The Facebook Tornado and Other Threats to a Static Plan

The world of online marketing is in perpetual flux. Anticipating change and being ready to adjust for it is the only way for marketers to thrive in this environment. And this month’s challenge to the digital marketing equilibrium has been the announcement of Facebook’s algorithmic update.

The world of online marketing is in perpetual flux. This constant vertigo is caused by many things, including technological progress, competitive or market pressures, and new consumer expectations. Anticipating change and being ready to adjust for it is the only way for marketers to thrive in this environment. Easier said, than done. And this month’s challenge to the digital marketing equilibrium has been the announcement of the algorithmic update to Facebook.

Facebook is a priority investment for many brands. Marketers have been wooed with flexible and effective consumer access in an interactive environment, with the added appeal that it only partly feels like an ad environment. Because of these benefits, brands have come to invest and rely heavily on this platform they neither own nor can control.

The pros and cons, tweaks and modifications in response to the Facebook changes have been covered fully by many experts by now and should not be a huge obstacle for marketers. Assuming you are on top of the changes and have created an agile team and approach, this latest disruption represents only a tactical change — one in a long line of continuing adjustments to strategy, execution, budgeting and reporting wrought by outside influences.

The interruption of carefully prepared strategies and programs only highlights the value found in a nimble mindset. How do online marketing folks prepare for success?

  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversify your marketing plans to include many touchpoints across your customers’ journey.
  • Don’t overinvest in any platform or environment that you don’t control. If you are going to play in the walled gardens of Facebook or Amazon or other environments where you have little control, be sure do so with purpose and not exclusively. Make sure you build direct relationships outside of those walled gardens. Capture customer or other critical data in your own environments and use appropriate CRM or other touchpoints to maintain a direct relationship.
  • Continue to test. Use the information return that digital provides to fuel constant optimization.
  • Budget and plan by quarter, if you can. If not, create a process that is change friendly. You can’t predict or plan too far ahead if the short to mid term horizon is shifting.
  • Make sure your brand stays relevant. Even the smartest marketing plan won’t overcome a poorly conceived offering or product. Keep in touch with consumers via research and influencer or advocate relationships to understand your brand’s current place in their (also) shifting lives. Checking in frequently will provide you with an early warning system for any dissatisfaction or shift in interest.
  • Use all your levers. You have more variables to test and change then just where to advertise or how to advertise. Think about sales distribution channels, pricing, product bundling, product variations like packaging, size, flavors, colors, etc…
  • Use each environment for one or several particular purposes creating a portfolio approach that covers all your needs. Measure each according to the particular objectives and the whole of your portfolio of marketing investments according to your overall goals.
  • Track competitor spending, messaging, activity and trends. See what they are testing and watch their progress. Social environments offer an open lab rich with insights.
  • Stay in touch with the broader world trends that are siphoning consumer attention. Choose your opportunities to either compete with world news and events or sit on the sidelines to avoid wasting money or connecting the brand to unrelated or unwelcome events.
  • Look for efficient media forms. Being able to choose CPA or bid pricing models gives you some certainty that will help your budget. However, the media cost is a meaningless metric without the cost per conversion or other performance measures that tell you the true cost of your effort.
  • Don’t jump into long term media contracts without aggressive out clauses or performance guarantees. Things change too fast to make that a good bet. This is putting the premiums of sponsorships and other time-based visibility options in question.
  • Look for opportunities to test out new stuff and stay ahead of changes that will impact your business. Dedicate resources or create a lab environment that rewards internal innovation.
  • Find great partners. With so much to know and keep up with it is helpful to have talents outside of your own team’s expertise. Great partners will help educate you and your team and extend your value.

Playing the Amazon Game: Translating Big Data Into Big Dollars

Will 2018 be the year of Amazon (again)? The first week of the year is always filled with predictions, and there’s a good chance that most serious business predictions for 2018 will include some version of a call for businesses to respond to, react to, or create a new business model in order to compete in this age of Amazon.

Amazon boxesWill 2018 be the year of Amazon (again)? The first week of the year is always filled with predictions, and there’s a good chance that most serious business predictions for 2018 will include some version of a call for businesses to respond to, react to, or create a new business model in order to compete in this age of Amazon. Because the truth is, if you think that non-retail businesses are exempt from this challenge, you are wrong.

While Amazon may have started as an online bookseller, it is so much more than that now. It is, among many things, a cloud computing powerhouse, an award-winning original content producer and streaming content platform, a top-selling fashion house, a gamer’s paradise, the leader in AI and voice technology innovation, and the largest world marketplace for third-party sellers.

The company has innovated in pricing and subscription models, delivery systems and on-demand technologies and scared the heck out of those who previously thought their little corner of commerce was exempt from Amazon’s notice. No one is safe.

