Thursday, July 31, 2008

Social Media and Subviral Marketing

Does social media have a dark side? Is it prone to manipulation? And is it really true that there's no such thing as bad publicity? These questions came to mind as I read the Slate article about the new, racy Puma "ad" that may or may not be fake and the company's response, which also may or may not be fake.

The image is certainly controversial. I'll let Slate describe it:

A photograph of a young woman in a short skirt, on her knees in front of a standing man; the picture is cropped at the woman's shoulders, so you can't see exactly what's going on, but you can see enough to make a good guess. Also, some creamy liquid seems to have dripped onto the woman's thigh.

What turns this PG-13 soft-core pornography into potential marketing is that the Puma brand is evident in the photo. The woman is wearing Puma shoes, there's a Puma bag strategically placed in the foreground, and a Puma logo appears in the corner.

But Puma says they have nothing to do with it. Not only that, they unleashed the lawyers, who sent cease and desist letters to bloggers who shared the racy "ad." And, as anyone who's been paying attention knows, in the age of social media there's nothing like threatening lawsuits to really set the blogosphere on fire. Sending lawyers into battle with bloggers is like fighting fire with a stream of gasoline--instead of successfully quieting the buzz about the "fake" ad, Puma's actions increased attention, discussion, and sharing.

So, was the company's response a tactical mistake on Puma's part? Some are suggesting this is all part of a Puma subviral marketing strategy, and if this is true, it's both a brilliant manipulation of social media and a dangerous precedent that could backfire on the brand.

The idea of subviral marketing is this: Anonymously release edgy, inappropriate, and attention-getting branded content into the social media wild. Wait it for to get noticed. Purposely react in a heavy-handed manner that only incites more attention. Enjoy all the attention and PR.

Why would a brand resort to this strategy? It's damn cheap, and it gives the brand the opportunity to appeal to a different demo and to stretch their brand without really moving the brand in a different direction.

At least that's the theory. But there are plenty of dangers, starting with the chances that people find out--or merely come to believe--that a brand is really behind the fake ad. If this happens, the brand can appear manipulative, untruthful, and abusive of consumers' trust. Not only that, but if the brand comes to be associated with the fake ad, then the brand isn't just stretching its boundaries--it's moving them, whether or not that is the intended objective.

Another danger with subviral marketing--assuming it is a real strategy--is that it is one that can work a couple of times for a handful of first movers, but if many brands try this over time, it will begin to leave consumers feeling jaded and used. Instead of paying attention to future ads that seem purposely provocative, consumers will roll their eyes and ignore the attempt at subversive publicity.

Worse yet, subviral marketing could cause consumers to think less of the brand rather than more. Subviral tactics may begin to appear gutless rather than edgy. If the brand really wanted to show its racy side or appeal to a younger and edgier audience, why not have the confidence to simply do it rather than resorting to hide-and-seek tactics that theoretically permit the brand to distance itself if the reaction is too strong and negative?

There's no evidence the Puma ad is subviral marketing, but the Slate article raises excellent questions, such as why would someone go to all this trouble to mock/promote Puma rather than the 800-pound gorilla in the sports marketing world, Nike. Was this just a consumer having some fun? Might this be another example of a brand-unapproved work by an agency getting leaked (much like the recent JC Penney ad that got attention at Cannes, despite the fact the brand never wanted to be associated with the racy spec creative)? Or was this a cold, calculated subviral plan on the part of Puma?

If subviral marketing is a true strategy, it's a dangerous one. Attitudes and "buzz" change quickly in the social media world. A fake ad can get some brand-building buzz one week and unleash an avalanche of brand-destroying derision the next. For established brands, it seems an inappropriate manipulation of consumers' trust and a misuse of social media.

I'll be watching the news and feedback on the Puma ad to evaluate if the brand benefited or was harmed by the fake ad and it's aggressive reaction (or perhaps by its calculated subviral marketing strategy).

Thanks to Andy for sharing this!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Social Media "Strategies" Getting in the Way of Enterprises' Social Media Usage

What is your car strategy? Yes, that thing sitting in your garage; what is your strategy for it?

You may have a maintenance plan intended to keep your automobile looking and performing well. You may share the vehicle with another person, which requires negotiating who gets to drive it one day or another. You may scheme to improve gas mileage by hypermiling and carpooling. And, on particularly busy days, you probably fashion intricate plots to minimize drive and wait time as you drop the kids off at sports and music lessons, get to the dry cleaner, visit the convenience store, fill the tank, and collect the kids on the way home.

But what is your single, cohesive car strategy?

Trying to define a singular "strategy" for all the uses of your car is as ridiculous as trying to fashion one exhaustive social media strategy for an organization. Much like an automobile, social media is a tool to be used in different ways under different circumstances.

Sometime your car is like a bus, delivering a gaggle of children to school; sometimes it's a dump truck, hauling hundreds of pounds of soil; and sometimes it's a commuter train, getting you to and from work. You use your car in the way that best suits your wants and needs at a particular time.

Social media is the same thing: Depending upon your particular needs or goals, it may help consumers inform each other about your products; permit you to gather input from a panel of consumers; allow you to create a community that provides support and information on a particular topic; collaborate with consumers on new products or product features; help to create new and proactive means to provide customer support; offer a new channel for targeting online ads to prospects; provide a means to add viral elements to microsites or advergames; open up new ways to create more dialog and attention from journalists and shareholders; and (of course) create new ways to market to consumers in an effort to improve brand awareness, perception, and sales.

Social media is so powerful and diverse that just about the only thing that can get in the way of an organization making the most of it is the idea that social media cannot be exploited without a "strategy." That makes about as much sense as stopping you as you slide your key into the ignition and insisting you first develop a strategy that encompasses your automobile needs for tonight, tomorrow, and every day in the future.

I'm not suggesting business simply shoot from the hip, but the buzz I am seeing online and hearing from clients is that organizations are in turmoil trying to figure out how to govern and control social media. It reminds of me of the mid-90s when IT and marketing organizations battled over control of the Web site.

There's a valuable lesson to be learned from how Web site governance works today. Although every department uses the Internet, no one department controls it. In most organizations, a governance group coordinates efforts, sets guidelines, and avoids duplication of efforts. IT provides support for certain aspects, such as data standards, CRM systems, content management applications, security, hosting, and analytic tools. Divisions establish their areas of responsibilities--Marketing creates online marketing strategies, brand sites, and online ads; Customer Service maintains support information and responds to inquiries; etc. Outside assistance is secured when needed, results are measured, responsibilities are assigned to keep information fresh, and at any given moment dozens of different Web efforts may be underway throughout the organization.

No one person or department owns the Web in the enterprise, nor should anyone own social media. Even in large organizations such as Ford were "social media czars" are being brought in to drive Web 2.0 efforts, they should not govern and control it but instead foster collaboration and distributed responsibility.

Web 2.0 is still quite new and will continue to evolve rapidly, which means that as quickly as you attempt to develop a strategy around social media, it will have already changed. Simply put, the best way to use social media is to use it. Don't jump into the deep end of the social media pool, but you won't get any benefit nor gain any knowledge by staying dry and arguing over where and how to leap. Dip a toe into the water, test the temperature, and see what you learn about your consumers and your brands.

In future posts on Experience: The Blog we'll explore some ways complex organizations can rapidly develop and act on Web 2.0 tactics without bogging down in large and unnecessary efforts to try to unify the inherently diverse concepts, tactics, and tools that comprise social media.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What do SEO and a Spy Safehouse Have in Common?

Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) lying and dishonest?

That's a purposely provocative question, and I should make it clear that I have a strong belief in the value of SEO. (In fact, I'd hasten to add before I get into hot water with my peers that Fullhouse offers terrific SEO services with a strong record of success.) But if you can for a moment let go of the idea that SEO is a necessary tactic for interactive marketers, I think you'll find some interesting and challenging ideas that can enhance a brand's web performance and improve the online experience for consumers.

While I would never argue that a brand shouldn't carefully optimize their site for maximum relevance in search engines, I think SEO has become a bit of a crutch. For example, let's imagine that we're responsible for a Web site about hammers; as a result, we want our hammer site to appear at the top of search engine results. We may want this in part because we believe our site is the best hammer-oriented site on the Internet, but chances are our primary motivation for improved search engine placement is that we need traffic to justify the investment in the Web site. As a result, our and every other hammer site are locked in an SEO arms race, all trying to create the best META tags, the most SEO-relevant copy, the most useful ALT tags, and the best brand-managed link-building tactics.

But what would happen if we took these tactics away? Imagine a world without SEO. What if we couldn't optimize our Web copy? What if our ALT and META tags had no value to search engines? What if no amount of PR or paid link-building tactics would create any better visibility on search engines? How would we succeed in generating relevance on and traffic from search engines if our only avenue to do so was through our site visitors?

