics cannot touch.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Short Takes: 4.17.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Internet Advertising Bureau Overstates the Case: Everyone knows that User Generated Content (UCG) and Social Media are incredibly powerful forces on the Internet today, but the IAB's report on UCG is so breathlessly overstated that it seems more like advertising than an objective assessment. Rarely will a 17-page report lose me from the very first sentence, but here's how it starts: "If you’re not on a social networking site, you’re not on the Internet." No hype there! Several sentences later, the report states, "Gone are the days when power rested in the hands of a few content creators and media distributors," a statement that will come as a great surprise to Yahoo, Time Warner, and Microsoft, three of the top online content providers, collectively accounting for traffic greater than the population of the U.S. in February 2008. The report isn't a bad primer, but anyone who has been tracking social media will find this report adds more heat than light.

  • More Self Promotion Masquerading as Data: Yet another report was released recently that aggressively promotes a form of online advertising without telling the whole story. Podtrac, "the leading network of podcasts", reports that podcast advertising works. (Shocking! Who would've seen that coming?) The organization studied podcast listeners and found a 73% increase in likelihood to use or buy an advertised product, which is nothing to sneeze at. Problem is, the report only shares data on those who listen to podcasts, which is a remarkably small audience. According to a 17-month-old Pew Internet study, just 1% of Internet users report downloading podcasts on any given day. If your audience is comprised of podcast listeners, podcast advertising is worthwhile, but with a such a small user base and the huge number and dispersion of podcasts, podcasts are still a very niche ad medium.

  • Engagement Metrics: Pick the One That Works: Here's a very good article on MediaPost about Engagement and why it's so difficult to measure. Peter Hershberg of Reprise Media makes several terrific points. He first discusses how Time Spent is not a terribly accurate measurement of Web engagement because, "Tabbed browsing and online multitasking means people can frequently spend hours on a site without actually looking at it." (I have four tabs open, and the measurement tools for all four sites think I'm glued to their site content right now.) He goes on to make a very important point: "We all need to realize that there won't just be one standard." We marketing folks love standards, but trying to create a standard to measure engagement across RSS feeds, Twitter Tweets, Facebook, online games, brand sites, video, and the thousands of other online activities in which consumers engage is counterproductive. If you're not with the metric you love, love the one you're with!
  • Mr. Clean Turns His Attention Toward Cars: In what seems like a smart brand extension, P&G is getting Mr. Clean into the car wash business. Results at the first two car washes have been so strong that Procter & Gamble is looking for more locations just a year after the company's first car wash opened. Waiting areas have wireless Internet, flat-screen TVs and a coffee bar serving P&G's Millstone brand. The foundation for the strategy is rock solid--provide a great experience that fits the brand, build synergy with related brands, and furnish a service consumers will welcome. It will be interesting to see how wide P&G takes this program.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Copyright Pirates: Friend or Foe?

In the category of turning lemons into lemonade, Fast Company has an interesting article about "how the pirating of intellectual property can be a good thing." At first I expected the usual libertarian rant about how "information wants to be free," but Matt Mason shares some fascinating concepts. He asks, "Are pirates a threat to be battled or innovators to be emulated?"

He suggests that piracy is a market signal that consumers want something or that something isn't working. For example, "It concerns people within Microsoft that people weren't pirating Vista; they're continuing to pirate XP." Another example of brands using piracy is the way Nike, rather than suing a guy who was ripping off their shoe designs, instead watched the way the market reacted to the garish textures and colors he used (and later became an investor).

Still, despite Mason's best effort to frame piracy as some sort of free market force, to me there's no escaping that theft has ALWAYS been a market force; we've just never tried to excuse crime as an acceptable consumer response to individual wants and needs.

For example, Mason notes that "digital distribution is a much more efficient way to deliver music than CDs and that's why people switched to it." His contention was that the market was speaking and music labels weren't listening. He may be right about the labels, but he's wrong about the market.

People began downloading music not because it was more efficient but because it was free. In fact, people first started downloading ripped CDs back when dial-up modems required hours to obtain an entire CD--hardly a more "efficient" way of getting music. And interpreting P2P distribution of stolen music as a sign consumers want a different distribution model makes about as much sense as thirty years ago saying that people stealing LPs from record stores was a sign the market was demanding a different distribution mechanism. For some portion of the market, theft will always be in demand, but it doesn't make it an appropriate market force.

