Sunday, June 29, 2008

Social Media is a communications channel and not a marketing tactic

Over on MediaPost, David Berkowitz offers a humorous and informative take on "Ten Questions Not To Ask A Social Media Panel." He suggests questions to avoid asking of Social Media experts unless you want either an angry or boring response. For example, don't use the "V" word, the "C" word, or the "A word (as in "viral," "campaign," or "advertising").

What I find interesting is how most of the questions David lists betray a desire to leverage social media as a marketing tool: "How are you measuring social media," "How do you determine the return on investment for social media," and "What's a friend worth?" (That last question must be asked by some mighty lonely people, don't you think?)

I'm glad that marketers are attending social media conferences and seeking to understand how social media is changing the environment in which they cultivate relationships between the brand and consumers. But it seems marketers are coming alone; where are their peers from other corners of the organization?

While I believe marketers should have a significant role in an organization's social media efforts, maybe it's time we understood:
Social Media is a communications channel and not a marketing tactic!

Rather than think of Social Media as part of the marketing toolkit, it would be more accurate to consider Social Media as a communications channel. Social Media isn't a one-way advertising medium but a channel for two-way (or more) dialog; it is much more akin to the telephone or email than to an ad medium such as TV or print.

Email makes a fine metaphor for exploring Social Media. Email can be used for marketing; the marketing department can develop an eCRM strategy, build a permission database, segment the audience, and launch offers via email. Marketers can also buy ads in existing email newsletters and, although it is not usually recommended, can purchase lists to send email offers to consumers.

But although marketing has a significant role in the way the organization employs email, the marketing department is responsible for just a small piece of the email pie. In other divisions, email is used for intracompany communications, to build relations with partners, to provide service to customers, to facilitate sales, and to schedule interviews for job candidates.

Every department and just about every employee in the modern corporation uses email as a tool, and this is how Social Media will also soon develop. Marketing will have some role, such as advertising (if someone figures out how to make social advertising work), blogger relations and social media PR, creation of branded communities, development of widgets to enhance consumers' social media experience, and preparation and execution of rapid response via Social Media channels to combat incorrect or negative PR.

But the impact of social media will be felt far beyond the reaches of the marketing department. For example, today recruiters may participate in employment forums, but in the future they'll be seeking current and future candidates wherever they may be engaged in Social Media. This includes creating relations with talented individuals who may someday be interested in changing jobs, consistently sharing information about your organization's work environment to encourage response from lurkers, networking for referrals, and seeking out and inquiring with individuals who meet current needs, even if they have yet to express an interest.

Another example for how Social Media will be used outside of marketing is in the customer service group. Rather than wait for a consumer to express a need and then navigate through your phone system or Web site, customer service professionals will constantly monitor social media for compliments and complaints, engaging consumers and providing proactive support.

Brands could be using proactive Social Media to help consumers and create goodwill today. A Summize search shows the word Target has been used on Twitter 15 times in the past two hours; around half of these Tweets refer to the retailer. People are talking about Target, but the company isn't listening or responding.

sarahbellum says "Nothing is better than shopping at Target with your best girlfriend. Nothing," and Christyxcore says, "We're goin to target. Love the Target." These are nice comments being broadcast by consumers, so why isn't Target saying "Thank you"? missloulou says, "i need to get comfortable shoes for work target sandals are murdering my feet!," but Target isn't there to find out when she purchased them or to offer assistance with an exchange. Engaging sarahbellum, Christyxcor, and missloulou may not immediately increase sales, but it would position Target as a caring, appreciative, involved, and smart retailer.

It would seem the current and future impact of Social Media is not being felt or understood throughout organizations quite yet. If it were, the preponderance of blog posts and questions being asked at Social Media panels wouldn't be framed in the context of marketing. Marketers are to be congratulated for being quick to recognize the opportunities of Social Media, but if they really want to be sure their organizations are getting a jump on this new communications trend, they need to stop thinking only from the frame of reference of advertising and start encouraging a coordinated effort throughout the organization.

Thanks to Jeremy over at Kohl's for the MediaPost link.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Are You Focused on the Consumer or Yourself? Disney and Apple Demonstrate the Experiential Difference

Some time ago, I visited and had what might be described as a violent reaction to what I found on the home page.

I am a huge Disney fan and have become accustomed to being treated as a "guest," whether I visit a theme park or their Web site. The organization has a storied history of dedicating itself to the guest experience, and much of what I know of experiential marketing has come from studying Disney. It is because I hold Disney in such esteem that my disappointing experience produced such an intensely negative reaction.

On this particular visit to, I found a link on the home page that promised a "Main Street parade." Intrigued, I wondered if I might see a live video feed of a parade from the Magic Kingdom or a behind-the-scenes peak at the staging of one of their enormous marching spectacles. I had no particular idea of what I'd find when I clicked that link, but I expected to experience some variety of Disney magic.

What I found, after waiting 30 seconds for the Flash movie to download and launch, was a cartoon parade of wagons and floats, each one containing a brand logo of a Disney sponsor. That was it--nothing but a review of corporate logos. Had any thought gone into this promotion featured so prominently on their home page, it would've become obvious this little movie furnished no value to any concerned party:
  • I felt my time had been wasted and that Disney broke it's brand promise to treat me with respect.
  • Disney positioned itself as a selfish and unwelcoming host, more interested in its own interests than in consumers'.
  • The brands featured received no value, since few if any consumers lured into this marketing trap were likely to dedicate precious minutes observing a series of brand symbols.
I respect Disney a great deal, and they have provided many positive online and offline experiences since, but this example demonstrates how easy it is for marketers to negatively alter consumer perception. It is no small lapse when marketers focus only on their own interests and forget to question and define the value of a program to the consumer.

This experience came to mind when I read the New York Times article, "In Overhaul, Seeks a Path to More Fun." It turns out Disney has come to realize its Web site is too much about itself and not enough about the guest. According to the NY Times, "Disney is trying to position its Web site more as a place that entertains and less of one that exists to promote Disney wares."

In other words, they are trying to move their site further up the Experiential Marketing Continuum. Rather than provide a site that is merely welcoming--one that equips consumers with information about Disney products--Disney instead is seeking to make their site desirable and more worthy of repeat visits. This shift focuses on what consumers want, and thus encourages consumers to spend more time with Disney, to think of the organization as an integral part of their entertainment and relaxation time, and to make a strong emotional connection that will bear far more fruit than any animated parade of logos.

The changes, which are the second significant rejiggering of in as many years, include some exciting and smart ideas. For example, one subtle modification will be to the navigational structure. The current has categories such as “Movies,” “TV” and “Live Events," but new options will include “Games,” “Videos” and “Characters.” The current information structure isn't bad--it's descriptive and intuitive to visitors--but it focuses on the company; you could add "our" in front of each category: "Our Movies" and "Our TV Shows." By comparison, the new structure focuses on the content consumers seek--their favorite character or the videos they want to see.

The changes will be more substantial than just navigation. The new will feature more videos (including some full-length Disney films), more games, and more activities that bridge the online and mobile worlds. This focus on the consumer experience is an exhilarating and fitting direction for

Another organization doing exciting things to improve the consumer's experience is Apple. We all know that Apple has an obsessive focus on elegant usability that has allowed its digital music players to crush Microsoft's similar product and its laptops and desktops to begin to chip away at Microsoft's PC hegemony. What you may not have realized (but perhaps appreciate) is that Apple brings its obsession with usability to its real world stores.

An Ad Age article entitled, "How Apple Is Blurring the Line Between Marketing and Service," describes how Apple is executing its customer-focused approach within its stores. Apple has increased the number of "concierges" who greet consumers at the door with the question, ""How can I help you, and where would you like to go?" As Ad Age notes, "These employees don't wait until you look utterly confused to ask you what you need. They intercept you -- though not intrusively and always with a smile... They assume you arrive at the Apple Store looking specifically for something, and in most cases they are right."

Much like Disney is doing with its Web site, Apple is moving the shopping experience up the Experiential Marketing Continuum. Most people find shopping a reasonably welcome experience, but is it desirable? Apple believes "service is marketing": Consumers aren't a bother; their questions aren't distractions; and their needs don't disturb Apple employees but are the reason the employees are there.

The Apple and Disney examples demonstrate a key concept in experiential marketing: Are your efforts focused on benefiting just yourself or on adding value to the consumer's experience?