The Fullhouse Experiential Marketing group has a number of beliefs that guide the work we do for clients. One of them--to which any decent SEO consultant would agree--is this:

The best way to create traffic to a Web site isn't to optimize it...
it's to get people linking to it.

This belief challenges our employees and our clients to consider this question: What if instead of worrying about creating links or evaluating our sites' code for SEO value, we instead concentrated on creating an online experience so terrific, so valuable, so fun, or so informative that our visitors became uncompensated cogs in our SEO machine? What if our hammer site was so spectacularly engaging that consumers couldn't help but to spend time on the site, revisit it, tell others, talk about it with coworkers, link to it from their Facebook site, and blog about it?

These thoughts came to mind last weekend when visiting one of Milwaukee's oldest bars, the Safehouse. This bar has a James Bond theme and creates the ambiance of a secret location where spies may "come out of the cold". You can buy into the clandestine theme or not, but you can't argue with its success: The Safehouse has been in operation for 42 years.

The bar has no signage, at least none that promotes "The Safehouse"; nor does it have an easy-to-find-location. To get to it, you must walk down an unmarked alley. If you arrive at the door, there are subtle signs of something worthy of your attention (an awning, a couple of flags), but there is no indication of the bar name; just a small plaque announcing you've arrived at International Exports, Ltd. If you walk through this unobtrusive door, you will find yourself in a tiny, old-fashioned office, and depending upon when you've arrived, it may be unstaffed. No doors are evident in this office, and I've seen people walk back out thinking they were in the wrong place. But if you pay attention, you'll notice a small sign pointing to a timeclock; if you pull the handle on the timeclock, a bookcase will swing open and allow you entrance into the bar.

The Safehouse advertises in area print magazines, particularly ones focused on tourists, but how can a bar stay open for 42 years with no signage? How can it be successful when it is so difficult to find? And why would a commercial establishment create those sorts of barriers to entry for consumers?

The answer has everything to do with SEO, because the bar has generated four decades' worth of Word of Mouth and business by being the kind of destination about which people rave. If your Web site created the sort of experience that the Safehouse offers patrons, your SEO tactics would be the icing on the cake and not a major driver of search engine traffic.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Wants, Needs, and Tactics for Social Media

I read a brilliant dissection of the difference between Wants and Needs in social media written by Jay Deragon on I was tracking well with Jay's thoughts until the end of his blog post when I think the concepts of "needs" and "tactics" may have gotten a little muddy.

I definitely recommend Jay's article, entitled "Want vs. Need For Social Media". He tells the story of how his agency was working with a client who "wanted" a social media strategy, but when the agency inquired if a needs assessment had been completed, they were told this was not necessary since the client already knew what they wanted. Jay succinctly defines the difference between wants and needs: "Wanting something isn’t necessarily the same as needing something. A diabetic may want candy but if you give them too much it will harm them."

Jay suggests that it seems logical to assess what you need to get what you want. He then offers a link to a needs checklist, which includes items such as "Search People," "Posting Function," "RSS Feeds," and integration with Digg, MySpace, and DMOZ.

The checklist is a thorough one, but I believe it is a list of tactics and not needs. To extend Jay's helpful diabetes analogy, the need isn't for a syringe, insulin, or an appropriate diet; the real need for a person with diabetes is to control his or her short-term glucose levels. The diabetic may want to control his or her diabetes or want to eat candy, but he or she cannot assess, reject, or approve these conflicting wants without first defining the need.

Wanting a social media strategy isn't a reason to invest in one; nor is the fact the competition is doing it; nor is the fact social media is the most buzz-worthy marketing strategy of 2008. These are all wants, but they are not supported by measurable and relevant organizational needs.

Don't get me wrong--I believe most organizations need and should be considering a social media strategy, but they should start by asking themselves the same questions that are asked before making any significant investment: What do we need? What do we hope to accomplish? What value will this bring to our stakeholders? And how will we measure success?

Hooking up to Digg and sponsoring a group on Facebook are not needs. Instead, social media needs might be defined as:
  • To improve satisfaction with our customer service.
  • To increase positive Word of Mouth for our brand.
  • To increase search engine relevance for key search terms.
  • To increase inbound links to our site.
  • To improve traffic to our Web site.
  • To increase awareness of our brand.
  • To improve consideration and purchase intent for our brand.
  • To improve specific positive associations of our brand.
  • To increase the number of articles and references on media sites.
  • To combat negative PR.
  • To increase sales.
  • To increase collaboration and decrease the cost of coordinating with partners and vendors.
Once a brand determines which of these needs are the highest priorities and defines how success will be measured, then a checklist such as Jay's Socialutions Assessment can be used to specify the appropriate social media tools and actions.

Many organizations are hurrying into social media or community efforts without adequately prescribing why they are doing so. It is understandable that they should want to use these new tools and concepts, but before any design or planning can occur, they first need to determine why a social media strategy is necessary and how they'll know they've achieved what they set out to accomplish.

The mere existence of a blog or social network no more satisfies a corporate need than purchasing insulin satisfies a diabetic's needs. It isn't the ownership of a blog or insulin but how these are used that satisfy the needs.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Television Under Attack

It must be a terrible time to be in the television business. Consumer media habits are shifting and it must seem every day brings news of a new competitor or new challenge. Here are some of those news items from just the past couple of days:
  • Xbox Live to Premiere Original Comedic Shorts: Remember the good old days when TV networks had a virtual monopoly on daily consumer entertainment? Nowadays, everyone is a competitor, including gaming consoles: Microsoft’s Xbox Live is set to premiere seven original comedic shorts this fall which have been produced by several high-profile talents from the horror movie world. Microsoft hopes to turn one or more of them into a series or movie franchise. The shorts "will be ad supported in some fashion."

  • Radio Getting "Visual": This news items almost seems like a continuation of the last one. Radio now wants a piece of television's action by becoming more visual. CBS Radio has announced the launch of a new video platform for its radio station Web sites. The new platform gives 140 radio stations "the ability to create personalized branded video players to feature station content, such as music videos, artist interviews, live concert performances, breaking news and original programming, and allows stations to syndicate content or embed clips to be shared via social networking."

  • Dramatic Transformation of Marketing and Media: In an interview with Strategy + Business, Booz & Company Partner Christopher Vollmer shares his thoughts on the "dramatic transformation of marketing and media." He notes that "in just the last few years, there’s been explosive growth in the amount of time consumers spend online, " and he predicts that "as people become more accustomed to dealing with media that’s on demand and better aimed at their interests and behaviors, they’re going to find that they want to spend more time in targeted media environments."

    Vollmer predicts
    continued migration to entertainment or information platforms where consumers choose how they interact with programming and content, such as video games, video on demand, and online media.

  • Will the Product Placement Gravy Train be Derailed?: With consumers increasingly skipping ads, broadcasters have grown their revenue stream by collecting cash from marketers in exchange for their products getting into scripts and the hands of characters. Never mind that consumers find product placement increasingly annoying and distracting, this form of marketing has seen explosive growth: Advertisers spent $2.9 billion in 2007 to place their products in TV shows and movies, up 33.7% from the year before, and prime-time product placements on broadcast networks rose 39 percent in the first three months of this year, from the comparable period in 2007.

    All this growth was liable to draw attention, and now the FCC is opening an investigation into the use of undisclosed paid product placements in broadcast TV shows. Seeking to alert consumers when they are seeing paid advertising, several proposals are being consider. Some are pretty minor, such as increasing the font used to disclose product placement during shows' credits, but some consumer groups are looking for far more, such as a crawl in the middle of shows to disclose when paid product placement is on screen.

  • Daily Video Entertainment in 2013 Will Be Less Than 50% Traditional TV: According to the Multiplatform Video Report released by Solutions Research Group, television viewing is projected to remain stable between now and 2013 in terms of hours but will drop as a percentage of the time consumers spend with video entertainment. This is because consumers will continue to increase their usage of PC and mobile video while TV viewing will remain stagnant. TV's share of the total video entertainment pie is projected to shrink from 63.9% today to 47.1% by 2013.

    And even though the hours spent with TV will remain constant, the report predicts that "the ratio of 'linear' to 'time-shifted' programming will continue to change in favor of time-shifting," which means (not surprisingly) even more opportunities for consumers to zap ads on broadcast television.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of free network television in the years to come. With consumers ever more in control of their media consumption, traditional TV will continue to get squeezed in relation to other more targeted, measurable, and consumer-welcomed forms of marketing.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Randy Pausch Gives Us a Gift Before Leaving Us

This is not a post about marketing. This is about how one man can touch so many lives with nothing more than his passion and compassion, a video, and the power of the Internet. (And if you think meaninful emotional experiences only happen in the real world, then read on and view the video below.)

