4 Takeaways From Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines Every Marketer Should Know

Google employs a massive team of quality raters across the globe to help it assess its search results. The data Google gathers from these raters is used to improve algorithms, ensuring that only the most useful and relevant pages show up in the first page of search results. But why does this matter to marketers?

Google employs a massive team of quality raters across the globe to help it assess its search results. The data Google gathers from its search quality raters is used to improve algorithms, ensuring that only the most useful and relevant pages show up in the first page of search results.

Why is this important?

In a remarkable show of transparency, Google actually makes its search quality rater guidelines available to the general public. That’s right, the same company whose make-or-break algorithm updates are cloaked in secrecy shares nearly 170 pages detailing exactly what their search quality raters are instructed to do. While quality raters do not directly influence search engine results pages (SERPs) or a site’s ranking, we can look at this document to determine what Google wants from a website — and what they don’t want, too.

The Quality of Some Pages Matters More Than Others

“Your Money or Your Life” sounds like an especially grim gameshow, but it’s the term Google uses for pages with higher stakes than others: pages that can impact a user’s happiness, health, finances, or safety. These pages are held to a search quality higher standard than other types of content.

The takeaway here is that if the site you run or perform SEO for is in one of these categories, you’re going to have to mind your Ps and Qs. Per Google’s quality rater guidelines, Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pages include:

  • News and Current Events
  • Civics, Government, and Law
  • Finance
  • Shopping
  • Health and Safety
  • Groups of People (i.e., information about racial, ethnic, and social groups that could be potentially used to discriminate)

There’s also an Other category, in which raters are instructed to use their own discretion — these include nutrition, housing information, job search topics, and education. Recent algorithm changes have been hitting sites hard for proving themselves unreliable through the YMYL lens. Alternative medicine, for example, was seriously downgraded in the SERPs last fall, with science-based health sites including articles vetted by medical professionals taking their place.

Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T)

Remember Google Plus? It may have proven completely worthless, but it did give us insight into Google’s shift in focus to evaluating not just the content on the page, but the person or people creating it. E-A-T matters across the board, but not surprisingly, it matters more for YMYL sites. E-A-T means:

  • An article about Multiple Sclerosis should be written or reviewed by a physician or nurse, not someone touting a vegan diet as a cure.
  • News articles should be written by a journalist using proper grammar and come from a legitimate website, not a mysterious .news domain of unknown origin.
  • Science content should come from people or organizations with experience in the field and reflect scientific consensus. (Sorry, flat-earth enthusiasts.)
  • Financial, legal, home remodeling, and parenting topics must also be well-researched and written by trustworthy sources.

Even content on hobbies should be written by people with expertise. In short, Google is raising the bar in order to eliminate content farms. It also impacts those of us in the SEO field, who often use freelance writers to create a wide variety of content for an even wider variety of clients. It’s important to have your clients read and vet anything produced by a ghostwriter before it gets posted so it bolsters your client’s E-A-T score, rather than harming it.

Reputation and customer reviews are two other factors that are weighed when determining E-A-T—anyone offering professional services should send out reminders to clients asking them to write reviews because Google instructs its quality raters to look at these, which means that Google’s algorithms are also looking at these factors.

Supplementary Information Is Important

Related to this last point, search quality raters also are told to visit other pages on a website in order to make their evaluations. Transparency is critical here — an “About Us” page should not be vague, but crystal clear about the business being run and the team behind it. There should be a contact page on every website — and it should have actual contact information, not just a form to fill out.

This, too, is weighed differently for YMYL pages. Per Google’s search quality rater guidelines:

“If a store or financial transaction website just has an email address and physical address, it may be difficult to get help if there are issues with the transaction.”

The takeaway here is that even email and a physical address may not be enough to satisfy Google in some circumstances. You (or your client) should be comfortable putting it all out there if they have a YMYL page and they want to rank well in the SERPs.

Content (Is Still) King

Content is king. It is still king. It will always be king.

Ultimately, Google’s goal has been the same since it began: to make money. And how does Google make money? By delivering users the best content to meet their needs. The days of hiring people in far-flung places to write a garbled blog post about conveyor belts for $5 are over. SEO isn’t about tricks; it’s not about gaming the system.

