Thursday, December 8, 2011

Kevin James and the Bro-nanza

To say that Kevin James is typecast is an understatement.  He's a bit on the chubby side, he generally plays a bumbling moron, and he is sometimes accompanied by an unrealistically hot female counterpart.  As women have gained more equal status in the workplace and society in general, the stereotype of the masculine and providing male has morphed men into Kevin James.  Nowhere has this been more evident than in advertising.

While women have been making strides in the working world it is still generally accepted that the woman of the house still makes the purchasing decisions.  Ads for most household items are still targeted at women, and they even play to the "I'm Leah Remini and my husband is Kevin James" mentality.  Many of today's advertisements not only alienate men from the purchase decision, but they are downright crude about it.  No ad is more offensive to men than the Avery Full Stick Label commercial called "Fantasy Football Draft."

The wife demeans and emasculates her husband and his hobby.  She does this with a smirk as he shrugs and sulks in the corner like a child that has been reprimanded.  Not only is this commercial generally accepted by the public, but it's viewed as humor.

On the flip side of this coin is the other type of advertising geared at men: What I like to call "the Bromercial."  These are the ads that portray all men as rowdy frat boys who like to break free of the shackles of family life (and nagging wives who ruin his Fantasy Draft).  These ads show a guy hanging with the guys.  They portray life as chummy and shallow, with men being only in pursuit of "non-feminine" activities.

I read a story this morning about a new campaign Pepsi Max is running in New Zealand.  If you enter a code from a bottle of Max you can test your "Bromitment" and be entered to win a trip to go skydiving or a vacation to go to Spain during the Running of the Bulls.  Obviously all men want to do manly things like get gored by a bull.  This is, after all, the only decision that a man can make on his own; buy a Pepsi and jump out of a plane.

As these incorrect male stereotypes continue to be perpetuated by advertisers, brands are going to miss out on more and more male-directed spending.  A Yahoo study about dad-driven consumer behavior found that most men feel isolated and left out of the purchase of child-care items.  Men are playing a more equal role in parenting, and some men are even stay-at-home dads.  Marketers need to understand this shift and stop portraying men as dumb frat boys or dumb pushovers.  Women in advertising are portrayed as the diverse and multi-faceted beings that they are.  It's about time men in advertising get a fair shake too.

Monday, December 5, 2011

That Personal Touch

Over the past two weeks I have had two different interactions on twitter that I want to share.  Both involve a company responding to a general comment I made about each company.  Both interactions show the company going above and beyond, and really adding that personal touch.

I pack a yogurt every day for lunch.  I'm not much of a milk drinker so I like to get calcium elsewhere.  On this particular day I was excited to eat a Key Lime flavored yogurt that I purchased at Wegman's (a high-end grocery store in the Northeast).  I am a huge Key Lime Pie fan, so this was going to be a treat.  As I started eating the yogurt I noticed a lack of any real flavoring, Key Lime or otherwise.  I posted a comment on twitter stating "i think this yogurt is missing its flavoring.  thanks @wegmans for denying me my key lime fix."

My intent was more humor than anything else, and I was surprised that a representative from Wegman's responded within minutes.  We traded a few messages back and forth, mostly about the product code and other ways for Wegman's to check and QA their providers.  Less than an hour after my initial tweet I had provided Wegman's with my contact information and a coupon for a free yogurt was on its way to my home.  By writing my initial tweet I never expected a free yogurt.  It's not like the one I had was bad, per se.  I did finish it after all.  Wegman's took the effort to monitor their mentions and they wanted to make it right with the consumer, even if it was only a $0.50 yogurt.

Under The Influence
This past Friday I decided to have a lazy night.  Instead of making plans or trying to have a night on the town I kept it low-key.  Feeling a bit nostalgic, I broke out my original Xbox and started up Project Gotham Racing.  Since it was Friday, I was relaxing with a beer or two.  Again, trying to add some humor to my twitter feed, I sent a quick update to my followers: "Does it count as DUI to play Xbox driving games while drinking beer?"

I didn't think anything of this comment until the next morning when I saw that @xboxsupport was now following me.  I noticed a mention in my timeline from Xbox Support: "maybe PUI? hehe either way have fun and let us know if you ever need some help ^BB."  This was a completely unnecessary comment, and obviously unsolicited.  My original tweet had no hash-tag or @ mention.  Someone at Microsoft is following mentions of Xbox so closely that my tweet was found anyway.  In an effort to make sure I know where to turn for support, BB at Microsoft added a quick joke of his (or her) own and left it at that.  It is a quick personal touch that took a few seconds to do, and here we are two days later still talking about.