I am sure you've all seen Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture." If so, then you'll share my sadness at his passing.

If not, you'll first want to know the story before viewing the movie below. Randy became famous when he participated in a Carnegie Mellon lecture series called The Last Lecture. Speakers in this series have the chance to convey the wisdom they'd impart if their lecture was, in fact, the last one before they died.

In Randy's case, it was really his last lecture. Dying from pancreatic cancer, he gave his "last lecture" in front of colleagues and family. His moving talk, "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," can be viewed below. Although you may have seen Randy on Oprah and other shows, if you have not yet seen the original video of his Carnegie Mellon presentation, you'll find it time well spent.

I never met Randy, but I feel the world is a lesser place without him. Then again, he enriched the world far more than most, so I guess we can all be glad for the gifts he's left behind. My condolences and best wishes are with his spouse, children, family, friends, and colleagues.

Enterprise Communities: Build or Join or Both?

Over on ZDNet, Aaron Strout, VP of social media for Mzinga, tackles a question that many organizations are considering as they formulate their social media strategy: Build or Join? Is it better to build your own community or to join an existing third-party community? He suggests the answer is to do both, but I believe there are important factors to consider that may recommend against this approach.

First of all, I think the question itself is not framed properly. While many social media bloggers are addressing the question of "build vs. join," I think the real question is slightly different: Should a company join, or should they build and join? The third option--to build and not participate in existing social media outlets--provides no benefits and has one enormous drawback: What is to be gained by avoiding the communities in which consumers already spend their time? Assuming the goal of any community strategy is to engage consumers, why ignore the tens of millions of consumers and billions of discussions that are already occurring?

Having reframed the question as whether to "join" or "build and join", here's the answer: It depends upon the strength of your brand. To suggest there is one answer for every brand and every enterprise is to ignore the vital importance of brand strength to community-building efforts. A one-size-fits-all approach to community building fails to account for whether the brand has sufficient affinity with consumers to encourage them to join, give up their information, commit time, and engage with others.

Open your refrigerator--how many brands do you see? Twenty? Thirty? More? What would it take to encourage you to join thirty or more communities, each one dedicated to a food brand? While there are compelling reasons for consumers to share information with each other about the food they consume--health, diet, safety, recipes, etc.--is it reasonable to believe consumers will go through the effort of signing up, visiting, participating, and engaging in separate communities for their preferred brands of milk, soda, cheese, bacon, corn dog, butter, sour cream, yogurt, ice cube, ketchup, banana, salsa, water, apple, and baking soda?

As if the brands in your refrigerator aren't demanding enough, open your closets, your kitchen cabinets, your garage, your toolbox, your laundry room, your cosmetic case, your wallet, and your purse. How many brands are part of your world? How many communities can you join? As you consider the question of a hundred branded communities all vying for your attention, do you hear that little voice in the back of your head? It's saying:
"To heck with all you brands thinking you're so darn interesting and expecting me to be part of your community. I'm not going to join you; you can join me!"
If you're reading this blog, chances are you are juggling too many social networks already. You may be trying to figure out why you need a profile on both Facebook and MySpace. Professionally, must you update and check both Plaxo and LinkedIn? And if you're like me, you're questioning your participation in the three or four different microblog sites to which you subscribe. And as if monitoring and participating in social media hasn't become complex enough, now our brand of broccoli wants us to join its private branded community?!?!

Although many recommend every enterprise launch its own branded community, its important each brand first assess whether consumers have sufficient awareness and trust, if the brand offers a compelling point of differentiation, and if they can furnish a reason for consumers to want to engage and stay engaged. These are tough questions that require objective self-assessment, and marketers have to fight their natural tendency to believe their brands are beloved.

I don't believe, for example, that the average dairy brand has a very compelling reason to nurture it's own community. I like my milk, but I have a functional relationship with the brand. Having my milk brand ask me to join a milk community is like having my dry cleaner ask me to go to dinner. I rely on both my preferred milk brand and my dry cleaner, but I don't really have a "relationship" with either; nor do I want one.

This isn't to say that some dairy brands don't have an opportunity to create a community, but it depends upon the strength of the brand. A small local dairy that appeals to a rabid fan base of consumers who "buy local" might create a community around how neighbors can support area producers. A different milk brand that has successfully fostered a strong and recognized point of differentiation around healthy children might foster a community of parents concerned with the health and safety of their kids.

In my opinion, a brand that is strong enough to draw a sizable audience of consumers into a community sufficiently active to sustain itself is the exception and not the rule. And with consumers actively engaged in open communities available to marketers, why invest in the tools to create a community and the promotion to seed the community with members? The future of marketing isn't about how to get consumers to be part of your brand but how your brand can be part of their lives.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

CBS Interactive Studies Online Viewers and Misses the Point

Sometimes a press release can say one thing but mean another. Such is the case with this week's PR from CBS Interactive, which struggles mightily to persuade readers that online video is really, really good for traditional TV. It failed to convince me, but tucked discreetly at the end of the press release is a nugget of wisdom worth noting.

CBS Interactive very much wants to prove that the online streaming of television shows does not hurt but rather enhances the network's broadcast viewership. Says an executive of Magid Media Labs, the company that produced the study, "The results are clear: by making their programming available through the CBS Audience Network, CBS has expanded the reach and audience for its content without impacting their traditional television viewership." After reviewing the data summarized in the press release, I don't believe this conclusion is clear at all.

For example, the press release proclaims that "35% of the online video-watching audience say(s) they are now more likely to watch CBS programming on television because they connected with the shows online." Doesn't this mean that the vast majority--the remaining 65%--indicated they are no more likely and perhaps even less likely to watch CBS as a result of online programming?

Even if the survey found what Magid Media Labs says it found, what does this mean for the future? If the online distribution of television shows doesn't impact broadcast viewership in 2008, can we assume this will be the case in 2009 and beyond? I believe that would be an incorrect conclusion to make.

The impact of online TV upon traditional TV is limited by two factors at the current time. The first is broadband penetration; according to a Magna Global USA study, the average age of CBS viewers is 54, and the 2008 Pew Internet and American Life Project Survey indicates that just 23% of this age group has broadband access. This means that high-speed Internet access will grow rapidly for CBS viewers in the coming years and as it does, the corresponding increase in online viewing will have a significant impact on traditional TV viewing habits.

The second factor that today prevents online shows from sapping broadcast viewership is the limited selection of programming CBS makes available on the Internet. Currently, has no full episodes of hit sitcom "Two and a Half Men," one full episode of "Rules of Engagement," and just two full episodes of "CSI," the network's top-rated TV show. As CBS increases their online selection and offers more complete seasons of programming, consumers will be drawn away from broadcast television and toward the always-on, always-available benefits of online television.

The discussion about whether or not online programming impacts traditional viewership is not the most interesting part of the CBS Interactive press release. Hidden in the final paragraph is this: "68 percent of respondents said that the CBS Audience Network had the 'right amount' of advertising on the site. Overall, 50 percent of respondents correctly recalled the brand of an ad they saw during their viewing experience."

This study shows that decreasing the number of ads (as is done on and every other TV network site) improves the value of the brand impression, but this message seems to be falling on deaf ears. Network television has continued to increase ad time and decrease content time in an effort to improve revenues, which are derived from brands seeking to reach and gain affinity with viewers. But the growth in ad time hasn't produced improved brand opportunities; it's increased the clutter and caused consumers to flock to ad-zapping DVRs.

It's easy to see why consumers weary of CBS's advertising overload would express appreciation for CBS Interactive's online ad approach. An episode of "How I Met Your Mother" runs 30 minutes on network television, of which eight minutes is advertising; over 25% of the sitcom's 30-minute running time consists of ads. This same episode lasts just 23:50 if viewed online, which means that a mere 6% of the consumers' time is dedicated to viewing ads.

That fact that over two-thirds of consumers find online TV's less intrusive advertising appropriate is no surprise at all. Nor is it really a surprise that fewer ads means more attention and better recall of the brands advertised. The real surprise is why--when faced with the potential for a shrinking audience, shifts in consumer's leisure habits, growing discontent about ad saturation, and diminished ad reach due to DVRs--networks don't take a page from online TV's success and decrease ad time. Fewer ads can mean more consumer attention, happier consumers, increased ratings, and just possibly improved ad rates.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Does Your Brand Have the Guts for User-Generated Media?

Does your brand have what it takes? Is it brave enough? Tough enough? Have the fortitude to go the distance? Because if your brand is not ready to run with the big dogs, it's better off staying on the porch where it's safe.

Sound like I'm picking a fight with your brand? I'm not, but you can rest assured someone will once you invite consumers to submit their ideas, words, videos, and images via a User-Generated Content (UGC) marketing program.