Many people in our field spend a lot of time fretting about algorithms and jump on every SEO trend they read about. The danger in this is that as soon as you start implementing some shiny new strategy, Google catches on and adjusts its algorithm and the rankings plummet. You start feeling like a hamster on a wheel, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Read Google’s search quality rater guidelines and see what they look for and do those things. Without good content, none of the other SEO techniques you use will matter.

The Bottom Line

What does Google want in a website? High-quality content from reliable sources. Accuracy matters, but so does the quality of writing. User experience should be good, sites should be viewable and usable on mobile, and if a website has ads, they should not render a site unusable. Take a step back and evaluate each page on a site and ask yourself if you’d find it helpful before you release it into the world.

Want more tips to improve your SEO?  Click here to grab a copy of our Ultimate SEO Checklist.

 

 

10 PR Don’ts That Will Tarnish Brand Reputations With the Media

If you follow reporters on Twitter, inevitably you will encounter a frustrated post condemning the behavior of a PR pro or company. Experienced brand communicators should have enough understanding of journalism that they wouldn’t intentionally exhibit this behavior.

If you follow reporters on Twitter, inevitably you will encounter a frustrated post condemning the behavior of a PR pro or company. Experienced brand communicators should have enough understanding of journalism that they wouldn’t intentionally exhibit this behavior. However, lapses in judgment may be the result of colleagues or leaders disregarding the advice of the PR expert.

Here are 10 “don’ts” that will alienate reporters and put a company’s reputation at risk.

No. 1: Asking to See a Reporter’s Article Before It Publishes

If you’re lucky, a friendly reporter may let you review your quote. But if you’re interested in seeing a full article before it publishes, then your best bet is writing a contributed piece.

No. 2: Pitching a Story, Getting Interest, and Then Telling the Reporter That Your Spokesperson Is Unavailable

Make sure your spokesperson, or spokespeople, will be available to speak to reporters before you begin to pitch the story. If your subject matter expert is traveling, on vacation, or unreachable, make sure you have a backup plan or delay your outreach until the SME is available.

No. 3: Providing Misinformation

A spokesperson may not have every answer and that’s okay. In pre-interview preparation, instruct your spokesperson on how to handle a situation where they are unsure of a response. A spokesperson should ask if they can check on the answer and follow up with the reporter. They should never guess or provide incorrect information.

No. 4: Requesting a Correction on Something That’s Not Incorrect

A correction should only be requested if the information in an article is wrong. Asking for changes to anything else is an insult to the journalist. If the article is not what you wanted it to say, use this experience to inform your future PR efforts and strategy. Sometimes you just need to accept the outcome and move on.

No. 5: Asking Why You Weren’t in an Article About Your Industry or One That Featured a Competitor

You’re not going to be in every article and, of course, it’s frustrating and disappointing to be overlooked. However, instead of lobbing complaints at a reporter, use this experience as an opportunity to develop an education strategy so you’re top of mind the next time they write on the topic.

No. 6: Sharing Embargoed Information Before Agreeing With a Reporter That the Information Is Embargoed

This is not how embargoes work. You should reach out to the reporter, tease the announcement and ask explicitly if they would like the exclusive and/or embargoed announcement. If the reporter says “yes,” then you agree on the restrictions, such as the timeframe and exclusivity.

No. 7: Being Disrespectful

Treat reporters with respect and act professionally. You are a reflection of your company. Be on time. Appearances matter. Profanities are unacceptable.

No. 8: Following Up Too Many Times or Too Frequently

I find that one follow-up email or phone call is appropriate. As a best practice, give reporters at least 48 hours to respond, unless the news is time-sensitive. Reporters receive hundreds of emails per day and they can’t possibly respond to everyone. If you don’t hear back, they are likely too busy or uninterested. Move on, seek out other outlets, or look for a more compelling angle.

No. 9: Bribing a Reporter or Other Illegal Behavior

It’s shameful to offer money or other payment for a reporter to write about your company. Reporters will accept an invitation for a meal or coffee. But if you’re looking to pay for coverage, opt for an advertorial or sponsored article, instead.

No. 10: Confusing PR With Marketing

The reporter’s job is not to give you free advertising or marketing. They are reporting the news. A completely self-serving pitch is unlikely to generate interest. If you want to advertise your business, paid opportunities are more suitable.

Do Better

Public relations is all about relationships. Reporters have a job to do and so do PR pros. Let’s strive to make interactions mutually beneficial in 2020 and use social media to commend one another.