Most Web sites exist for the purpose of promoting the brand's product--these sites help consumers to the point of purchase, but nothing further. And most retail outlets are staffed with the minimum number of people required to populate registers and stock shelves--the employees are there at the service of their employer. It is clear Disney and Apple bring a different level of commitment to the consumer than do most of their competitors.

Of course, focusing on the consumer isn't an act of corporate altruism--it should be done in a way that creates more brand value. Check out Apple's 71% market share in digital media players and the fact they "dominated the U.S. retail market for high-end computers in the first quarter of 2008, selling two out of every three PCs priced over $1,000." As for Disney, last year's redesign vaulted the average time spent on the site to 44.9 minutes; even though that's the kind of engagement most marketers would kill for, Disney wants more and knows it can get it by focusing even more on the consumer.

In an age of cost cutting and efficiency, Apple and Disney demonstrate how investing in the consumer experience pays dividends.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Experiential Marketing Continuum, DVRs, and the Future of TV

According to a Mediaweek article, DVR viewership continues to rise, and the impact is quite startling. Magna Global USA released data on DVR usage and ratings from the past TV season. It found that even though just 25% of TV homes have a DVR, "the current impact of DVR viewing on ratings is twice as high as the impact of VCRs when they were in 90 percent of TV homes." What this means is that DVRs account for 9 percent of the Big Five networks’ TV ratings, and 15 percent of viewing by adults 18-49.

Of course, the growth of DVRs and their impact on television viewing will only accelerate. Magna is projecting that in just four years, nearly 25 percent of all prime-time viewing on the broadcast networks among adults 18-49 will be time-shifted.

While the report doesn't address the impact of DVRs upon ad viewing, I think we can all guess how time-shifting alters consumers' exposure to TV ads. What will happen in 2012 when key consumer demographic groups are zapping 25% of marketers' TV ads? And what about online TV viewing? The Magna report didn't consider online viewing of prime-time shows, which is yet another way that technology is chipping away at television's viewership, ratings, and ad dollars. I watched two of this season's 14 episodes of "Lost" on, and I actually found the experience more pleasant than on broadcast television, with much briefer commercial interruptions.

Why are consumers shifting away from live TV and towards DVRs and online TV? Part of it is an issue of control, but I also believe it is because consumers increasingly perceive the TV ad channel as being unwelcome, intrusive, and valueless. Yes, I know the ads pay for the free content, but consumers are being so bombarded with advertising that they no longer are able to perceive value in television as an advertising medium.

It doesn't help that networks keep cramming more and more ads into their programming. According to Wikipedia, in the 1960s a typical hour-long show would run for 51 minutes excluding advertisements. Today, a similar program would only be 42 minutes long. The incessant creep toward less entertainment and more ads is continuing today; network prime-time commercial time in 2006 rose 2.4% to 5,429 minutes. Why, in the face of a growing consumer revolt against ads, the networks would decide the appropriate response is more advertising is the kind of question better left to psychologists and philosophers.

TV networks might find a way to reverse or at least slow consumers' avoidance of TV ads by seeking to make TV advertising more appealing and welcome. This could be done by decreasing the number of ads, increasing content time, raising ad rates, providing a better experience to consumers, and allowing brands to cut through the clutter with fewer interruptions and greater sponsorship and affiliation with particular programming.

As discussed on this blog in a post about the Experiential Marketing Continuum, consumers are exerting more power and influence in the channels available to marketers, so marketers must consider ways to pull consumers with value-added marketing rather than alienate consumers with intrusive and unwelcome ad tactics. It's easy to divine the channels consumers find unwelcome--these are the channels in which consumers strive to eliminate or filter ads, even if it means paying to avoid advertising.

If TV networks do nothing--or worse yet, crush still more ads into prime time--an upheaval in the marketing and entertainment space could occur as soon as within 5 to 10 years (or roughly as many years as "American Idol" has been on the air). I'm not a sufficient futurist to know what this will mean to free television, but I suspect ABC, NBC, CBS, and other free networks will become paid channels a la HBO (which has, of course, offered some of the most buzz-worthy and critically-praised original series of the past decade). Since Americans are already accustomed to paying extra for cable or satellite access, and since they're accepting the price of DVR service as a cost of TV enjoyment, this shift may be less earth shattering than it seems at first glance.

If decreasing ad time sounds unrealistic, check out how advertising is working online on sites such as and number of ad interruptions are the same, but each is shorter. I haven't seen any data on viewership, skipping, or perception of advertising within Web-based TV yet, so all I can do is share my own perceptions. For example, because of the briefness of the interruptions, I've found that I have no objection to the fact the ads cannot be skipped online. And, either by accident or in an act of brilliant foresight, the ad interruptions in online shows are so short that consumers can't use the time to get up and go to the bathroom or grab a bite in the kitchen, so each ad is actually viewed in its entirety.

No matter what happens to free TV and television advertising, marketers must recognize how weary consumers are becoming of our advertising-saturated society. According to a 2004 Yankelovich Partners poll, 65% of Americans say they are "constantly bombarded with too much" advertising and 61% think the quantity of advertising and marketing they are exposed to "is out of control." The way to overcome this backlash is to focus on the sorts of channels and tactics that encourage acceptance within consumers.

In the new, consumer-controlled marketing world, those of us in the industry need to find ways to not simply avoid annoying consumers but to get them to seek us out. The way to do so is to shift our marketing mix to more welcome and desired ad media and marketing strategies. Experimenting with shorter or fewer ads is one way to make the television medium more welcoming to consumers, but the biggest bang for the buck will come from marketers exploring newer and more valuable (to consumers) marketing channels.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Importance of Analogies: Social Media isn't a "Discussion"

Social Media is often likened to a conversation where marketers "seek to be part of the discussion" or "wish to engage consumers one-to-one." Alas, this analogy is wrong and may neglect important aspects that differentiate Social Media from other forms of communication.

Marketers didn't need social media to have a discussion with consumers. Email, which has been a primary online activity for over a decade, has always allowed for one-to-one discussions with consumers. Nor did we need technology to enable one-to-one contact; before email, consumers and brands used the telephone and snail mail to engage in discussions. (I still vividly remember when, in response to a letter I'd written for a school project, Dole Foods sent a packet stuffed with brochures, labels, and coupons. That was one-to-one and, since I still recall my excitement at the treasure trove I'd received some 35 years later, it was also experiential.)

The analogies that liken Social Media to a private discussion are widespread but incorrect (and I've been guilty of using them, myself). A more appropriate simile is that Social Media is like a party already underway. Groups of people are gathered, they have existing networks of relationships, and they are already talking.

And brands should not make the mistake of thinking they are guests of honor at the party; in fact, it may be exactly the opposite. Nielsen's recent "Trust in Advertising" report reveals that consumers are 30% or more likely to believe recommendations from other consumers than they are information provided by brands on Web sites, on TV, on the radio, in magazines, and in every other medium except newspaper. So, don't expect partygoers to stop and pay attention just because your brand is in attendance.

The accuracy of the party metaphor becomes even more apparent when you think of the distributed nature of social media. People are talking about your brand on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube, not to mention on hundred or thousands of blogs. You can no more control the many discussions underway across the Internet than you can command the floor at a large party. Sure, you can try to shout, but that will encourage others not to pay attention but to leave (and to take with them a very poor impression of you).

So if social media is a party and "joining the discussion" is the incorrect analogy, how might we frame a brand's place in social media? Perhaps "entering the fray" is a better way to think of it.