UGC programs have been the rage for a couple of years now, and some marketers are questioning if they've run their course. My opinion is that UGC is a fine way to involve consumers in the brand, provided you know your audience, define your goals, and craft the appropriate program.

But first it is vital to evaluate if UGC is appropriate for your brand, because not every brand is suited for a consumer-generated media program. Some important questions marketers should consider before proceeding with a UGC effort include:
  • Is my brand in a low- or high-engagement category? Not every brand category can inspire consumers to dedicate time to creating an ad, a testimonial, a video, or other content.

    Some categories are so high-engagement and brands so beloved that people will write tributes on their blogs and shoot video love poems to the brand, even without a formal UGC program promising a chance for fame and fortune. Search for Disney on YouTube and you'll find (in addition to pirated content) videos that Disney fans were inspired to create, such as a music video of Disney love scenes set to Avril Lavigne's "Keep Holding On," artfully-edited scenes of special Disney moments set to the lovely "When You Wish Upon a Star," consumer-captured video of Disneyland's Main Street Electric Parade, and a guest's POV movie of the Magic Kingdom's Splash Mountain attraction.

    Low-engagement categories that involve infrequent purchases, small dollar amounts, or utility functionality are difficult--but not impossible--from which to launch a UGC campaign. If your brand is in a low-engagement category, UGC programs focused on the brand may encourage little interest (and there is nothing better than a low-activity UGC campaign to make evident how little love your brand engenders). Instead, a strategy that overcomes the low engagement is to focus not on the brand but on the benefits of the entire category; for instance, a tire manufacturer may encourage consumers to create videos expressing the value of the people whose lives are riding on those tires or how tires saved their lives in emergency situations.

  • Do consumers understand my brand? If you haven't crafted a strong brand position with consumers, UGC programs can be a disaster.

    The more consumers understand what your brand is about, its world view, its target audience, and its personality, the better and more appropriate you can expect User-Generated Content to be. If you have a strong brand, have fun with your UGC campaign!

    If you don't, then leaving it to consumers to interpret the brand will likely be painful. Not only will the content submitted by consumers miss the mark, but the wild breadth of brand views will only make it evident that the brand stands for little in the minds of consumers. If research indicates consumer perceptions don't match the brand's, then promotion strategies other than UGC programs are recommended.

  • Am I willing to give up control of my brand? You need not set your brand free to go wherever consumers care to take it--there are ways to put guardrails around a UGC effort--but any time you invite consumers to reinterpret your brand or share their perceptions of your product, you have to expect they'll go in strange and unexpected directions.

    McDonald's recently sponsored a Big Mac jingle contest on MySpace and may have gotten much more than they anticipated when a former felon made the list of five finalists, and that's not the worst of it--according to TechCrunch, he served 12 years in prison for holding up a McDonald's! The finalists were chosen by judges, so either McDonald's failed to vet the finalists or chose Tamien Bain's entry as a publicity stunt. (Or maybe they just figured he'd served his time, repaid his debt to society, and deserved a second chance.)

  • Am I really willing to let consumers plagiarize, repurpose, and alter my carefully-protected brand assets? Brands typically spend a great deal of time and effort protecting their intellectual property (IP) by threatening anyone who repurposes logos and other trademarks. Is your brand ready to do the exact opposite and encourage people to tinker with your IP?

    Nick Haley, an 18-year-old student, took copyrighted Apple iPhone videos and remixed his own television ad. Apple lawyers might've fallen on him like a ton of bricks; instead, Apple polished Nick's ad and used it on broadcast television. Apple not only got a rocking commercial from their collaboration with Nick, but they benefited from positive press for accepting Nick's well-intentioned piracy of Apple's IP.

  • Am I willing to spend to support the effort? If a UGC campaign falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make it sound? Yes it does--the sound of failure is resounding!

    One of the dangers of UGC programs is that marketers perceive them as inexpensive. The logic goes something like this: "Rather than produce a $200,000 TV ad and spend $1 million on media, let's offer $25,000 for the best consumer-produced ad and let them post it to YouTube. We'll save seven figures!"

    But it's not nearly that simple. Just look at one of the most well-known examples of UGC to date: Dorito's challenged consumers to produce their own ads, with the winner debuting on the Super Bowl. According to a New York Times article entitled, "The High Price of Free Ads," the brand spent $1.3 million in October to promote the campaign, awarded $50,000 to winners, invested another $8 million in advertising in February to show the winning ads, and dedicated untold hours and costs to strategy, planning, PR, monitoring, and selecting the winners out of the 1,020 submissions.

    For UGC campaigns, the award money is a fraction of the total budget needed. Failure to promote and support the program can result in poor participation, embarrassing content, and very disappointing results.

  • Can my brand take criticism? Perhaps no question is more important than this one. Every brand has detractors, and UGC campaigns tend to bring them out of the woodwork. It's important for marketers to carefully define the rules for consumer-generated content programs and to be sure consumers--and the brand--live with them.

    There's danger in putting too many rules in place; doing so can make your brand seem unconfident, paranoid, and secretive, which likely aren't the sorts of attributes you want to promote with your UGC program. And if you try to aggressively control the program by deleting content critical of your brand, the repression of consumer submissions can spark consumer criticism, bad PR, and still fail when rejected content appears on file-sharing sites and blogs. In the age of social media, you cannot prevent consumers from saying what they want, so if you're unwilling to live with consumers' praise and criticism, it may be that UGC isn't right for your brand.

    But, if your brand is willing to let the dissenting voices be heard, it can appear strong and confident in the face of minority disapproval. Chevy sponsored a user-generated video campaign for its SUV, the Tahoe. Some consumers took the opportunity to submit videos critical of the product and its impact on the environment. GM allowed the content, didn't remove the critical videos, and instead engaged consumers on their blog in an effort to promote the Tahoe's fuel efficiency.

    I'm sure Chevy didn't win over any of their critics with the blog response, but neither did the brand give them fuel for the fire by deleting the videos and trying to stifle the criticism. Some observers criticized GM for not setting stricter rules or being slow to react, but others have noted Chevy's confident and transparent response to the criticism resulted in the Tahoe selling more and the brand generating more "street cred."
User-Generated content is perfectly suited for an age of growing consumer empowerment, but marketers must be careful not to proceed without great caution, careful planning, an appropriate media plan and budget, and an honest assessment of whether the brand is really ready for the unfiltered voice of the consumer.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Interactive Gaming: More Social, More Women, and Older

If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm a big fan of advergaming (or branded gaming, if you prefer.) The right game for the right audience can create enormous attention.

If you read that last sentence and thought, "Yeah--the 'right audience'--but my brand isn't for teen boys," then you haven't see the latest gaming demographics or followed what's new in gaming consoles. Games are skewing older, more female, and more social than ever.

A new survey by the video game industry trade group Entertainment Software Association has found:
  • Some 40% of gamers are women.
  • The average age of video game players has risen to 35, with 26% of gamers now over age 50.
  • Women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (33%) than boys age 17 or younger (18%).
Check out other interesting demographic facts about interactive gaming on

This trend toward older and more diverse gaming will continue as the games themselves become even more appealing to non-traditional gamers. The Nintendo Wii was a major factor in changing consumer perception and involvement in gaming in recent years, and Nintendo will continue to be a leader in offering appealing new game features such as:
  • Wii Music: Guitar Hero and Rock Band are huge hits, but they have tended to appeal to younger gamers with their style of music, competitive game play, and need for speedy coordination. Wii Music will appeal to a more diverse group--both older and younger--by offering something different: Creation rather than competition. Players can select from over 60 instruments and enjoy the art of music creation.

  • Wii Speak: Nintendo is going to make gaming even more social with their new community microphone. The mic is designed to pick up voices from anywhere in the room, so everyone playing a game in one place can chat with other players around the world. Games Nintendo has demonstrated allow players to trash talk during competition and to gather for a voice-to-voice chat in a virtual cafe.
At Fullhouse, we've been diversifying our gaming capabilities for clients with great success. Our most recent game uses motion gaming controllers to permit consumers to compete in a home run derby on a field branded for Miller Lite. (Don't worry--the game is only deployed in bars so that access is limited to consumers 21 and older.) Consumers swing their hands as if holding a bat, and when they knock one out of the park, they're treated to fireworks on the jumbo Miller Lite scoreboard. Consumers line up to play, creating a huge opportunity for the brand to spend time with consumers and offer a value-added experience that enhances an evening of socializing.

Interest in gaming will continue to grow, opening new opportunities for marketers wanting to reach not only young males but a variety of audiences with diverse demographics.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Process to Brighten Your Day

Here's a fun and brief video, "The Process," to brighten your day. Having worked on both sides of the client-agency equation, I can sympathize with agencies who get frustrated with (what seems like) constant client shifts and changes. At the same time, I also know firsthand how rapidly the client-side world changes, the number of people who want to help improve the final product, the challenges of multiple approval levels, and the incredible pressure to have every single program, ad, media buy, Web site succeed beyond everyone's wildest expectations.