Why a Brand Not Responding Is Sometimes the Best Response

I recently engaged in a thoughtful Twitter debate (no, this is not an oxymoron) with industry peers over my belief that non-response can be a valuable PR and reputation management strategy. Silence may not be well-received by everyone; especially reporters, who expect that PR representatives will be responsive and helpful.

I’ve written about the importance of transparency — by brands, when it comes to owning up to their mistakes; and by companies, as they consider privacy and security. And I do believe that transparency, openness, and honesty are the best policies, most of the time. But there’s still a place for what I call “strategic silence.”

I recently engaged in a thoughtful Twitter debate (no, this is not an oxymoron) with industry peers over my belief that non-response can be a valuable PR and reputation management strategy. Silence may not be well-received by everyone; especially reporters, who expect that PR representatives will be responsive and helpful. However, a public relations response requires weighing the needs of your business, leaders, clients, and other stakeholders.

Choosing not to respond comes with the understanding that you are leaving the media to interpret and speculate. You also run the risk of damaging your relationship with a reporter and publication.

Somewhere between non-response and response lies “no comment.” Formally telling a reporter that you can’t comment acknowledges the inquiry, but also protects your interests. There are instances, which I will highlight shortly, when saying “no comment” is better than not providing a comment.

Still, there are circumstances where not responding is the best response.

Times to Be Tight-Lipped

Legal & Regulatory

Legal matters are an obvious example of situations where the needs of the business outweigh media relations goals. When I led communications at a company that was impacted by a data breach, we could not speak on the record to anyone about the incident and investigation, beyond a very brief public statement. I received hundreds of calls — some from reporters I had deep relationships with for years. The value of these relationships didn’t trump the legal and regulatory risks of commenting.

Sheer Volume

Even if I were able to comment on the breach, I simply wouldn’t have been able to respond to the sheer volume of inquiries I received, including some from publications I had never heard of. When a company draws the attention of hundreds of reporters in a short timeframe, PR teams must prioritize publications. Unfortunately, many reporters end up with the silent treatment.

Transactions

Publicly traded companies, subject to Reg FD, face legal ramifications if they prematurely disclose material information. So they must operate in an environment of extreme caution when it comes to public relations activity. Furthermore, for public as well as privately-held companies, transactions such as mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures cannot be discussed until the appropriate time. Speaking to reporters, on or off the record, when a company is facing a deal is risky, not to mention potentially illegal.

Personnel Matters

Leadership departures and reorganizations, especially at large companies, draw rumors and speculation, which can lead to media attention. Speaking to the media about executive exits sets a dangerous precedent. When leaders are leaving on good terms, you may think it’s beneficial to discuss the circumstances. However, when you’re faced with a #MeToo scandal, you will not want to have set a precedent of discussing departures. To protect corporate reputation, I’ve always advised my clients and executives to maintain a standard policy of not commenting on personnel matters, beyond simply confirming a departure.

Final Thoughts

Be comfortable with your response strategy and your limitations. You can be committed to transparency and have clearly defined exceptions. Make sure leaders are on board with your strategy of silence.

Build out a publication and/or reporter prioritization that clearly outlines your most important media relationships. If your top priorities would benefit from a brief explanation as to why you’re unable to discuss a matter or would appreciate a more formal “no comment” response, try to engage with them accordingly.

Lastly, assess over time if your response, or lack of response, strategy is working or not. See what other companies, especially ones that you respect and aspire to be like, are doing when they’re facing challenging circumstances.

You can’t unsay something, but you can decide to share more in the future.

Emotion Through a Branding Statement

A branding statement is a marketing tool. It reflects your organization’s reputation: what you are known for, or would like to be known for. It articulates how you stand apart from competitors. And it should stir emotion. Today we’ll drill down into five steps to shed light on creating a solid branding statement, and how you can use this example branding statement to put a new glow on your organization’s image.

A branding statement is a marketing tool. It reflects your organization’s reputation: what you are known for, or would like to be known for. It articulates how you stand apart from competitors. And it should stir emotion. Today we’ll drill down into five steps to shed light on creating a solid branding statement, and how you can use this example branding statement to put a new glow on your organization’s image.

In my last column, Creating a One Word Brand Statement, you were given a road map of how to freshen your brand and organization’s image. It included how to research your audience, conduct a competitive analysis and interpret data, with the end result of identifying the one word that reflects your organization. The final step challenged you with a reality check to see if that one word was realistic.