When Amazon enters a new industry or vertical — which the brand does with disquieting regularity — it changes the game for consumers and for businesses across segments and industries, challenging everyone and everything we thought we knew about consumer needs and how to sell stuff. Its impact is felt all along the business chain from suppliers and providers to adjacent businesses and directly to the consumer.

Amazon’s expansion plans and willingness to take risks, its consumer experience obsession, logistics expertise, consumer access and deep pocket investments have broad implications across categories. In 2017 alone, Amazon expanded through acquisition in non-retail directions including grocery stores (Whole Foods), cyber security (harvest.ai), gaming (GameSparks) and analytics presentation (Graphiq). And all these moves are strategically designed to strengthen its core offerings and consumer ties.

Amazon’s advantages also include a ubiquitous consumer presence in U.S. homes, (64 percent with Amazon Prime membership according to Forbes). This translates into tremendous data and insights into shopping patterns, price elasticity, promotion and offer value and critical consumer search patterns. And because it freely sells competing products, its marketplace supplies the company with nearly complete information on competitor strengths and weaknesses in not only sales data, but also consumer reviews.

This is in conjunction with the fact that it controls the marketplace and can therefore work the home-field advantage to highlight its own brands or those products that deliver the most value. In short, Amazon has a direct way to translate its big data into big dollars. This is increasingly important as Amazon aggressively expands its catalog of private label categories and products. Other key strengths include its forays into voice search, in-home electronics, alternate ordering methodologies and sheer operational excellence.

In terms of Amazon’s future endeavors, the brand has made recent investments, as well as public statements to include more acquisitions in AI and machine learning — maybe even in healthcare/genomics. And it’s probably safe to assume that we will see more proprietary devices like the Echo and Kindle that streamline consumer connections and reduce any friction in commerce while further building Amazon’s data advantage in the guise of consumer convenience and innovative experiences. Numerous patent applications in logistics, cyber security and cloud computing attest to its attention to the backbone that reliably delivers the Amazon experience.

Learning the Ways of Amazon

So how should marketers respond to such an intimidating competitor? I often think of Amazon as a wholly different planet filled with a lot of attractive consumers in active search mode for my products, but with its own set of customs, rules and laws. In order to commercially navigate on this planet, I have to familiarize myself with the environment and make some key adjustments.

  • My consumers may exist simultaneously in traditional sales channels and on planet Amazon as well as move frequently between the two. Therefore, I have to maintain a certain amount of consistency in experience and product as well as pricing unless I can distinguish an Amazon-only offering.
  • Amazon is built to provide consumers with easy access to a lot of competitive, comparative information. I better absolutely believe in the value and quality of my product before I enter this environment.
  • I must be ready to deliver at the potential scale and speed of the demand or otherwise risk a decrease in ratings and consequently, a downward sales spiral. This may require supply chain changes.
  • Planet Amazon competes directly with me and it has unfair advantages. I need to safeguard my margins to avoid giving them away.
  • The rules that helped me succeed in online marketing outside of Amazon may not help me succeed in optimizing search visibility or conversion rates within this proprietary world. I need to dedicate myself to learning the ad marketplaces, tools and options and be prepared for a dynamic environment that requires constant investment and learning.
  • I need to understand consumer expectations within this environment and work to achieve positive WOM and reviews/ratings to fuel sales.
  • I need to rethink my brand strategy within this saturated, pricing and ratings-driven marketplace.
  • I need to review my pricing strategy — including sales bundling — in light of the dense competitive field.
  • I need to carefully execute on CRM and other strategies I can control to build and develop sustainable direct connections with consumers outside of Amazon.

So by all means, plan your trip to planet Amazon, but do so carefully as it favors those that not only know its language and terrain, but also are willing to go at it with a full-fledged strategy.

Build a Preference Platform With Your Customers

Relentless advertising messages bombarding consumers across new and old channels, expanded competitive sets, and promotional periods like Black Friday and Cyber Monday have altered consumer buying patterns and, subsequently, marketing plans over the last couple of decades making customer preference a critical but elusive goal. Consumers now explore, search, compare, price and buy with relative predictability that can be charted in your own data as well as external data.

Your retail holiday strategy is well underway by now (or should be) but it’s never too late to fine tune your approach for today’s sales while building towards a stronger position for future sales. Syncing with your customers’ buying rhythms is one way to maximize your marketing dollars and year end results.

Relentless advertising messages bombarding consumers across new and old channels, expanded competitive sets, and promotional periods like Black Friday and Cyber Monday have altered consumer buying patterns and, subsequently, marketing plans over the last couple of decades making customer preference a critical but elusive goal. Consumers now explore, search, compare, price and buy with relative predictability that can be charted in your own data as well as external data.

Using the available info to surf and stoke the appropriate waves of consumer activity will help your marketing work harder and better as you get in sync with your consumers’ rhythms and create the framework that favors your selection over competitors.