We're all in this together, folks! (Thanks to Neil for sharing this video.)

That video reminded me very much of the infamous "Microsoft Designs the iPod Package" video. At first, many assumed it was a video mocking Microsoft, and they were half right. This video actually came out of Microsoft itself, created by folks who wanted to challenge the prevailing Microsoft ways. Props to Microsoft for having the guts and confidence to release this into the wild!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Measuring Engagement and Marketing ROI, Part 2

Yesterday on this blog, we began an exploration of how to measure engagement and ascertain marketing ROI. The limitations of Exposure and Action Tallies were reviewed, and we ended with a brief summary of Transaction Metrics, which work well for direct response programs but aren't an option for marketing efforts that lack an immediate purchase or other call to action. For these sorts of marketing programs, different engagement measurements must be explored.

Content Engagement Measures: For programs without a transactional purpose, one way to measure engagement is to track how often key content is viewed. This is accomplished easily online since typical web analytics reveal how often a particular page or section of the site is viewed, how many pages were visited, and common paths through the site. This sort of measurement can be used to gauge which content consumers find most appealing and which content draws consumers into deeper brand engagements.

This type of measurement is most typically used online but can also be implemented within event footprints. With the use of passive crowd measurement techniques such as video tracking, RFID, and other means for monitoring physical movement, event marketers can evaluate if consumers are pausing within key content zones as they pass through an event footprint.

While Content Engagement measures are valuable for evaluating different content, design, and promotion alternatives within a particular medium, they provide no means for comparing engagement across media.

Blended Metrics: Some smart marketing experts have offered up new blended metrics that attempt to derive an objective engagement value by combining different sorts of web measures into a single calculation.

This one comes from Eric T. Peterson, and it combines Content (click depth, duration), Action (recency of repeat visits), and Transaction (Feedback) into a single calculation. Visit his blog for a complete explanation:

A simple blended metric was suggested by my friend, Jeff Larche, on his blog, Jeff's Content Interest Index is calculated by adding instances of a page’s “Printer Friendly Format” and “Email a Colleague” actions divided by page views.

While these are fine attempts to derive some sort of objectivity out of diverse Web statistics, these sorts of approaches fall short of measuring true engagement. First of all, they are manufactured values prone to the same biases and problems as the component statistics from which they are derived. Also, these are Web-only metrics that do not provide any basis for comparing engagement across media. As with the other measures previously mentioned, these are best suited for split tests or tracking improvement over time and not for comparing dissimilar marketing programs.

Brand Lift Metrics: For marketing programs with non-transactional goals, the best but most difficult statistics are those that measure brand lift. Depending upon the goal of a program, this could include aided and unaided brand awareness, brand preference, purchase intent, or desired brand associations.

Measuring brand lift is more complex and expensive than other forms of engagement measurements, requiring pre- and post-program surveys or the use of control groups to determine the effect a particular program. One of the greatest challenges can be to track or find consumers who've been exposed to a particular program or marketing communication; how can the people who see a print ad or visit a site without registering be located and surveyed?

ROI: The Only Engagement Metric That Matters: With the exception of direct response programs specifically geared toward purchases or other transactions, every category of marketing measure fails to assess engagement. There is no single magic yardstick that will permit marketers to compare the value of a print ad versus a microsite versus a live event.

Of course, we can't merely throw up our hands and tell our CFOs to get off our backs. Accountability and ROI are the hottest topics at marketing conferences these days, and the focus on marketing results isn't going away. Despite all the buzz about marketing ROI, the situation is pretty darn poor; Ad Age reports that nine of 10 finance executives say they don't use return-on-investment metrics to set marketing budgets and just one in 10 marketer respondents say they could forecast the effect of a 10% cut in spending.

I have no secret recipe, but I'd suggest the way we marketers can improve our ability to measure ROI is to do the following:

  • Specifically define the goal of a particular marketing investment.
  • Ignore every metric that isn't laser focused on that goal.
  • Focus on only those metrics that matter.
  • Involve your financial peers in the creation of an ROI model.
  • Plan and budget to execute not merely the marketing program but also the measurement program.

Sound easy? It isn't--not by a long shot. Say your goal is to increase unaided awareness of your brand; what is the dollar value of a one-point increase in unaided awareness? You'll need to know this in order to ascertain if your $500,000 investment that increased awareness five points represents positive or negative ROI.

The ability to assign value to marketing outcomes is vital for ROI calculations. If your goal is to increase traffic to your Web site, you must assign a dollar value to each site visitor (or perhaps different dollar values to different site visitors). If your goal is to obtain additional consumer records for your permission marketing database, you'll need to determine a dollar value for each individual added. No matter if the objective is to increase market share, increase consumer awareness of a particular brand attribute, or spark Word of Mouth in social media, we must first understand the value of the outcome in order to establish an ROI model.

The Limits and Distractions of ROI: I'll admit that part of my concern with today's obsession with marketing ROI is that it cannot be determined with the same ease or in the same manner as the ROI of an investment. Investments are discrete--you can easily track the impact within your portfolio of each specific security--but marketing programs aren't discrete; they're chaotic.

If a consumer sees a print ad, then later searches and clicks a link optimized via an SEO program, surfs through a Web site, opts in for future email communications, and months later responds to a marketing email, how do we attribute value to each of these components, none of which engages the consumer in a vacuum? Is it reasonable in today's highly-niched, media-fractured, multi-channel, rapidly-changing, consumer-controlled marketing environment to expect marketers to have more mathematical acumen than chaos theorists?

Furthermore--if you'll permit me to turn philosophical for a moment--how does one measure love? As marketers strive to create strong emotional bonds between consumers and brands (or lovemarks, as Kevin Roberts call them), how is that to be captured in cold, hard numbers. What is your love for your spouse worth compared to your children, parents, or best friends? And what is the value of your love for Disney, Harley-Davidson, Coca-Cola, or the brands you hold near and dear to your heart? Must everything be measured in cents rather than sense? Would you trust a marriage counselor who tried to objectively measure progress by counting hugs and kisses rather than the feelings and perceptions of the troubled couple?

These are exciting times for marketers with a dynamic ever-changing environment and new methods for measuring and validating the work we do, but we cannot let the drive for measurability get in the way of good marketing. The lack of an easy measurement methodology shouldn't prevent us from exploiting great marketing ideas, because if we avoid programs that cannot be weighed, probed, surveyed, studied, and measured in detail, we will miss opportunities.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. There are too many interesting and valuable screws and bolts in the marketing world to be ignored!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Measuring Engagement and Marketing ROI, Part 1

Kim, a reader of this blog, shared some comments about marketing ROI and got me to thinking about this complex and challenging topic. I blame her for this lengthy but hopefully thought-provoking overview of marketers' quest to quantify engagement and ROI. Your input on this two-part blog post would be greatly appreciated!

There's a lot of buzz in marketing about the challenge of measuring consumer engagement and ascertaining ROI, and for good reason. Developing and maintaining more engaging consumer experiences such as live events, advergames, social networks, and branded content can require significant investments. Marketers need to know these investments are worthwhile in relation to alternative programs.

The problem is how to measure and compare engagement across multiple channels. This is particularly important for experiential marketing programs because the number of people "touched" is much less than for mass media programs (but the touch is far more substantial and meaningful). If a marketer must decide between spending $50,000 on a full-page ad in a national publication with 5 million subscribers or spending the same $50,000 on an event that will attract 5,000 prospects, you can bet there will be a great deal of discussion about the deeper engagement of the live event and what that is worth to the brand.

Those in Experiential Marketing--particularly the Interactive side--have a tendency to gripe that they're held to a different standard than those who execute traditional mass media campaigns. Marketers never inquire as to the ROI of a specific billboard or pore over reports on the effectiveness of a print ad on a monthly basis, but they will will do so for banner ads, online media buys, microsites, PPC programs, and social media programs.

These gripes aren't completely without merit, but those complaining are seeing the glass half empty. While the measurability of experiential programs does come with a burden to do the measurement, prove ROI, and constantly improve the program, it also provides the opportunity to do the measurement, prove ROI, and constantly improve the program.

The challenge we face is to use all of the monitoring and analytical power at our disposal to validate the effectiveness of our marketing strategies and tactics. But with the plethora of metrics available to us, which ones permit us to measure engagement? Which metrics are best to validate ROI? The answer is all of them and none of them.

Here are some categories of metrics along with their strengths and weaknesses for measuring engagement in a meaningful way:

Exposure Tallies: The easiest and cheapest type of marketing assessment is to simply count the consumers who are exposed to the marketing program. We can count magazine subscribers who see a print ad, viewers who see a TV ad, people who walk past a mobile event footprint, or Web surfers who view a page containing a particular banner ad.