I believe there has to be a place for copyright protection. Even in the day and age of digital distribution, open source, and social networks, there are things that need to be owned in order to provide return to the originator who appropriately deserves and needs the reward of creating an in-demand product. Pharmaceuticals are one such example--take away copyright protection, and the firm cannot earn back the costs to develop, test, and market the product. (Don't get me wrong, I'm upset that the investment in marketing is outstripping R&D in the pharma industry, but that's an unrelated matter.)

I also think it's fine for Nike to be open minded about a pirate stealing their designs, but stealing a design is a different thing from stealing the actual product. A person who steals the design of a physical thing must have the means of production to produce it, providing a significant (but not insurmountable) hurdle. Moreover, the author of a shoe design can still compete on the quality of the physical product. But what's left for those who make movies and audio when the free download of a stolen version is identical to the paid and legal download? If musicians, movie makers, and authors cannot earn money through the sale of their product, what's left?

Any way you slice it, piracy is still theft. You can label it a "market signal" till the cows come home, but the pirates are taking someone else's ideas, investments, and content and selling it as if they're their own. You'll note pirates don't steal the mere idea of the things they pirate--it's not as though they like Arctic Monkey's melodies but believe they can produce better songs or believe Star Wars can be shot better in 2008 than in 1977. No, they simple steal the whole thing because they can't be bothered to come up with their own original ideas, investment, or content.

Some people think piracy may be a legitimate market force or that in a new "world is flat" era we need to get used to piracy, but I think there is reason to be concerned. Even more imporant than the rights of authors and owners, I grow concerned about what piracy (and our growing acceptance of piracy) might do to our economic model. There already has been an economic paradigm that removed rewards for concept authorship and ownership. It was called communism, and it didn't work.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Short Takes: 4.14.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Experiential is Big at Promotion Marketing Association Conference: Brandweek has an article about the Promotion Marketing Assn.'s annual conference in Chicago, where "Experiential marketing was the flavor of the day." (I cringe when the idea of creating memorable brand-building experiences is called a "flavor of the day.") The article mentions McDonald's "The Lost Ring" program, an interactive story where players (1.5 million so far) look for clues to solve a riddle in an alternate reality game, and 7-Eleven, which made headlines by converting 12 stores into Kwik-E-Marts in partnership with The Simpsons Movie. Much focus is placed on measurement, but I couldn't agree more with Lisa Klauser, Unilever's vp-consumer and customer solutions, who notes that ROI metrics are important, but to forgo a shopper marketing campaign because there isn't yet a standard metric for in-store media could mean missing out on growth opportunities. Read the entire Brandweek article here.

  • Agency Sends RFPs to Prospects: I think the RFP is becoming the bane of marketing, so I respect what ad agency Trumpet is trying to do by reframing RFP from "Request for Proposal" to "Request for Problem." The agency sent hundreds of "Golden RFPs" to CMOs, CEOs and marketing directors, encouraging them to fill out the a survey of 19 questions designed to root out key marketing problems. The agency has received 70 responses and has used them to call prospects to clarify the RFP answers and then provide possible solutions to the companies. Check out more on Trumpet's unique RFP twist on Media Creativity.

  • Nike Goes Too Far: I've discussed on this blog how viral media usually includes an element of risk or edginess, but I have to say I think Nike crossed the not-so-thin line with their new YouTube video. Given the much-publicized case of a child injured attempting to leap over a moving car, it seems awfully unwise for Nike to be featuring a video of Kobe Bryant doing exactly the same thing. Yes, he says "Do not try this at home," but only after celebrating his successful stunt. Nike's managed to turn the tagline "Just Do It" into an almost spiritual call for self improvement; turning it into a call to risk one's life for a Jackass stunt seems to move the brand in the wrong direction.

  • Sony Invites You To Foam City: Sony recently created a unique event that's been buzzed about online. It involved a huge wall of foam let loose in Miami. The event was part of the effort to create another in the series of artful Sony spots, and the video has just hit the Web. It's eye-catching, hard to ignore, and should stand out online and on TV.

Friday, April 11, 2008

I Have A Dream, and It Isn't a Black Search Engine

Mediaweek is reporting on a new search engine focused on African Americans. IAC and subsidiary Black Web Enterprises say that is the "first-ever search engine catering specifically to African American interests." The site works on a patented algorithm that determines which Web sites are most frequently visited by African Americans, then merges that data into a mainstream search crawl.

I am deeply conflicted about this new site. On the one hand, focusing on the needs of a group of people with similar surfing habits and information goals simply makes sense. But we're not talking about a content site here; we're talking about a search engine.

