A Look at Marketing Spend Recalibrated: Where Are the Green Shoots?

We are well into Q2, and the pandemic is having a detrimental impact on U.S. marketing spend. How much so? Firm principal Bruce Biegel recently updated some parts of The Winterberry Group’s Annual Outlook report as COVID19 took hold, citing various sources — and the updated data is worth a look.

We are well into Q2, and the pandemic is having a detrimental impact on U.S. marketing spend. How much so?

That’s where we turn to The Winterberry Group which tracks data, digital, and direct marketing spend vs. general advertising, and releases its Annual Outlook each year in January. As COVID19 took hold, firm principal Bruce Biegel recently updated some of its numbers, citing various sources — and they are worth a look:

Source: Winterberry Group, April 2020.

Green Shoots in Media

Hey, I see a green shoot here. In digital, while display, search, and social are taking the greatest hits, digital video’s loss is less pronounced — and we might guess why. Consumers are consuming digital media in record numbers. In fact, OTT (connected TV) and podcast ad spend is out of sync with the number of consumers migrating to these media, even before the pandemic took hold.

As reported in Digiday:

“According to Magna Global, OTT accounts for 29% of TV viewing but so far has only captured 3% of TV ad budgets. And as consumers increasingly flock to internet-connected TV devices, a wide range of players — from tech giants, to device sellers to TV networks and more — are building services to capture a share of the ad dollars that will inevitably flow into the OTT ecosystem.”

So if anything, advertisers may need to get their tech stacks ready to enable OTT and podcast engagement. But this is not a linear TV buy based on cost-per-thousand (CPM). This is an opportunity to personalize, target, and attribute on a 1:1 level.

Another green shoot: Email remains a staple. Again, as we stay at home, whether as consumers or as business people, it’s been email that is sustaining connections for many brands. So “flat spending” is a positive, even as price compression is underway.

Offline is not a pretty picture — right now.

Source: Winterberry Group, April 2020.

My last post sought to document U.S. Postal Service’s woes. I still believe direct mail is a brand differentiator, particularly right now — as I watch my own household pause from the sameness of screens, and take our “print” moment with each day’s incoming mail and catalogs. We’ve dog-eared pages, placed our DTC (direct to consumer) orders, and even some B2B purchases for home office supplies. (Thankfully, all but one of us are still working.)

Green Shoots in Verticals

The Winterberry Group also examined some primary verticals — which ones will lead our economic recovery?

One green shoot is identified as financial services. After the Great Recession (2008-2009), the financial sector — which prompted the Recession beginning with subprime mortgages — recapitalized and strengthened reserves. Banks had to do it, by law. As a result, they are better positioned to weather the pandemic storm; though there may be pressure to lend to less-than-stellar-credit customers, the Winterberry Group reports. We shall see. As of May 7, the NASDAQ had completely erased its 2020 year-to-date market loss.

Source: Winterberry Group, April 2020.

In the Media & Entertainment sector, live events are effectively gone — except where they can go virtual, but that’s hardly a dollar-for-dollar exchange. The good news is that media subscriptions (for on-demand media) are rapidly increasing, and ad-supported on-demand media also is increasing — pertinent to the aforementioned OTT discussion.

And another green shoot candidate, Healthcare & Pharma, is actually on neutral ground. Some trends, such as telemedicine, online prescription fulfillment, and anything COVID-related — are booming, but elective surgeries are on hold, and 33+ million laid-off Americans may wind up uninsured.

Source: Winterberry Group, April 2020.

Ingenuity — The Greatest Green Shoot of All

And my last green shoot is this — our own innovation, agility, and creativity. I leave you with this one anecdote heard last week on National Public Radio.

Can you imagine being a member of the Graduating Class of 2020? These students will go down in history perhaps as a model of resiliency. Time will tell. But next door in North Salem, NY, the town and school system landed on a novel idea: The faculty, students and families will drive one hour north to a one of the state’s few remaining drive-in theaters. The commencement address will be projected — and the diplomas handed out vehicle by vehicle.