Problem is, exposure counts are a measure of reach and not a gauge of engagement. Using exposure tallies allows us to know how many people theoretically viewed a print or banner ad, but we cannot measure the impact of this ad exposure without gathering additional data.

One way Exposure Tallies are used is to compute a "Cost per Touch" (CPT), calculated by dividing a program's financial cost by the number of people exposed to the program. Since the depth and impact of the exposure isn't considered, this calculation is almost meaningless; worse yet, CPT turns marketing metrics into a game.

For example, some event agencies will quantify as a benefit of a mobile program that thousands of consumers will see the brand's logo on the side of a truck while the event is in transit. We'd all agree that seeing a truck on the highway imparts minuscule brand benefit at best, but including these exposures decreases the CPT and makes an event program seem more attractive. (If seeing a logo on the side of a truck really created significant brand engagement, wouldn't U-Haul be the most valuable brand in America?)

Action Tallies: Exposure Tallies do not consider occurrences such as consumers walking into an event footprint or visiting a site. These represent actions taken by a consumer; in order to experience an event or visit a site, the consumer must have been sufficiently engaged to decide to enter the event or click a link. As a result, Action Tallies--counting the number of desirable actions taken by consumers--are a much better way to assess engagement.

For example, the easiest way to capture the engagement of an online ad is the click rate (the ratio between the number of times consumers click on an ad and the number of times they see it.) Since a substantial level of attention and motivation must be attained before a consumer clicks on an ad, this seems like a relevant engagement metric; and it is, but only under certain circumstances.

A banner ad that promises deep discounts will get clicked often but produce little brand engagement while an ad targeting the right consumer with the right message may see fewer clicks but furnish better and more engaged consumers. This may be an exaggerated example, but it does demonstrate that an action isn't an action isn't an action. Action Tallies provide no basis for comparing the value to the brand of different actions across various media.

Mass media advertisers have been attempting to increase accountability by building trackable actions into ads. While this is a very welcome development toward improving the trackability of traditional media, this tactic isn't widespread and would likely lose its power if overused. An example of this type of campaign is the airport out-of-home campaign for BMW: The brand used airport signage containing SMS short codes at major airports nationwide. A consumer who sent a keywords to the short code received a deep link to a mobile application promoting BMW’s new convertible, and BMW could track which airport signs were best at driving interest based on the submitted keyword.

Another valuable purpose for Action Tallies is to measure improvement over time. For instance, if a live event is failing to draw consumers into the footprint, counting event attendees as different traffic-driving tactics are tested can be helpful to improve the flow of interested prospects. Of course, what you do with those people once they are attracted to your event is where the real engagement lies, and this is why most Action Count metrics fall short of furnishing marketers with objective engagement or ROI results.

Transaction Metrics: Transactions are the actions that matter. They involve consumers exchanging dollars or information with the brand.

Counting the number of purchases or adding up the total monetary value of transactions generated by a marketing program is a good measure of engagement. This works especially well online and overcomes the click rate biases described previously. Banner A may produce 1,000 clicks and 10 purchases while Banner B may produce 500 clicks and 25 purchases; in this case, Banner B is obviously creating a greater level of engagement and ROI, despite furnishing fewer clicks.

Another typical form of transaction measurement is prospect acquisition--securing new consumer records via online registration, business reply cards, sweepstakes entries, and similar means. Consumers who are appropriately engaged will be enticed to furnish their data; ones that aren't will withhold their personally-identifiable data.

Transaction Metrics can provide insight into consumer engagement that directly produces monetary value, but only for programs with a direct response objective. This makes Transaction Metrics perfect for some channels (PPC ads, banner ads, direct mail) but unavailable for others. For instance, how can a CPG brand site measure engagement when the goal isn't to motivate a purchase but to inform consumers, enhance brand consideration, and improve purchase intent?

For my answer to that question, please return to Experience: The Blog tomorrow for the second part of this article on engagement and marketing ROI. We'll explore Content Engagement, Blended Metrics, Brand Lift Measurement, and why ROI is so darn elusive in the marketing world.

Friday, July 18, 2008

When Personalization Gets Creepy

We Interactive Marketers love personalization, but a little bit goes a long way--or perhaps no distance at all--according to a new study out of the University of Illinois.

Starting an email with "Dear Jennifer" is a nice way to make the message more friendly (provided the recipient is, in fact, named Jennifer). Telling Jennifer that she may like a new CD and basing this recommendation upon her past purchases is a smart way to increase sales. But telling her that because she likes Radiohead she'll like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs may cross a line and make Jennifer less likely to purchase from you.

According to Tiffany Barnett White, a University of Illinois marketing professor who headed the research, "People bristle at personalization just for the sake of personalization... When messages are highly personalized, but lack value and justification, they have unintended effects. They can actually have a boomerang effect and cast the firm in a negative light, sending customers running to the competition."

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that the degree of personalization didn't matter; it was the value to the consumer that mattered the most! Says White, "If the offer was valuable and justified, the level of personal information didn't matter. Firms were no better off for throwing all of your personal information at you."

Another interesting aspect of the study was that the consumer data used in the test was provided by the study participants and not derived from a third party. In other words, it doesn't matter that consumers provide marketers with their data, they still don't want brands using that info to get overly chummy.

White isn't suggesting that marketers scrap their personalization efforts, but she does say, "I think the big takeaway from this research is that personalization might not matter and it may actually hurt."

The lesson is an important one considering the amount of consumer transaction and behavior data to which marketers have access. Leveraging that data to provide high-value offers to consumers is smart marketing, but misusing that data to imply you know something about the consumer or to suggest a relationship with the consumer that is anything more than it is will turn people off.

The University of Illinois press release ends with a statement every marketer should take to heart, and not just with respect to email but with every program we execute: "Nowadays, consumers are so much more savvy. They're so bombarded with tricks of this nature that they start to seem like tricks. So the onus in on marketers to convince consumers that this isn't a trick, that it has some value."

We've discussed the concept of consumer-perceived value often on this blog. Marketers must adjust their strategies to reach increasingly savvy consumers in an ever more crowded marketing world where the consumers often hold the tools to control their own exposure to advertising. The Experiential Marketing Continuum is a model for considering the value to consumers of different channels or programs. They key to getting a marketing message delivered--in email as in other media--is to offer consumers something of value that they'll want, respect, welcome, and wish to share.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Verizon Goes Experiential to Spark WOM

This is one of those articles that reports something so painfully obvious, you have to wonder what the heck took so long.

Think of the last time you visited a cell phone store or kiosk with the intention of selecting a new phone. What were the top things you wanted to know about the phones you were considering: How was the sound quality? Was it easy to operate? Did the buttons feel solid--like they'd take a beating over time? How heavy was the device?

And which of these questions could you answer by picking up the phones at the store? First of all, you might've been lucky to pick them up at all, since many stores have the phones bolted to the wall. Even if you could get it in your hand, what you likely found was a dummy phone with dummy buttons, no "guts", and no battery. If this was your experience, you were able to answer absolutely none of the primary questions you had about the product.

Apparently Verizon finally figured out that it is in the cell phone business, because they're making news for opening a series of "Experience Stores." According to MediaPost, Boston's "6,600 square foot store... offers consumers a high-tech and hands-on experience with wireless voice, data, music and video services. The store, one of about 100 now open across the country, displays more than 55 working phones, broadband services and integrates kiosks for easy check and bill paying."

What interests me isn't so much that a mobile company's store is allowing consumers to actually experience the mobile company's phones but how they're promoting the new store: they're letting the experience and the consumers do the talking. As discussed here in Maslow's Hierarchy: Why People Engage in Online Communities, sparking a marketing community or WOM begins with a differentiated brand experience; no differentiation means no desire to tell others which means no WOM.

Verizon knows this, and that is why a significant portion of their store promotion plan relies on WOM and blog chatter to help attract attention and drive traffic to the new store. A consumer market research expert is quoted in the MediaPost article pointing out that Verizon's advertising phrase "Can you hear me now?" has become so well known that there's no reason to spend serious money to advertise services. "The phrase has arguably reached iconic status, which adds to the experience message Verizon tries to communicate in the stores."

Verizon has created a solid foundation for success: The combination of a differentiated marketing message and a differentiate shopping experience can ignite a great deal of WOM. Thanks to Erik over at the Experiential Marketing Forum and Swivel Media for sharing this article.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Next Up in Casual Gaming: Video Ads and Social Media

Yahoo is launching a new concept in ad-supported gaming that seems like it can't miss. Until now, marketers have exploited consumers' increased interest in "casual games" either by advertising around the games embedded into Web pages (such as at Yahoo! Games or KewlBox) or by creating their own branded games (such as Wrigley's Candystand).