Today we go on to the next level, outlining steps to identify your promise and benefits (both logical and emotional), validate your credibility and identify your uniqueness. Finally, I’ve included an example branding statement.

  1. Brand Promise and Benefits. What do you promise your customers will receive from your brand? Is there alignment in the promise of your brand and the actual benefit? One way to arrive at this is to write a list of your promises and benefits side-by-side on a document or whiteboard. See your brand features through their eyes. Then ask yourself, if you were the customer, what you would get out of your promise. Keep drilling down and asking “why?”
  2. Emotional Promise and Benefits. How does your customer feel when they see your brand? Ask yourself: “how does our brand make our customer feel?” Continue to ask the question, “why?” multiple times to get to a deeper emotional place. As a place to start a list of possible emotions, here are a few that your brand may mean to someone:
    • Trustable
    • Hopeful
    • Happiness
    • Sadness
    • Fear
    • Anger
    • Hatred
  3. Credibility. Your organization’s brand must be credible. The customer only cares up to a certain point about what you do, so you must be believable and the real deal. What can you learn from customers’ testimonials? Your customers can be an excellent resource for identifying your positioning through their testimonials.
  4. Find Uniqueness. You contrast yourself from your competition through quality, price, service, reputation, story, or something else notably distinct. If you aren’t positioned notably different on at least one of these, you will have a difficult time marketing your organization. It doesn’t have to be logical or rational. You need emotional differences. Your unique selling proposition paves the way to connect with your customers more deeply on an emotional level. Through positioning of your brand, or repositioning, you set yourself apart from your competitors. And importantly, you create an image that can be remembered more easily by your customers. It’s a point of differentiation that helps you stand apart.
  5. Branding Statement Template. By now you have pulled together a lot of information and you are ready to create a branding statement. Here’s a template to get you started:

(Organization or Individual Name) is (short description of who you are). The (Name of Organization or Individual) customer/patron is a person who (short description). They are (more description of customers) and (description of how product is purchased and consumed). The one word or words that our customers will cite most often about (Name of Organization or Individual) is (one word/sample of the top three words). We (promise and benefit you deliver) so they feel good about (themselves or other elements). Our customers believe in (name of organization) because (emotional promise or other reasons), and they differentiate us from (competitors or organizations in your category) because (testimonials or other customer feedback).

Remember: a Branding Statement is a marketing tool. It’s foundational to define your organization (or, if you’re creating this for you, as a personal Branding Statement). Below is an example for the organization referenced in last week’s blog that is creating a new logo and brand. It’s still a work in progress, but gives you an idea of how a Branding Statement might read:

Vocal Majority is an uplifting musical experience that stimulates the senses. It’s a non-profit whose performers are volunteers. The Vocal Majority patron is a person who has a deep love of family and harmony—both in the musical sense, and in the cultural sense. These are individuals across all ages that are loyal and return again and again to listen to our unique musical arrangements. They purchase tickets to experience us at live performances, and purchase recordings. The words that our customers will cite most often about Vocal Majority are harmony, excellence, and family. We transport our fans to feel good experiences about themselves, their families and our culture. Our customers believe in Vocal Majority because they tell us how we have touched their lives, and they differentiate us from other musical experiences because we perform not for money, but for the love of singing.”

With these steps, you’re ready to create your own branding statement. When it’s completed, distribute it to your staff, agency or creative partners, and by all means, make sure you consistently deliver what your branding statement says about you.

SEO 101: The 3 Keys to Rank No. 1 in Google

Mark Twain was only half joking when he said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, then wait a few minutes.” Growing up in Massachusetts I distinctly remember days when one minute it would be raining or snowing, and the next minute it would be clear skies.

Mark Twain was only half joking when he said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, then wait a few minutes.” Growing up in Massachusetts I distinctly remember days when one minute it would be raining or snowing, and the next minute it would be clear skies.

In other words, the weather in New England is a lot like Google’s algorithm; It’s constantly in flux, and it can seem nearly impossible to stay on top of all the updates. Whether you are new to SEO (search engine optimization) or your rankings have recently slipped, you might have gone looking for answers only to become overwhelmed by all the conflicting advice. If you are feeling frustrated and confused, don’t worry because you are not alone!

Fortunately, no matter how many new updates Google rolls out, following the fundamental best practices of good SEO should keep you ahead of the power curve. Here are the 3 steps to achieving and maintaining a spot at the top of the rankings.