Who knows, maybe Summer 2020 will be the Great American Comeback of the drive-in theater. Maybe Bruce will need to update his out-of-home and cinematic spending accordingly. (You can learn more from Bruce at this upcoming June 17 Direct Marketing Club of New York virtual briefing on your laptop. Registration here.)

I love such ingenuity. If you know of other examples, please share them in the comments section. Stay safe — and keep America innovating.

 

 

How Hospitals Can Compare Prices, Despite Not Having a Consumerism Model

The inability to compare prices is an often-cited reason for why healthcare hasn’t fully evolved into a consumerism model — patients don’t comparison shop among healthcare providers, using price as a significant factor in decision-making like they do when comparing other purchases.

The inability to compare prices is an often-cited reason for why healthcare hasn’t fully evolved into a consumerism model — patients don’t comparison shop among healthcare providers, using price as a significant factor in decision-making like they do when comparing other purchases.

So when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rolled out a regulation that required hospitals to post their “chargemaster” rates online, as of Jan. 1, 2019, it was another experiment in creating a more price-aware environment.

Nearly a year later, the introduction of chargemaster data into the public sphere has had no discernible impact on use. The structure and volume of chargemaster data made comparisons too difficult, and the results too generalized to be predictive of the costs an individual with insurance would incur.

  • So will pricing information ever become a significant part of consumer decision-making?
  • Yes, although it remains several miles down the road, and likely will stay limited to services with less likelihood of medical complications, which adds in additional services and costs.

The most likely source of the data will be health plans that can associate its member’s benefits and the rates defined in plan-provider contracts to provide an estimate.

If the plans take it one step further and compare facilities within a geographic radius to present consumers with options, will that influence choice? And should pricing be a determinant of choice when other factors, such as provider expertise and facility quality, are also considerations?

It can be helpful to think of the CMS’ requirement of January 2019 as a directional change that opens the door to greater pricing scrutiny. Chargemaster rates are like “list prices” in the same way a hotel has list prices, but guests rarely pay the full amount. But that rule was just the first in what is likely to be a series of rules under consideration that will gradually pull back pricing layers until they become meaningful at a consumer level.

One rule — under consideration, but not finalized — would force hospitals to make public their standard charges, including payer-specific negotiated prices, in a format that is both machine-readable and “consumer friendly.” That would represent a significant expansion on price transparency. Assuming this rule is challenged in court, implementation likely will be delayed past its proposed January 2020 effective date.

One thing is certain: The external environment is shifting on price transparency.

If you are unsure where your facility falls on the cost spectrum vs. competitors, a data analyst can compare chargemaster data as one way of establishing context. Armed with this information, you can open the door with leadership to discuss this coming chapter in price-based competition.

Healthcare Marketing Messaging: Science Is a Cornerstone of Health

As lawmakers in California debated tightening vaccination requirements for schoolchildren, a protestor threw a menstrual cup with red liquid across the Senate chamber. Although that person’s goal was to disrupt a vote on the bill, it became law. The anti-vax movement is a sign of a larger issue facing healthcare.

In September, as lawmakers in California debated a proposed new law to tighten vaccination requirements for schoolchildren, a protestor threw a menstrual cup with red liquid across the Senate chamber. Although that person’s goal was to disrupt a vote on the bill, it was passed and signed into law. The anti-vaccine movement is one sign of a larger issue facing healthcare — growing public mistrust of science. This wave of doubt should concern all who work in healthcare.

Science is foundational to healthcare.

Yes, compassion in healthcare is essential. Yes, health insurance is an important mechanism to provide access. And yes, the cost of care will continue to challenge state and federal budgets. But what is the future of healthcare, if we turn away from science?

September also marks the annual Rally for Medical Research, an event where scientists from across the country gather in Washington, D.C., to urge lawmakers to increase funding for the National Institutes for Health (NIH). Each year, the NIH invests nearly $40 billion in the pursuit of basic, translational, and applied science through grants to more than 2,500 universities, medical schools, and research centers. Lives are saved, improved, and extended with the scientific knowledge developed by this financial support.

