Killer Content Marketing From Top of Funnel to Conversion

Content marketing requires a bit of a balance these days. On the one hand, we are all inundated with content, not all of it terribly useful, so we have to be sure what we publish is of the highest quality.

And the competitive landscape is beyond crowded, so the temptation to publish content on a wide range of topics should be resisted. It’s more productive to find a niche and own it.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stretch our content marketing muscles in other ways. Most importantly, we should be creating content that appeals to our target audience at all stages of their buying process. Here are some ideas for media and formats that will help keep prospects engaged from the “getting to know you” stage straight through client on boarding.

Content That Says, “Hello”

As someone begins to search for a solution to a problem their business is experiencing, their view is from the proverbial 30,000 feet. Details are less important than broad strokes and simple presentation of what is possible.

Content most appealing to buyers at this stage will include infographics, which tend to pack a lot of high-level data and information into a very digestible format; general overview articles, which can help orient a prospect who is still learning about her options, and explainer videos that are similar to infographics and overview articles in their broad view and quick consumption.

Each of these should hint at the additional information that’s worth exploring, the submerged part of the iceberg, and should include or be presented with calls to action that help drive the prospect toward the next stage of the buying process and the additional content you have ready for them.

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

As they move through their buying process, prospects will want to know more about you, but first they’ll want to know more about the solutions they are exploring. Case studies, case stories, and similar accounts of the experience others have had lead the way here.

Webinars that include similar content are also quite effective, particularly as prospects move further through the middle of the funnel. (There has to be some level of interest already in place for a prospect to commit 30, 60, or 90 minutes to a webinar, even if they will be multitasking.)

Video can be a great tool here, as well. Interviews with clients who were facing a similar issue to the prospect not only cover much of the same ground as more traditional case studies but also provide a window into what it is like to work with you.

The Background Check

As prospects move closer to a decision, they want the quantitative data that backs up the qualitative decision they’re leaning toward. The specifics of your solution need to lead the way here, whether that’s technical data or statistics about the overall effectiveness of the solution you’re offering versus other options available in the market.

Prospects here are willing to invest more time — in fact, most will want to before they’re comfortable committing budget and time to a solution — so this is an exception to the rule that nobody reads online, they only skim.

That’s not to say that content here should take the form of dry analysis broken up only with charts and graphs. Layout and presentation still matter, and media like video can still be incredibly effective. Just be sure to offer the accompanying data — like those charts and graphs — in a more easily sharable format since this is the stage where your buyers may be presenting their recommendation to a broader team more interested in quick hits than a deep dive.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that will satisfy every prospect in your funnel, so metrics and analytics should be in place to measure content consumption and timelines. Be sure you’re also reviewing content consumption to see if you have any weak spots in your funnel. Shore up any areas where content seems not to be holding your audience’s attention.

The Biggest Obstacle to Personalization Is the Creative Element

In a world where everyone is exposed to constant marketing through every conceivable media channel every day, messages that are not relevant to the target will be utterly ignored. And don’t blame the consumers for it, either. You, as a consumer, are trained to ignore irrelevant messages, as well.

In this consumer-centric environment, personalization is something all marketers must practice constantly, not only to increase the level of customer engagement, but also to not be ignored completely. And if your messages keep getting ignored, decreasing click-through rate isn’t just some annoying KPI that doesn’t look good in front of your boss, it may be an existential threat to your organization.

Unfortunately, personalization isn’t easy, simple, or cheap. There are many elements that must work harmoniously, so that each target sees something that is uniquely relevant to “her.”

4 Elements of Personalization

First, you need data about the target. What is she about, and what does she look like? That may require data from all kinds of sources — be they online or offline transactions, browsing history, store visits, reactions to previous campaigns (requiring both campaign and response history data), call-center logs, third-party demographic data, etc. Putting them all in one place, and rearranging them to create coveted Customer-360 View is often the first hurdle. But that is just the beginning. Without customer-centric data, there is no personalization — unless you count on your guesswork.

Then you need to make sense out of collected data. We often call such work analytics, which includes segmentation (or clustering), modeling, personas development (a series of affinity models), etc. Many marketers consider this to be the highest hurdle, as it requires different types of talents. Data scientists tend to think that the modeling work is the pinnacle of personalization, and they may not be wrong. But is it enough? So, what if they have 40 personas meticulously built by top-notch statisticians? How would you use them to differentiate messages for “each” target?

That leads to the third and forth elements in personalization, which are “Display Capability” and “Content and Creative.” Basically, you need to be able to show different creatives to different targets. If you are uniformly displaying the same content to everyone, what is the point in all this, no matter how many personas or affinity models you built?

Display capability is a technical hurdle. And you can procure technologies to overcome it, whether the challenge is dynamic web content, or personalized email delivery. You have to align pieces of technologies to make it happen. If Person A shows up on your website, and her affinity score is higher for “Luxury Travel” category in comparison to “Family Oriented Activities,” you should be able to show a picture of luxury cruise ship sailing in the Caribbean sunset, not necessarily a picture of happy children surrounded by cartoon characters.