You might wonder if all this focus on analogies is an intellectual exercise without purpose, but here's why it matters: Once you perceive social media not as individual discussions but as a never-ending and constantly-shifting party, you can begin to appreciate what it takes to succeed. The following tips are derived from party etiquette sites such as those found here and here:
  • "Determine what your goals are." Is there a better tip for a smashing party experience or for success in Social Media?
  • "Extend your hand and introduce yourself to unfamiliar guests." Be sure to introduce yourself, and be honest. Let others know you represent or are working for a company or brand.
  • "Keep conversations away from sex, politics and religion." I'm sure this needs not be said when interacting with others on behalf of your brand, but this tip can also be interpreted more broadly: Set rules and be sure everyone speaking for your brand knows the topics that are in and out of bounds.
  • "If attending a cocktail party in a private home, treat household staff with dignity and respect. There are to be no personal or special requests from you to the staff." Do not treat bloggers or bulletin board moderators with anything but professional courtesy. You may not see them as "official" members of the media, but you should treat them with as much care and deference as you would a reporter or editor.
  • "By all means, converse. But don't dominate all conversations; be a good listener, too." If you attempt to control the conversation on blogs and boards, others will ignore or complain about you. And don't interrupt--when joining a discussion that is underway, do so respectfully and in a way that enhances the discussion for everyone and not just yourself.
  • "Smile, mingle and converse." A successful party is one where you circulate, seek out others, and engage people throughout the room. Your Social Media policy should require the same commitment to covering ground.
Those party etiquette tips are helpful, but since your brand's goal in social media is to protect and enhance your reputation and not simply to be entertained, I'd offer the following additional ideas for your consideration:
  • If you are unwelcome in a discussion, leave. Your brand has every right to combat incorrect information, but engaging in a flame war with an unreasonable, bull-headed, and biased invidual won't yield results. If you find yourself unwelcome in a discussion, excuse yourself and find a more welcoming corner of the Social Media party (but continue to monitor the discussion and jump back in if damaging and erroneous gossip is being spread).
  • Simply being at the party isn't what impresses others; it is how you behave, the personality and mood you convey, and the respect you show for others that will alter perceptions.
  • No one likes a selfish and self-obsessed party guest. Participate with a goal of providing value to other participants rather than focusing on your needs and goals, and you'll be much more likely to enhance your brand.
  • Realize that the party will go on with or without you. If you want to know what is being said, or better yet influence others' opinions of you, you have to get dressed and show up.
The invitations are out, the table is set, and the guests have arrived. Are you entering the fray or sitting at home with your ears burning?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Neither Political Candidate Votes for Online Display Advertising

An article from Mediaweek notes that online ad buyers are "disappointed, puzzled, even a little impatient" with the fact the presidential candidates are spending so little on online display advertising. "For March, comScore’s Ad Metrix tool found that Obama ran 18.1 million impressions, versus 7.2 million for McCain. To put it in perspective, McDonald’s—hardly a huge spender on the Web—runs 300 million impressions in a single month, while top 10 advertisers like Netflix can run 5 billion."

Some expected this would be the election when ad money flooded to the Internet, but as one sales director put it, "This was not the year it all went digital."

Of course, the fact the candidates aren't ponying up for display ads doesn't mean the Internet hasn't already been a huge factor in the 2008 election. As the graph below demonstrates, traffic to the candidates' sites is still trending upwards and totals in the millions each month.

And if there's any doubt as to the importance of the Internet, you need only hear John Edwards comment that the Internet "is the only reason that Barack Obama is not taking public financing" or read the report that "Obama has raised a record-shattering 287 million dollars since the start of the campaign, fueled by more than 1.5 million small donors who give repeatedly over the Internet."

Then there's the news-making viral video "Yes We Can," which has been viewed approximately 15 million times on YouTube (and millions more times at and other video Web sites). Approximate cost to the Obama campaign of this emotional and much-viewed video? Zero for production; zero for distribution.

The role of the Internet in modern politics is not without legitimate questions. For example, Ron Paul has been incredibly popular on the Internet but has earned relatively few votes in the primaries. Still, it's hard to overlook the role the Internet has had, particularly in Obama's campaign. It's been crucial to the candidate going from underdog to front runner, gaining the kind of awareness that delivers huge crowds to his public appearances, and setting records for fundraising.

So given the Internet has been crucial thus far in the 2008 election, why is this not reflected in online ad spending? I believe there are several reasons:
  • Political display ads preach to the converted: Obama supporters know how to find and aren't prone to clicking on a John McCain ad, and the reverse is true for McCain supporters. As the campaign enters the homestretch, I expect the candidates may find interesting uses for rich media, such as rollover video ads that play inspirational messages that energize their base and encourage voter turnout. But with the sides fairly well drawn and only about 10% undecided, there seems little reason for the parties to start spending on online ads.

  • Advertising isn't necessary for the candidates to stay top of mind: With banner ad click rates at microscopic levels, the goal of many online display ad campaigns is to keep brands top of mind and not to encourage immediate direct action. Are awareness and consideration really the challenges for McCain and Obama? If the ads won't encourage supporters of either candidate to click and if consumers are already 100% aware of their options, how would banner advertising benefit the campaigns?

  • Online advertising lacks control: Ad buyers would disagree, but there is risk with online advertising. Even the most carefully plotted campaign can result in an ad running adjacent to unflattering content or on an inappropriate site. Mitt Romney's campaign made headlines and appeared clueless when banner ads for the pro-family, anti-gay candidate appeared on and, where amateur authors frequently post homoerotic stories of relationships between Spock, Captain Kirk, and Doctor McCoy. With presidential campaigns hinging on reputation, neither candidate can afford a misstep, particular with so little to gain with online advertising.

  • Online display ads aren't presidential: There is an inherent problem with the way consumers have come to perceive display advertising--they see it as having low credibility, and it's easy to understand why. As CPMs have dropped, the quality of many ads and advertisers have become embarrassingly bad. When the front page of the site of respected news organization CNN includes debt-reduction ads featuring dancing aliens or video ads purposely disguised to create confusion between advertising and content, it trains consumers to associate the ad medium with brands of poor quality. Recent reports on the top online ad spenders reveal that low-value advertisers such as LowerMyBills,, and free credit reporting services are among the top-spending online advertisers.
There will be a time for the campaigns to spend on online advertising in the months to come. As the election draws near, the parties will turn up the heat on the undecided voters. There may also be a defensive strategy to be considered; as 527 groups begin to run attack ads, the candidates may find themselves spending to combat negative campaigning or to knock those ads off of top sites.

The 2008 campaign has laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of Internet marketing: Experiential and viral marketing have worked, and display advertising is but a small component of the marketing mix. The emotional "Yes We Can" video created a huge surge of traffic and attention for Obama without a single ad, and both candidates have relied on Word of Mouth to deliver site visits, campaign contributions, and volunteers. With both traditional and Social Media buzzing about the election and stirring videos creating pull, neither campaign sees value in 468- x 60-pixel banner ads.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Short Takes: 6.24.08

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

  • Mobile Browsing Report: Opera is sharing what it knows about mobile browsing: 2.9 billion pages in May; US demographic is 80.6% male; and almost half of users over 28 years old. Check out more at

    BTW, if you have a WinMobile phone and aren't using Opera Mini to browse the Web, you have to download the free browser!

  • Fake Ad Wins at Cannes and Annoys the Brand Advertised: This is the weirdest marketing news I've heard in quite some time. According to Creative Cooler, "the ad world is chattering away about the JC Penney 'Speed Dressing' win at Cannes last week. The chatter isn't just about how this amusing spot won a Bronze Lion, but that the spot itself is a fake. JC Penney says it had nothing to do with it and is up in arms about the spot ruining the company's wholesome image." (Considering JCP's financial performance as of late, perhaps a little shakeup is in order. One blogger, commenting on this news, started his post with "JC Penney? They're still around?")

NBC, Tim Russert, and Control in Age of Social Media

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."
- Mario Andretti
Mario Andretti probably has no idea what social media is, but he may have provided us with the best quote ever on the topic. Control is an illusion, and I don't mean that in some zen-like philosophical way; I mean that the speed of the Internet combined with the power of personal networks is making control an unachievable and useless goal.

In the brief history of social media, we've already seen many high-profile missteps caused by the mistaken belief that the flow of communications can be controlled. In the past six months:
These examples demonstrate one of the more troubling aspects of Social Media to large organizations: the actions and decisions of a single employee or small group of workers can result in the kind of PR that can damage reputations, harm brands, suppress sales, increase costs, and potentially impact stock prices. Burger King, Target, and Johnson and Johnson aren't clueless and in fact have all made smart use of social media. The lesson of these PR disasters isn't to strive for more control (since we already know this is the problem and not the answer), but to concentrate on educating the workforce on appropriate and ethical behavior and communications.

NBC became the latest organization to learn difficult lessons about control in the era of Social Media. The news organization tried to control the timing of the news of Tim Russert's passing so that they could inform the family before the news hit the wires.

We can all appreciate NBC's intentions, but this is 2008 and their plan didn't work. An employee of a partner organization updated Russert's Wikipedia entry with news of his death 40 minutes before NBC announced the news. NBC, upon learning of the Wikipedia update, changed Russert's entry back, erasing the accurate information that had been posted. NBC is now embarrassed by the incident, and the person who leaked the news has reportedly lost his job.