What Healthcare Marketers Need to Ask Patients and Why

When we show up to a doctor’s office or hospital as patients, we expect there to be a treatment for whatever ails us. It’s easy to forget that today’s commonplace treatments were developed by the application of science to the human condition. So when we begin accusing pediatricians of harming children with vaccines, or denying that climate change is real, or mocking the science that tells us that too many chemicals are entering our water and food sources — we are harming ourselves. The emotional satisfaction we get from snarkiness is short-lived, but its implications for science and medicine are much longer. Will politicians continue to support scientific investment, if a growing segment of our population doubts its validity?

No one is suggesting that we should have blind faith in science and medicine. There is a need for healthy skepticism in all things. Research is fundamentally a way of challenging conventional wisdom, but is based on a process that physicist Richard Feynman once described as “a way of not fooling ourselves.” The scientific process — based on repeatability by different teams with a peer-review process — is the way to differentiate between what we believe to be true and what is demonstrably true.

Today’s polarization is driven by many factors — economic, political, and belief systems. In healthcare, clashes over health insurance, access to care, and its cost, pale in importance to a more fundamental disturbing trend: Do we still believe in science? The treatments that will cure cancer, prevent Alzheimer’s, and reverse heart disease will depend on our answer.

Should Marketers Be Taking a Pass on Hard-hitting Sponsorships?

As a healthcare marketer, you wear many hats. One is “generate brand awareness.” How and where you choose to elevate your brand — including sponsorships — is a reflection of your organization, your audiences, a strategic analysis of pros and cons, and shifting societal perspectives.

As a healthcare marketer, you wear many hats. One is “generate brand awareness.” How and where you choose to elevate your brand — including sponsorships — is a reflection of your organization, your audiences, a strategic analysis of pros and cons, and shifting societal perspectives. So when Children’s Health of Texas put its name on a high school football stadium, the sponsorship raised some eyebrows.

Football is a huge part of life in Texas. Having grown up there, I understand the proper construction of a three-day weekend: Friday is high school game day, Saturday is for college, and Sunday/Monday is pro-ball. Putting your brand name on a stadium is a marketer’s dream. I’ve had that dream, too.

A few years ago, the decision to put a healthcare brand on a football stadium wouldn’t have attracted much attention. Since then, however, the connection between football concussions, traumatic brain injuries, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has become clear. The NFL uneasily acknowledged such a link in 2016. Other studies have shown that younger players are also susceptible to brain injury from contact sports at the college and high school levels. And parents are paying attention. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports participation in high school football has declined by 6.1% over the last decade, even as participation in other sports has grown. Other studies show even sharper declines in participation in youth football. Some of the decline is attributable to rising parental awareness about the link between hard-hitting contact sports and CTE.

So is this where a children’s healthcare brand should invest $2.5 million for a title sponsorship?

I am certain the decision to brand a football stadium was made with the best of intentions. It’s a high-visibility play, intended to create an affinity for the health system among parents as it expands its footprint. But in addition to securing eyeballs and mentions, brand placement is also about telegraphing organizational values and being mindful about clinical evidence. Will this sponsorship be paired with an equally visible effort to educate the public about how to minimize concussion risk?

To be sure, football is not going away. Athletes who excel at it become local celebrities, can get into stellar college programs and even dream of being in the NFL. Those who choose to play it should be able to do so. Brands associated with it, and other sports, often do well by association. But this is a tricky landscape for healthcare marketers.

Societal norms evolve. What would have been an easy decision a few years back may no longer be your best fit for a multi-year contract, moving forward. Ideally, brand placements position your organization as an exemplar of heightened conscience, as well as enduring core values. Only time will tell if the decision by Children’s Health of Texas struck the right balance with its audiences.

As you evaluate contract renewals or new sponsorship agreements, look beyond the sheer number of eyeballs who might see your brand. There are many ways to draw those eyeballs to your organization.

A marketer’s job is not to seize upon a high-profile promotional opportunity just because the cost-per-impression pencils out and you have the budget. The job is to choose sponsorships through a strategic lens.

Sponsorships, especially title sponsorships, should be chosen in the context of longer-term societal shifts and the values of the workforce in your organization — especially in healthcare.