But now, Yahoo is looking to combine the power of TV advertising with the engagement of games by offering video ad-supported games that are free to download. Gigamon reports that Yahoo hopes to have 400 such games available by year end. Yahoo’s new strategy is worth noting if for no other reason than they are already a leader in the casual gaming category; the game section of their site averages 18 million unique monthly U.S. visitors.

Casual Games are interactive games that are typified by easy rules, intuitive controls, little learning curve, brief play times, and repeatable game play. This sort of game appeals to a very wide demographic, unlike typical console "twitch" games which rely on higher reflexes and coordination. Classic examples of Casual Games include Bejeweled and Tetris.

Yahoo already has dozens of these "games with unlimited free trials" available on their site. It is apparent the intended target and appeal of these games is much wider than for typical video games based on their titles and characters. Many of the games feature female characters and subject matter less oriented towards sports and battles than to collaboration, healing, and creating. Games include Cake Mania, in which you help Jill open a bakery, and Chocolatier, which involves players in a quest to travel the world to find chocolate ingredients.

I wanted to test one of these free games to see how the ads worked, so I downloaded Elf Bowling 7, a game that's been popular in different online forms for years. The 25 MB file required two minutes to download via my broadband connection. Ironically, as my digital game was installing, I was presented with a banner ad for, a site dedicated to encouraging citizens to get more exercise. (Advertising an exercise message via a video game is either brilliant or poorly targeted--I can't figure out which.)

I saw no video ads while playing the game, but upon exiting I was presented with a very small, 15-second Ad Council ad for Born Learning, another government site. Based on this limited test, it would appear big brand advertisers aren't yet participating in this new Yahoo ad platform.

With more folks spending time with casual games, the idea of sponsoring games via video ads seems like a can't miss proposition--provided advertisers keep the interruptions brief and infrequent. Still, to make a bigger and more lasting impact with consumers, the better course may be to develop just the right game for the right audience and make sure the game play and brand work collaboratively to provide a captivating, branded experience.

Better yet, build in social media tools so that people can play against each other, chat, and share game ratings and tips from within the game itself, and you have a recipe for substantial consumer engagement. To get a sense of how addictive social gaming can become, check out the new site ImInLikeWithYou and spend some time with Blockles.

Essentially a competitive version of Tetris, Blockles players battle head to head and increase the challenge for each other by activating power-ups that add rows of blocks or scramble the opponent's playing field. The combination of live game play, taunts, and leader boards make ImInLikeWithYou an addictive site for anyone who thrives on competition.

ImInLikeWithYou is not aiming for a wide demographic (as is made evident by how Blockles is advertised as "Like an STD... but more fun.") Still, it's easy to see how these sorts of social gaming tools might be applied to different types of games in order to create wide appeal to non-traditional gamers.

Thanks to Andy for sharing the link to the Gigamon news article!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Maslow's Hierarchy: Consumers Seeking Esteem Drive Communities

Yesterday, we discussed how Maslow's famous Hierarchy of Needs helps to explain how and why people seek out online communities. Once humans have satisfied their Physiological and Safety Needs, they seek out Belonging. Online communities fulfill this need by providing a place where those with similar experiences, opinions, and values can meet and engage each other.

While in the Belonging phase, community members will focus on those actions that create a sense of acceptance, such as visiting anonymously, reading others' contributions, joining the community, and adding others as friends within their networks. Those in this stage may compliment and agree with others, but they rarely initiate new discussions, share potentially controversial ideas, or criticize others (even constructively).

It is important that online communities offer safe ways for consumers in the Belonging phase to ease into the community or they'll simply leave. These include obvious best practices such as permitting visitors to access content without registering, but they also may consist of more subtle policies such as creating a section of the community where "newbies" may ask questions without risking ridicule from more established members. Other community strategies that can invite a sense of belonging include organizing volunteers who welcome and befriend new members and publishing clearly stated rules and guidelines that permit community members to gain confidence as to what is acceptable and what isn't.

Another way to invite participation from those in the Belonging phase is to allow visitors to rate or vote on topics anonymously. It's trendy on community sites to force complete transparency--every member can track every other member's activities--but for those in the Belonging stage, a little opacity is more encouraging. For example, Yahoo Stores allows visitors to indicate if each store rating was helpful or not, but no one else may see a history of an individual's ratings.

While communities must be welcoming to people in the Belonging stage, vibrant communities do not develop unless members are encouraged and able to proceed into Maslow's next stage: Esteem. People seeking to satisfy their Esteem needs are the ones who contribute new ideas, create subgroups, express opinions, share judgments, and reveal more of themselves within communities.

The need for Esteem includes being recognized, earning respect, and doing things that provide one with a sense of accomplishment and contribution. Marketers and publishers who want an active community must provide ways to advance members from Belonging to Esteem, a progression that can be eased by social media tools that recognize participants for their contributions.

Examples of the ways online communities allow members to satisfy esteem needs include:
  • Points: Consumers taking time to do the sorts of things that contribute to an active community may be awarded points based on their level of activity. On the VIVA Diva Cafe site, consumers earn community points by registering, encouraging friends to join, participating in special promotions, entering sweepstakes, and posting comments. As points are accumulated, community members advance into different membership levels and are rewarded with special gifts called Diva Delights. Another example is Plurk, where members who create microblog posts earn Karma points that permit access to better emoticons.

  • Votes/Lists: Community members may vote for each other in a number of ways, but the important aspect for those in the Esteem stage is that they be credited for the commendations received from others. The most famous of social media voting mechanisms is Digg, which acts a constant democratic filter for all Web content. Amazon's Listmania allows shoppers to rate each others' list of recommended books and music, sellers on eBay live and die based on their positive ratings, and Social Media Today maintains a list of the highest-rated and most-discussed authors.

  • Backlinks/Traffic/Subscribers: Those who blog love to be recognized for their contributions. This can happen in a number of ways, such as tools that promote backlinks (the number of incoming links to the site) or reveal traffic figures. Feedburner provides a means for blog owners to share the number of people who subscribe to their RSS feed; for example, TechCrunch currently claims 861,000 readers.

  • Friends: In the Belonging phase, people fear being called out by others so they cautiously add friends to their networks; but in the Esteem phase, aggressively acquiring the largest list of friends can become a goal unto itself. Kevin Rose, the founder of aforementioned Digg, has over 50,000 followers on Twitter. Steve Hofstetter is a guy seriously lodged in Maslow's Esteem stage. He set out to gain 10,000 friends on Facebook, then set his sites on 100,000; once he hit 200,000 friends he was slowing down Facebook so they had to reset his profile.

  • Badges and insignias: We never really get over the feeling of earning those scout badges or letters for our varsity jacket, do we? Communities can fulfill members' esteem needs by awarding them visible representations of their status and accomplishments. Marketing bloggers seek to be included in the Ad Age Power 150 and Marketing Alltop so that the badge of honor can be added to the blog. eBay sellers strive to be earn the tiny "Power Seller" icon, which bestows prestige and higher bids from buyers.
Providing the mechanisms for people to advance from Belonging to Esteem encourages the kind of behaviors that foster thriving communities. Understanding a community's unique audience and identifying the rewards that will satisfy their particular Esteem needs may be the most important factor in community success.

For Maslow, there was only one more stage to which humans could aspire: Self-actualization. This condition represents the fulfillment of everything a person can be--mature, creative, accepting of others, and balanced in their perceptions and judgment. Can online communities help people reach this lofty human ideal? Perhaps--many of the bloggers I follow seem to be achieving amazing levels of thought, creativity, and problem-solving.

Maslow's Hierarchy has its detractors, and even Maslow himself pointed out that people don't always progress from one level to the next in an orderly fashion. Still, he's provided us with an interesting and useful way to consider how we invite people into our communities and then embolden them to become the kind of active, contributing members necessary to sustain a lively and persistent community.

Monday, July 14, 2008

This Time, a Chocolate Retailer Demonstrates Why You Cannot Botch Service in the Age of Social Media

Time after time after time after time this point is being made: In the age of social media--with consumers sharing information about brands and experiences freely and widely--there is no room for poor customer service.

Brands may not be able to please all of the people all of the time, but neither can brands accept employee or process failures that result in blatantly poor customer service. Each time a service meltdown occurs, the brand runs the risk of a single consumer spreading their anger and frustration to dozens, hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of people.

The latest Social Media failure comes from Belgian Chocolates Online, owned by CandyWorld, USA. A customer completed an order with the site and was promised next-day shipping, but the e-tailer took nine days to ship the customer's order. Strike one: This is enough to cause a consumer complaint but doesn't rise to the level of a social media concern.