As you can see, I am actually mixing three elements in this one example. I am assuming you built a series of personas (or affinity models). Your website should be dynamic so that such models can trigger different experiences for different visitors. Then of course, I am assuming you have ample amount of marketing creatives to differentiate messages. Display technology is a prerequisite in all this. If you don’t have it, go get it.

Your Persona Menu

Building a Customer-360 View is a customer-centric activity, but creating a persona menu is a selfish activity. What do you want to sell? And what kind of person would be interested in such products or services?

If you are selling fashion items, personas such as “Fashionista” or “Trend Setter” would be helpful. If you are pushing cutting-edge products, an “Early Adopter” persona would be necessary. If you are selling various types of insurance or security-related products, you will benefit from personas such as “Security Conscious.”

The important point here is that you should create persona menu based on your product and marketing roadmap. Be imaginative and creative. What kind of persona would be interested in your services? Once the goal is set, we need some samples of people who actually displayed such tendencies or behaviors. If you are building a persona called “Luxury Travel,” gather samples of people who actually have been on a luxury cruise ship or checked into luxury hotels (of course you have to define what constitutes “luxury”). Modelers do the rest.

Now, here is the reason why setting up a proper persona menu is so important. Not only will we define the target audience with it, but also categorize your marketing contents and digital assets with personas.

The most basic usage of any model is to go after high score individuals in a given category. You want to send messages to fashion-oriented people? Just select high score individuals using the Fashionista model.

But personalization is a little more complex that that. Let’s just say this one individual showed up at your website (or your store for that matter). You may have less than one second to show something that “she” would be interested in. Pull up all persona scores for that person, and see in which categories she scores high (let’s say over 7 out of a maximum score of 9). Going back to the previous example, if the target has score of 8 in Luxury Travel, and 4 in Family-oriented Activity, pull out the content for the former.

The Creative Element

Now, why is this article titled “The Biggest Obstacle to Personalization Is the Creative Element”? Because, I often see either lack of enough creative materials or lack of proper content library is the roadblock. And it really breaks my heart. With all the dynamic display capabilities and a series of models and personas, it would be a real shame if everyone gets to see the same damn picture.

I’ve seen sad and weird cases where marketers balk at the idea of personalization, as their creative agency is not flexible enough to create multiple versions of marketing materials. In this day and age, that is just a horrible excuse. What are they dealing with, some Mad Men agency people from the 1950s with cigarettes in their mouths and glasses of Scotch in their hands?

I’ve also seen other strange cases where proper personalization doesn’t happen – even with all good elements ready to be deployed – because departments don’t know how to communicate with one another. That is why someone should be in charge of all four elements of personalization.

How will the persona menu be created with grand marketing goals in mind? Who would procure actual data and build models? How will the resultant model/persona scores be shared throughout the organization and various systems, especially with the dynamic display technologies? How will the content library be tagged with all the relevant “persona” names (e.g., Tag “Luxury Travel” persona name to all digital assets related to “Luxury Cruise Ships”)?

Model scores (or personas) may function as a communication tool that binds different departments and constituents. Personalization is a team sport, and it is only as good as the weakest link. If you invested in building CDP solutions and analytics, go a little further and finish the work with the creative elements.

If you have a bunch of pictures stored in someone’s PC (or worse, some agency guy’s drawer), go build a digital content library. And while you’re at it, tag those digital assets with relevant persona names in your persona menu. Even automated personalization engines would appreciate your effort, and it will definitely pay off.

Politics Aside, At Least Folks Are Focused on the USPS – Let’s Keep It Up

The United States Postal Service (USPS) is a vital institution in our economy, democracy, and history – and future. It provides for confidential communication in a timely and affordable manner, paid for entirely by ratepayers rather than taxpayers. And, while we were on summer vacation, the ugly state of today’s politics brought it to the top of the news cycle.

Well, maybe that’s a good thing.

The U.S. mail stream also is a vehicle for millions of properly cast votes during primary and general elections, a process that even President Trump’s campaign knows is true, and in the frenzy of this moment, that reality must be promoted and protected. And although the 2020 U.S. Census is primarily an online event this year, mail notices have gone to all residential addresses to drive populations to the counting website. Earlier this month, the Census reported that self-reporting has accounted for an estimated 63.3% of all U.S. households thus far – so now field operations are underway to count the rest before Sept. 30.

As citizens, being counted in the Census ranks up there with voting and serving on juries. As non-citizens seeking citizenship, being counted may be the only voice one has at all. Many of us in direct and data marketing know how crucial, too, Census commercial products are to business. For all the billions spent on targeted advertising, and billions more on general advertising, understanding Census statistical areas provides valuable insights and informs strategies.

All of this only underscores the role USPS has in executing all of this. If dirty politics is what it takes to call attention to USPS operations and “fix” what needs fixing at the Postal Service, then so be it. Floating loan guarantees is a crucial start, in my humble opinion. A reinvigorated attempt during the next Congress at a postal reform bill might help, too, to soften the blow from the 2006 law – with its outrageous healthcare pre-funding mandates, for one.