The blogosphere isn't being kind to NBC. High-profile blogs and Internet media outlets are broadcasting comments such as:
  • MediaPost: "It seems that NBC, much like The Associated Press and other old-media businesses, hasn’t yet grasped that news is no longer published in a top-down manner."

  • Silicon Alley Insider: "It's one thing for a news organization to decide to delay reporting news of a staffer's death out of deference to his or her family (this makes sense). It's another for the organization to expect other organizations to follow the same policy. And it is yet another thing for someone to deliberately strike accurate facts from a collective record...which is what (they) apparently did."

  • CrunchGear: "NBC, of all organizations, should know what to do with news. They have been a trusted source for decades. For them to fumble in this way - to not be able to pick up the phone to call the family immediately, to fail to keep in contact with folks who could tell them it’s OK to run the story, to have to get the news out of an reporter’s death and to presumably get the exclusive - is an egregious chain of failure that led to what can only be described as a debacle."
Interestingly, old-school media outlet US News & World Report provided the most insightful observations about the NBC situation: "Employers can no longer assume that employees have their policies, privacy, and best interests at heart. Employers today need to offer clear direction on what employees can and cannot communicate, along with a frank explanation of the consequences of violating the policy."

The implications of Social Media cannot be ignored, nor can they be controlled. The quicker organizations define and educate their employees on expected standards of behavior and communication policies, the sooner they can minimize the likelihood of a Social Media embarrassment. As Mario Andretti knows, the faster you move, the more likely you are to win the race.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Citi Thinks Google Should Wallpaper the Internet with Display Ads

I was quite disappointed to read about the report issued by Citi analyst Mark Mahaney suggesting Google exploit the "opportunity" to monetize site traffic by pushing display advertising on every page they serve on certain properties.

I am not a high-priced financial analyst, but I do know that Google has succeeded in historic proportions by doing exactly the opposite of what Mahaney recommends. While other search engines and sites pasted blinking display ads wherever they could, Google instead put itself into the position of being the preeminent provider of search services to consumers and search advertising to marketers by providing a clean, user-focused interface. Perhaps Mahaney would be well advised to look at how Yahoo and MSN, with their pages of display ads, are performing compared to Google.

Mahaney's calculations provide some interesting insight into how miserably display advertising is performing on the Internet. To calculate how much incremental revenue Google might earn with display advertising, he started by computing the estimated CPM (Cost per Thousand) of advertising on MySpace. His calculations show that display ads are commanding just $1.13 CPM. That strikes me less as a financial figure than an indictment of display ad value and effectiveness. The impact of display ads are so minuscule, and consumers are so immune to them, that each view of a banner ad is worth just one-tenth of one penny.

Mahaney forecasts that plastering display ads on YouTube, Google Maps, Google Images, and other Google properties could add $1 billion of additional revenue in 2009. That sounds like a lot, but Google's revenues were almost $17 billion last year.

Google won't turn up its nose at a possible revenue increase of 6%, but I'm sure they are assessing Mahaney's suggestion with great caution. I don't have access to Citi's report, but according to the info posted to TechCrunch, it appears that Mahaney did not consider the potential negative ramifications that could come if Google includes display ads on every YouTube, Map, and Images page:
  • Will users abandon Google? On this blog, I've frequently mentioned how fickle Internet audiences can be. MySpace ruled the social media roost just a couple years ago, but once consumers perceived it was becoming too commercial they began an exodus to Facebook (which many feel is now becoming too commercial, as well).

    While today it's hard to imagine consumers abandoning YouTube or other Google properties, it isn't out of the question. Nor would it take a mass exodus to eviscerate Mahaney's proposed display ad strategy--if consumers begin to leave Google for other sites, Google could damage the commanding advantage it has in search advertising. Google shouldn't be too quick to kill the goose that laid the $16.6B golden egg in search of a mere $1B more. I question if Mahaney has fully investigated the potential risk of his proposed display ad strategy.
  • What is the impact of so much advertising inventory entering the market? As noted, the CPMs for online ads are already quite a bit lower than they were in past years. What would be the impact of having Internet traffic giant Google enter the display ad market with an additional 1 trillion ad pages annually (725 billion for YouTube, 235 billion for Google Images, and 14 billion for Google maps)?

    According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, in 2007 display advertising revenues totaled $7.1 Billion. Mahaney is suggesting that new display ad opportunities could add $1 billion to Google's top line. So, it seems he is suggesting an expansion of total industry-wide display ad revenue of 14% in one year, and we can surmise this also means display ad supply will increase somewhere in the range of 14%. An increase this substantial in the supply of display ad inventory would exert even more downward pressure on CPMs, thus decreasing Google's potential gain.
I'd be disappointed to see Google significantly increase its display advertising in the coming year. I believe the company has greater and more profitable avenues to explore by offering consumers ever better tools and sites and advertisers more targeted ad opportunities. Google may find far more revenue than Mahaney is proposing by continuing to explore how it might revolutionize traditional ad media in the same way it has online advertising. And Google sees more opportunities for revenue and profit in the burgeoning mobile space.

More importantly, it seems to me Mahaney is neglecting to consider Google's brand. The company has always been respectful of its Web visitors and aware of how little value banner ads provide to either advertisers or to consumers. The sudden appearance of animated banner ads on a trillion Google pages doesn't strike me as congruent with Google's brand or their world vision.

Just a couple weeks ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt shared his view of how online advertising will work in the future. He said, "The advertising has to be more entertaining, more interesting, more immersive compared to what we have today." Citi's Mahaney is suggesting Google offer more of "what we have today" while Schmidt sees more experiential and welcome ways to market to consumers.

I predict Google will not embrace the Citi report's suggestion that they step backwards by pushing at consumers some of the least successful and least welcome online ad media; instead, I believe Google will find innovative ways, both online and off, to provide value to consumers and advertisers.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Government 2.0

Scott Horvath, who maintains Just a Govy, a blog focusing on social media and the government, sent me a fascinating email with thoughts and questions about how Web 2.0 may affect the way our Federal, state, and local governments communicate with citizens. Says Scott:
The government is, obviously, a very bureaucratic "company." It's a very top-down type of structure. But social media really eats away at the foundation of that structure and many government organization are very hesitant to really use social media tools for the purposes they're intended for. Instead they use them to continue pushing out messages in a one-way conversation...another dumping ground for information hoping that people will read it.
After giving this some thought, I wonder if Social Media and governing simply don't mesh. Those of us who work and live within Web 2.0 believe Social Media will change everything, but what if there are limits to the reach of Social Media (and to how much and how quickly we can expect government to adapt?)

There certainly are aspects of Social Media that may be difficult if not impossible to incorporate into organizations as bureaucratic as governments. The ideas that drive Web 2.0 and that comprise government differ substantially in several aspects:
  • Democratic: Social media is a pure direct democracy--the voice of the people, with each person representing themselves and everyone being equal. Our government, for reasons that are both practical and philosophical, is a representative democracy. Practically, it would be impossible for every law or policy question to be brought before the people, and philosophically, majority rule can trample rights of minorities.

  • Participation: Social Media isn't social without participation. Our system of government may seem participative, but it is so only at select and predetermined times in the electoral process. For example, while voters may get a time and place at which they may express opinions on bills, it is the actions of our representatives and not of the people that result in the creation of new laws.

    In fact, one of the three branches of government, the judicial branch, is purposely (but not entirely) distanced from direct participation of the people. Nor do the people get to affect change any time they want in the executive or legislative branches without specific and difficult processes. The system of government in the U.S. counts on citizen participation, but only within limits.

  • Dynamic: Social Media is inherently dynamic--it constantly changes as people interact, express themselves, create new content, combine media, add links, and further the discussion. Governments change slowly over time. While many citizens have grown frustrated with the pace of change at the Federal level, the caution and deliberation are not without reason. Change to laws and policies should come slowly and carefully and not based on today's popular opinion (which is prone to change tomorrow).