  1. Research
    No matter what else you do, choosing the right target keywords is the most important step for your success. Begin your research for free with the Google AdWords Keyword Planner. As you study the available keywords, look for the ones that best meet 2 separate but related criteria:
    • A) Search Volume: This refers to how many people are searching for that particular keyword. A higher search volume means more potential eyeballs for your page.
    • B) Relevance: You want to focus on the keywords that draw customers who are ready to buy. Later, you can expand your reach to include “tire kickers,” or prospects who are in the early stages of considering a purchase. But for now, you want to bring in people who want your product or service today.

      While the “perfect” target keywords include both high search volume and high relevance, those can be tough or even impossible to find. For now, focus on those that hit a “bullseye” for relevance, even if the search volume is not quite as high.

  2. Relevance
    Once you have a list of target keywords, you need to make sure Google considers your website as relevant to those keywords. At one time, “keyword stuffing,” or unnaturally forcing the keyword all over the site, was a common strategy. Today, this action is penalized with lower rankings. Instead, focus on naturally incorporating the keyword where it makes sense. There are two steps to improving your relevance:
    • A) Website Structure: Match one keyword to each page of your website. This keeps the focus clean and helps Google recognize that the page is relevant. For your homepage, focus on your “dream” keyword—the one word or phrase that best describes your business and for which you would love to rank No. 1.
    • B) Page Elements: Each web page contains numerous areas where you can add your keyword. These include the Title Tag, Meta Description, Header Tags (H1, H2, and H3), and Body Copy. Remember to use the keyword in the Title Tag and Meta Description, and to incorporate it only where it naturally fits in the Header Tags and Body Copy.
  3. Reputation
    Convincing Google that your website and its individual pages are relevant is not enough. You also need to demonstrate that you are a trusted authority on your particular target keywords. You do this by building your site’s reputation.

    Traditionally, the best way to build reputation was through hyperlinks from other sites to yours. While this still remains very important, many old-school link building tactics are now penalized by Google. You need to focus on organic, natural relationships with other websites, rather than simply going on a campaign to build as many links as possible.

    Social media is also becoming an increasingly important factor. Page referrals through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets are now weighed heavily in the new Google algorithms. In fact, some experts believe that social media signals will soon outstrip web links as the No. 1 factor in determining your domain reputation.

What Does All This Mean for You?
As Google continues to roll out new algorithms and updates, some SEO ranking techniques will disappear, and new ones will be developed. What will never change, however, is the importance of creating excellent content.

Rather than attempting to “trick” Google into giving you higher rankings than you deserve, focus on creating content that is worthy of being ranked No. 1. Add new content frequently, spruce up old content that has seen better days, and make quality your number one goal. This simple policy will help you weather any storms and ensure that your site receives high rankings for many years to come.

Redefining the Art of Minding Your Ps and Qs

You know hospitality when you feel it, or as officially defined by dictionary.com it’s “the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.” Hospitality is actually more valuable than ever in our rushed, device-first and attention-deficit overloaded world. And yet, I find it missing in many brand experiences.

Multi-restauranteur Danny Meyer wrote a book called “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business” that caught my attention during the holiday season. Both in his book and on his website, Meyer shares his main business philosophy that has guided all 11 of his New York-based restaurants:

This is the age of the Hospitality EconomyTM. Superior products and excellent service are no longer enough to distinguish your business. How you make your customers feel is what sets your business apart—and that’s what hospitality is all about. Organizations that embrace a hospitality strategy:
1. Earn a reputation as a best place to work
2. Win customer loyalty
3. Generate persistent top line growth

Meyer believes wholeheartedly that “Hospitality is a sustainable competitive advantage. While others try to copy your products, no one can replicate the hospitality experience you create for your stakeholders.”

I couldn’t agree more. You know hospitality when you feel it, or as officially defined by dictionary.com it’s “the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.” Hospitality is actually more valuable than ever in our rushed, device-first and attention-deficit overloaded world. And yet, I find it missing in many brand experiences.

Perhaps, you, too, experienced this lack of hospitality over the past holiday shopping season: Brand ambassadors who often didn’t make meaningful eye contact, brusquely said “not a problem” when there was indeed a problem you needed for them to solve, and a goodbye after a transaction without a “thank you.” Why do businesses spend lots of capital on ad campaigns and new product introductions only to slip up on these basics—the real, face-to-face human interaction?