Both of these interactions are small-scale.  This is not as scathing as United Breaks Guitars or the Delta military fiasco.  This is not as impressive as Shankman's airport steak delivery.  That does not diminish the personal touch and lasting impression, however.  The main objective of social media is being social, after all.  By empowering twitter response teams to engage and interact with customers, companies can easily have a positive impact in the minds of consumers.  By ignoring the social aspect of this medium, some companies are missing the point entirely and missing out on effortless opportunity.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

As American as Cheap French Fries

Today's Living Social deal is for McDonalds.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Living Social, one of the major players in the very crowded "daily deal" space, is running a one-day deal with McDonalds, the largest fast food company in the world.  Just $13 gets you five Big Macs and five orders of fries, and you only have today to partake!

While you are contemplating a $13 coronary, consider this also: it is just before 9am and 32,000 of these have already been purchased.  This is likely going to be the largest deal for Living Social (or any daily deal site) for quite some time.  Getting such a name as McDonalds to sign on also legitimizes the company and solidifies their business.  While Groupon has been struggling with valuation math errors, compaints from customers and merchants, and a sinking share price after a questionable IPO, Living Social has been quietly humming along in the background making snappy commercials, adding new service lines like food and travel, and securing additional funding from investors.

This particular deal is not like the standard Living Social voucher.  Typically users are emailed a voucher that can also be stored on an iOS or Android app.  The user presents the voucher at the place of business, and the discount is applied.  For McDonalds the buyer is actually mailed a coupon book, which I imagine will be much like those that used to be available at Halloween.  With coupon in hand, the buyer is entitled to one free Big Mac and one free order of fries.

Previous complaints about daily deal sites have centered around the experience at the register.  In some businesses the employees are completely unaware that a deal is circulating.  In some cases the employees had knowledge of the deal but no knowledge of how to actually ring it through.  It's my guess that McDonalds is using coupons in order to minimize this effect and to also account for the scope of trying to train all cashiers on a new process.  Having a physical coupon will also allow for easy tracking of redemption, although the figures may be skewed as the coupons do not have an expiration date.

Living Social and McDonalds are both taking a risk with this venture.  Living Social has tried to present itself as a company that wants to introduce you to adventures and new experiences.  It's safe to say that a Big Mac is neither of those things.  Living Social is also putting itself at risk in terms of fulfillment (if they are the ones sending the coupons).  McDonalds is certainly at risk just like any other merchant that uses a daily deal program.  Any of the complaints that a mom-and-pop pizza store face are possible at McDonalds; with McDonalds, however, the complaints will be magnified by about 13,000 (the number of US locations).

It's taken me about 20 minutes to write to this point, and another 7,000 deals have been purchased.  At this pace McDonalds will sell half a million voucher books today worth about $13 million (based on average value of $26).  As the sales tick up over the course of the day, and as these coupons start to get redeemed, it will become clear if this was a smart move or not.  McDonalds is likely banking on coupon users making additional purchases while in-store.  Living Social, however, is likely banking on this to bring in more large-name companies as their nearest competitor continues to expire as fast as a daily deal.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Reputation Mis-Management

I'll fess up - I follow some brands on twitter.  I like a discount or a coupon as much as the next guy, and I also like to keep tabs on brands that I am truly interested in.  I don't generally interact with these brand accounts, but I have on occasion.

One thing that I notice brand twitter accounts doing is retweeting positive messages about their own brand.  For example, if a random twitter user sends a tweet saying "just had a great flight on @delta" it is common practice for Delta to retweet that.  It's a little self-promotion, but it's generally accepted in the twitterverse.

Brands need to be cautious of this, however, as it may not always convey the best image about the original poster.  I was browsing my twitter stream this morning when I came across this retweet by Mandalay Bay (image at right).  I checked the clock and saw that it was 11:49am.  That would make it 8:49am in Las Vegas.  I was just a little appalled at the thought of drinking a Guinness and eating BBQ at 9am.  I applaud the original poster for his iron stomach, of course.

It was only then that I noticed the little time-stamp of "12 hours ago."  There is nothing wrong with beer and BBQ at 9pm.  That's perfectly normal, even a little tame by Vegas standards.  In the haste to promote their brand and give a little self-back-pat, Mandalay inadvertently made the original poster look like someone who really enjoys his Vegas.  While this case is a little amusing with little harm done, it's always best to be careful what and when you retweet.  Just because you walk in at 830am with a list of mentions, it always helps to use a little common sense when you decide which ones to re-share with the world.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Reality of HGTV

The current lineup of tv shows would suggest that doing most anything is easy, from home design to earning millions on a marriage.  The current crop of DIY shows neatly packages home design or cooking or any other task into 30 easy minutes.  As a society we are currently facing a barrage of information and media overload, all which somehow trivializes hard work and actual effort by sensationalizing those rare success stories.  The saying goes "if it was easy, everyone would be doing it" and that is as true today as ever.  The problem today, however, is that many people are trying to succeed and they are just not doing it well.