A Few Thoughts on Healthcare Marketing Amid Neverending Brand Crises

Today’s news cycle operates at breathtaking speed. Headline after headline shoves its way into the spotlight and then is forgotten almost as quickly. So what does it mean for healthcare marketing when every refresh of the web browser seems to include another story related to healthcare?

Today’s news cycle operates at breathtaking speed. Headline after headline shoves its way into the spotlight and then is forgotten almost as quickly. So what does it mean for healthcare marketing when every refresh of the web browser seems to include another story related to healthcare?

Poor healthcare access. Astronomical health insurance premiums. Surprise bills.Medicare for All. Single Payer. Universal coverage. The list of healthcare grievances and proposed solutions goes on and on. The near-constant presence of these stories indicates a level of societal frustration that should worry all of us who work in healthcare.

Pick any one of these stories, and we can explain it. Poor healthcare access? Well, it’s related to a bottleneck in residency programs, a growing shortage of licensed providers and low reimbursements. Unaffordable health insurance premiums? That’s because the cost of covered services is high and demographic trends are driving more consumption. Medicare for All? Don’t you know that would result in hospital closures and massive layoffs? Each well-reasoned explanation becomes another brick in the wall.

healthcare marketing image
Credit: Getty Images by Jeffrey Hamilton

The seemingly unsolvable complexity of healthcare creates an atmosphere in which incremental improvements are unsatisfying, and Hail Mary visions of massive reform start becoming more palatable. That’s a risky spot to be in for an industry that dislikes market uncertainty. Industries that remain tone deaf to societal pressures become targets for disruptors. It’s starting to happen in healthcare around the edges, where the barriers to entry are lower, such as primary care and telehealth. Meanwhile, established players pursue vertical and horizontal mergers to keep patient volume in their delivery systems, which doesn’t address the underlying affordability and access challenges driving public discontentment.

As marketers, it’s important to understand and respond to the changing competitive environment. As communicators, we respond to media inquiries and help people navigate our systems. Let’s also remember that our scope of responsibilities includes raising difficult conversations about external perceptions with internal stakeholders. Without that ongoing engagement and a willingness to try new things, we may reach a point where the “system” is transformed around us through legislative action or competitive disruption.

‘Tis the Season … for Term Letters in Healthcare

Nothing says “happy holidays” like a year-end coverage termination notice. It’s particularly awkward this time of year, because it overlaps open enrollment for commercial, Medicare Advantage and Exchange members. In this column, we’ll look at five seasonal drivers within healthcare, and how marketers can prepare for term letters, open enrollment and more.

Nothing says “happy holidays” like a year-end termination notice. It’s not unusual for healthcare organizations engaged in contract negotiations to send term letters to patients in mid-November. The notices fulfill contractual and regulatory obligations to provide advance notice to patients while also ratcheting up the pressure to reach agreement before a January 1 effective date.

This would cause headaches for marketing and communication professionals under the best of circumstances, but it’s particularly awkward this time of year because it overlaps open enrollment for commercial, Medicare Advantage and Exchange members. This is just one of the external factors that creates seasonality in healthcare communications.

In this column, we’ll look at five seasonal drivers within healthcare and how marketers can prepare.

1. Termination Letters

Term letters are usually sent 45 days in advance of a contract’s renewal or end-date. While these can occur at any time, a common scenario is a termination letter sent by a health plan about six weeks before the end of a calendar year. The letter goes to patients of physicians/medical groups or hospitals covered under the contract in question.

In some cases, you may not know the term letters have gone out until you begin to receive frantic calls from patients wondering if scheduled appointments or procedures will be covered. This puts you in a terribly reactive situation.

Proactively, marketers should schedule quarterly meetings with their organization’s contracting department to discuss commercial, exchange and governmental agreements that are coming up for renewal. Your contracting team is likely to focus on the financial framework of the agreement, while your concern should be on how to manage the fear and uncertainty a potential disruption has on individual patients.

Coordination with your customer service team, as well as impacted physician practices, are also critical because they will be on the front line of inquiries. You will need to understand your state’s Continuity of Care guidelines, the terminating plan’s grace period (if any), and work cross functionally to help guide patients to in-network facilities or providers if the agreement ends.