Early Days = Exploration

The customers’ buying rhythm starts with an exploration phase that begins earlier and earlier in the calendar year. This year, as in recent years, holiday offerings appeared before Halloween candy was even off the shelf as retailers jockeyed to create and exploit demand. This is an ideal time to stir interest, create awareness and drive users to conversion focused landing pages. Even if consumers are not yet ready to buy, that consumer traffic can be used to retarget interested buyers later in the season or to build productive audience models. Keyword driven campaigns in search and social should be broader here as consumers have not yet narrowed their search. Watch the impression levels of certain keyword ad types for clues when consumer switch from “What will I buy?” to “Where can I get the best deal/pricing?”

Even during exploration phases much of the early marketing focus is conversion oriented, but marketers do this knowing that they can execute marketing messaging outside of the prime buying season. The goal in these early days is often to simultaneously use the same vehicles and channels with different messaging stratagems to both create a path to purchase and to close on the sale. That can be tricky to execute but is a low-cost strategy in a cost per click environment and may garner some early sales to justify the cost.

Even more important, this is the perfect time to touch base with your loyal customers and remind them of your relationship, emphasizing the point with great content, personalized recommendations and fantastic promos to further shore up their established preference. Be as generous as possible and give them an easy mechanism to share. Those early sales have the added benefit of providing fuel for product reviews and links that can help later sales. Many retailers simply get into sell, sell, sell mode early in the season and hit the same note all the way through the season. Long retail experience tells me that you need to build to the crescendo to get the maximum impact.

Later Days = Best Buying Options

If you are a retailer, your best selling approach later in the season depends on your preparation the last few months, the strength of your brand, and the uniqueness of your offerings. Consumers have myriad buying options and have been conditioned to look for and wait for deals. With free or low cost fast shipping options, they have the ability to wait for the ideal offer, promotion or sale and have no incentive to settle for a suboptimal deal unless you have created a strong platform for preference.

Amazon, of course, is the master of the preference platform built on great experiences, convenience, free shipping and breadth of product. Because consumers have so many options it may be difficult to create the urgency which is a hallmark of later sales messaging as shipping days dwindle. Of course, that does not hold true if you have a truly unique or unusual offering or if you have invested in the customer relationship that creates a preference platform. Email is a strong tactical advantage to current customers or interested consumers and should play a role in both early and later phases of the holiday.

Creating consumer preference should be a year-round goal encompassing prospect nurturing, customer retention communications and activities, loyalty programs, flawless execution, special offers or services and other tactics to bind customers, create positive associations and build trust. That warm and fuzzy feeling is more than nice; it translates into referrals and reviews and sharing and eventually translates into sales. Happy Holidays!

The Keys to Protecting Your Brand Online

When your brand is online, it is in jeopardy. Competitors may use your brand terms in keyword searches, pirate your slogans or unfairly label their goods with your brand. There are roughly a million ways for the unscrupulous to abuse your brand, and only one way for you to protect it — diligence.

Jolly Roger Flag: Protect Your Brand
Credit: Skull and Crossbones Flag on Flickr by Jennifer Gensch

When your brand is online, it is in jeopardy. Competitors may use your brand terms in keyword searches, pirate your slogans or unfairly label their goods with your brand. There are roughly a million ways for the unscrupulous to abuse your brand, and only one way for you to protect it — diligence. Protecting your brand starts with consistency of use and message, and requires a meticulous process to protect your brand value and your legal rights.

Best practices require that you establish your rights before you even go online if you can. I consulted renowned Trademark and IP attorney Maureen Kassner, partner at K&G Law, who offered this advice:

“The most critical steps you can take towards protection of brands and trademarks take place long before they are used. Trademark rights are national in scope. Once you have narrowed a list of potential brand names for your new product or services, the list should be searched for availability as a trademark in any countries in which it is proposed for use on significant scale. US trademark attorneys oversee this process in the States, and many have a network of colleagues who can assist with international trademark clearance. Ideally, the list should list potential names in order of priority so that once a mark appears to be available for use there is no need to undertake additional searches.

The United States, unlike most countries, recognizes trademark rights acquired through use as well as those conferred by registration. For this reason, trademark clearance searches should include not only the federal and state trademark registry for applications and registrations of prior marks but should also include common law (i.e., unregistered) uses, many of which can be found on the internet.    Demonstrated use of identical or similar names for related goods or services is a red flag that it will be difficult to create a strong brand identity and garner recognition in the marketplace.”

Once you have settled on an available trademark, it is up to the brand stewards to protect it, bringing in your marketing, corporate and legal resources for that purpose. The legal team will need to secure the rights to the brand. According to Kassner, this would entail:

“… not only filing an application for registration in countries relevant to the business, but also securing relevant domain names and social media handles. In addition, it is important to use the appropriate designation whenever the mark is used to indicate to the public that the term is proprietary. (In the US, “TM” may be used for any mark; the ® symbol can only be used after registration.)