It’s wrong to summarily dismiss the Postmaster General or his intentions. If his goal is to increase USPS efficiencies, then all parties can rally around that objective – as long as service levels are maintained. Privatization, however, is likely a non-starter, and may even require Constitutional changes. If the goal – as some critics maintain – is to throw an election, let’s uncover the truth of it. In the least, many states have been conducting elections by mail for years with integrity – which the Secretary of State in Oregon, a Republican, maintains. At least, the Postmaster General has halted mail processing cuts, with his stated goal of long-term sustainability, until after the November election.

Direct Mail – With Integrity

So what does all this mean to direct mailers? I love John Miglautsch’s message: “Direct mail ain’t dead.” Miglautsch says too many marketers are still prone to “digital delusional” thinking that digital can replace direct mail altogether. (Please, folks, test first – you’ll see the mail moment is real.) The Winterberry Group in January predicted a small uptick in direct mail spending in 2020 to $41.6 billion, but reported in June a Q2 drop in USPS mail volume of 33%. It’s clear that at least temporarily, marketers slashed direct mail budgets much more than their digital counterparts.

Yet direct mail has supreme advantages: It’s personalized, and free from identity challenges that still exist in digital. (See the latest Winterberry Research on data spending on digital identity management.) It’s secure and confidential. Direct mail also is a direct relationship – there are no intermediary infrastructures where audience, measurement, and attribution data can be unavailable to the advertiser. In many, many ways, direct marketers hope for an addressable digital media future that matches the offline addressable direct mail realities of today. We’re making progress in addressable media across all channels, but we’re not there yet.

From a direct mail perspective, perhaps the best contribution of digital is that (1) it has taught more U.S. households to shop direct; and (2) it has lessened competition in the mailbox. The two media work in tandem powerfully. Less clutter in the physical mail box opens the opportunity for increased response. All this assumes, however, that direct mail delivery can be predicted in-home reliably. That’s why we cannot monkey around with USPS service standards.

So fill out your Census form, if you haven’t already. Vote in the November election. And make sure USPS (and direct mail advertising) is getting the attention – and protection – commensurate to its powerful contribution to our nation.

3 Lessons My Move Taught Me About Marketing

This is the last article about my move, I promise! The interesting thing about a move is that it forces you to step outside your comfortable bubble of everyday life. Suddenly you’re forced to navigate new situations, often on a tight timeline.

Recently I orchestrated a cross-country move, shifting 19 years of my life in the course of a week. When you’re in a high pressure situation like that, customer service experiences are make or break. I’m always on the hunt for luxury goods and experiences, but it’s been a long time since I’ve viewed a brand experience through such a high-stakes lens.

Unfulfilled Promises = Customer Resentment

Adding a pandemic-related banner to a website or a COVID-19 reference in the hold music seems to be a common recommendation, but it’s vital that those messages be based on transparency and the desire to communicate useful information to the customer.

While I was trying to get my wifi set up, I spent what felt like a lifetime on hold with the Internet provider, Spectrum, and its droning hold music that reassured me they were “keeping me connected” during COVID. Meanwhile, I had to wait 17 days for installation and wait on hold (with no callback option!) any time I needed help.

Big communications utilities are notorious for fueling absolute resentment and anger, but all brands would do well to remember that it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver. And hey, reminder to check your client experience so you’re not infuriating them with messages that they matter and you’re keeping them connected when you’re not.

High Functioning Service Beats High Tech

In my previous post I mentioned brands’ increasing reliance on tech solutions, often at the expense of customer experience. It’s only becoming a bigger issue as companies turn to tech for help adjusting to the pandemic landscape. While some companies are more well suited to replacing in-person services with tech solutions, what customers really care about is whether they get what they need.

One of the standout brand experiences during my move was surprisingly low tech. I set up a business account with FedEx to manage shipping my 20 boxes from NYC to LA. The website felt absolutely antiquated, but the customer service was exceptionally smooth. Could they benefit from revamping their customer portal? Of course. But I got exactly what I needed. I’m not even close to a luddite, but providing great service is always going to be more important than keeping your tech looking cutting edge.

The Net-Net and Inspiration From Being an Airbnb Host

At the end of the day, the moving experience really helped me think about how I counsel my clients on their customer experience. I think what happens is that brands develop a service or product, pay a ton of attention in the development phase, think they have it all sorted out, and then just set it and forget it. What this taught me is that brands need to actually go through their own customer experience.

Call customer service and try and get a new install. Wait on hold and hear messages about keeping you connected or taking advantage of the brand’s latest tech. Ship packages and see how jarring the experience is when you have to jump back and forth between old and new platforms. By walking in your customers’ shoes, you’ll discover what’s working with your brand experience and what is not.

This whole experience reminded me of Airbnb. I have a vacation home that I rent out on the platform. To get to super host status and become Airbnb Plus, I tried to walk through the customer experience by reminding myself what makes me happy when I check into a 5-star hotel: cookies from the bakery on the counter, bottles of water next to each bed, and making sure the essentials (like milk for a.m. coffee) are always stocked. Then I would sleep in every single room to see what it’s like at night. Does the TV work? Does the AC blast cool enough? Does the street light peep through the blinds? By walking my guests’ walk, I was able to see the areas of friction and create a great customer experience that resulted in only 5-star ratings.