I was recently flipping through the website of my local newspaper.  I saw an article titled "Digital Marketing 'is the tool' for Small Businesses."  This caught my eye for obvious reasons, so I gave it a read.  While many of the points are valid at a broad level, the article misses some key points about branding, social media, and customer service.  The article implies that small business success will come running after you as soon as you send your first tweet.  While social media and an online presence may cost less than a mailer or a newspaper ad, having an online presence requires its own skill and strategy to be successful.

During my senior year of college I was enrolled in a class that was designed to give us real world marketing experience.  Every student in that class hoped to be assigned to a world-class client that would have an exciting challenge for the semester.  My team was assigned to a sole-proprietorship; a man who made saw blades in his garage.  Mark Zuckerberg barely had a driver's license at the time, but I am sure we would have recommended a social media campaign if those tools existed.

There have been several cases where social media has been a tremendous success (or a miserable failure).  Because we hear these stories about the little guy making it big because of twitter and Facebook, we think that anyone can replicate that success.  It's the same phenomenon that drives people to play the lottery every week; the hope of the payout drives you forward.

Many of these social media success stories leave out an important part of the equation: hard work.  Creating a facebook page and a blog is the easy part.  Filling those channels with relevant and accuarte information is the hard part.  We hear of the social media blunders that happen almost daily, and no business owner wants to be in that spotlight.  Many of those gaffes are the result of poor planning, poor execution, or both.  It is for this reason that I was angered by the article I read.

Social media is just like any other marketing channel.  How much stock would we put in a story that advocated a small business create its own television commercials?  Would we all run out and start negotiating air time and print rates?  The low cost of using social media does not imply that everyone will have success; at least some skill and business acumen is required.  I am not saying that every small business needs an agency or other person to manage social media.  Instead, I think it's prudent that every person wishing to use social media as a marketing tool should enter with the same strategizing, planning, and, research that would go into any other marketing initiative.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Flash in the Pan

When the first iPhone was released in 2007, one of the bigger claims was that the phone would deliver a web browsing experience identical to that of a desktop web browser.  At the time this was a huge deal given the sad state of WAP browsers and web pages.  The one little caveat that Steve forgot to mention, however, was that this breakthrough new experience would not support Adobe Flash.  This may not seem like big news in today's HTML5 world, but at the time it was shocking that Apple would not support a technology that was on the majority of web pages in existence.

Over the years much has been said about Apple's choice to exclude Flash support.  Lawsuits have been filed, pundits have expressed more than their fair share of opinions, and competitors used the fact as a unique selling point when Adobe released Mobile Flash in 2009.  Today marks the end of that era with Adobe announcing the end of development for the Mobile Flash product.

This is big news in itself, as future versions of Android (and thus Android handsets) can no longer tout this as an advantage over iOS.  Adobe also mentioned that it would start investing more in HTML5 development as it scales back on Mobile Flash.  This little nugget of information is probably the larger news, despite it not being the main headline of the day.

With Adobe adding support for HTML5 it is essentially abandoning a flagship product that has been the underpinning of the internet for a decade or more.  As Apple products have moved to the mainstream over the past few years, so has the opinion and viewpoint that Flash is an unnecessary technology.  Steve Jobs famously blasted Flash in an open letter, citing HTML5 and other technologies as the successors to rich internet experiences.

This does not mean that Flash will be dead across all media.  Flash is still very much alive in the regular desktop experience.  With Adobe first making the move to HTML5 by creating the Adobe Edge product, and now the decision to jettison Mobile Flash, there are a lot of questions raised about the future of Flash as a whole.  Add to this the monthly stats about increased mobile browser usage (and decreased desktop usage) and you can't help but wonder just how much time is left on Flash's clock?

Should Adobe eventually abandon Flash altogether it will have a ripple effect across the entire industry.  Restaurants, bars, and clubs will need to completely redo their clumsy splash-screen websites.  Banner ads and rich media display ads will need to be converted to HTML5 or another new technology.  Online video watching will also be drastically different as FLV goes away.  It's fairly easy to see why Flash has maintained such a stronghold across the internet, but with its own creator turning a cold shoulder it looks like that fifteen minutes is dwindling down.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

You like me. You really like me!