When I do experience genuine hospitality from companies, the repercussions are long and lasting and bring a smile to my face. This is likely to happen when I fly on Southwest Airlines or grab a quick lunch at Chipotle or Chick-fil-A. These brand ambassadors exude enthusiasm, seem to truly love what they are doing and make a conscious connection to engage with their customers, to treat them as friends and in doing so, validate the reasons the customers choose to spend their time and money with these companies.

Earlier this month I checked into The Ritz-Carlton for an annual girlfriend getaway. The brand lived up to its reputation for luxurious elegance, but what impressed me most was their lived value of “being ladies and gentlemen who serve ladies and gentlemen.”

My conversations with the various Ritz-Carlton team members I encountered—whether with parking attendants, concierges, front desk clerks, wait staff or spa personnel—were gratifying. They were genuinely concerned about all aspects of my stay and welcomed me like a good friend you were looking forward to getting to know better on this visit.

I like thinking about the verbs that drive hospitality—welcome and empathize—and just how they can be leveraged to a brand’s competitive advantage. I spoke with The Ritz-Carlton’s Human Resources Manager Greg Croff about this exact topic.

“Here at The Ritz-Carlton, we are all about memory-making. We want all our interactions to be positively memorable experiences. And, it all starts with our hiring process. We look for people who care about building relationships, who are naturally empathetic and easy to talk with, who make eye contact and who truly believe it is ‘their pleasure’ to take care of our guests. We welcome our new hires in a way we want them to welcome our guests. Constant hospitality is our DNA. We reinforce this each and every day with our Daily Lineup where at the start of each shift the team gathers for 15 minutes to focus on one aspect of our Gold Standard. We share WOW! stories of how team members reinforce our service mystique. We learn from each of our ladies and gentlemen about raising the bar and creating memories.”

Just how well does your brand mind its Ps and Qs? “Please,” “thank you,” “my pleasure” … simple words and phrases that may or may not bookend a customer’s experience with your brand. Why not conduct a hospitality audit with your leadership and see if this is one area of competitive advantage your brand can improve upon this year?

Use Market Research to Tie Brand Awareness and Purchase Intent to Sales

For years, I’ve been saying direct marketers are their own worst enemy when it comes to measurement. Direct marketers are good at measuring the things they’ve traditionally measured—response rates, cost per lead, cost per acquisition, etc.  But they’re not good at measuring the effect that their communications have on the non-responders; when, in fact, the effect of consistent branding in direct communications is what makes direct marketing powerhouses like Omaha Steaks and 1-800-flowers.com top of mind when consumers are ready to purchase (not to mention Amazon).

For years, I’ve been saying direct marketers are their own worst enemy when it comes to measurement.

Direct marketers are good at measuring the things they’ve traditionally measured—response rates, cost per lead, cost per acquisition, etc. But they’re not good at measuring the effect that their communications have on the non-responders; when, in fact, the effect of consistent branding in direct communications is what makes direct marketing powerhouses like Omaha Steaks and 1-800-flowers.com top of mind when consumers are ready to purchase (not to mention Amazon).

Even though consumers engage with brands on their own terms across multiple platforms, many marketers are stuck measuring the results of individual tactics rather than taking a holistic view of measurement. So when a single email or display ad fails to achieve the target level of attributable sales within a specific period of time, then they consider it a failure. Even though the communication has made an impact on those who didn’t respond, they can’t measure it, so they don’t count it.

And while many direct marketing practitioners now embrace the idea that their advertising has a cumulative effect of building a brand over time, most fall short of being able to quantify that ROI with meaningful metrics.

That’s where market research can help.

Consider the following word equations in light of how awareness contributes to sales for the top direct marketing companies:

Top of mind awareness + brand reputation + need = purchase intent
Top of mind awareness + brand reputation + immediate need = purchase

So it follows that if we can monitor awareness and reputation over time and index it to sales, then we can quantify the effects of those elements on sales revenue.