The key to success for search engines is to provide the most relevant results, and I suppose if RushmoreDrive provides results that are viewed as being more relevant to a portion of the Internet audience, more power to it. But when a user enters search terms such as "New York Giants," "Internet Marketing Job Openings," or "Beyonce," does the race of the searcher really matter? It's hard for me to imagine that the way we search and the results we expect are related to the color of our skin.

Maybe the problem I have with the concept has nothing to do with marketing and much to do with my world view. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous "I have a dream" speech, "With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day." Apparently we just can't search and use the Internet together.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Naked and Media-Agnostic - What This Says About Ad Agencies

The New York Times has a fascinating article about Naked, a new type of communications firm. Naked really isn't an agency---it does not create ads or purchase media. Instead, Naked helps brands determine how to distribute its marketing and media dollars.

The key to Naked's services is that they're "media agnostic." They say they are indifferent to where the advertising dollars of their clients are spent.

Another notable difference with Naked is that they put skin in the game. The firm often derives part of its compensation from whether its strategies translate into higher sales.

Naked can't get the job done with being frank with clients. “We get up in front of a group of agencies and tell them, very nicely, that they have wasted tens of millions of dollars,” said Ben Richards, senior strategist at Naked New York.

Some brands they tell to stop advertising on TV. Others they tell to boost TV ad spending. It all depends upon the recommendations that come out of the “big tool,” a 50-question survey that tries to pinpoint the client’s priorities and problems.

What is most interesting to me is what the rise of Naked and other Communication Planning Consultants means to and about ad agencies. After all, planning the media spend and brand strategy has traditionally been solidly within the purview of ad agency services. The fact clients are increasingly turning elsewhere for guidance on how to spend their money with agencies should be a huge concern to agencies.

It would seem part of the problem is the perception that ad agencies have a vested interest in one medium over another. In the article, there are a couple of telling lines: A Kimberly-Clark executive speaks about "not presuming that you have to have a 30-second TV spot," and the article notes that the traditional agency revenue model "is based on producing ads or placing them in particular media."

I believe that marketers are getting restless with the traditional ad agency obsession with television and aren't sure if agencies recommend TV because they believe in it or because they can earn fees producing expensive ads and buying pricey ad time. Marketers know that recent studies reveal that consumers are spending as much time online as they are watching TV (and some studies even show a greater amount of time online), but marketing spending continues to skew very heavily to television.

Naked's success is coming at the expense of ad agencies, and those agencies need to explore the reasons marketers are losing faith in agencies' media planning capabilities (or objectivity). My personal opinion is that this is occurring because even now--more than a decade into the Internet era--most traditional agencies are still struggling to understand how online fits into the mix.

What are your thoughts? Does the fact brands are turning to new communication planners mean something to traditional agencies, and if so, what?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Two Ways Viral Campaigns Can Work Without Risky Content

I've suggested that viral campaigns often involve an element of risk. Is this necessary? Is it possible to "go viral" without embracing some level of risk?

One risk that is inherent with all marketing activities is the risk something doesn't work--a costly campaign may not improve brand awareness and perception, might not generate sales or site traffic, and in the worst-case scenario, a campaign might even do more damage than good to the brand.

But aside from the usual run-of-the-mill marketing risk, viral campaigns often involve some risk that is essential and at the very core of the viral strategy. The reason for this is that, by and large, "safe" things don't go viral.

BMW Films is a good example of a viral campaign that worked and involved a level of risk. BMW might've considered shooting inexpensive video featuring beauty shots of their cars, but would anyone have talked about or shared that sort of video? Instead, BMW hired well-known actors and top-flight directors to create mini-films in which BMW cars are prominently featured. BMW took several chances with this viral strategy, including significant financial risk, the risk that consumers would object to the ultra-violent content, and the risk that comes from showing one's product being beaten, dented, abused, and virtually destroyed.

BMW Films demonstrates that to achieve some level of "viralness," content has to excel at moving consumers through a viral funnel:
  1. First, consumers must be made aware of the content
  2. Then, consumers must have their curiosity sufficiently engaged to view or participate in the experience
  3. Finally, consumers must find the experience so engaging, fun, inspirational, exciting, or shocking that they're willing to share it, essentially endorsing the content or experience and putting, to a small extent, the sender's reputation on the line with friends, family, and peers.
If a video, game, interaction, or other content fails at any of these steps, a viral campaign simply won't be viral. And, for the most part, things that are "safe" will not capture consumers' attention and emotions sufficiently for them to engage, endorse, and share.