No one likes a beggar.  We sneered at grade-grubbers in high school and college.  We avoid all contact with panhandlers on the street.  We change the channel when we see the latest victim of a sex scandal groveling for our forgiveness.  With all of this animosity towards those who beg us for something, why are we so eager to click the "like" button just because someone asks us to?

Personally, I have never been fond of the like button.  Back when you could only "like" a picture or a status update it made sense.  It was your way of approving of someone; a virtual high-five.  Now, however, you can "like" nearly anything on facebook (and even off facebook).  The like button is so ubiquitous and has so many various meanings that it has lost just about all of its value.  Perhaps this is why so many companies are having such a hard time placing dollar values on social media - one of their main success metrics just doesn't have real value any more.

Nothing irks me more than seeing a company begging for a "like" from consumers.  In many cases it's almost a con: "like us to enter a contest" or "like us to learn more."  Often the user will be given his instant reward and be left floundering in the digital wasteland, spending months seeing pointless updates from the brand.  I have only ever "liked" one brand on facebook, and I got so tired of seeing new store openings litter my news feed that i promptly revoked my "like."  Because number of likes is viewed as the ultimate success in social marketing, companies will do anything to collect likes and then never engage with these users afterwards.

Based on what I read online and various conversations I have been a part of, many client-marketers measure social media success by facebook likes and twitter followers.  To me this is analogous to measuring search success by the number of keywords in your campaign.  You use keywords to target and drive visitors to your site with the goal of taking some sort of action.  With facebook we should be using those who "like" us as a mailing list of sorts.  We should now target to these users and get them to take some form of action.  Even though the "like" is mostly without value, we should reward those users who give us a digital thumbs up.

Instead of amassing "likes" that mean very little, marketers should look at the value that each of those "likes" can bring the brand.  If a user has taken the time to click the like button for you, basically saying you are virtually cool, dont be a Regina George and abuse those who make you popular.  Instead, take advantage of the network you have built up to speak your praises and spread your message.  If you give back a little to your fans, they will return the favor exponentially.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Squeaky Wheel

Over the past few years, Twitter has progressed from a novel way of blogging (microblogging) to a powerful tool for sharing and for businesses.  Twitter users went from sending a few thousand tweets per day in the first year of operations to over 7,000 tweets per second during the Women's World Cup Finals.  It is hard to argue that Twitter is an indispensable tool for social media and, increasingly, for business.

Over the past few years I have marveled at the companies that have made twitter a part of their success.  Comcast comes to mind, turning a relatively mundane employee role into an internet celebrity via their @comcastcares account.  Many airlines have also adopted social media as a platform for delivering near-time updates and handling basic customer service complaints.

Another thing that Twitter has created is the internet celebrity, as mentioned above with Frank Eliason and Comcast.  These are the folks who are at the leading-edge of technology.  They act as voices for their particular corner of the world, be it a tech blog or a cooking show.  These are the people with crazy Klout scores and who end up with thousands of followers.  They are generally respected for their opinions and are fully taking advantage of the new platform Twitter has created for them.

Of course, every transformative tool has its seedy underbelly.  As people find new and different ways to interact with a new social tool, they also find ways to exploit it for their own benefit.  Because Twitter has become such a powerful customer service tool for companies, it was only a matter of time before it was being exploited - especially by the aforementioned internet celebrities.

Because these "twelebs" have large numbers of followers and can make a lot of negative press in a very short time, companies are eager to bend over backwards.  For example, I have observed several tech blogger personalities publicly complain to airlines about weather delays.  The airlines usually respond by asking the "tweleb" to send a direct message so they can sort it out.  The last time I checked, weather was not a valid customer service issue (and is clearly noted as such on the Contract of Carriage).

In some cases social media has even been used to rectify a wrong that was not actually a wrong.  Delta was dragged through the social media mud by a few American soldiers after the airline imposed an extra-baggage fee on the troops.  Delta was very clear on their policy, and it was revealed that the soldiers were misinformed by their orders based on the class of ticket purchased.  Because the troops took to social media, however, Delta not only refunded the fees, but the airline increased the baggage allowance for troops.  Other airlines followed suit, just to avoid a similar snafu.

As a country that likes to complain and receive monetary compensation for when we are wronged, it is a shame to see that social media is going this route.  Yes, it makes me feel better as a consumer when I know that I can receive near-instant help with an issue I am having.  Yes, it's nice to be able to have a new means of communicating with businesses.  It's even nice to know that somewhere there is a real person speaking to me on behalf of a large corporation.