Start by surveying your prospects blindly—either through mail, email or search ads using relevant keywords. Offer an incentive that’s consistent with your product offering, e.g., “Save $$$ on cell phone accessories.” Ask respondents the following questions to determine the levels of unaided and aided awareness:

  • Which brands first come to mind when thinking of “category X”? (unaided awareness)
  • Which of the following brands (list) have you ever heard of? (aided awareness)

Get a better picture of the respondents’ product usage by asking:

  • Which brand(s) within category X do you “regularly” purchase?
  • Which brand is your favorite?
  • Which brand did you last purchase?
  • How often do you purchase this type of product?
    (Light, medium, heavy user?)
  • What percentage of “category X” purchases that you’ve made (within a certain timeframe) were “brand A”? (your share of customer)

For those who have used your brand, quantify purchase intent with the following question:

  • The next time you need this product, how likely are you to purchase “brand A”?

Next, index awareness levels to sales to sales revenues. Be sure account for category sales within the same time period. Your actual sales may have gone down, but the entire category may have gone down as well, and you may in fact have gotten more than your previous share of the category sales.

As you track these metrics over time, you will be able to quantify what a point of unaided awareness is worth in sales revenue. It’s one tool that will help you understand the effect that your communications have on sales beyond the responses that you can count directly.

How an Already Damaged Reputation Got Worse and Worse

We’ve all witnessed how impaired corporate or brand image can undermine both consumer trust and financial performance. Recently, Target’s CEO was relieved of his duties because of the massive customer account security breach which occurred during his watch. The poster child of negative reputation, at least in the U.S., has been British Petroleum. BP’s then-president of U.S. operations was forced from office because of some ill-conceived and dismissive language, and BP’s corporate behavior since the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has been of little help in image recovery.

We’ve all witnessed how impaired corporate or brand image can undermine both consumer trust and financial performance. Recently, Target’s CEO was relieved of his duties because of the massive customer account security breach which occurred during his watch. The poster child of negative reputation, at least in the U.S., has been British Petroleum. BP’s then-president of U.S. operations was forced from office because of some ill-conceived and dismissive language, and BP’s corporate behavior since the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has been of little help in image recovery.

British Petroleum has recently “celebrated” four years of cleanup and payout in the Gulf by announcing the end of active cleanup of the 500 miles of coastline from Louisiana to Florida, the result of 87 consecutive days of oil pouring from the Deepwater Horizon rig of its Macondo Project. After dealing with issues over the health and economic impact by setting up a multibillion-dollar cleanup fund, conducting a massive image PR repair campaign, and paying huge federal fines, BP had originally agreed to keep its corporate cash register open for environmental and business claims as long as they were what the company termed as “legitimate.” Though this began as an eagerness to address and settle these damages as a way to manage its impaired reputation, it has now devolved into legal, and very public, name-calling between BP and claimants.

Not including Federal fines, BP’s payout to Gulf Region businesses and residents has thusfar totaled almost $10 billion. The sheer volume and financially cascading nature of these claims, it turns out, was way beyond BP’s reckoning; and the company began to openly challenge many of them as “nonexistent and artificially calculated” in court. In mid-2013, BP even took out full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, claiming that attorneys were filing dubious and hyper-inflated claims on behalf of Gulf-area businesses. As stated by a BP spokesperson at the time, “The litigation is seeking to rectify the misinterpretations of the settlement that have led to inflated, exaggerated or wholly fictitious claims … will continue unabated.” Not exactly image-restoring language, and a direct slap at the federal judge who drafted the financial agreement.. By the Fall of 2013, BP’s attorneys were appealing one out of every five claims received.

BP was also receiving massive negative publicity due to both real and suspected improprieties among its legal staff involved in processing claims, with one lawyer fired for accepting fees from claimants and another lawyer resigning. The suspicions were so strong that the Freeh Group, a firm headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, was brought in (by a consortium of attorneys and BP) to investigate. Numerous “inappropriate” actions by the claims department were uncovered in the investigation; and one sidebar result was that, following the publication of its report, the Freeh Group took a more visible and active role in overseeing claims.

One result of this outside claims takeover has been more rigorous inspection of individual claims, even taking back payments (which Freeh’s team was empowered to do), if the original payment was deemed excessive or illegitimate. BP has been public about its support of the added scrutiny; while area attorneys and local government and other civic officials have noted how this has stifled claims filings.

Still, even as BP has pulled back in the Gulf, and gotten people to stop filing, it has left continued sore feelings by claimants, and those whose claims are either under investigation or still yet to be resolved. An example of this is a shrimper from Slidell. After extensive documentation consisting of multiple years of tax returns, financial statements and shrimping reports showing the vast sums the Louisiana shrimper had lost over several seasons, directly as a result of the Deepwater Horizon spill, he was paid about 7 percent of what had been claimed. To keep his business going, he had to take out loans. He also refiled his claim, but BP delayed it by beginning yet another investigation into his filing papers. As he told the area press: “BP is giving me the runaround.” Is this really the way to reclaim trust and bring back its image?