As far as I can tell, there are only two exceptions to the risk/virality equation (but I am open to your insights as to other exceptions):
  • Content perfectly suited to activate a particular psychographic: Some content can speak so perfectly to a particular group of people that they'll eagerly devour and share it. For example, it generally takes little for tweens to want to share something so long as it features the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus--these two multi-media artists are their own viruses.

    Another example is the "Yes We Can" video from Will.I.Am in support of presidential candidate Barack Obama. The video probably does little to capture the imaginations of conservative Republicans, but it caused liberal Democrats to go into a frenzy; versions of "Yes We Can" have been viewed over 13 million times on YouTube. (To put that into perspective, if "Yes We Can" were a TV show, the number of people who viewed it would've put the video among the five top-rated broadcast TV shows for last week.)

  • Content that can be personalized: Another way to have content go viral with minimal risk is to make the consumer the star. Clearly, the undisputed champ of this approach is Elf Yourself. According to Ad Age, 26.4 million people spent a total of 2,600 years at, pasting their faces on the bodies of animated, dancing elves.

    One caution with this approach is that the content must relate closely to the brand, or you risk having the brand disappear completely. Elf Yourself is a perfect example. You probably visited the site or know about, so can you name the brand that sponsored the site? Few people can identify OfficeMax as the sponsor; in fact, as I've asked people about Elf Yourself, I've had more people identify the sponsor as Office Depot than OfficeMax, so this viral campaign may actually be benefiting the competition more than the sponsor. Furthermore, as noted on Future Now, there was almost zero incremental traffic driven to the OfficeMax site by the Elf Yourself campaign.

    The lessons of Elf Yourself are twofold: First, allowing consumers to create their own customized content is a great viral strategy. And second, elves and office products have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, so this campaign did a better job of promoting the Elf Yourself site than it did OfficeMax's brand.
Can you think of other ways for a viral campaign to achieve success, other than some combination of 1) being edgy or risky, 2) focusing on perfect content for a very specific group of individuals, or 3) allowing the consumer to customize the experience? Your ideas would be appreciated!

Engagement Top of Mind at IAA World Congress

The article is enough to bring tears of joy to the eyes of an experiential marketer. Ad Age reports from the International Advertising Association's 41st annual World Congress, and the article contains eye-popping lines such as, "Online is not just a sales channel, and technology will only increase engagement with consumers" and "more focus will be placed on using digital creative to engage users rather than just advertise to them."

When a 50-year-old ad organization begins to talk about wanting to do more "than just advertise" to consumers, you know that exciting changes are afoot. What is sad is that the idea of engaging consumers rather than simply advertising to them seems the least bit revolutionary.

The message at the IAA conference was that technology will continue to drive changes throughout the ad business, but content and creativity matters. Said Kevin Johnson, Microsoft President of Platforms and Services, "We no longer look at digital as a discreet driver. This is a technology-enabled marketing environment. All the marketing specialists need to be well-versed in digital."

Tribal DDB West President Elizabeth Ross notes that technology isn't just changing how we advertise but is changing the very nature of the consumers' role in marketing. "Consumers are the new media and they know it. You have to market with consumers, not at consumers. Ultimately it becomes a collaborative process. It's no longer linear."

Leo Burnett USA CEO Tom Bernardin persuasively offered, "A majority of brands' success comes from connecting to real people. Instead of broadcasting the brand, we need to give time to experience the brand. We need brands with a purpose."

Bernardin offers a rule of thumb to ease "the confusion and frustration a marketer might feel when approaching the digital domain," but his advice is both overly simplistic and too conservative. He suggests a 70/20/10 rule where 70% of digital monies go toward creative and established areas of digital marketing including search engine, 20% goes to emerging areas and 10% goes to experimentation.

I'm pleased to see a big agency leader tackling the question of experimentation and emerging media, but I can't help but wonder if this recipe is appropriate for all (or any) brands. First of all, there's the obvious question of what defines established vs. emerging vs. experimentative. Bernardin says that the established category includes "things you most likely have been implementing for one to two years." That's great if you've been experimenting all along, but considering the number of brands that still dedicate the vast majority of their online marketing budget to ad buys, 40% or 50% may be more advisable than 70%.

Bernardin's "emerging" bucket includes mobile marketing, social networks and certain types of gaming. Again, I'd suggest that depending upon your brand, your audience, and your goals, allocating just 20% of your budget to these activities could be harmful to your brand's health.