As many companies adopt and tweak social media policies, they may take actions that will prevent them from being the social scapegoat.  As the news media continues to air stories like the Delta example noted above or the now-famous Morton's Airport story, where will companies draw the line between actual customer service and catering to the media hype machine?  Will social media as a customer service tool be phased out as more companies inadvertently draw criticism for enforcing policies?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why Facebook Metrics may be BS

A graph surfaced this past week, that showed US Share of Time Spent Online for major web properties.  This chart began in Q3 2006 and is current through Q3 2011.  The graph illustrates that Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft properties have seen a decrease in time spent online, Google showed a slow and steady increase, and Facebook illustrates the classic and elusive hockey stick.  Twitter, Google+, and the internet in general seemed to think that this graph signaled the demise of Google and society in general.  Be warned, however, that this graph is crap.

A few weeks back I was contacted by a client about a campaign that recently ended.  He noted that his impressions from standard reporting were much lower than what Facebook was saying his fan page views should be.  After digging around for a while we uncovered that Facebook counted any view by any person at any time.  Standard reporting was only counting users who were logged in and who liked the page.  While Facebook's reporting was not wrong, it wasn't presenting the data in the most accurate manner (their inability to slice and dice data by active users/likes is a different story entirely).

As soon as I saw this hockey-stick graph I immediately thought about my previous experience with Facebook data.  Looking at the web properties listed, they all serve different functions.  Facebook is a social network with photos, games, and chat.  Yahoo is a portal with news and fantasy football.  Google is a search engine with email.  While it is certainly important to note that more time overall is being spent on Facebook, that's not the entire story.

Some have argued that this increase in time spent is due to Mafia Wars and Farmville.  Others have noted that almost every web page is connected to the social graph which may be counted as "time spent on Facebook."  As I noticed with my client, what exactly do these numbers mean?  More importantly, what do these numbers mean for the other companies on the graph and the industry as a whole?

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the resultant commentary on this graph suggests that Google should be shaking in its boots.  I honestly do not see this to be the case.  While Facebook has become a powerful site with many uses and purposes, it serves no real utility.  Facebook does not let you communicate with people outside of its ecosystem.  Facebook won't let you share documents with friends, family, or colleagues.  Facebook cannot give you directions to the new Thai restaurant that just opened, and Facebook does not allow you to keep and share a calendar of personal events.  For all of the things that Facebook does, and all of the things we use Facebook for, it serves no real purpose.

Should Facebook disappear overnight, many of the things we use it for exist elsewhere.  We can share pictures on Picasa.  We can check-in to places on Foursquare.  We can connect with friends and colleagues on any number of websites.  While Facebook is a powerful platform, it is not indispensable.  Maybe Google should  be concerned that Facebook has seen a meteoric rise in time spent on its services.  At the same time, Facebook should be equally concerned.

There is no question that Facebook has gained serious momentum in its short existence.  With nearly 800 million users there is also no question that Facebook is a popular service.  How is Facebook going to continue to build and retain its user base?  How is Facebook going to fend off the growing number of people who are "over it?"  Most importantly, how is Facebook going to stay relevant and keep from going the way of Myspace?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Future of Shopping Online

Earlier this week, many a nerd saw that a dream might be coming true; Nike announced it was going to sell a limited number of "Back to the Future" shoes.  For those not in-the-know, these are the shoes that Marty McFly wears in the second installment of the series.  What makes these futuristic Nikes so nerd-worthy is that they mold and adjust to the wearer's feet with the touch of a button.  How cool is that?  While the version released this week still requires lacing "the old way," it still brings us one step closer to the 'future' we all pictured in that movie.

As we move closer to a future filled with re-hydrators and self-lacing shoes, I wonder how we will obtain those items.  Will we go to a store in a mall?  Will we order them online and have them delivered?  Will we be able to shop from our TV?  Maybe we will just be able to think about the item and it will show up the next day.  Regardless of how shopping will look in the future, it's pretty evident that shopping today is in dire need of a makeover.

At the start of the 20th century, downtown areas were the prime shopping venue.  Department stores were massive buildings that contained everything from shovels to stockings to sofas.  Smaller boutiques dotted the streets, window dressings enticing the passersby.  After the war, the automobile not only decreased foot traffic in urban cores, it also decreased the population as families fled to suburbia.  Another 20 years brought shopping malls and strip malls, and another 20 years beyond that brought the big-box-megaplex.

As the internet evolved from educational information sharing to public use, companies were quick to capitalize on the extra exposure.  It was thought that creating electronic versions of a mall was a smart move.  But how else can you be certain to get the best deal?  Comparison shopping engines - view one product  at all the stores online where you can buy it.  Since then we have seen familiar stores open up digital storefronts, as well as mobile sites and other innovations keeping pace with technology.