Legal language identifying the rights claimed in a brand should be included in small print either at the end of an ad or at the footer on your proprietary website. Distinctive logos, slogans, favicons, and jingles which are used consistently in connection with the goods or services are great ways of building brand recognition among your target audience and can be registered separately as both trademarks and (with the exception of slogans) copyrights.”

Infusing your owned properties, like your website, with a consistent and appropriate brand presence should start with a brand guidelines document that is shared with all the internal and external partners that represent you online. Have your trademark attorney review that document. Once reviewed and approved, this cements a common understanding about the desired brand presentation.

As the brand evolves, of course, the document will need regular updating. Use those brand guidelines across social media platforms, in emails, and any public communication that represents your brand to ensure the consistency that ultimately helps to support your claims should you need to defend them.

The sad truth is that even with all the appropriate legal precautions and process, infringements routinely occur. Regular monitoring is required to find and minimize the impact of these infringements across channels and platforms.

Search activity is a common point of trademark infringement. Per Google’s rules (simplified) others may bid on your brand or trademarked terms but may not use the trademarked language in their ads. Get familiar with the search engine’s official policies and report bad actors in a timely manner both directly to the search engine and with a letter to the offender.

Schedule a weekly competitor check to see the bidding strategies of those most likely to benefit from your brand. Do regular branded searches both online and in social channels that extend to include your other trademarked items to see who is misusing your property. Include typos and the URL of your brand (www.BRAND.com) in your searches as consumers often type that into a search bar.

Your agency partner can and should provide this service, but there are also trademark monitoring services that can offer a broader package of monitoring and resolution. Be advised that the path to resolution with offenders is often lengthy, frustrating and filled with bureaucracy and forms.

Keep good records of all incidents and correspondence and don’t rely on third parties to reach the conclusion you need — this is a battle won by the diligent.

Food for Thought, Literally

If you were ever in doubt of the changes that our digital access, behaviors and devices have made in our daily lives, look no further than how you nourish your body. The introduction and integration of online food tools and content have made the planning, shopping, and cooking of all things food and beverage-related a dramatically different experience than the experience of prior generations.

fast food
“french fries,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by waferboard

If you were ever in doubt of the changes that our digital access, behaviors and devices have made in our daily lives, look no further than how you nourish your body. The introduction and integration of online food tools and content have made the planning, shopping, and cooking of all things food and beverage-related a dramatically different experience than the experience of prior generations. How will that influence our relationship with food and each other in this most social and familial of activities?

Planning for food purchases or consumption now allows the purchaser to do online comparisons for price, availability, nutrition stats and get meal planning guidance. You can order groceries delivered to your house and peruse endless recipe content that has been rated and reviewed. Strange or new ingredients? No problem, order them online. They’ll probably be delivered tomorrow. Following a special diet? Find advice and support in blogs and communities or track your caloric and other macro intake via an app that may reside on your phone or your wrist.

Prepared foods also are readily available through digital channels. You can order a meal, or a month of meals, from packaged food delivery services to fit dietary guidelines or food preferences. Make online restaurant reservations after you have checked online reviews of these services or establishments.

Want the best of restaurant cuisine but in your home? Download one of many food delivery apps and wait for the door and dinner bell. They are now one and the same.

Like other consumer-focused businesses, food-oriented businesses are subject to the crowd scrutiny of review sites, star ratings and recommendations. These businesses, of necessity, have undergone their own dramatic shifts along with their consumers. Food purveyors are rewarded if they use specialists who can style, light and photograph their wares to best advantage and find the influencers who can reach foodie audiences that can make or break their business. These are new costs of business and new skills to many as the competitive set for the neighborhood eatery is now vastly expanded and the pressure is mounting.

Every food delivery, grocery store, online seller, restaurant or even recipe site is a potential competitor for the consumer’s food attention and dollar. Winners maintain consistent delivery standards along with exceptional taste and value. The variety of food options now widely available and the proliferation of so much food content online fuels food trends in cuisine type, preparation style, presentation and ingredients. Foods can be in vogue — kale or quinoa anyone? When food is fashionable there are elements of seasonality, branding and trend that keep things evolving and fresh — and at the same time impose new requirements of those in the food business.

You can argue that this bounty of food access and content has improved the lives of the consuming public. Hopefully the additional options have mitigated some of the food deserts that plague our cities, but I haven’t seen any studies on this. Certainly, many of the food options discussed above are services and options tailored for the privileged with disposable income to spend on meal adventures. The wealth of food and nutrition information has allowed almost all of us to make better decisions regarding our intake and has given us the tools to plan ahead. Our world has shrunk considerably and the breadth of cuisine choices both in-home and out have broadened our horizons and expanded our palates in huge contrast to prior, pre-digital generations.