Brands need to walk their customers’ walk.

This Mindset Is Essential for Successful Business Comebacks

As we seem to be stuck in a chronic game of “Ready. Set. Wait.” while our local and national leaders decide how to move forward in the new normal, we have two choices to make:

  1. Hunker down and hold tight to what we have so we can resume the life we once knew when the storm passes.
  2. Focus on improving what we have, look for opportunities, and prepare for growth so we can hit the ground running and operate even better down the road.

When nothing is certain, it seems certain that the first choice of hunkering down makes the most sense: Hold on to what you have so you don’t go under when the ship starts to sink. After all, playing it safe is better than risking it all.

If the above is how you are thinking, think again!

The first approach is that of a Fixed Mindset, and the second reflects a Growth Mindset.

Which of these mindsets you apply to your marketing and business operations as you face the challenging environment in which we operate now will determine if you succeed or fail. It’s really that simple.

Historically, the companies that succeed through tumultuous and uncertain times are those with leaders who have a common characteristic associated with a growth mindset: psychological resilience. 

Wikipedia describes psychological resilience as follows:

The ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or return to pre-crisis status quickly. … Psychological resilience exists when people develop psychological and behavioral capabilities that allow them to remain calm during crises/chaos and to move on from the incident without long-term negative consequences.

While many may argue whether resilience is a trait we are born with or a learned skill, I am going with renowned psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of “Mindset,” Carol Dweck, who claims resilience is a skill, not an innate human trait. Dweck maintains that resilience is part of a growth mindset which is grounded in the belief that hard work, dedication, one’s intelligence and ability to overcome challenges can result in great accomplishments.

The fixed mindset believes your abilities are fixed, so you stick with what you have, and you believe your potential is predetermined by circumstances beyond your control. As a result, you don’t sharpen your skills and ability to identify opportunities, improve efficiencies, and make futuristic decisions vs. short-term choices.

When you look at companies that rose above past recessions stronger and better than competitors, creating and executing growth plans was the primary difference.

An article in the March 2010 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Roaring Out of Recession, reviewed winners and losers from three previous recessions – 1980, 1990, and 2000 – and found that businesses lead by a growth mindset rose above competitors substantially. In fact, their studies show that only 9% of businesses monitored survived and actually grew coming out of a downturn, 80% failed to achieve their pre-recession levels within 3 years, and 17% failed altogether.

What about that 9%? These were the companies leading with a growth mindset that balanced offensive actions, such as improving efficiencies and seizing new opportunities, with defensive tactics of cutting back on costs to prepare for the worst.

What they did:

  • Kept and even added staff instead of letting people go
  • Remained committed to marketing programs
  • Invested in assets for long-term growth

As a result, these 9% came out stronger than before. Office Depot vs. Staples is a prime example offered in the HBR article:

Office Depot cut staff by 6% in order to cut losses for the near term. Staples hired more staff and looked for opportunities to improve operational efficiencies and invest for the long term. As a result, Staples’ sales were doubled at the end of the 2000 recession and were substantially higher than Office Depot’s sales, which were billions ahead of Staples before the recession.

Lessons learned from the HBR study, and the impact of a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset, include:

  • Maintain marketing programs and brand presence during uncertain or down times so that when purchasers start purchasing again, they think of and come to you first. Keeping your brand presence alive is key to letting customers and influencers know you will be around when the dust settles.
  • Reduce operational costs not staff. Doing so sends a signal to all employees that you are committed to the value they add which in turn increases their creativity, drive, and contributions at a time these attributes are needed most.
  • Invest in assets you can likely get for lower prices due to the recession to save money. This way you will be ready to respond to future opportunities quickly, and enjoy higher profit margins while others are scrambling to catch up.

Staying the course and believing in your business’ ability to reinvent, reinvigorate, and rise is perhaps the most important strategy you can execute while our communities juggle the pros and cons of getting back to the old normal or the new normal, whatever it may be. If you lose customers now and have to start rebuilding your base when the recession is over, you will have a very hard time catching up with those that managed to keep their base and grow incrementally.

Remote Education Realities: Challenges Faced by Students, Academic Institutions – and Employers

Watching COVID-19 infection rates spread around the country – with record infection rates now predominantly in the Southern and Western Tiers – only underscores how hard a decision it is for public officials to resist science and public health experts and reopen their schools later this month. Colleges and universities, both public and private, also are weighing this tough decision.

In the private-sector companies, in the service sector, most workers will remain remote – connected by laptops, wi-fi and Zoom calls. It’s been an adjustment that employers and employees have had to make – some of us willingly in our comfortable home offices, summer houses and outdoor patios, and grateful to still be working.

Yet in the education sector, remote education is not so easy for many students (and educators). At least that’s what a Marketing EDGE student survey – conducted in late spring and released in a report last month – has revealed. It’s one thing for a student to pursue an online education by choice. It’s wholly another scenario when all students are forced into this transition by circumstances.