Perhaps the even bigger problem I have with Bernardin's rule of thumb is that while I think it is laudable to encourage greater experimentation and spending in emerging media, the question shouldn't be one of "How do I allocate my budget?" but "What concepts will best help me achieve my brand goals?" I understand managing marketing budgets is an essential task for any marketing leader who wishes to retain his or her job, but it still seems like a sad state of affairs when we start with how we'll slice and dice our budgets rather than beginning with what the brand wants to achieve, what customers expect, where they'll be found, and how the brand will provide the kind of experience that achieves the brand goals. Marketers should want to spend 100% of their budget that way!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Short Takes: 4.8.08

Here are some interesting XM and online marketing news items and links for your perusal:
  • Gray, Affluent and Online: A couple weeks ago I shared a report that revealed affluent consumers are "flocking" to online social networks. Today's MediaPost reports that older, affluent consumers continue to grow, online and off. The group, which they label "graying and affluent," has grown from 13.1% to 15.7% of all households (in the 80 metro markets surveyed) since 2004. Almost two-thirds of these people reported making an online purchase in the last year, up from 50.2% four years earlier. And though it seems redundant to note this about a group that carries the label "affluent," these folks have cash: The households with liquid assets of $100,000 or more increased from 49.5% to 53.6% of this group and those with $250,000 or more increased from 25.2% to 30.2%. You'd think people with high discretionary income would draw more attention from marketers, but evidence shows this group is not getting marketing focus proportionate to their numbers online.

  • Online Focus Groups: In an article entitled "Focus on Blogs," Adweek labels just about everything a "blog" and everyone a "blogger." It's at first confusing, but once you realize they are talking not about bloggers but about participants in focused, moderated, short-lifespan communities, the article becomes an interesting read on how companies are overcoming some of the typical problems of in-person focus groups (short duration, overpowering members, etc.) using online communities. One company specializing in these sorts of extended, online focus groups recruits people who can participate once or twice a day over a period of a couple of weeks. Agency employees help to initiate discussions, interject provocative ideas, add new questions and "know when to step back." Says one exec, "You are not there to moderate a discussion between the participants and yourself, you are there to moderate a conversation among people." Check out the entire article on Adweek.

  • Starbucks Not Talking to Consumers Over Their Cup of Coffee: I've mentioned the My Starbucks Idea site several times. Starbucks is one of the first companies to turn the old suggestion box into an online social community, and the success or failure of this site is being closely monitored by other brands. Going Social Now has some worthwhile criticisms of the effort. Shiv Singh notes, "Starbucks doesn't participate in the conversation. That's disappointing. If you expect your customers to help you, you should be willing to participate in their conversation. Not stand by silently or only speak from a pulpit." As noted here on on E:TB, social media is interactive; Starbucks is giving consumers the means to interact without committing any of themselves to interacting.

  • Become a music mogul, $10 at a time: A couple weeks ago I wrote about an artist who took her own "minipreneurship" approach to raising funds for her new album; today's TechCrunch has an article about a site bringing this approach to other up and coming bands. Sellaband, which just received $5 million funding, permits music fans to invest $10 in an artist they want to back. If the artist gets to 5,000 ‘believers,’ the artist receives $50,000 to record an album and each fan gets a limited edition CD. If the artist doesn’t reach $50,000, the fans can get their money back or give it to another artist. It's a smart idea and I certainly appreciate the populist approach to music financing, but it will be interesting to see if enough fans are willing to pony up.

  • The Four I's of Engagement: I'm not sure it really advances the discussion of what engagement is or how to measure it, but Forrester has a thought provoking blog post about the Four I's of Engagement: involvement, interaction, intimacy, and influence. They describe each at a high level, but even though they call these "metrics," there is little indication how these four categories are measured or work together. Perhaps the full Forrester report contains more, but even without the membership required to access the details, you may find this an interesting framework for exploring the topic of consumer engagement.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Social Media: Are you marketing or listening?

Right now, few organizations have social media strategies. A year or two from now, most will. To what extent these initial strategies succeed will have a lot to do with how organizations view social media--primarily as a marketing tool or as a new communication medium.

The difference is profound. Marketing is about telling consumers (consciously or subconsciously) why your product will satisfy their logical or emotional needs better than any other. Social media is about listening and interacting, two skills that traditionally have not been required of marketers to any great degree.

Marketers do, of course, love to gather insights about their consumers, but this is different than listening. Focus groups, brand surveys, and market research are not really about listening but about learning specific answers to specific questions that are of specific interest to the marketers and their agencies. Typically, marketers don't so much want to hear consumers' thoughts as to measure their reaction to competing creative concepts or to learn if their brand comes to mind without prompting.

As for interacting with consumers, marketers (particularly those in B2C fields) rarely speak directly with their own customers. They hire research companies, imagine personnas of hypothetical consumers, and stand behind two-way mirrors to monitor focus groups, but most marketers do not regularly engage their customers in true one-to-one dialog.