A ‘Back-to-Business’ Email Optimization Checklist

Back to school is also back-to-business time. Set aside a few hours this final week of summer to freshen up your email program and take advantage of the silence before the rush. Here are six ways to quickly improve reader satisfaction and response rates:

Back to school is also back-to-business time. Set aside a few hours this final week of summer to freshen up your email program and take advantage of the silence before the rush. Here are six ways to quickly improve reader satisfaction and response rates:

1. Put on the proverbial tie. Just as we don suits again in September, smarten up your email look with a template minirefresh. A simpler, more streamlined template will focus subscriber attention on key content and calls to action. Gather your creative and content teams and do a quick inventory of all the changes made to your newsletter template in the past nine months. Remove those that no longer make sense. Nearly every program has them, including the following:

  • small image, link or headline additions requested by the brand, product or sales teams;
  • the multilink masthead that no longer matches the landing pages;
  • that extra banner at the bottom of your emails promoting a special event that never seemed to go away;
  • a bunch of social networking links that no one has clicked on (usually, you’ll find two or three that your subscribers actually use. Keep those and give them breathing room so they’re more appealing and inviting); and
  • extra legal or other language in the footer.

2. Insure against failure. Take a quick look at two key engagement metrics this year: unsubscribe requests and complaints (i.e., clicks on the “Report Spam” button). First, ask everyone on your team to make sure the unsubscribe link works. Then, take a look if the unsubscribe and complaint rates for your various types of messages (e.g., newsletters or promotions) are erratic, growing or steady?

If erratic, you may find certain message types or frequency caps need to change. If growing, your subscribers may be moving to a new lifestage and are now uninterested in your content, or a new source of data may be signing up subscribers ill-suited for your brand and/or content. Both of these are great segmentation opportunities.

3. Turn frequency into cadence. Back when everything reached the inbox, being present was enough to earn a brand impression. So, many marketers just broadcast often to be near the top of the inbox. People are now fatigued from inbox clutter, however, and are employing more filters as a result. Being relevant and timely trumps volume. Subscribers visit their inboxes expecting to see timely messages tailored to their interests. On the other hand, repeated reminders about last week’s sale may turn them off forever.

4. Adopt a new attitude. Gather new information about subscribers, and use it to test content or segmentation strategies. Run a few instant polls to gauge how important key demand drivers are to your subscribers. Ask for a vote on some product taglines you’re considering. To get higher participation, make it fun by featuring the results of the poll on your Facebook fan page, inviting comments that you can share. Or keep a Twitter tally of response in real time.

5. Arm yourself for the crush. Just as traffic swells on the highways and commuter trains this time of year, the email transit way also fills up as marketers promote their fall offerings and gear up for the holidays/Q4. Just like in any rush hour, the more email traffic, the higher the likelihood that your messages will wait in line or be filtered.

Make it a habit to check your sender reputation every day that you send broadcast mailings — it only takes a minute if you have access to inbox placement data. If you don’t have this data, get it from a deliverability service, demand it from your email service provider (ESP), or even check simple diagnostics such as my firm’s free email reputation service SenderScore.org or DNSstuff.com, another free email reputation service.

Sender reputation is directly tied to inbox reach, and the best senders enjoy inbox placement rates in the 95th percentile. Don’t be fooled by ESP reports of “delivered” (i.e., the inverse of your bounce rate). Even for permission-based marketers, about 20 percent of delivered email is filtered or blocked and never reaches the inbox, according to a study by my firm. You can’t earn a response if you aren’t in the inbox. Imagine the immediate boost on all your response metrics if you move your inbox placement rate up 10 or more points.

6. Make new friends. You likely already read a number of blogs or e-newsletters that cover topics relevant to your brand and important to your audience. Audit these for new, fresh voices, then regularly link to those websites in your own messages as part of a regular “view from the world” feature. Your subscribers will appreciate the additional heads up to interesting or helpful articles, and you’ll start to build a network of experts and potential referrals back to your business.

These might be tasks already on your to-do list. Do them this week and get back to business a bit stronger and ready to optimize. Let me know what you think; please share any ideas or comments below.