Remote Education, Not So Easy for Everyone

Marie Adolphe, Senior Vice President – Program Development, Marketing EDGE | Credit: Marketing EDGE

I recently spoke with Marie Adolphe, the study author and senior vice president of program development at Marketing EDGE, about what education – and the workplace – can take from the findings to improve the situation for “remote realities.” [Disclosure: I am an avid contributor to Marketing EDGE, a marketing education non-profit organization. Marketing EDGE also is a client.]

Chet Dalzell (CD): Thank you Marie for undertaking this research – which I have to say made me most curious as to how students handled this forced adjustment, heading home mid-semester from campus and picking up their studies online. In short, how have these young adults handled the situation overall?

Marie Adolphe (MA): The majority of students have managed the situation quite well; but, a significant minority, 23%, have struggled with this mode of learning. These students are in danger of being left behind, and the colleges and universities are looking for ways to support them as many go back online for the fall semester.

CD: What were some of the most cited challenges they have faced? 

MA: As you know, Chet, individuals learn in various ways, and for many students the interactive dynamics of the classroom is not only a preference, it is a necessity. The students we surveyed struggled to focus on their schoolwork due to the increased distractions of their home environment and the general chaos surrounding the pandemic. Students also struggled with the different teaching strategies generally employed online. Some reported increased assignments to make up for the lack of classroom discussions and stated that they felt like they were teaching themselves the material. One reason the results of this research were particularly alarming to those of us at Marketing EDGE is that some of the students struggling are also part of the diverse group of students who are the first in their family to attend college. It is a wake-up call for the marketing industry, especially in light of recent developments that have elevated calls for a more diverse pool of talent in our field. For the last few years, Marketing EDGE has heightened its focus on creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce. Given these tumultuous times, we’re doubling down on our efforts to work hand-in-hand with industry leaders and academics alike to provide support and resources so all students know there is a vibrant community within the marketing industry who is eager to welcome them into our field.

CD: What aspects of remote education do they appear to have well embraced? (My summer intern made the most of working remotely, but I wonder if it was as rewarding and engaging as it could have been for him.)

MA: Many students who participate in our programs have been making the most of the career related opportunities available this summer. We had more than 800 students participate in our EDGE Summer Series webinars where they learned about personal branding, sports marketing, e-commerce, and leadership. Students have also made the most of virtual internships, micro internships, and other opportunities to connect with brands and marketers. The resiliency that these students are learning will serve them well when in-person internships return and more importantly, as they prepare to take leadership positions later in their career.

CD: Is there any guidance or suggestions you believe educators, educational institutions – and employers with remote work forces – might take away from this study? Is Marketing EDGE planning any additional research or follow-up?

MA: It is important to find ways to connect with students (and employees) and to have them connect with each other. Our best advice to educators and employers is to first seek to understand the experiences of your students and workers by really listening to them. When possible, involve them in finding solutions and try to find consensus on how to move forward. We are all in unchartered waters and unleashing our inner creativity to solve these problems is a must. The solutions we find will not only support those who are struggling, they will help everyone else thrive, too. We will follow up with some of the respondents at the end of the upcoming fall semester to see if their experience of online learning has improved.

Student Struggles From Online Learning Transition

Source: “A Sudden Transition to Online Learning: The Student Perspective,” Marketing EDGE (2020)

The full report may be downloaded here.

How to Improve Google Landing Page Experience and Ad Quality Scores

If you run a small business, transitioning from print ads in local media to Google Ads can involve a steep learning curve. When you purchase an ad in the alt-weekly people grab as they leave the grocery store or the coupon mailers that come in the mail every Tuesday, you know exactly what to expect — you know when, where, and how often your advertisement will appear.

With Google Ads, there are no guarantees. You create an ad and set a budget, but will anyone see it? This is a source of frustration for many businesses that are new to using Google Ads, and it’s one of the reasons why a lot of people end up throwing in the towel.

Today, I’m going to demystify Google Ads by explaining one of the key factors in getting Google to display your ads: Landing Page Experience.

Ad Quality Scores and Landing Page Experience

While search engine ranking algorithms are essentially a mystery, Google Ads has a little more transparency when it comes to their Ad Quality Scores. The better your score, the more often your ad will be displayed to users searching for your keyword.

Landing Page Experience is one of three important criteria Google uses to assign an Ad Quality Score. Many people agonize over finding just the right keywords and crafting the perfect copy for their Google Ads, but they spend no time working on their landing page — this is a huge mistake. Google wants to ensure that there’s congruence between your ad copy and your landing page; they also want to see that once people click through to your site, they’re not quickly leaving because they’re not finding what they need.

What Does Google Look for in a Landing Page?

If you’re struggling to get your Ad Quality Score up so more people see your ads, it’s time to take an in-depth look at your landing page. Take a step back, look at your site from the perspective of a user, and ask yourself the following questions:

Is your landing page clear?

Your landing page should be easy to read, with the information people need front-and-center. Include calls to action and be judicious with the number of links on the page — you don’t want it to be too easy for people to click away from the page and leave.