The candy received by the customer was within weeks of expiring. Having ordered nine pounds of chocolate, it seems unlikely the customer intended to (or would be able to) consume this much chocolate so quickly. Strike two: Not a stellar customer service situation, but still not the kind of thing that is likely to explode into a social PR nightmare.

The unhappy customer, of course, sent an email to customer service but didn't hear back. So he sent another and didn't hear back. So he sent a third. Strike three: This situation has now clearly crossed a line between forgivable (or at least understandable) execution errors and unacceptable customer service.

But to really up the ante and make this circumstance the sort of social media disaster that will travel from blog to blog and person to person online, Belgian Chocolate Online added insult to injury. Here is the response their customer finally received:

We are not ignoring any emails. We are helping customers placing their orders or who really need customer’s service. We can’t help you in an expiration date problem that you do not like and which isn’t a problem.

The chocolates you bought are still not expired and we do not see why to replace or to refund. The expiration date is not the date for consumption, but a date to sell. We do NOT sell any chocolates with an expired date.

It's not merely that the retailer's contention is factually incorrect ("The expiration date is not the date for consumption"). Or that their policies should concern customers (the implication that they'll ship a time-sensitive product to you up to the date it expires). The thing that makes this particular situation a PR disaster is the tone; they couldn't have told the customer to go screw himself any more clearly had they said, "Go screw yourself."

That would be strikes four, five, and six. The e-tailer's customer service failure is now racing across the Internet. A situation easily solved with an apology and a couple pounds of free chocolate could now cost Belgian Chocolate Online quite a lot in terms of lost sales, PR response, customer retention efforts, and damage to the brand's reputation.

As noted on this blog, brands can no longer afford poor customer service. We're not talking about the kinds of minor missteps that happen every day when dealing with thousands of customers (although these should always be minimized), but the particular variety of compounded mistakes that occur when organizational processes fail.

In this case, add up how many mistakes needed to occur to reach this point:
  • Failed to meet expectations in terms of stated response time
  • Poor policies or procedures for checking expiration dates on time-sensitive food products
  • Failure to respond to customer service inquiries. (Understaffed? Flood of customer complaints swamping their ability to respond? Poor service management tools? All of the above?)
  • Erroneous response (No training? Incorrect training? Deliberate misinformation?)
  • Rude response (Poor hiring? Poor management? Poor training? Lack of managerial oversight?)

Social media is only going to increase consumers' ability to share problems or to access the complaints of others. Brands need not fear this, since the opposite is also true--consumers have never had a greater ability to share or access praise for a brand. Done poorly, customer service is an Achille's heal that will weaken the strongest of brands; done right, customer service can become the most powerful tool in a brand's arsenal.

Maslow's Hierarchy: Why People Engage in Online Communities

Yesterday on this blog, we explored how online communities are not created but instead must be nurtured. As a result, marketers and publishers who wish to create a community must approach the challenge in much the same way a gardener approaches his or her annual planting--with careful planning and the knowledge that less work is required to prepare the garden than to maintain it day after day until harvest time.

Of course, a garden can fail for a variety of reasons, but perhaps no decision is more important than where to locate the garden. A site must be selected with appropriate water and drainage, the right combination of sun and shade for the type of plants, physical protection, and above all, fertile soil. If the soil is lacking, the gardener must bring in more or must work harder to achieve desired results.

For marketing-oriented online communities, the equivalent to a garden's soil is the brand. It is the foundation into which a potential community is planted. The brand can provide a solid basis upon which a community can sprout and can nourish the community as it grows. A strong brand with great awareness, positive consumer perception, and an emotional bond with its target audience can produce a community that flowers readily.

But even for strong brands, building a vibrant community takes more than merely linking together a bunch of social media functions. It is vital that community-building strategies be based upon an understanding of why humans join communities, what draws people to one community over another, and what motivates consumers to become ever more active and important members of the community.

Gaining this understanding is important so that online marketers don't repeat the mistakes of the past. This isn't the first time in the history of the Internet that "Community" has become a hot buzz term. Back in the late 90s, marketers took note of the first successful online communities (Usenet, Web-based ones such as The Well, and forums on AOL and Prodigy) and decided their brands needed a community to thrive. The rush into branded bulletin boards and industry portals helped to contribute to the dot-com bubble that crashed so painfully in 2000.

Avoiding past mistakes isn't difficult, provided we take care to understand why people want to be part of communities. We don't need to consider this question from the perspective of new media; in fact, we don't even need to consider the idea of community unto itself. Because communities exist to satisfy human needs, all we need to do is look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to understand how and why virtual communities can be built. (Isn't it great that psychologists have done so much research for we marketers?)

Early human communities formed primarily to provide for people's Physiological and Safety Needs, which are the most basic of human needs according to Abraham Maslow. It was easier for groups of people to specialize in growing or hunting different types of food than for an individual to do it all himself or herself. Also, one's belongings and family could be kept safer when banding together with others.

Online communities don't provide satisfaction for our Physiological needs, but social media-like tools are providing more Safety protection than most of us probably appreciate. Much of the software we use to keep our PCs safe from viruses, spyware, worms, and adware shares information about the malware it finds in order to keep other subscribers safe. And if you've ever had an infection on your PC and went to Google in search of assistance, chances are you ended up on a forum where people with similar computer issues share tips, ideas, and solutions.

These examples of safety-oriented social media don't represent true communities because once our safety needs are quenched, we don't continue to linger in this level of Maslow's pyramid. Instead, Maslow tells us we proceed up the hierarchy to the third level, Love and Belonging.

Once our physiological and safety well-being is assured, we strive to feel loved and part of something larger than ourselves; thus our Belonging needs explain why we visit and join online communities. These needs are satisfied by gathering with people who share common experiences and interests. Finding these people online, listening to or reading their thoughts, and recognizing others share our beliefs, ideas, and values provides us a sense of belonging and acceptance.

The commonalities that draw similar-minded people together may include a sense of altruism, a desire to network for career purposes, or a belief in a higher spiritual power. But since altruism, employment, and faith are not drivers available to most brands, what is available to marketers that can bring people together? The answer is to provide the sorts of experiences that people find they cannot stop from sharing and wanting to repeat.

Is there a better example than Harley-Davidson? Once people straddle a Hog and roar down the road with the wind in their hair, they find they have a set of physical and emotional experiences to which current friends and family may not relate. The powerful and unique Harley-Davidson experience is what drives Harley riders to join Harley Owner Groups with others who understand the shared experience. (Just this weekend, Harley-Davidson's new museum opened in Milwaukee. A good hint that a brand provides the sort of experiences upon which a community can be built is when they can open a museum to itself, charge $16 per person, and expect 350,000 visitors per year.)

The HOG phenomenon is an excellent one to study for those in search of community case studies. It predates the Internet and demonstrates how, although communities can be fostered, they occur organically rather than being forced into existence. As noted on Wikipedia, "Harley-Davidson established the Harley Owners Group in 1983 in response to a growing desire by Harley riders for an organized way to share their passion and show their pride." (Emphasis added.)

It is important to note that prosperous branded communities are sparked by great experience with the brand and not vice versa! It is the experience that motivates consumers to share and to join, and the brand can then leverage this to create an even more powerful experience that drives loyalty, further differentiation, and additional sales.

This doesn't mean that communities cannot be used to build brands, but to do so you must first offer a differentiated and powerful experience. You can see this recipe of community success not only with Harley-Davidson, but with Disney, Starbucks, Dell, Zappos, sports teams, political candidates, movies, bands, and video games.

While it's easy to see how the experience of riding a Harley may spark the sort of reaction that makes people want to share, it doesn't take heart-pounding, engine-roaring excitement to trigger a consumer's desire to belong. Zappos has built a base of fanatical fans and a sense of community through nothing but stellar customer service. Zappos fans paste "Do you heart Zappos, too?" messages into their Facebook sites and join the company's president for drinks (in response to an invitation broadcast on Twitter!)

Maslow's Belongingness explains how people first enter communities. They don't join as a fully-engaged and contributing members, but instead as lurkers (who visit and read the contributions of others but do not participate themselves) or as totally or partially anonymous members (with profiles that are private or that mask their identify).

Visiting and joining a community--even without contributing--provides a sense of shared and communal interests, thus satisfying our needs for belongingness. But the Belonging stage doesn't really explain why people go further, revealing more about themselves, blogging their personal observations, opening themselves up to public criticism, sharing praise and reviews of current events or pop culture, critiquing others' comments, and becoming the sort of formal or informal leaders that every successful community requires. These actions aren't necessary to gratify our Belonging needs; in fact, these actions can put at risk one's sense of belongingness should other community members disagree with the ideas, remarks, and judgments.

Tomorrow on Experience: The Blog we'll explore how the next stage of Maslow's hierarchy provides the basis for online communities not merely to attract new members but to thrive with the sort of sharing, discourse, and connections that a successful community requires.