  • Opinionated: Some social media is factual, but what really drives Web 2.0 is the ability to express differences, opinions, attitudes, and beliefs. Governments are not in the opinion business; they are about laws, facts, and findings. When you have a question about an IRS form or whether a property is zoned for a specific sort of development, you don't care about the opinion of an individual; you want the right answer--an answer to which everyone will agree and one that will not change if asked to another individual.
I'm sure we could compile a substantial list of the reasons social media is difficult and challenging for governments, and we could even discuss the deep political implications of how social media is completely borderless and virtually exempt from the sorts of controls on which governments have relied since the first city-state appeared thousands of years ago. I'll leave the speculation about the social and regulatory ramifications of social media to others.

What is of interest to me is how, despite the challenges, social media might be of use to those who govern. After some research, I found and imagined several ways government might use Web 2.0. The problem is, while the following concepts use today's social media tools to bring benefits to citizens, none are truly social:
  • Alerts: In times of imminent danger, such as during severe weather, government agencies could broadcast alerts via social media. We've all heard the tests of the emergency broadcast system on radio stations, but think of how much greater the reach would be if governments could blast geographically vital messages via Twitter or Facebook. One moment a user could be commenting about a movie or song they like, and the next they could be receiving a life-saving message to take precautionary actions to avoid a tornado or flash flood.

    While this would be an interesting and powerful use of today's social networks, it is not really social--the purpose of this communication isn't to create dialog but to leverage Web 2.0's large, distributed, and constantly-monitored networks.

  • Customer Service: Many years ago, I worked with a school system to solve a problem: parents perceived that the school system provided very poor service, and the school system was interested in making changes to alter this perception. The first meeting between the consultants and the school administrators went very badly; we were able to get through only a portion of the agenda because a debate erupted over whether parents are "customers." Those who worked for the school system simply did not see themselves as having or serving customers. (The administrators were less interested, it turns out, in making parents happy than they were in getting parents off their backs.)

    So, this might not resonate with those within government, but social media could be used to improve customer service with citizens. For example, imagine an online ombudsman to whom you might ask questions. Not sure what tax form to use, which agency to turn to for licensing, or how to reach an elected official--ask the ombudsman.

    Of course, this isn't truly social either. Neither the citizens nor the government would want others seeing the personal and possibly sensitive questions and problems. The ombudsman concept works much better as a private email form than as a public Twitter or BB post.

  • Gathering opinions: Perhaps those we elect could turn to Web 2.0 tools to ask and receive input from their constituents. While this seems an interesting and pertinent use of Social Media, the challenges are easily apparent: Would such an online forum be completely open, or would racist, violent, or other inappropriate content be deleted? Who would do the monitoring? Would deleting a comment--so easily done at the discretion of a privately run blog or bulletin board--be a violation of constitutionally-guaranteed free speech rights? The legal and practical challenges of open discussions seem almost insurmountable for governments.

  • Monitoring Social Media: Our elected officials who want to keep their finger on the pulse of Americans could do worse than to turn to the blogosphere, Twitter, or Facebook for the current zeitgeist. Of course, as you already know, trying to discern aggregate attitudes from hundreds of thousands of blog posts, Tweets, or Facebook profiles is no easy task. And what about the opinions of those who are least likely to participate in social media, primarily older and poorer Americans?

  • Campaigning: The most obvious use of Social Media by elected officials isn't really governmental but private. Candidates are already using Web 2.0 for campaigning and fund raising. Many have noted the success Barack Obama has had raising money and fostering engagement with his supporters, and John McCain isn't far behind.

  • Internal communications: Perhaps the greatest benefits to our government may come not from connecting with citizens but from allowing employees to better communicate and collaborate with each other. The use of internal blogs, wikis, and other Web 2.0 tools could certainly improve communications, help retain workers, and increase the efficiency of governmental agencies.

  • Transparency and Third-Party Tools: Maybe the best our governmental bodies can do is to foster greater transparency by making data widely available and allowing private third parties to fashion the Web 2.0 tools that most interest citizens. Just a Govy includes a couple of interesting private sites that leverage government data for the use of citizens:

    • CapitolWords shares the one word each day that is spoken most frequently in the House and Senate or inserted in the Congressional Record. As Scott points out on his blog, a word cloud would be much more informative, but this still is an interesting use of Federal data. (Lots of focus on "oil" and "energy" these days inside the Beltway, which should come as no surprise to anyone.)

    • GovTrack.Us uses publicly available data to give site visitors access to the status of federal legislation and the ability to learn about the votes and activities of members of Congress.
Having spent several days researching and considering the idea of Social Media for governmental purposes, I think I'm glad I can focus on the private uses and benefits of these tools. I'll leave to Scott Horvath the thorny questions of how (or if) to drag the most bureaucratic of organizations into the age of Web 2.0.

What do you think? Are the rules, laws, and structure of our government simply not prepared to permit Social Media to be exploited? Do you believe government can change sufficiently to permit a more open and two-way dialog with citizens? Or is the government's use of Web 2.0 prevented by legislative firewalls that are appropriate and necessary to the operation of government?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Many Definitions of Experiential Marketing (and Does It Matter There Is Not One Universally Understood Definition?)

I launched ExperienceTheBlog with a post that defined "Experiential Marketing." I offered the definition we use at Fullhouse:

Deliberate encounters
that engage consumers' senses
to create lasting impressions
that drive our clients' brands
in a measurable way
online, in the physical world, or both.

Each line in that definition represents a discrete and important aspect of Experiential Marketing--planning, strategy, and audience definition; sensory experiences; being desirable and memorable to consumers; fitting the brand; measuring success; and being channel agnostic.

This week, someone in our agency suggested that the term "Experiential Marketing" is simply too misunderstood to be of use in communications. It was suggested the term may cause more confusion than help when it comes to defining our agency's services, benefits, mission, and vision.

The reason for the confusion is that so many event agencies are rebranding themselves as experiential agencies. As a result, we repeately run into propsects and clients who, upon hearing we specialize in Experiential Marketing, will respond, "I didn't know you do events!" (For the record, Fullhouse provides strategy, development, and management of communications technology that creates memorable experiences intended to increase brand awareness, preference, and consideration.)

Clearly, event agencies are part of the experiential marketing concept, but an experiential marketing effort doesn't need to include a real world event. Or, at least, not in my definition. Or, for that matter, in the definition of many others.

I thought I'd share the varied definitions I ran across when searching Google for the term “Definition ‘Experiential Marketing’”. The results reflect a wide variety of perceptions:

  • Wikipedia: Experiential marketing attempts to connect consumers with brands in personally relevant and memorable ways. The alternative term customer-experience marketing emphasises the idea of communicating the essence of a brand through a personalised experience.
  • AdventResults: Experiential Marketing connects audiences with the authentic nature of a brand through participation in personally relevant, credible and memorable encounters. Whereas traditional marketing has focused on mass communication using rational, left-brain directed persuasion, experiential marketing focuses on making a personalized connection using emotional, right-brain directed involvement.
  • Marketing.Science: Marketing that gives customers in-depth experiences with products in order to give them enough information to make the purchase decision.
  • Fast Company: This is an interesting blog post that lists several definitions:
    • Marketing that involves one or more of the senses.
    • Quotes this from the International Experiential Marketing Association: "Businesses will live or die not by the attributes they promise, but by the experience they offer customers at every touch point – in the store, at the website, with the product, and through events and advertising."
    • And, of interest to the question of event vs. experiential marketing, the blogger notes this: “My own interest in Experiential Marketing is strongly based in event organizing, though I don't want to limit the practice to discrete events. However, I will be pursuing my fascination with such marketing experiments as Charmin's bathrooms in Times Square, images and videos of which have proliferated online.
  • Promo : “Live, one-on-one interaction that allows consumers to create an emotional connection with brands.”
  • Experiential Marketing Forum: Experiential marketing gives customers an opportunity to engage and interact with brands, products, and services in sensory ways that provide the icing on the cake of providing information. The term "Experiential marketing" refers to actual customer experiences with the brand/product/service that drive sales and increase brand image and awareness. It's the difference between telling people about features of a product or service and letting them experience the benefits for themselves.
  • Decent Marketing: Connected relevance + meaning + interaction (The experience makes sense for both the brand and the person experiencing it . The execution should have a lasting impact and be memorable or in some other way meaningful to the consumer. The consumer should have some degree of control or interaction.)
  • Digital Squeeze: Interacting in person and bringing your brand alive.
  • Experience the Message: In 2006 survey, 62.9% of marketers agreed with this definition: "A company's ability to utilize various methods of marketing, thus enabling its target audience to experience its brand, services and products. Examples of experiential marketing methods include live events and gatherings; Web-based events, webcasts and podcasts; and product or service demonstrations and/or test-drives."
  • The 15th link on Google was to the definition noted above on this blog.
What do you think? Does it matter that the term is not universally understood? Do you have a different definition?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Marketing Needs More Weenies

Walt Disney was a marketing genius. The endless, innovative ways he found to promote his products created a blueprint from which marketers continue to borrow. But one of Walt's ideas has been lost or largely ignored, and it's a shame because it may be the most relevant to today's marketing challenges: The weenie!