The only thing my mother could order in was pizza and her recipe inspiration was her neighbors or grandma’s old recipes tenderly hand-scribed on cards that were stained with love and meal splatters. She shopped at her neighborhood grocer (only), which might have had a few organics or half a fancy food aisle, but it had nothing out of season or out of the ordinary.

Our digital world has generally raised the bar for food preparation and enjoyment. Prior generations used food primarily for wholesome nourishment and family togetherness. Today’s digital food world extends to food as entertainment, food as a social activity, food as a fitness tool, food as adventure, or food to represent our personal brand. For good or ill, the end result is that as food subsumes more space in our cameras and social media accounts, it also takes over more of our head space.

Winning at Voice-Assisted Search

Voice-assisted search came onto the mass market in 2011 with the initial release of Siri. Since then, there have been ongoing improvements and expanded options in natural language technology and experience. A better user experience made consumers comfortable with voice search and increased its usage, further fueling development of the technology and data architecture that makes the information we crave voice accessible.

The Walmart and Google cooperative voice-shopping partnership announced a few weeks ago heralds more than just the first real challenge to dominant e-commerce giant Amazon. It punctuates the growing prevalence and importance of voice-assisted searching and shopping behaviors.

Voice-assisted search came onto the mass market in 2011 with the initial release of Siri. Since then, there have been ongoing improvements and expanded options in natural language technology and experience. A better user experience made consumers comfortable with voice search and increased its usage, further fueling development of the technology and data architecture that makes the information we crave voice accessible. Personal assistants are now a default on smartphones but in the past couple of years smart homes, home devices and technologies like Amazon Alexa/Echo, Google Home, Google Assistant and even Microsoft Cortana (which powers both SIRI and Alexa) have become commonplace in American households. Amazon doesn’t divulge numbers but unit sales estimates for the Echo devices vary from 8-11 million since its 2014 introduction.

People use their voice-activated devices, most commonly their phones but increasingly smart speakers, for a number of purposes. They listen to music, control smart appliances, research products, play games, set alarms, enjoy audio books, catch the news and a thousand other things. Partnerships with other internet driven companies, like Uber, amp up the productivity and use cases for a voice search or shopping experience. Consumers can check ball scores, the weather, flight status or order a car, a pizza, a replacement part or any number of very useful queries. Add context — as in where you are located, what device you are on and a search history and the search utility goes way up. How will marketers pay for that level of relevance?

Marketers need to quickly understand how to optimize for voice search and voice assistants as the volume and share of mobile searching continues to rise. Hitwise says that almost 60 percent of searches currently take place on mobile devices with their tiny screens and keyboards. This makes voice search an attractive alternative to thumb cramps and typos. To date, Google has not announced a paid voice search product but organic results will be in sharp demand as comScore predicts that 50 percent of searches will be done through voice by 2020. Gardner further predicts that 30 percent of web browsing will be done sans a screen. Need more proof? Bing’s market share has rebounded in recent years, in part due to all the Android and Google powered voice searches that utilize their data. Moz wisely cautions that voice search volume is additive to typed search and not to neglect your typed search SEO as it continues to be important.

Search behavior is naturally altered between text and voice. Voice searches take a more conversational approach and are much more specific. Users typically ask a long question to a device where they might type a short string of keywords in a screen based search. Often taking place in a mobile environment and on a mobile device, voice searching skews to local queries. The results also differ. The search result can be returned by voice and is not always delivered with or by a long laundry list of possible search results to scroll through. The top one or two places in a search result will become all the more important, as the goal of a voice search is not to provide options but to provide the best response. THE answer.

As our population gets more and more connected, voice search will play a larger and more important role in commerce. A recent report revealed that in the last 12 months 19 percent of consumers have made a purchase using a voice-controlled device. That purchase percentage soars to 43 percent for Millennials. Marketers and sellers, in particular, should tread carefully. If consumers are voice shopping on an Amazon device in the Amazon marketplace, that closed environment provides Amazon the ability to skew the search results to Amazon products or their preferred partners. It’s not a level playing field. It’s the Amazon playing field and they have the home advantage. Voice assisted shopping can also devalue brand as both searches and search results are often generic.

Many experts suggest that becoming THE answer to relevant voice searches will take a combination of new skills and tactics that recognize that SEO is no longer entirely about SERP position though, happily, it appears that optimizing for voice searchers also improves overall SEO.

What steps should marketers take today?