Is your landing page useful?

Remember: your landing page needs to serve your customer’s needs, not yours. You may want them to sign up for your newsletter, but what’s the benefit for them in doing so? How are you helping the user? How will following through with your call-to-action (CTA) improve their lives?

Is your landing page related to your keyword?

Your landing page should be specific, not generic. If you’re an HVAC business and you’re advertising air conditioner repair in Houston, but you’re sending people to your homepage instead of a page specifically tailored to that keyword, you’re losing business. Every additional click people need to make in order to find what they need increases your drop-off rate.

Is your website transparent?

In both search and in ads, Google is increasingly looking for transparency. They want to know who you are and why people should trust you — in other words, they want to vet your business to make sure it’s legitimate. Providing links to social media, customer reviews, and other social proof can give Google (and potential customers) confidence in your business.

Does your website load quickly?

Your landing page isn’t the place to pull your Instagram feed, have display ads, and showcase ginormous high-res images. Instead, your landing page should be streamlined. Optimize it for mobile, reduce image sizes, and remove all scripts that cause lags.

Does your website have intuitive navigation?

In addition to optimizing your landing page, you’ll also want to make sure your entire website is organized in a way that makes sense. Implementing a website taxonomy with clear page hierarchies and logical categories is also great for SEO, so it’s worth taking the time to get right.

Learn More About How to Perfect Your Google Ads Campaign

Your landing page is just one of the key factors in your Ad Quality Score.  If you’re struggling to increase your Quality Scores, then click here to grab a copy of our Ultimate Google Ads checklist to help uncover areas to improve your campaigns.

The Value of Brand Communications During Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Corporate bankruptcy does not mean a brand will become extinct or that it’s time to halt all marketing and communications. Instead, a Chapter 11 filing is an opportunity for a business to restructure debt and remain in operation. A strategic approach to brand communications leading up to, during, and following a Chapter 11 filing is key to successful emergence.

The United States saw a 26% increase in Chapter 11 business bankruptcy filings, in the first half of 2020, according to legal-services firm Epiq. Many retailers, travel companies, and oil and gas companies were among the over 3,600 companies filing for bankruptcy protection, including Brooks Brothers, Ascena Retail Group (Ann Taylor and Lane Bryant), Hertz, 24 Hour Fitness, and Frontier Communications. In the coming months, there will likely be many more companies that are significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and changing consumer behavior, filing for bankruptcy protection.

However, Chapter 11 is not all doom and gloom. The objective is often to reorganize the business, not liquidate it entirely. A company going through Chapter 11 typically downsizes its operations. For example, many retailers who’ve announced Chapter 11 filing are closing down select stores and selling off certain brands.

There are many misconceptions about bankruptcy. Therefore, there’s a critical need to reassure a variety of audiences throughout the process. Brand communications play a vital role in sharing important information about the future of a business as it enters, manages through, and emerges from bankruptcy. 

Here are several central pillars to effective brand communications in support of Chapter 11 filings.

Create a communications task force. 

Internal alignment requires close coordination across leadership, legal, sales, marketing, and client-facing teams. Consider engaging outside communications counsel in the form of a specialized PR agency or consultant with relevant experience.

Craft the narrative. 

The brand should own the present and future narrative. Don’t let others tell your story. Communicate new information along the restructuring journey to guide the media, partners, and customers regarding your transformation. 

Find your allies.

Share and back up your story through parties who can support your communications, including analysts, influencers, partners, and ‘friendly’ reporters. Focus on the markets where you have a strong presence because of the vested interest in your future success.

Lean on leadership.

The CEO’s role is to set clear expectations and reassure customers, employees, and the general public. The top executive should focus on transparent and open communications that outline the organization’s future. Leadership can draw on brands who’ve successfully restructured and refocused their business.

Be consistent.

There are typically many audiences who will be following Chapter 11 developments and information. Orchestrate consistent communications that mirror your filing but tailor these themes by the audience.

The Chapter 11 process is not a time to neglect your brand communications and marketing. Rather, it’s an opportunity to provide information reflective of the company’s new direction. 

Models Are Built, But the Job Isn’t Done Yet

In my line of business – data and analytics consulting and coaching – I often recommend some modeling work when confronted with complex targeting challenges. Through this series, I’ve shared many reasons why modeling becomes a necessity in data-rich environments (refer to “Why Model?”).

The history of model-based targeting goes back to the 1960’s, but what is the number one reason to employ modeling techniques these days? We often have too much information, way beyond the cognitive and arithmetical capacities of our brains. Most of us mortals cannot effectively consider more than two or three variables at a time. Conversely, machines don’t have such limitations when it comes to recognizing patterns among countless data variables. Subsequent marketing automation is just an added bonus.

We operate under a basic assumption that model-based targeting (with deep data) should outperform some man-made rules (with a handful of information). At times, however, I get calls as campaign results prove otherwise. Sometimes campaign segments selected by models show worse response rates than randomly selected test groups do.