This is a labor-intensive, detail-oriented process because of the number of potentially impacted people, and emotionally draining for the patient’s family. Communicate your awareness of the situation, provide updates often and be prepared for significant push-back and one-on-one problem solving.

2. Open Enrollment

Although open enrollment for major employers, general business, Medicare/Medicare Advantage and Exchange business differ, the main season occurs in the fall and early winter. Some organizations invest all their awareness efforts during this time, when in fact this is when you should be converting prospects based on the awareness, goodwill and brand desirability you’ve cultivated all year long.

The foundation for a successful open enrollment season is based, in part, on decisions made by upstream parties during the spring and summer. As 2018 approaches, be sure to build in strategies to reach large employers, brokers, physicians and health plans.

In a Contest of Opinions, You’ll Lose — Research in Healthcare Marketing

How do you know? It’s a question difficult to answer and defend without supporting data. That’s why research is so important to healthcare marketers.

How do you know?

It’s a question difficult to answer and defend without supporting data. That’s why research is so important to healthcare marketers.

Healthcare is a field used to working with data. Physicians use it when considering treatment options. Administrators use it for assess performance and trends in financials and patient satisfaction. Insurance companies rely on it to gauge claims risk and establish premiums. So, a healthcare marketer who doesn’t use data as the foundation for strategy, messaging and tactics faces an uphill effort.

There’s a growing risk to marketers who don’t conduct research. When resources are constrained, leadership looks to marketing to demonstrate ROI. If marketing only relies on taking internally popular messages or assumptions to market, the audience response rate may be underwhelming.

Marketing strategies and campaigns need to be based on the attributes, values and preferences of the intended audience. The only way to gain that level of insight is through objective, third-party research.

Why third-party research? Because it’s easy to unintentionally incorporate biases in the wording of questions, the sequence of questions, the scale that captures feedback, the population being included in the survey, and reporting of statistical significance and findings. An experienced research firm can probe for insights using a methodology that stands up to scrutiny, creating a credible foundation from which to start. The only thing worse than not doing research is to conduct it and have someone point out flaws in its methodology.

Thought it’s tempting, research shouldn’t be conducted to advocate a pre-existing position. It’s to obtain insights that allow you to better advocate for how the organization can go to market most effectively. My recommendation is to do quantitative studies first, to give you hard numbers, and then do qualitative research among a subset of the same participants to provide emotional context and verbatim quotes that illustrate your quantitative findings.

There are several types of research you might consider based on your needs:

Awareness, Usage and Preference (AUP)

This is the most common type of market research. It should be conducted to set a benchmark and repeated either after a major campaign or on an annual schedule to track changes. Its objectives are to measure unaided, aided and total awareness of your brand within your service area, how those numbers compare to competing brands, perceptions of all brands based on various attributes, and the likelihood of yours being chosen over others. You might conduct this for your Masterbrand, a facility or a service line.

To get an accurate picture of what the market thinks, a great deal of thought should go into screening criteria for who you include/exclude from the survey pool, the quotas to set based on demographic criteria, the geographic dispersion of respondents and total sample size. These criteria should be stated whenever you report results.

Drivers of Choice

One of the hardest marketing challenges is determining what to emphasize in messaging. This can be the subject of internal bias and fierce debate. Whether it’s a short online video ad or a 60-seond radio commercial, there’s only so much information you can include. And you already know, as a marketer, that the more you pack into a message the more likely it is to be forgotten. A ‘drivers of choice’ study sheds insight on how the overall market ranks certain attributes or features when considering a choice.

Direct Marketing: An Rx for Medication Non-Adherence, Part 2

Last month, I wrote about the fact that regardless of the condition for which a medication is prescribed, after three to four months, only about 40 to 50 percent of the people prescribed long-term medications are still taking them. Controlled testing has shown that direct marketing techniques can improve patient adherence with medications by 20 to 25 percent. So why aren’t these techniques used more often?

healthcare marketing[Editor’s note: In a related matter, healthcare marketers are invited to discuss matters like these on June 15 at the Target Marketing Healthcare Roundtable. This link allows marketers to register.]