  • Rewrite your site copy to mimic natural language. Listen in on customer calls or utilize a natural language tool (Question Samurai is one) to help you translate product or brand speak into natural language.
  • Optimize your site for questions including lengthy, long-tail queries that include the Who, What, When, Where, Why words.
  • Create an FAQ page that lists the most common questions along with the answers as well as very specific landing pages for key questions/queries.
  • Incorporate local/regional language as well as previously meaningless hyperbolic terms like “best” or “top” as these tend to be used in voice searches.
  • Use featured snippets
  • Claim your business in all relevant local directories, especially Google Pages.
  • Revise your search results to include a timely CTA with an immediate click (Book Now. Call Now.) to take advantage of the mobile mindset and the perceived immediacy of the need.

Voice search combined with data and preferences revealed by smart devices, wearables and other IOT should be able to take real-time data, add it to voice searches and better interpret our true search intent. Our voice searches should then lead to better, more convenient, more relevant results than typing. If not THE answer, then a closer approximation than our typing reveals.

Don’t wait to consider your voice search strategy. Giving real people real answers to their questions can have an immediate impact on your search relevancy and your business.

Why Net Neutrality Is a Marketing Issue

The Net may soon have gate keepers, a price tag or a throttle — and that’s something we should all be concerned about. Marketers, in particular, should be paying attention and throwing their support behind Net Neutrality as both a concept and as a set of regulations because without those safeguards the critical connection points to consumers may be threatened.

“Rusty Lock” Creative Commons license | Credit: Flickr by webhamster

The Net may soon have gate keepers, a price tag or a throttle — and that’s something we should all be concerned about. Marketers, in particular, should be paying attention and throwing their support behind Net Neutrality as both a concept and as a set of regulations because without those safeguards the critical connection points to consumers may be threatened.

New online business models and innovations have thrived with the freedom of equal access officially protected first by the FCC in 2010 with the passage of the Open Internet Order. Many challenges and debates later, this order was expanded in 2015 in an effort to assure a level playing field.

The current administration’s FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, hopes to dismantle the regulations that allow smaller players to compete with huge ISPs like Comcast or Verizon that wield lobbying power and have deep, deep pockets and a big stake in the production and delivery of online content. This could happen before the year end and opens the door to scenarios that include the big ISPs blocking select content, slowing or speeding up select content or instituting pay walls for certain content.

It is easy to see how that may discourage access and innovation for new or smaller players or new offerings as the big power players will be free to throw obstacles in the path of contenders.

Especially now as video becomes ubiquitous as a critical marketing tactic and consumers use increasing bandwidth to stream content, this question needs to be asked: Will video advertising (in particular pre-roll) suffer from a tiered distribution model that forces some, but not all, to pay a premium to deliver that content? Will those consumers consigned to the slow lane stick around to see ads? Marketers may be forced to factor in delivery speed, access and other cost and optimization factors such that the ROI equations will differ based on who you are. This removes meritocracy and weights success not by the quality of your message or product/service but on whether you have the power to shift the odds in your favor.

To be fair, the world is not fair now. Large players already have advantages in cash, scale and access, but the removal of Net Neutrality would fundamentally weaken the very strengths that gave us so many innovations from Internet startups in the past two decades. It’s not a political issue, according to a variety of recent polls as citizens in both major parties overwhelmingly support Net Neutrality. It’s a potential abuse of power issue. Simple and scary.

Opponents of an Internet with fair and equal access cite a distaste for regulations and government interference; some even call it a solution in search of a problem. But the potential for abuse is huge and the impact will reverberate in our economy for decades if we allow power to corrupt the models that drive our fastest growing and most globally influential industries here in the US.

The likely result of the dismantling of the protections currently in place will be higher marketing costs, reduced access to consumers, diminished targeting and data capabilities and declining novelty in online ad offerings and services. That’s not the marketing advances we hope and work for. We can expect the void to be filled by other countries not operating under these adverse conditions for another blow to our global and economic position.

What to do, what to do? “The Internet-Wide Day of Action” online protest took place on July 12 this year and was broadly supported by nearly every company in the Internet game including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Yelp, Dropbox, Netflix, reddit and many others. But you don’t have to be a company to fight for equal access. Make your voice heard in online venues, on your website and with your representatives, sign the petition here at battleforthenet.com, or visit savetheinternet.com for more ideas.

How are you going to fight for equal access?

Lost in a Crowded Marketplace?

Marketers often mistakenly act as if their plans exist in a vacuum and that they have the consumer’s undivided interest and attention without interference or competition. Nothing could be farther from the truth, or more dangerous to a company or marketing goal.

Marketers often mistakenly act as if their plans exist in a vacuum and that they have the consumer’s undivided interest and attention without interference or competition. Nothing could be farther from the truth, or more dangerous to a company or marketing goal. Consumers are so saturated that they are actively avoiding ads and other brand messaging. In this often chaotic and noisy consumer marketplace success requires a certain amount of creativity, planning and preparation with a realistic and proactive approach to nurturing customers and prospective customers.