The one area where all of this technology is lagging, however, is bridging the gap between site and store.  Walmart offers a service that lets a customer order a product online and pick it up in a local store.  Nordstrom offers a similar service that will search the entire national inventory to display in the ecommerce site.  These are fantastic ways to close the gap, and it seems that many of the pieces already exist.  The challenge now is how to connect all of the pieces for a seamless experience.

For the near future, I envision a more connected experience for shopping.  Store inventory will be available to the customer on the website.  If I choose to go pick it up at a store, I will know that the product will be waiting for me.  If I want the product delivered, it will be sent to me regardless of where it lives in the store's supply.  If I search for the product on Google Shopping or PriceGrabber, the inventory will be real time, avoiding any consumers being misled by outdated product feed inventory and pricing.

Taking this one step further, smartphones will play an increasingly important part in the shopping process.  Google Goggles technology can be advanced to assist with finding products online (perhaps this is why Google purchased  Product searches can return Local Search results in stores nearby, preferably only showing those stores with inventory in stock.  Perhaps technology can be advanced and integrated to the point that you can make the purchase from your phone and then go pick it up in-store by waving your phone at the cash register to call up your receipt.

Technology is not only changing the experience for shoppers, it is also changing the entire nature of the way companies do business.  The internet gives equal footing to companies of varying sizes.  In addition to shopping advancements many technologies are changing on the payment side of the equation as well.  Google is dipping its toes into the near-field-communication arena with Google Wallet.  Several companies are experimenting with alternatives to credit card processing.  American Express even developed its own PayPal-like service.  In brick-and-mortar stores, small businesses are already embracing some of these payment technologies such as Square and LevelUp.  Google is already experimenting with inventory values in Product Search.  As these enhancements converge and morph, it will be very interesting to see just how many of these "futuristic" ideas become as real as the "Back to the Future" shoes.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What's For Dinner?

Before Yelp came along, Zagat was one of the most revered restaurant review guides.  The premise of Zagat's guides is simple; customers fill out reviews which are aggregated both as a small blurb and as an average of scores in several categories.  While Zagat was never as prestigious as a Michelin rating, it certainly influenced many a dining decision over the years.

One of the main goals of the Zagat guide, as stated by the founders, is to collect and organize reviews to enable customers to make informed decisions.  Zagat has grown from one guide for restaurants in New York to over 70 cities, covering food, lodging, travel, and entertainment.  It's almost like Zagat was the original social network - they even distribute stickers for merchants to place on their doors just like Yelp and Foursquare do now.

Yesterday, Google announced that they intend to purchase Zagat.  While this announcement seemingly comes out of left field, it actually makes so much sense it is a wonder that it didn't happen sooner. Google's mission statement is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible."  While restaurant reviews in NYC is a much smaller scope, the original intent of the Zagat guide was also to organize information and make it useful.

Even more importantly, however, is Google's increasing reliance on user reviews to power Local Search and Shopping.  Google used to rely on third party sources to provide these reviews.  As social networking and peer interactions became the way of web 2.0, Google started to cultivate their own database of user reviews.  These reviews became more important in how local search results and shopping results would rank.

It only makes sense then that instead of slowly and methodically imploring users to write reviews, Google essentially purchased that content.  In doing so, Google has filled in a large gap in their library of reviews.  Google now has the ability to take some of the most trusted user reviews in the industry and spread that content to every corner of the internet.

It will be interesting to see how Google uses this new content aside from just adding to the Places and Maps listings.  Will it help with rankings?  Will it help with organic listings?  Only time will tell what Google has in store for Zagat, but it's safe to say that this was definitely a smart acquisition that actually makes sense for Google's business model.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rollin' On The River

For those who may not be aware, we had a bit of a storm on the east coast.  Thankfully our municipal services were prepared and many cities and towns are already drying out and getting on with life.  Some places fared better than others, as is the case with any major weather event.  Often events like this bring out an altruistic side in society and we often behave like our grandparents did - neighborly and friendly.

One thing that can snap us back from this simpler time is an ill-timed email blast or scheduled tweet.  Much has already been written about tweets that show poor timing.  Many of these tweets have been directly written at the time, such as Gilbert Gottfried's Aflac snafu or Kenneth Cole's Egypt gaffe.  Lesser known of the "oops tweets" are those that are pre-scheduled and run their course at an inopportune time.  This often happens during emergencies when marketers do not have enough time to cancel the schedule or they downright forget.