Last month, I wrote about the fact that regardless of the condition for which a medication is prescribed, after three to four months, only about 40 to 50 percent of the people prescribed long-term medications are still taking them. Controlled testing has shown that direct marketing techniques can improve patient adherence with medications by 20 to 25 percent. So why aren’t these techniques used more often?

One of the biggest barriers to creating effective patient intervention programs is the speed with which they have to be implemented. Keep in mind that 20 to 30 percent of prescriptions are never filled, and 40 to 50 percent are not taken as prescribed, according to the National Council on Patient Information and Education. (Opens as a PDF) As a result, the closer to the point of prescribing that patient interventions begin, the more successful they will be. If the interventions don’t start until three months after a prescription is written, a significant portion of the patient population is already gone, and the patients who remain are those who are likely to remain persistent, anyway.

There are several reasons why people don’t take their medication as prescribed, but most important among them is the fact that people often do not understand why they are taking a particular medication or how long they’re supposed to take it.

Educating patients about how their medication works in simple language can go a long way to helping them realize how and why to take it. And while there are various stakeholders who can benefit from increased adherence, each has their own particular barriers to creating an effective program.

First, there are the pharmaceutical manufacturers. They’re constrained by the FDA regarding what they can say to the patient, not allowed to stray from the language in their approved labeling. Frequently, this constraint ends up with patients getting communications in language that they can’t understand. Additionally, brand managers may be reluctant to spend money from this year’s promotional budget to affect potential sales increases in future periods when they may have moved on to another assignment.

Pharmacies could potentially benefit from increased adherence; however, their margins on prescription drugs are too low to devote the resources necessary to deploy an effective patient education program. Their efforts are largely limited to refill reminders, which are not effective in increasing persistency. Forgetfulness affects compliance (taking medication as directed), but persistency (continuing to take medication over time) is driven more by the psychological factors I addressed last month.

Healthcare providers are constrained by the amount of time they have to spend with a patient and by the fact that the patients generally forget most of what they’re told during their 10 minutes with the provider before they even leave the office.

Those who have the most to gain are the insurers, the ones who pay the healthcare bills. Apart from the patients, these payers have the highest stakes in the game. Convincing a patient to take cholesterol and blood pressure medications is a lot cheaper that paying for the hospitalization costs associated with a cardiac event. And while the insurer, (for example, Aetna) may know that a patient was diagnosed with a particular condition, it’s the PBM, pharmacy benefits manager, (for example, Express Scripts) who knows if a medication was dispensed and when. These are important data points for creating effective patient interventions, because the sooner you get to the patients, the more patients you can affect. But the PBM can’t account for the 20 to 30 percent of prescriptions that are written and never filled.

The most effective interventions start with incenting patients at the time that their initial prescription is written: specifically, giving them a free initial supply of medication for providing their contact information. That data capture lays the groundwork for early intervention. From there, a data sharing partnership between the payers and the PBMs can provide the information to get the appropriate communications to patients at the right times. This type of partnership is a tall order, but as the New York Times reported in April — citing a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine:

“This lack of adherence, the Annals authors wrote, is estimated to cause approximately 125,000 deaths and at least 10 percent of hospitalizations, and to cost the American health care system between $100 billion and $289 billion a year.” (Opens as a PDF)

The various stakeholders need to come together to improve this situation.

5 Ways to Get SEO Traffic in a Hard Niche

Good SEO never comes easy, but some niches require more work than others. That’s painfully obvious if you do business in banking, insurance, healthcare or other fields where each lead is extremely valuable. These highly competitive niches are known in SEO circles as “hard niches,” and marketers who wade into these waters with the same-old tricks will struggle to stay afloat.

Power Targeting: Segmentation Strategies That Raise More MoneyGood SEO never comes easy, but some niches require more work than others. That’s painfully obvious if you do business in banking, insurance, healthcare or other fields where each lead is extremely valuable.

These highly competitive niches are known in SEO circles as “hard niches,” and marketers who wade into these waters with the same-old tricks will struggle to stay afloat.