What's a weenie? It's a visual magnet; something that draws people from one area to the next. A weenie makes a promise, creates mystery and excitement, and motivates crowds to move deeper into the experience. The term reportedly came from a boyhood memory of luring a dog home by dragging a wiener on a string. quotes Walt:
"What you need is a weenie, which says to people 'come this way.' People won't go down a long corridor unless there's something promising at the end. You have to have something the beckons them to 'walk this way.'"

Walt's most obvious weenie is Cinderella's Castle, which draws Magic Kingdom visitors down Main Street, USA and into the heart of the park. Having been pulled to the center of the Magic Kingdom by the striking 189-foot-tall castle, theme park guests are then propelled deeper into the corners of the park by views of the towering Swiss Family Treehouse and Space Mountain.

Walt didn't stop with giant weenies. An attentive visitor can find weenies hiding just about everywhere, pulling guests into rides and adding to the park experience. At the entrance to the Haunted Mansion, a foreboding gate, faux graveyard, and spooky noises propel guests into the queue for the ride. The long, twisty tunnel that delivers guests to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is a chain of weenies--fountains, cannons, and gunpowder barrels set the scene for the experience that follows.

The idea of a weenie might not sound revolutionary, but there is much marketers can learn from Walt about the use of visual magnets. Think about the last time you saw a mobile event marketing setup at a concert, sporting event, or festival. My guess would be that you saw a truck and/or tent decked out with large brand logos with little to pull passing consumers into the event footprint. In fact, the numerous logos might have actually deterred people from entering; after all, how many people outside of our industry think, "Oooh, I think I'll dedicate some time to be marketed to!"

I've seen some very uninteresting and mundane event design, but I've also seen some great event footprints with weenies that demand attention. For example, a mobile event that Pierce Promotions created for Gillette was designed with two barbers chairs at the front of the footprint. Men strolling past were invited to sit down for a shave, and the unexpected sight of guys getting their facial hair removed caused others to stop and pay attention. Another great event footprint was created by GMR for Red Wing Shoes, the front of which promised a free picture with the world's largest boot. In the half hour I spent at the Red Wing event, the line to see and get a photo with the giant boot was never less than two dozen deep.

The concept of the weenie can be extended to other sorts of marketing tactics, as well. For example, most print advertising is pretty easy to ignore, but every now and then a brand will stop consumers from turning the page with interesting ads featuring scratch and sniff, stickers, pop-ups, magic windows, or other features that pull consumers deeper into the ad.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that most ads are anti-weenies--instead of inviting attention, they encourage indifference. You might be surprised that Disney Imagineers know and use the power of the anti-weenie. While guest areas of the park are welcoming, if you wander into a service area you won't need a sign to tell you you've made a wrong turn. The message is delivered with bland colors, featureless surfaces, a void of vegetation, and other visual cues that suggest you ought to turn around.

If marketers learned the lesson of Walt's weenies (and anti-weenies), they might find more effective ways to demand attention to and engagement with their campaigns and brand messaging.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why Can't Agencies Market Themselves?

I attended an interesting AAAA seminar this week entitled "What Separates the Best from the Rest: What the best agencies do differently." The speaker, Tim Williams of Ignition Consulting Group, was informative, interesting, and entertaining.

Among the many things that the best agencies do is to differentiate themselves from the competition. While the best agencies succeed at creating a compelling point of difference, it's shocking to see how many agencies fail at this.

Considering agencies are in the business of differentiating their clients' brands every day, why do so many have such a difficult time doing the same for themselves? A lack of objectivity about their own "product"? Too busy attending to client business to get their own marketing just right? Or, are there so many agencies that it's tough (although never impossible) to find a point of difference? According to the US Department of Labor, there were about 48,000 advertising and public relations services establishments in the United States in 2006; how many industries can you think of that feature 48,000 competitors?

The most humorous and eye-opening portion of the seminar was the list of words that virtually every agency uses to "differentiate" themselves from the crowd. Every agency seems to promote it is "full-service," "creative," "integrated," "experienced," "strategic," "award-winning," and "media agnostic," as if this creates a distinction from other agencies.

Tim showed the following video, which made attendees laugh and wince. It's hard not to see at least a little (and perhaps a lot) of one's own agency in this video.

So, here's an exercise for you to try if you're with an agency: Go to your Web site and copy and paste the language from your home or "About Us" page that describes your organization. Then go to four or five competitors' sites and do the same. Finally, remove the agency names and show the collected descriptions to your peers to see if they can identify which is your agency's. This might be a very humbling experience.

Of course, the challenge of communicating differentiating attributes doesn't stop with positioning statements and Web sites. As Tim discusses, how many agency presentations start with information such as number of employees, location of offices, list of services, and a slide of client logos? These are the things that clients and prospects find least useful, yet 9 out of 10 agency capability presentations seem to start this way.

The real question this begs is whether a client should hire an agency unable to craft a compelling and differentiated brand for themselves. I think the widely-known and -used analogy of the "Cobbler's Children" started as a joke, but somehow along the line it became the de facto standard for agencies and other B2B industries. (I once knew a guy who worked at a hosting company that had an unbelievably unreliable internal network--the system administrators were too busy attending to client network needs to pay attention to the organization's own network.)

The seminar was a great reminder that agencies cannot cut so many costs and get so busy on client work that they fail to walk the talk with their own marketing. If you're seeking some information or inspiration to set your agency apart from the pack, you may wish to contact Tim at Ignition. Feel free to contact me through the "Contact Us" form at right, and I'd be happy to share his email address.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Where Do Consumers Watch Video?

MediaPost shares a study from Ipsos MediaCT that shouldn't surprise us. It demonstrates that the share of video consumed on TV is decreasing and on computers it is rising.

Considering that as recently as five years ago, the percentage of video viewed on either the television or the movie theater screen was probably 99%, the current stats are pretty striking. Among those who have streamed or downloaded video content, which is 52% of Americans age 12 and older, the share of video viewed online has grown from 11% to 19% in just one year.

And of course, the portion of video viewed on a computer monitor increases as age decreases--consumers age 12 to 17 view just 55% of their video on TV and 24% on a computer. While this isn't particularly unexpected, what I found surprising is how much online video is being consumed by older Americans. If you think those 55 and older are glued to their TVs and only use their PCs to check email, you'll be surprised to learn that among this cohort, almost one of every five hours of video viewing occurs on a computer.

This is just further evidence that marketers are going to need to shift more of their marketing dollars online. This will take some creativity and a willingness to experiment, since online video advertising is not yet standardized.

As discussed here last week, online video advertising is not likely to take the form of 30- and 60-second spots, an ad format that is being rejected by consumers on television and won't be any more welcome online. and Hulu are experimenting with movies and TV shows that are interrupted just as frequently as on television, but with substantially fewer and shorter ads. If this ad approach catches on--and I think it will--this could mean that video advertising inventory (both TV and online combined) could shrink in the coming years.

This sounds like a problem for marketers, but there is a trade off--consumers seem to be accepting of ads they cannot skip provided those ads are kept brief. And unlike on TV, online video ads can entice consumers to click through to learn more, so the right ad can create immediate and deeper engagement than is possible on TV.

If you care to learn more about the percentage of video consumers view on TV and PCs (not to mention portable DVD players, cell phones, and DVD players) visit MediaPost's Research Brief.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It's In the Experience--EACH User's Experience!

The article on Technology Review seems so obvious, it's hard to imagine this idea hasn't been tested before. Then again, being obvious and being cost effective to implement are two entirely different things, aren't they?

According to TR, researchers at MIT's Sloan School of Management hope to make web sites better at selling products by making them adapt automatically to each visitor, presenting information in a way that complements that person's style of thinking. The idea is to match a site's experience to the cognitive style of the visitor. Says John Hauser, a professor of marketing at the Sloan School, "You can see that someone who's very analytic is probably more likely to go to 'compare plans' than to the direct advisor. If we determine that you like lots of graphs, you're going to start seeing lots of graphs. If we determine that you like to get advice from peers, you're going to see lots of advice from peers."