In most cases, this is viewed as insensitive, but the flare-up dies down a few days later as most consumers are aware that it was an honest mistake.  There are some instances, however, where this could be used to the advertiser's advantage.  This thought occurred to me recently as I received two emails from a nearby bar.  The problem with these emails was not content, more it was that the bar is partially underwater.

The emails were advertising two different parties during the week.  One party is a welcome back party for students and the other is a Labor Day party.  Neither email mentioned a flood, the bar being closed, or the bar re-opening.  In fact, the emails were painfully void of those details.  I immediately deleted the emails with a chuckle, and didn't think about them until a few hours later.

It was clear from both the timing and the content of the messages that these were scheduled a few days ago.  It was also clear that whomever scheduled the emails was too busy bailing water out of the basement to remember to cancel the scheduled email.  I imagine that most people chuckled and deleted the emails, as I did at first.  What if the bar had taken hold of this opportunity to craft a message that spoke to their recent misfortune?

Even though the bar is only going to experience a closure of a few days according to their owner, by not mentioning the event in their emails it makes the message seem cheaper.  Assuming that someone from the bar could have spared a few minutes, how much of an impact could the same email have had if the message was about their recent events?  What if the bar had made the bold statement that they are currently closed but would be having a re-opening party for their loyal fans and customers?  Instead of appearing forgetful or downright ignorant of their plight, the bar could have kept themselves in the good graces of their email list.

Given that this bar is in a part of town that skews younger, the bar will probably not suffer any adverse effects from this brief closure.  Not all businesses may be so fortunate, however.  Given the variety of ways a business can communicate with customers (both existing and future), it takes a savvy marketer to seize opportunities like this and make lemon drop shots out of lemons.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Upright and Locked Position

In a previous post about agency relations I mentioned a survey that was co-sponsored by Deloitte and the CMO Council.  The main finding of the survey was that organizations are trying to make sense of the vast amounts of data available.  Another finding that was slightly shocking to me - marketing executives are basically scared of the internet and its data.  It is increasingly difficult to integrate online and offline sales figures.  It is harder to customize the customer experience and glean meaningful data from it.  Overall, business is harder these days.

I am willing to argue that it doesn't have to be that hard.  Having the right amount of data is the key to successfully running a business.  Using analytics to make informed decisions will go a long way.  Additionally, there are a variety of ways to combine online and offline data, all through the same software package.  The real difficult part is ensuring that all of this is set up properly, and that you are collecting the data that you need.

In my spare time I am a bit of an airplane nerd.  I will take a flight for fun; aviation is generally interesting to me.  You can imagine my elation when, a few years back, I was given the opportunity to work on some search campaigns for a recently-merged airline.  I dove into this project with enthusiasm and I really wanted to impress the client.

To say that I left an impression is an understatement.  Over the course of the project we learned that the third-party analytics software was a complete mess.  Even though the pre-merger airlines had the same brand of analytics software on their websites, something got lost in the union of the two.  It seemed that no one bothered to adjust the implementation to account for the new flow and booking engine.  Depending on what kind of report was being looked at, my campaigns were either insanely successful or barely breaking even.

Ultimately, the client cancelled the engagement with my agency, and my dream campaign was over.  Thankfully the rationale was not a reflection on me and the work that I did.  Ultimately, the client just could not tell how it was performing at all.  They did not want to invest money in a venture that they could not prove as profitable. That stung, but it made sense from a business standpoint.

What does not make sense about this example is how often this scenario is repeated.  Many client organizations have incorrect, incomplete, or otherwise 'damaged' analytics platforms.  Just like a website will need routine maintenance and optimization, so too does the analytics platform.  If data is so important to any company in today's climate, why not at least give yourself a fighting chance?

The marketing executives of many top companies have recognized that data and analytics are worth investing in for the near future and the long term.  Why then, are companies still risking their business and that of their marketing partners by not actually making these investments?  No one knows for sure whether my search campaigns for the airline client were as successful as the one report suggested, or if they were barely scraping by as the other report showed.  The only thing we know for certain is that the airline missed an opportunity to grow their business and my agency missed an opportunity to grow a long-term relationship with the airline.  With a better eye on analytics, and with more attention being paid to the proper implementation, things may have turned out very differently for both organizations.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Kicking And Streaming

Yesterday I wrote about some of the shortcomings of advertising on VOD systems.  Notably, it seems that opportunities are being squandered at the expense of both the viewers and the advertisers.  With the amount of demographic data available, it should be easy to set up some basic targeting rules to make everyone happy.  Another new-media venue where this is the case is streaming television advertising.