Since listening and interacting with customers are not core competencies of the Marketing organization, it's a good thing other departments are filled with these experts. This is why social media strategies must be developed by cross-functional teams that include not just marketing personnel but also representatives from Customer Service, Sales, Public Relations, and Human Resources.

Don't take my word for it. Here's a well-publicized situation from this past weekend that serves as a perfect example: On today's TechCrunch, Michael Arrington tells of his recent experience with his Internet service provider, Comcast. Michael's connection was down and Comcast was not resolving the problem with the speed Michael expected, so he started "tearing into Comcast on Twitter."

In the old days, this would've been considered the prototypical customer service problem: A customer who gets angry and tells others. But yesterday's mere problem is today's disaster: Michael didn't just complain to a few friends over drinks; he voiced his frustration on Twitter where he has almost 12,000 followers!

Here's where the story gets interesting: As Michael tells it, "Within 20 minutes of my first Twitter message I got a call from a Comcast executive in Philadelphia who wanted to know how he could help. He said he monitors Twitter and blogs to get an understanding of what people are saying about Comcast, and so he saw the discussion break out around my messages."

Now that's listening and interacting! It's brilliant, and it demonstrates the kind of brand leadership in social media that has been lacking. I doubt there are more than a handful of companies monitoring Twitter for customer service purposes. The ones who do monitor social media are probably doing so for brand research (or to keep a wary eye on employees). Comcast really sets the bar with the way they are using Twitter.

And make no mistake about it--they are setting the bar for themselves and for others. On TechCrunch, Michael tells his readers, "Skip the hold time on their customer service line and go on the attack at Twitter instead. You may find your problem fixed in a hurry."

Talk like that will probably make a lot of companies uncomfortable. They'd prefer consumers with complaints quietly send email and wait patiently for a response or pick up the phone and spend untold minutes (or hours) being passed from one customer service rep to another. But that is the old and dying way of doing business; it assumes consumers have no voice and few choices.

Today, consumers have power, and they aren't afraid to use it. Instead of being a challenge to brands, this should instead present an opportunity. While a single complaint can now reach thousands of ears and eyes at the speed of the Internet, a single success story can do the same. Think of the positive impact on Comcast's brand that has come from a single consumer interaction on Twitter.

Brands that ignore what consumers are saying in easily monitored public forums will increasingly suffer the consequences. Are people complaining about your product or service right now, and how might you turn the negative into a positive? Just visit Tweetscan to search Twitter for conversations about your brand.

The important question for brands is how they will make careful, planned, and strategic use of Twitter and other social media tools. Will they treat it as another ad or marketing medium by talking at consumers? Or will they treat this new communication medium as a way to improve brand image and loyalty by listening and interacting with their consumers?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Blogging for Profit

Today the New York Times contains a ridiculous article on the subject of blogging. The paper attempts to turn the premature death of two bloggers into a trend worthy of the alarming headline: In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop.

It is hardly worth mentioning that the death of two bloggers is not very newsworthy. To get an estimate of the number of people blogging, once can turn to Feedburner, which is currently tracking 1.5M blog feeds from 846,000 bloggers. The unfortunate passing of two people out of a population of almost one million would rank the mortality rate for blogging somewhere between watching TV and enjoying a hot bath. (Actually, I'm pretty sure bathing has a much higher mortality rate.)

I am not going to gripe about the Times exploiting the untimely deaths of two bloggers for headline purposes. Instead, I'll gripe about their shoddy reporting on the subject of paid blogging.

The Times reports that the number of bloggers who do so for pay number in the "several thousand and maybe even tens of thousands." I suspect this is hogwash; it may be true that tens of thousands of folks have been paid a handful of dollars as writers or are making a few pennies from Google AdSense ads on their blogs, but if your definition of a paid blogger is someone who is blogging or is attempting to blog as their primary source of living income, I doubt this figure is even north of 1,000.

The vast majority of bloggers do it for personal or professional reasons, and not as a paid career. For example, many ad agencies now have blogs maintained by agency employees, but I know of no agencies that employ people solely dedicated to writing for their blog. (I do know of agencies employing folks to participate in online communities on behalf of clients, but the Times specifically refers to blogging and not other forms of social media.)

The key to estimating the number of paid bloggers is to follow the money: From where would cash come to pay bloggers? No blog charges subscription fees to read content. Some bloggers ask for donations, but I've yet to see any report of significant funds coming from contributors. Blogs can bring the owner other value, such as the ability to sell things to readers, but I'd argue the primary purpose of the blogger is then to support an ecommerce model and not a paid content model.