The Sloan system adapts to unknown users within the first few clicks on the web site by analyzing each user's pattern of clicks. In addition to guessing at each user's cognitive style, the system can track data over time to see which versions of the website work most effectively for which cognitive styles.

Of course, as anyone who has launched a large site knows, it can be a taxing and challenging effort simply to launch a one-dimensional site. Understanding all of the possible information needs for a variety users' cognitive styles and storing that data in a way it can be served differently to different visitors sounds, well, expensive. The article doesn't say much about costs or ROI--it just states that studies show ecommerce sales can increase 20%. I suppose if a brand's online sales are sufficiently large enough, a 20% increase may pay for this sort of system, but the more complex the site and the broader a site's product selection, the more costly it would be to implement.

It should also be noted that smart site owners and developers already have a way to match content to users without a complex system. With the use of research, personas, content development, information architecture, and design, a site can permit consumers--even without their explicit awareness--to choose a path that best suits their needs. In this way, careful research and design can create a site experience that may feel just as customized as the Sloan's cognitive, site-morphing system.

That said, I'm intrigued by the Sloan approach. Imagine the entire Web morphing to your own personal style of hunting and gathering information. If Sloan or anyone else can work out a system that makes maintaining and changing content easy and cost efficient in this sort of dynamic environment, it could present enormous benefits both to brands and to consumers.

Thanks to Sam Ewen of for sharing this article on the Experiential Forum.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Did Ad Age Just Suggest JetBlue NOT Advertise? No, It's About the Experience!

The headline over on Brand Autopsy is certainly attention getting: "Advertising Age recommends NOT ADVERTISING." The article shares portions of an Ad Age editorial that said:

“JetBlue is missing the point with its recent ad push. What it needs is to get back to what made it a media and consumer darling: customer service and good internal and external communication.”

“… convincing more people to fly doesn't seem like a smart move for an airline that has trouble handling the passengers it already has. It won't fool new passengers, and it will only upset current passengers. JetBlue achieved its success by being unlike the other airlines. Its good name spread -- via word-of-mouth and smart marketing -- because great customer service gave it a compelling story to tell.”

“Priority No. 1 should be getting back to a place where consumers want to share good stories. Take the money being wasted on that campaign and plow it into customer service.”

While it seems Ad Age might be suggesting JetBlue suspend it's advertising, the editorial really speaks to two non-advertising needs: Providing a great experience for consumers and being transparent. These are the two foundations upon which Word of Mouth is created in the age of social media.

Advertising is and will always be critical, but it cannot overcome poor experiences. Advertising creates the promise, but if your brand cannot deliver on that promise, then you're setting yourself up for failure. Saying what you do and doing what you say is no longer a competitive difference but table stakes in the era of Facebook, Twitter, Epinions,, the Comcast Sucks and Taco Bell rats videos, and MyThreeCents, where people are complaining about JetBlue for everything from lost luggage to unannounced flight changes to unrefunded tickets.

Of course, as Abraham Lincoln almost said, "You can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can't please all the people all the time." The goal isn't to prevent any and all complaints from reaching the Web, and trying to do so will cause attention and resources to be dedicated where they are not going to best use. All a brand can do is get its product and service right (not simply "right enough"), create a genuine brand using all the tools available to marketers, and engage consumers in the places where they're praising or complaining about the brand.

As far as I'm concerned, JetBlue's problem isn't with how or whether they are advertising, but with how they're using social media. JetBlue gets points for having a Twitter account, but they lose points for how they're using it. People are talking about JetBlue--both positively and negatively--but JetBlue isn't really engaging in the dialog. They're not thanking people for the compliments, nor are they apologizing for flight delays or addressing consumer complaints. Instead, as of today, the JetBlue Twitter account is more focused on the person maintaining the account than on consumers. You can read about the fabulous time "JetBlue" had in Vegas, or how s/he saw someone making out, or what state they're flying over--all of which provides zero value to consumers.

Walking the talk means more than just living up to your advertising promises. In 2008, it's also about being focused on customer needs wherever your customers are--even on Twitter! (Especially on Twitter!)

Alltop - A Resource for Marketers (and Others)

I'm sure that as a marketing professional, you find yourself with too much time and a lack of reading material. If this is the case, be sure to visit This site aggregates the top marketing blogs in one place so you can easily peruse headlines and access articles.

While Alltop may at first seem a bit overwhelming, I've found it indispensable. Rather than waiting for the latest email newsletter or, heaven forbid, snail mail, environment-killing, last-month's-news-sharing magazine, Alltop has all the news that matters right now.

In addition to accessing the best of the Marketing blogs in one easy spot, there is another benefit to Alltop--you can easily discern trends at a glance. Right now, several of the top blogs are buzzing about Dave Balter's free downloadable book on Word of Mouth marketing. Seeing this mini groundswell (to borrow Forrester's term) was my clue something big was happening and worth my attention. And it was--see my prior post with a link to his PDF WOM book.

So, head on over to Alltop, and perhaps someday soon you'll find E:TB in their list of top Marketing blogs!

Act Fast: Get Your Free Word of Mouth Book TODAY

For a limited time, you can download a free, PDF copy of "The Word of Mouth Manual, Volume II" by Dave Balter. 119 pages of free wisdom is awaiting.

Act quick and get yours at The Influential Marketing Blog.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Making the Mundane Experiential

This video has nothing to do with marketing and everything to do with marketing. The event, planned by GuerilLA, is not branded and does not promote a product. It was created to bring some spontaneous fun to Santa Monica.

So, what is this odd video doing on an experiential marketing blog? It reminds us that that anything can be made experiential with the right amount of creativity and enthusiasm. Rather than waiting until New Year's eve to celebrate a countdown, this group gathered at a street corner, waited for the crosswalk light to count down to zero, and partied like it's 1999.

Note the enjoyment (and occasional puzzlement) of the passersby. This event created memories for participants and others caught in the vicinity by being completely unexpected, fun, inclusive, and unexpected. Yes, I said unexpected twice; among the things that are so often lost in much of marketing today are elements like mystery and surprise. People ignore the expected, but they can't help but notice the unexpected.

Sponsoring this impromptu party cost next to nothing, but it sure looks like fun. And memorable. What can we marketers learn from this?

(BTW, the couple at the end got engaged during this event. They'll forever remember their crosswalk countdown.)

Crosswalk Countdown - GuerilLA from Kelly Herrington on Vimeo.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Social Media: Trend or Fad?

Last night I enjoyed a couple of drinks with one of the smartest people I know in marketing. She and I were discussing social media, and she mentioned that she felt obligated to try Facebook and MySpace, but having registered for the sites she just couldn't find the value in them. She also dabbled in Twitter, but again was overwhelmed with the time and attention required to stay engaged. She wondered if social media was simply too cumbersome to sustain engagement. In other words, is social media a trend that will gain critical mass among the general population, or is it the over-hyped fad-of-the-moment?

I sympathize with much of what she had to say. My Facebook site has become cluttered with dozens of widgets, each one requesting or demanding some sort of attention: Someone wrote on my wall; someone is poking me; someone is taking a quiz and wants to compare answers; someone wants me to join a list to save the world (as if joining the list will do so). And over on Twitter, even though I am trying to be selective about who I "Follow," I get so many Tweets that I can't possibly hope to keep up.

Is Social Media this year's Second Life--an online trend that gets hot, peaks with headlines and magazine cover stories, but slowly fades away? To be fair, Second Life hasn't faded away, but neither has it changed the world like some were predicting two years ago. After explosive growth, the vast majority of people who tried Second Life have found better uses for their time. While Second Life usage stats continue to show modest growth, there's ample evidence the virtual world has, at best, niche appeal--of the almost 14 million "residents" claimed by Second Life, only 855,000 have signed on in the past 30 days. Compare this to Facebook's 34 million unique monthly users or MySpace's 44 million.

While many consumers find social media daunting, it should be evident that the need and desire to share, communicate, and connect will only grow. As a result, I believe consumers won't turn away from social media; instead, they'll demand and gravitate to tools that help them adapt and customize social media to their own needs.