Planning for a Crowded Marketplace

  • In bidding environments, there is a direct cost impact from the competition. Before you go head to head with competitors for bid based media placements or exposure make sure you have a compelling reason for a consumer to choose you. Otherwise you will end up in a race to zero margins and the brand with the deepest pockets can ultimately remove you from the field. Know the value of a new or return customer to make rational decisions about how much you can afford to spend.
  • Look for potential partners — sometimes in unexpected places. Partners in cooperative marketing efforts can not only stretch your budgets and lend credibility but they can also open new windows of visibility to new consumers and add effective data layers to enhance targeting. There is an interesting recent Criteo study linking shopper marketing to brand marketing in an effort to create efficiencies and synergies in reaching consumers looking for brands and the retail partners who sell those brands.
  • Spend wisely on distinctive messaging and content. Creative messaging, ads and other content has to stand out within the current environment to gather any attention. If you plan ahead you may be able to repurpose or cross utilize some assets.
  • Factor in seasonality and any competitive response to make the most of any offers or promotions — avoiding, if you can in your space, training consumers to wait for the inevitable promotion. Instead, work on enhancing your brand value to weight consumer choice in your favor.
  • Make sure any media investment has enough weight to have impact. Don’t have a nickel in each of 10 baskets unless each nickel can work hard enough to be worth the trouble and overhead.
  • Don’t treat all customers like they are the same. Use your data points and segmentation data to understand customer preferences and triggers.

Executing a Smart Plan in a Crowded Marketplace

  • Rev up and cool down budget and effort levels according to when they will return the most for you in the long run. You don’t have to have a consistent presence in all channels at all times. Make sure your marketing mix is working to your advantage by testing different weights and inclusions.
  • Check and optimize regularly. Don’t be too stuck to your original plan if the winds of change or news or competition blow you off course. Nimble is a virtue in today’s environment.
  • Make sure you gather critical consumer info while you are trying to stimulate interest and conversion. Those data points should be used to continue and direct the conversation.
  • Watch your frequency. There is a sweet spot you are aiming for that will vary with a thousand variables including intent, offer, seasonality, depth of consumer info and relationship. Use the appropriate tools and rules so you can streamline and customize the process.
  • Don’t underestimate, under fund or forget about traditional channels. Your customers are receiving ad and brand impressions all through their day.
  • Use your analytics as a decision tool, not just a reporting tool, to make sure that you are continually improving results and efficiency.
  • Pay more attention to your current customers. The upsell, cross-sell and additional sales from current customers should be a priority goal to build your business and will be a direct outcome of treating those customers like the gold that they are.
  • Don’t forget to ask and incentivize customers to talk you up. This can be as simple as reminding or rewarding your customers with a direct ask to “tell their friends” or as sophisticated as an influencer marketing campaign.

It’s really quite simple and at the same time extraordinarily hard to stand out in this teeming media and marketing environment. Be very good at what you do and what you offer and deliver a smart and disciplined marketing plan. No problem.

What tips do you have to stand out in the crowd?

Advice for the Digital Marketing Industry, Perhaps Too Late

I was recently asked what advice I would give my younger self to succeed in the digital marketing industry. The question, of course, is nonsense: No one has a time machine or could recreate the unique circumstances of these past decades.

I was recently asked what advice I would give my younger self to succeed in the digital marketing industry. The question, of course is nonsense: No one has a time machine or could recreate the unique circumstances of these past decades.

We now possess almost perfect information about the technology, business environment and leaps of faith and brilliance that created our digital world and a brand new industry — but we did not have that guidance back then. Still, after over 20 years in this “new” industry of online marketing it might be time to reflect on some of the challenges and choices that have shaped our current state.

Advice for the Industry: 20 Years Too Late

Stop being so defensive. It’s hard to imagine now but in the mid 90’s many were still calling the Internet a fad and were waiting for it to go away so they could return to “business as usual.” At that point many (even large) companies were still busy debating whether they even needed a website, some agencies and marketers were slow to learn or adopt digital skills and our educational institutions lagged behind in teaching students what they sorely needed to succeed. Much of this was pure defensiveness and a stubborn refusal to accept that the world was changing.

Stop creating buzzwords. We lacked the language or imagination to describe new concepts and capabilities effectively and the new buzzwords did nothing to add to our credibility. Buzzily named products, companies or approaches quickly became synonymous with something fleeting. They didn’t earn a place of respect even if the product deserved it.

Focus on the stuff that matters. Early technologies and efforts were often about what we could do and not what we should do. As the better technologists matured into businessmen and women who valued the metrics and results that mattered to a sustainable business and industry our bubbles were replaced with platforms and channels that have rewritten our world. Still, we suffered through too many shiny objects and useless toys that didn’t help the early credibility of the Internet as a business environment.