Advertising would seem to be the only available revenue model to bloggers, but there are few blogs receiving the sort of traffic required to generate anything more than modest advertising income from ad displays or clicks. There certainly are hundreds of blogs that are sufficiently popular, but a figure in the thousands or tens of thousands seems mighty unlikely.

For example, on Technorati, a site that tracks blogs, the 100th most popular blog (based on its number of fans) is Today is That Day, a self-improvement blog. You'd think the 100th most popular blog would be the kind of highly trafficked blog that would generate the income necessary to compensate a professional blogger, but indicates the site receives just 16,000 visitors per month, which is very likely nowhere near sufficient to provide a living wage off of ad dollars.

If you care about the very rough math, it would go something like this (with, admittedly, a plethora of guesstimates):
Visitors:                16,000     x
Ad Clickthrough rate: .5 to 2% =
Ad clicks: 80 to 320 x
Pay Per Click: $.5 to $2 =
Monthly Revenue: $40 to $640

I am pretty sure my estimates are generous, but even if not, the chance of a blog with this level of traffic getting more than $1,000 month in ad revenue is very, very slim. And remember, this blog has enough fans to rank it in the top 100!

My point isn't to disparage Today is That Day; it's a fine blog with a well-defined purpose. The real point is to demonstrate how few blogs can generate advertising dollars sufficient to provide a professional income. In fact, if you visit Today is That Day, you'll find that while it is wallpapered with banners and text ads, the primary intent of the blog isn't to sell advertising but to support sales of "Lifestyle Empowerment products" and e-coaching.

The article on is still worth your time. Some of the anecdotes about professional blogging for Gawker and Gizmodo are interesting, but the article fails to shed much light on the plight of those in the "digital-era sweatshop" (their term, not mine). I've enjoyed many Times articles about technology and marketing, but I'd recommend reading this article with some healthy skepticism.

Short Takes: 4.6.08

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

  • Social Media Crime and Punishment: A couple of days ago I shared a news item about how a couple used social media to cover and perpetrate a crime, so it's only fair to tell you how social media helped fight crime. Wired has an article about the owner of a car that was stolen who posted information about the theft and thief on an online forum. People who saw these posts found the guy and used Google Maps and other means to track the thief and get him arrested. The car was returned with some minor damage, and inside the car was a baseball cap owned by perp, so the victim put the hat on eBay. The latest bid is $265.

  • Experiential Books: I happen to think a good book is an experience unto itself. A book envelopes you in emotions and situations in a way that extends beyond the mere words on a page. But Penguin UK is taking this a step farther with their We Tell Stories line of books, which enhance the reading experience with online and real world components. Penguin is seeking to create deeper experiences by adding interactivity as a means to engage reader's emotions and attention. For example, Charles Cumming's The 21 Steps, allows readers to follow the protagonist's movement with Google Maps in order to learn more about the story. These gimmicks cannot help a bad book, but they could help a good book become more involving, especially for today's short-attention span, multi-tasking younger readers.

  • Movie Viral Done Right: A week ago we shared some observations about the marketing campaign for the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which revealed too much to work as good viral marketing. The LA Times has a very interesting article about the viral campaign for "The Dark Knight," the upcoming Batman movie, and it demonstrates how to do viral right. The campaign started with billboards for a fictional campaign to elect Harvey Dent for DA. Soon these billboards were defaced--all part of the campaign. Those who explored further found an Alternate Reality Game that involved clues spelled out in skywriting, cellphones embedded inside cakes, Internet red herrings, and even political rallies. Several players were nearly arrested in Chicago while engaging in civil disobedience to promote the movie. And, unlike the Sarah Marshall blog, which was immediately obvious as a flog (fake blog), makes no mention of the movie and could pass for any politician's blog. The LA Times labels this Advertainment--a mixture of entertaining content and advertising.

  • Social Media is Like a Marriage: Adweek has a great article about the difficulties marketers have quantifying the value of social media. Ads on social networks aren't being clicked, but Heidi Browning, svp of client solutions at Fox Interactive Media, believes all the focus on typical online metrics are a bad thing: "We've taken a step backwards with people talking about click-through rates." Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, likens social media to marriage, noting that quantitative measurements will only get you so far. "You can't assign a number to that," he said. The article concludes, "The key to measuring both social media and ad campaigns seems to lie in not forgetting what makes it distinctive: conversations." As mentioned in this blog ("Social Networks Will Fail (At Advertising)"), if Social Networks and brand marketers can view consumer interactions on social media sites not as traffic but as discussions, they will find a way to make social networking work.