In fact, this is already happening. We've seen the way consumers can migrate en masse from one social networking tool to the next. Early social media sites such as, Friendster, and SixDegrees made way for MySpace, which is now losing users to Facebook. Twitter was the first micro-blogging tool to gain critical mass, but others are knocking on Twitter's door. Plurk and Pownce have been gaining some trial from Twitter users exasperated that the service has been down so frequently. Plurk and Pownce are arguably more functional and do a better job of allowing users to track threaded discussions, but neither is yet making much of a dent on Twitter's world domination.

And now Google is threatening to shake up the social media landscape with Friend Connect, it's tool that will permit consumers and site owners to create niche social networks that people can join using a single, portable profile. With this tool, even small sites can offer social media gadgets such as messaging, chat, and product ratings; and consumers can maintain a single profile and friend list, rather than registering and maintaining multiple memberships in dozens of different sites and social networks.

But even if social media remains fractured, consumers will find and use those tools that make it ever more useful. For instance, today fewer than 50% of the Tweets on Twitter are posted by people visiting; instead, consumers are using a plethora of tools to track, manage, and make posts on Twitter. Almost every tool offers some sort of improvement upon Twitter's own Web-based interface. Popular tools include Twhirl, Twitterrific, and Twit. Other applications that use Twitter's API to offer information and functionality include Tweetscan and Summize for searching and Who Should i Follow? to find Twitter users you might like.

A new and growing breed of tool is one that helps you to aggregate your online life in one place. Rather than managing accounts across multiple sites, you can track, review, and engage with sites in one place. A new favorite tool of mine is Digsby, a desktop application that permits users to setup all their email, IM, and social media accounts in one spot. I can check three different email boxes, the latest on my Facebook site, and recent Tweets in one convenient tool. Digsby really has changed my perception of the difficulty and value of participating in the social media phenomenon.

So, if you're one of those folks who signed up for Facebook or Twitter and are having a hard time figuring out what all the fuss is about, remember to keep things in perspective. Early automobiles were horribly dysfunctional things--they were dirty, loud, unreliable, difficult to start, unable to handle the rutty roads, and required gasoline in an age without gas stations. Yet people didn't reject cars and return to their trusty horses; because the human desire for mobility was so innate, automobiles became ever more usable, and within a couple decades horses were being pushed off roadways by cars.

Similarly, the human desire to be connected, to have friends, to communicate, to share, to show off, and to belong are so innate that today's kludgy social media tools will evolve into ever more usable forms. We marketers shouldn't tune out because the 2008 version of social media is imperfect, but we should be part of what makes future versions more usable and valuable for both consumers and for our brands.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Games That Aren't Games: Borrowing Gameplay to Create Better Tools and Marketing

We humans are easily deceived into doing things. Just ask Ben Rogers, Mark Twain's fictional character. Ben happens upon Tom Sawyer, who is toiling at the task of painting a fence. Ben starts out to mock poor Tom for being stuck with the chore, but within a couple of paragraphs Ben is willfully and happily laboring applying paint to the fence.

Tom Sawyer, and Mark Twain, recognized the power of a challenge. All Tom had to say was, "I reckon there ain't one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand that can do it the way it's got to be done." Poor Ben was no match for Tom's craftiness and his own ego.

Present us with a challenge and provide the means so that we might prove our speed, power, coordination, skill, or knowledge, and we'll do just about anything. So powerful is the draw of gameplay and competition that the gaming industry will soon eclipse the music business. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the gaming industry will reach $48.9 billion globally in 2011, surpassing spending on music and growing at a CAGR of 9.1% between 2007 and 2011.

This many consumers spending this much money must provide some powerful lessons for marketers, don't you think?

On this blog, I've frequently shared information about marketers' use of advergames--games created to increase a brand's awareness, preference, or purchase intent--but now I'd like to explore games that aren't games. Knowing the human desire to play games, how can the ingredients of gameplay be remixed to do cook up a dish that does more than simply provide a leisure activity?

There are some terrific examples of online applications that look like games and feel like games, but really aren't games. Like Tom Sawyer, these sites craftily capture visitors' time and attention with challenges that not only entertain but also create other value.

Google Image Labeler
One of the great challenges to Internet search providers is furnishing relevant search results for those seeking specific images. Search engines don't really know what is contained within the images they index; instead, they make assumptions based on the words that appear in proximity to those images.

This model frequently produces odd results. For example, search Google Images for "Jumping Girl Wearing Red," and just two of the top fifty results are what you and I might expect. The first image returned is of a girl who is neither jumping nor wearing red, but the page on which Google found it contains photos of a birthday party and text that notes one girl "loves to jump" and another is wearing red.

Since no computer can (yet) scan an image and determine the subject matter with any reliability, it would seem providing graphical search results is a problem that defies solution. Some companies are trying to pay people to view and tag images, but this approach does not offer a sustainable revenue model. Leave it to Google to find a workable (if small) solution with the Google Image Labeler.

You couldn't pay me for the dull task of tagging images, but I happily spent 30 minutes doing so for free because Google turned this task into a game. Users commit to two-minute intervals during which they are randomly matched with a partner. Both partners see the same image, enter descriptive labels, and earn points when a label matches; the more specific the label that you match with your partner, the more points you earn. After the match, each partner is presented with the images they saw and the labels input by the other. You also accumulate points and can see how you rank relative to others.

The Google Image Labeler succeeds by using the following elements associated with games:
  • Defined, brief time period
  • Simple rules
  • The mystery of cooperating with another
  • A points-earning challenge
  • A task that requires (and allows one to demonstrate) their knowledge, memory, speed, and spelling
  • The ability to compare your scores to others

Brand Tags attempts to decipher what consumers think of brands by asking them to enter a word or phrase that first comes to mind as a series of logos are presented. The results are fascinating to review.

Entering labels for each brand is interesting for only a short while. It doesn't take long to get tired of seeing one brand after another and entering a word into a field. Brand Tags could encourage more engagement by providing more game-like feedback to participants. For example, the site could inform people how the word they entered ranked among the list of words entered by previous participants. (To be fair, this might undermine Brand Tag's objectives by inspiring people to guess what others entered rather than entering their own labels.)

Where Brand Tags turns more game like is with its Backwards feature. The site presents you with a word cloud (where the size of the word is associated with the frequency it was entered) and asks you to guess the brand. On one page, I saw the giant words "camera," "film," "photo," and "picture". This could've been any photography brand, but the page also included the words "moment", "dead", and "old"--so I correctly guessed the brand was Kodak. If the site added a scoring function to the Backward feature, they might generate considerable more interest and traffic.

Free Rice
Charity, hunger, advertising, vocabulary and gameplay collide on this entertaining site. The simple challenge is to define a word by selecting another that it best matches. As you do, you accumulate grains of rice to be donated to the UN World Food Program to help feed the hungry. With each correct answer, you begin to increase your vocabulary level to ever more difficult words.

The free rice is paid for in simple fashion. On each page is served an ad from a sponsor. The site seems to be wholly sponsored by Unilever's Country Crock, Rama, and Blue Band, at this time.

The game is addictive. You quickly advance from words like "vaunt" and "wearisome" to words such as "larboard," "cuneate," and "proem." If you are familiar with those words, your vocabulary is better than mine and you should definitely visit the site to play for a while. See if you can best my highest Vocabulary Level of 43.

Of course, part of the fun is playing for a good cause. Each correct answer earns 20 grains of rice. In quick order I had accumulated over 2,000 grains of rice. That's nowhere near the 19,200 grains of rice that is required to feed a person each day, but it's a start toward helping people in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Cambodia--and all I had to do was play a game!

This site succeeds by generating value for everyone involved. The sponsors are associated with charitable and educational endeavors. The visitors enjoy the gameplay. And hungry people receive needed supplies. To date, people visiting the site have earned 36 million grains of rice and in its first five months, FreeRice generated enough rice to feed more than one million people. might consider a couple upgrades to foster even greater involvement. Learning from true gaming sites, FreeRice could spark a great deal more traffic by providing a means for consumers to challenge friends to beat their scores. Allowing consumers to register so they can save and compare their accumulated rice grains to others would create more competition and repeat visits. And a feature that allows groups of people, such as schools or employers, to aggregate their scores would generate a great deal of excitement.

As these three sites show, marketers and interactive developers can borrow from the desirable and engaging aspects of gameplay to create interactions that draw and hold consumer interest. We all can learn from Tom Sawyer: A little competition never hurt anyone!