Make inclusiveness a priority. Make sure everybody and especially every young person in every neighborhood has access to the tools and training that will help them succeed. Expensive technology and slow moving infrastructure unfairly handicapped some populations in joining the web revolution. That slowed us down and limited our success as a whole.

Help industries and professions to evolve. Many found their jobs changing or disappearing (hello travel agents?) with no idea how to pivot their skills and services to stay relevant and effective. Disintermediation was a real thing. Some jobs and vocations became irrelevant or unrecognizable overnight and those affected were left to fend for themselves. We should be better than that.

Commit to standards that help everyone. Put a premium on cooperation over competition to set and keep common standards in data, ads and other elements. That consistency would have reduced a lot of the pain points and smoothed the learning and success curves for users all along the spectrum. Monopoly or first-to-market businesses, governing bodies and associations of professionals with vested interests kept us in chaos for far too long.

There are also a few things I wish I personally had known way back when that could have informed my own choices.

Advice for Myself: 20 Years Too Late

Get comfortable with change. Our industry is relentlessly dynamic. Get used to change as a constant and get prepared by committing early on to frameworks and processes that can absorb and integrate new approaches and opportunities without sacrificing the strategic core.

Get data smart. Marketers who understand how to collect and apply data are miles ahead of those who don’t in this day and age.

Write — a lot. Communications skills, especially written words, are at a premium as every person and business requires thoughtful content regularly generated in many formats. Strong and strategic writers, designers and communicators are critical in the digital economy.

And, just for good measure … find an exercise you love, stick to your diet, travel more and buy Apple stock.

Perhaps we can learn from our past to help us enrich our collective future.

What good advice would you give your past self?

The Value of Soft Metrics

In the past decade, marketers and the ecosystem that surrounds them have focused intensely, investing heavily in making direct connections between marketing spend and specific, attributable results. That’s a good thing, and the accountability of digital efforts has largely driven its growth. But we lose valuable nuance when we disregard all that is not accurately and completely quantifiable.

Business meeting, reviewing dataIn the past decade, marketers and the ecosystem that surrounds them have focused intensely, investing heavily in making direct connections between marketing spend and specific, attributable results. That’s a good thing, and the accountability of digital efforts has largely driven its growth. But we lose valuable nuance when we disregard all that is not accurately and completely quantifiable. There is clearly still a relevant and worthwhile tale to be told by customer actions that are not tied to specific marketing triggers. That tale can inform and enhance budgetary and other marketing decision making if we are smart enough to listen.

Soft Metrics: A Matter of Definition

Some of this debate over hard vs soft metrics is a matter of definition. We can take cues from audience actions in a geography that has been receiving marketing spend to determine whether that spend achieves lift over control geographies that were ignored. Is that a hard metric if it does not tie the specific spend to the specific outcome by channel, by campaign, by message, by offer, by customer?

Soft metrics are often those that demonstrate intent or interest but may not be ultimately quantifiable down to the buyer, the sale or other valued conversion. Often they are generalized effects like a rise in site traffic that can be tracked but may not tie to direct conversions or customers. Other types of soft metrics are those that can’t be tracked reliably at all – like many offline ad expenditures. But we have to stop and remember that it doesn’t make them valueless just because we can’t place a value on them.

Soft metrics are still critical because they often establish behaviors that signal intent. Sometimes, for instance with highly considered purchases, the soft metrics can be personally identifiable or at least allow for customizable content delivery even if the individual is not identified. This supports additional follow ups and identifies those most relevant for particular messaging or offers. Setting the stage, if you will, for that measurable conversion down the line.

Make Sure You Have the Full Picture

For brick and mortar retailers, restaurants, CPG marketers and others, the drive to reveal the path from online messaging to offline conversion has been powerful. But tracking the results of online messaging or experiences to foot traffic or in-store sales is a tricky and incomplete effort. We often don’t know if the least traceable efforts are the most or least impactful. Most important, however, is the sum impact of all the efforts. Looking at all the insights available – both hard and soft – will give you the best picture to trend over time and use to make decisions.

Hard metrics have their own limits. We may think of them as an absolute straight line in a controlled environment but that is an illusion. First, there are limits on the accuracy of tracking across channels and platforms and even the smartest marketers still struggle to establish clean data with baselines and trends that are reliable. Secondly, it’s not clean. We can’t discern a myriad non-traceable influences like some competitive actions, or offline influences like first person recommendations – even a consumer’s mood. Macro effects that can be expressed by things like sales rises are most often the result of many, many efforts. Some are in are control and trackable and some are not.

The best marketers can do is measure what we have available and take into account all the information at our disposal – whether it is hard or soft. Information is never complete. A marketer’s job is to use the information at hand to understand consumer needs and reactions to certain stimuli to the best of

their ability. That means making use of everything at their disposal, weighting it for confidence and relevancy. Consider the hard data just the tip of the iceberg and ignore the rest at your peril.