  • Social Influence Marketing vs. Social Shopping vs. WOM: Given my distate for buzzwords, you might think I'd hate a blog post dissecting the difference between Social Influence Marketing (SIM), Social Shopping, and WOM; and you'd be right. I think the primary reason to draw the distinctions is to make the blogger seem smarter. Of course, in this case, the blogger is smarter--Shiv Singh, of Going Social Now, is a guy I find quite insightful and worthwhile. That's not to say I don't believe he is trying to slice his buzzwords too thin--for example, he argues WOM is only about getting people talking to one another and not influencing each other, which I think is a bit absurd--but I will suggest you'll find his thoughts on SIM, Social Shopping, and WOM interesting. Also, while you won't get as much from seeing Shiv's slides as actually attending his presentation, you may find the following worth five minutes of your consideration--it's the deck he used to introduce the SIM concept at the annual SXSW conference.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Customer Service: Source of Revenue or Brand Strength?

This blog is dedicated to marketing experiences, but one the truisms of business is this: The best marketing cannot overcome a bad experience with the product. Marketing can deliver awareness and consideration, but it cannot sell a product that consumers find provides no emotional or logical benefits.

Another truism is that the US economy is increasingly a service economy. Services account for a higher percentage of US GDP than 20 years ago, and products today have a higher service component than in previous decades.

Together, these two facts mean that the best "experience" a brand can provide is a positive customer service experience. Why then are more and more brands making the mistake of thinking customer service should be a profit center rather than a source of brand enrichment?

I personally have experienced the positive and negative brand impacts of customer service in recent months. My positive experience was with Microsoft, often viewed as being a faceless corporate entity. I manage an online ad campaign on their PPC (pay per click) program, and I was having trouble trying to get an expired campaign restarted. Unable to figure out how to relaunch my campaign, I sent a service email on a Sunday at noon. Two hours later they called me and solved the problem in two minutes. On a Sunday! I bragged about this experience to friends and on blogs, and it altered the way I think about Microsoft.

My negative experience was with Symantec, provider of the Norton suite of security software. My computer got infected with malware, and my Norton security suite not only allowed the infection but seemed unable to find and solve it. That's okay--I know the people who make viruses are pretty ingenious sorts, but I do expect Symantec to stand behind it's product, so I turned to their customer service chat feature. The Symantec rep announced he could solve the problem, I typed "thank you," and he responded it would cost $99.95. My reaction was so negative that I solved my malware problem by uninstalling Norton and downloading some freeware that fixed what Norton could not. Moreover, I shared my negative experience with many peers and on blogs.

It shouldn't be news that the quality of customer service can make or break Word of Mouth (WOM), so why is it so hard for companies to figure out that positive customer service creates positive customer experiences? And why, in the name of common sense, do companies think that charging for expected customer service would be in the best long-term interest of the brand? In my Symantec example, I not only didn't pay for their "service", but I canceled my renewal of their security subscription. They lost a customer when they might've instead created a raving fan.

What got me to thinking of my recent customer service experiences was an article from "Air Canada now wants you to pay extra for better customer service," says the article. The air carrier rolled out a new service called "On My Way" that, for a fee, promises to help passengers cope with delays and cancellations beyond the airline's control, including bad weather or airport traffic.

An airline consultant comments how Air Canada will need to deliver excellent customer service to those paying extra because, "People are going to have heightened expectations." And therein lies the problem for Air Canada, Symantec, and any other brand trying to turn service into profit: Consumers already have heightened expectations!

We live in a time of heightened expectations, and the growth of social media only means that word will spread when brands either excel or fail at customer service. Brands cannot strive to utilize Web 2.0 tools to fashion a stronger brand while their own business practices provide customers with reasons to feel slighted and complain on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and across the blogosphere.

I'm not suggesting companies can never make money from service, but when offering fee-based service to those who are already customers, it is imperative that service be so distinct from whatever the consumer has already paid for that the extra value is obvious. When I pay for Symantec's "full circle of protection" on my PC, I would expect to pay extra for their SmartPhone security service, but there is no way to overcome the negative brand experience that results from being asked by them to pay to fix my infected Norton-protected PC.

I think it's a shame Air Canada launched their "On My Way" program as a for-fee service. Think of the positive PR and enhanced brand image that could've resulted if they had announced this as a free service for all fliers. Delighting customers with quality service shouldn't be something brands charge for--it should just be part of the entire brand experience.