But difficult doesn’t mean impossible. Even the hardest of niches can be mined for visitors and conversions that add value to your business and your website. Here we’ll review the top five ways to get SEO traffic in a hard niche environment. And if you don’t do business in a hard niche, then keep reading anyway — these tips could make life even easier.

1. Focus on Long-Tail Keywords in Hard Niches

Forget about getting loads of traffic from the most obvious keywords if you’re marketing in a hard niche. Sure, given enough time you might overtake some competitors, but that’s a long-term project compared to your shorter-term need to bring visitors to your website. How can your site show up on Google when other highly skilled marketers are already fighting for Page 1 rankings for the most common searches?

Long-tail keywords are your answer. A long-tail keyword is a longer and more specific phrase that will often point to a specific product, service or question. Imagine you owned a furniture store and were having trouble getting traffic from keyword searches such as “furniture store,” “buy furniture” or “new couches.” You might get significantly more traction by focusing your website’s content on long-tail keywords such as “art-deco sofa and chair sets,” “mid-century modern living room furniture” or “how to repair 1960s vintage furniture.”

The downside to long-tail keywords is they have significantly lower search volume. However, building content around these keywords will also reward you with traffic from similar long-tail keywords. Remember that Google’s search engine algorithm has evolved to be more human — it’s designed to evaluate websites and return relevant results based not only on keywords, but on content. All that traffic can pile up if you do a good enough job mining long-tail keywords.

Finding long-trail keywords is easy. Find online forums, guides and comments sections within your area of expertise and record the possible keyword terms that stand out. Another tactic is to search common keyword terms on sites such as Reddit, then scour the search results for ideas.

2. Get Creative About Building Links

Getting links to your website from blogs, social media and other sources is a core component of good SEO. Building a network of quality links establishes your website as trustworthy and authoritative in the eyes of Google’s search algorithm.

But unlike the keyword issue where competition might be too fierce, sometimes there just aren’t enough places to get external links. Say you work as a framer, a plumber or a roof cleaner; the Internet isn’t necessarily teeming with blogs with people clamoring to read about these topics.

The work-around is to think about related fields and over-arching topics where you might find link-worthy blogs and websites. If you’re a roof cleaner, you might seek out home repair websites where roof cleaning would be relevant; you can also contact real estate blogs and suggest a link in exchange for a guest blog post about how cleaning your roof can boost a home’s curb value. The possibilities are endless, but they’re outside the box.

3. Craft Compelling Content

We touched on this above, but your long-term game plan must include creating compelling content for your website. Unique and relevant content is more likely to rank high in Google, and you’ll have an easier time building links and repeat visitors if people genuinely find your content interesting.

Unfortunately, some niches are tough to crack because they’re just not much fun to talk about. Some niches have it easy — content about new cars, how to save money and new tricks to lose weight basically writes itself. During pockets of free time, how often do you honestly surf the Web and read articles about plumbing, TV repair and window installation?

No More Menial Jobs and 2 Other Steps to Customer Experience Transformation

As a marketing consultant, I read great articles about Customer Relationship Management (CRM) every day on the job. Most of them focus on the sales and marketing aspects of CRM … what strategies to employ, tools to use, messages to send out and so on. But let’s not forget that world-class CRM programs also include awesome customer service, essentially creating a Total Customer Experience that fosters long-term, profitable relationships with customers.

As a marketing consultant, I read great articles about Customer Relationship Management (CRM) every day on the job. Most of them focus on the sales and marketing aspects of CRM … what strategies to employ, tools to use, messages to send out and so on. But let’s not forget that world-class CRM programs also include awesome customer service, essentially creating a Total Customer Experience that fosters long-term, profitable relationships with customers.

For many companies, however, the customer service element in CRM is often an afterthought. Banished to a windowless office in the bowels of the company, customer service teams are quite literally out of sight, out of mind. Much of the time, this function is even outsourced entirely. But I have a sneaking suspicion things are going to change big time in coming years, and here’s why.

It’s no secret that companies are now dealing with super-informed, savvy and influential end-users who leverage Social Media and the vast research resources of Web 2.0 to make their purchase decisions. Let’s call this new end-user ‘Customer 2.0.’ In this new paradigm, the balance of power is shifting away from the sales and marketing teams, as firms are discovering that Customer 2.0s are by and large unresponsive to traditional sales and marketing tactics.