When such disappointing results happen, most decision makers casually say, “The model did not work.” That may be true, but more often than not, I find that something went wrong “before” or “after” the modeling process. (Refer to “Know What to Automate With Machine Learning”, where I list major steps concerning the “before” of model-based targeting).

If the model is developed in an “analytics-ready” environment where most input errors are eradicated, then here are some common mishaps in post-modeling stages to consider.

Mishap #1: The Model Is Applied to the Wrong Universe

Model algorithm is nothing but a mathematical expression between target and comparison universes. Yes, setting up the right target is the key for success in any modeling, but defining a proper comparison universe is equally important. And the comparison group must represent the campaign universe to which the resultant model is applied.

Sometimes such universes are defined by a series of pre-selection rules before the modeling even begins. For example, the campaign universes may be set by region (or business footprint), gender of the target, availability of email address or digital ID, income level, home ownership, etc. Once set, the rules must be enforced throughout the campaign execution.

What if the rules that define the modeling universe are even slightly different from the actual campaign universe? The project may be doomed from the get-go.

For example, do not expect that models developed within a well-established business footprint will be equally effective in relatively new prospecting areas. Such expansion calls for yet another set of models, as target prospects are indeed in a different world.

If there are multiple distinct segments in the customer base, we often develop separate models within each key segment. Don’t even think about applying a model developed in one specific segment to another, just because they may look similar on the surface. And if you do something like that, don’t blame the modeler later.

Mishap #2: The Model Is Used Outside Design Specification

Even in the same modeling universe, we may develop multiple types of models for different purposes. Some models may be designed to predict future lifetime value of customers, while others are to estimate campaign responsiveness. In this example, customer value and campaign responsiveness may actually be inversely related (e.g., potential high value customers less likely to be responsive to email campaigns).

If multiple response models are built for specific channels, do not use them interchangeably. Each model should be describing distinct channel behaviors, not just general responsiveness to given offers or products.

I’ve seen a case where a cruise ship company used an affinity model specifically designed for a seasonal European line for general purposes in the name of cost savings. The result? It would have been far more cost effective developing another model than having to deal with the fallout from ineffective campaigns. Modeling cost is often a small slice in the whole pie of campaign expenses. Don’t get stingy on analytics and call for help when in doubt.

Mishap #3: There Are Scoring Errors

Applying a model algorithm to a validation sample is relatively simple, as such samples are not really large. Now, try to apply the same algorithm to over 100 million potential targets. You may encounter all kinds of performance issues caused by the sheer volume of data.

Then there are more fundamental errors stemming from the database structure itself. What if the main database structure is different from that of the development sample? That type of discrepancy – which is very common – often leads to disasters.

Always check if anything is different between the development samples and the main database:

  • Database Structure: There are so many types of database platforms, and the way they store simple transaction data may be vastly different. In general, to rank individuals, each data record must be scored on an individual level, not transaction or event levels. It is strongly recommended that data consolidation, summarization, and variable creation be done in an analytics-friendly environment “before” any modeling begins. Structural consistency eliminates many potential errors.
  • Variable List/Names: When you have hundreds, or even thousands of variables in the database, there will be similar sounding names. I’ve seen many different variable names that may represent “Total Individual Dollar Amount Past 12-month,” for example. It is a common mistake to use a wrong data field in the scoring process.
  • Variable Values: Not all similar sounding variables have similar values in them. For example, ever-so-popular “Household Income” may include dollar values in thousand-dollar increments, or pre-coded value that looks like alphabets. What if someone changed the grouping definition of such binned variables? It would be a miracle if the model scores come out correctly.
  • Imputation Assumptions: There are many ways to treat missing values (refer to “Missing Data Can Be Meaningful”). Depending on how they were transformed and stored, even missing values can be predictable in models. If missing values are substituted with imputed values, it is absolutely important to maintain their consistency throughout the process. Mistreatment of missing values is often the main cause for scoring errors.

Mishap #4: Nature of Data Is Significantly Shifted

Data values change over time due to outside factors. For instance, if there is a major shift in the business model (e.g., business moving to a subscription model), or a significant change in data collection methods or vendors, consider that all the previous models are now rendered useless. Models should be predictors of customer behaviors, not reflections of changes in your business.

Mishap #5: Scores Are Tempered After-the-Fact

This one really breaks my heart, but it happens. I once saw a user in a major financial institution unilaterally change the ranges of model decile groups after observing significant fluctuations in model group counts. As you can imagine by now, uneven model group counts are indeed revealing serious inconsistencies caused by any of the factors that I mentioned thus far. You cannot tape over a major wound — just bite the bullet and commission a new model when you see uneven or inconsistent model decile counts.

Mishap #6: There Are Selection Errors

When campaign targets are selected based on model scores, the users must be fully aware of the nature of them. If the score is grouped into model groups 1 through 10, is the ideal target “1” or “10”?

I’ve seen cases where the campaign selection was completely off the mark, as someone sorted the raw score in an ascending order, not a descending order, pushing the worse prospects to the top. But I’ve also seen errors in documentation or judgement, as it can be really confusing to figure out which group is “better.”