This means that customer service is, quite literally, becoming the first and only line of defense. If customer service is poor, it follows that the overall Customer Experience should be lousy, too. Given these facts, it shouldn’t be too controversial to suggest that in the business world of tomorrow, excellent customer service will not only the hallmark of a successful firm, but a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) by which success is measured.

Providing top-notch customer service necessitates transforming the way a firm does business and engages with its clients—aligning it to a model where customer service plays a central role in the firm’s operations. Welcome to the world of Customer Experience Transformation.

For customer service, I define Customer Experience Transformation in three broad swathes:

1. PersonnelIt’s time to view customer service as a profit center, not a cost center.

Say goodbye to the days in which customer service is viewed as a cost center, staffed with bottom-of-the barrel employees who can easily be replaced. To the contrary, customer-focused firms hire smart, savvy and highly motivated customer service representatives, knowing full well that these valuable employees are the firm’s principal ambassadors to the outside world.

I recently read an excellent article in Ad Age titled “Are You Ready for a World Without Menial Jobs?” The crux of the article is that instead of cutting costs, the world’s most successful retailers are actually investing heavily and spending for more than their rivals when it comes to recruiting, training and retaining customer service staff. Turns out, this steep up-front investment ends up paying off in spades down the road, in the form of higher sales and increased profitability.

2. SystemsWorld-class service needs world-class infrastructure supporting it.

Truth be told, customer support is only as good as the systems a firm has in place to support its operations. In the world of Customer 2.0, a Web presence acts as a primary point of engagement with customers. In that vein, it’s crucial to provide customers a Web presence that is not only clean, clutter-free and easy-to-navigate, but also—especially when it comes to providing personal or account info—personalized and secure. Furthermore, a website must be also optimized for ALL major Web browsers and operating systems, including—and especially—mobile.

In the age of Social Media, no firm that’s serious about providing customer service can avoid having a social media strategy. Without getting into a nuanced approach required for firm-wide Social Media engagement, as regards customer service, Social Media can and should be used to listen to, engage with and monitor a company’s customer base. There are some great SCRM (SocialCRM) and Social Media monitoring tools out there. Supported by savvy staff, they can be used to ensure customers are being engaged with quickly and effectively.

Internally facing, there are myriad important questions to ask, as well. Where are customer data stored, and how often is this database updated? How often are these data being synced with information from outlying systems, including IVRs, marketing tools, etc? What CRM solution is being used, and are best-practices being followed? If not, good luck tracking KPIs.

3. DNAChange the way you act, and you’ll change the way you’re perceived.

In many ways, corporate DNA is the most important element in Customer Experience Transformation. Corporate DNA is synonymous with corporate culture, which permeates the way in which an organization engages with its customers. For many companies—especially those in legacy industries—becoming customer-focused requires a major pivot.

To illustrate this point, let’s focus on the healthcare industry. Because in the US, health insurance is almost always procured by the employer, the primary point of engagement with end-users is usually when they call up to see why claims haven’t been paid. Now if you’ve never had healthcare in the US, you know this is most definitely not a pleasant experience. No wonder people don’t care for healthcare companies, in general.

Now, of course, denying and approving claims is far from the only thing that healthcare companies do. But, as a customer, you’d never know it. What this implies is an industry ripe for transformation.

If a healthcare company wants to be regarded as a healthcare company—as opposed to a health insurance company—then why not start by acting like one? Better yet, act like a health partner, providing customers with practical healthy lifestyle tips and ideas that will improve their health and, presumably, lead to fewer claims down the road.

Better yet, find out more about customers and send out highly personalized healthcare information they can use in their daily lives. Or, taking it a step farther, how about using that information to create fun contests and social media engagements customers can participate in, ‘gamifying’ the user experience.

In this model, although the business model has not changed, the overall customer experience has been transformed, resulting in a more positive brand perception, higher lifetime value and, of course, increased profitability.

Is your organization creating an awesome customer experience? If you have any questions or feedback, please let me know in your comments.

Thanks,

—Rio