I tend to put things in 0-9 scale when designing a series of personas or affinity models to avoid confusion. If score groups range from 0 to 9, the user is much less likely to assume that “zero” is the best score. Without a doubt, reversed score is far worse than not using the model at all.

Final Thoughts

After all, the model algorithm itself can be wrong, too. Not all modelers are equally competent, and machine-learning is only as good as the analyst who originally set it up. Of course, you must turn that stone when investigating bad results. But you should trace all pre- and post-modeling steps, as well. After years of such detective work, my bet is firmly on errors outside the modeling processes, unless the model validation smells fishy.

In any case, do not entirely give up on modeling just because you’ve had a few bad results. There are many things to be checked and tweaked, and model-based targeting is a long series of iterative adjustments. Be mindful that even a mediocre model is still better than someone’s gut feelings, if it is applied to campaigns properly.

Competition: Another Big DC Week for Tech (Where Do We Go From Here?)

When the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google come to Washington, you know there’s going to be a lot of posturing – and it’s usually not (just) from the witnesses.

The focus this past week was the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust Law rather than privacy, security, and foreign influence – topics of previous high-profile hearings. Yet the out-sized attention on these leading executives and companies – all of them U.S.-based – is actually a testament, in my humble opinion, to the power of data, information, and innovation at work advancing the American and global economy. Has this exercise and accumulation of power been benign, beneficial… or harmful?

I’ve not been shy to tout the conveniences and benefits that we’ve accrued and enjoyed as a result of responsible data use. Yet I do not dismiss an investigation of harm, unintended or otherwise. Simply, I ask that in our zeal to rein in questionable practices, let’s flash a sign to policymakers: “Handle with Care.”

The world has embraced the Information Economy. It just so happens, not by accident, that the United States has both many global leaders (four of them visiting DC) and – it must be said – a long tail of innovative companies that want to grow, prosper, and potentially join the ranks of the next big, successful data-driven entities.

As Americans, we should do all we can to recognize our own advantage, and to encourage such business ingenuity – for a better world.  Transparency, control, and civil liberties must be protected… that’s all.

There’s a part of me – with my direct marketing heritage – that’s utterly in awe of what these companies have achieved, each of them forging their own paths to business success, and doing so in a way that has cultivated and curated data – marketing and otherwise – to create in each a global powerhouse. Digital has always been “direct marketing on steroids” (please let me know who coined this phrase), and many of these companies achieved their success through a fervor for measurability and accountability.

But the question of the day – antitrust – is a very serious charge. 

Practically every business revolution in the age of capitalism – oil, banking, computing, communications, digital, among others – have had to grapple with the question, how much power is too much? What constitutes “too big” in the Information Economy? Though no one has gone there yet, could there ever be a concept in the digital world as Wall Street’s “too big to fail” – in reference to our banking giants?

I myself don’t have these answers, but I do think it’s worth looking (again) to our digital and direct marketing heritage for some guidance. Certainly any new federal laws and regulation, such as for privacy, ought to be pragmatic in their approach – rather than overly prescriptive. We have a blueprint for a federal privacy law in Privacy for America, for example, which seeks to discern reasonable from unreasonable data uses.

Some consideration, please.

  • What if we held out that data collected for marketing use should be used for marketing purposes only? What non-marketing uses – product development and design possibly – might also be acceptable?
  • Should personally identifiable data collected for marketing use ever or always be anonymized for non-marketing use? Certainly, let’s make sure we can recognize consumers as they jump from device to device and across digital and offline platforms, if for no other reason than marketing or fraud prevention purposes. These aims grow the economy, serve consumers, and finance vital social aims such as news reporting.
  • Under what circumstances should private-sector data be handed over to government sources? What legal protections should govern such handovers – subpoenas and otherwise? It’s a borderless world. What access should foreign governments have to such data, about U.S. citizens or from other jurisdictions? It’s a fine line – or even a fuzzy blur – between anti-terrorism and unwanted surveillance of ordinary people.
  • And of course, there’s anti-competition. Data enablement and data sharing should grow the economy, foster competition, and serve consumers. Laws – whether anti-competition or privacy – should seek the same, and not undermine innovation. For example, the current demonization of third-party data feeds a frenzy that concentrates first-party data collection and power in “walled gardens” – where knowledge about customers’ marketing preferences often becomes incomplete and clouded. Could policymakers use their pen unwittingly to diminish the long tail of ad tech to detrimental effects? Even (some) Europeans have questioned what they’ve done.

As far as bias is concerned, add my voice to those who wish to do our utmost to minimize and eliminate protected-class discrimination in our algorithms and artificial intelligence – gender, race, religion, sexual preference – as we practice the art and science of commerce.

All the same, I have deep sympathy for this same task regarding political free speech: when and how we would ever attempt to define and remove political bias is dangerous territory. What is a lie? What is hate speech? What is a conservative or liberal bias?

There are no easy answers here. But I look forward to this public investigation, all the same. We need to understand fully where the Information Economy may overstep, overreach, restrict free speech, or undermine competition – even if these grievances are found to be remote.