One of the reasons Google has been so successful is because they were able to match a user’s intent to an advertiser’s product offering.  In other words, Google is able to target users very specifically.  Google matches relevant ads to relevant consumers.  This has been mostly the case all over the internet; everything can be tracked and analyzed.  The general belief is that more data equals better targeting equals better advertising.

Why, then, is the ad experience during streaming TV so terrible?  It used to be that that the programming had “limited commercial interruptions” or so Hulu said.  That was generally the case, however.  Then the breaks became more frequent and longer.  If my memory is correct, it used to be a total of one minute per half-hour program; this is now about 4x that.  This is still half of what you get during a regular broadcast, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

If I commit to a night of television, let’s say a solid three hours, I will likely see the same ads a few times during the course of the evening.  It’s pretty unlikely that I will see the same ad during the same program, however.  Media planners are smarter than that, and they don’t want to overwhelm the audience with repetition.  Streaming TV plays by different rules.  Not only are there 3-5 advertising breaks during a 30-minute program, but each break will generally play the same exact 2-3 ads.

Think about this for a second.  You are seeing the same ad roughly three to five times during a 30-minute program.  As a viewer this is annoying.  As an advertiser, how is this even acceptable?  Is this really money well spent?  Is this repetition really making the best of all of the data and targeting of the internet?  This could be the best-targeted ad in the world, catering specifically to me, but I guarantee you that I don’t care about your product if I see the same ad five times in a half-hour.

The final grievance I have with ads during streaming content, at least in their current format, is how disruptive the experience is.  My experience is probably slightly different than most in that I permanently have a computer hooked up to my 42” LCD.  I use this computer as a DVR and also to watch streaming TV content.  I don’t think I need to tell you that I only watch in full-screen mode; until the ad collapses the content back into a window and requires me to maximize the screen when the show resumes. 

There are a lot of interesting opportunities that advertisers are capitalizing on, including skinned experiences and interactive features.  These should never come at the expense of the user experience.  You should always remember that the viewer is there to watch a TV program.  The ad should be secondary. 

Streaming content has been a boon for networks and content creators alike.  It’s provided an unanticipated source of revenue as well as a variety of targeting options.  As long as advertisers don’t let the providers abuse the ad space, it can even promote new loyalty among a new audience.  When the providers start over-playing ads and making the advertising annoying and intrusive, nobody wins.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gordon Ramsay and the Pharma Machine

I am a huge fan of watching TV On Demand.  Having a DVR is one thing, but being able to watch a show  at any time, that's great stuff.  As with most technologies, the real gem of On Demand used to be the minimal ad interference.  As the technology became more widespread, and after the writer's strike a few years back, networks and content providers have been capitalizing on this additional opportunity to make money.  Unfortunately, they forget that this is not TV advertising of old; this is new economy and this needs to be treated differently.

I have had this gripe for some time now, but it really came to a head while watching "Hell's Kitchen" on my cable's On Demand service.  Fox just recently started providing their content to Comcast, with a few stipulations.  One of these requirements is that fast forwarding through the program is not allowed.  In other words, Fox requires Comcast to provide a captive audience for On Demand content.

Seeing that I work in advertising, I don't often get bothered by ads.  I know that most people have less of a tolerance than I do, however.  So what was it that got me more riled up than the bad risotto that was grating at Gordon Ramsay?  Every single ad during the program was for some kind of class action lawsuit against a pharmaceutical manufacturer.  There was also one for a tax lawyer to help remove liens and wage garnishments.  The first thought I had was that it was 3am, due to the types of commercials we were forced to watch.

Sadly, Fox was more concerned with selling this new ad inventory than they were with providing a good user experience.  Comcast has a lot of information on me because of my cable box.  They even know what room in the house that box is in.  Why can't Fox (and other VOD providers) take advantage of this information?  Why can't Fox fill up this new ad space with relevant and targeted ads?

Earlier in the day I was watching "Cupcake Wars" and saw the best-targeted ad I have seen in a while.  It was an ad for a cereal, and the setting was in a cupcake bakery.  At the time I commented that the media planner should get kudos for doing such a good job.  Chances are, the planner was able to make this plan with basic information like the name of the show and the concept of the ad.  If there was more information available, why not use it?

I understand that movies and music and TV programming all have complex contractual rights associated with distribution and replay.  This was the crux of the writer's strike, and it's a shame to see that it still isn't figured out.  What is even more tragic, however, is that networks are wasting opportunities to provide their viewers and their advertisers with a good experience.  Fox is taking an opportunity to connect with a captive audience and instead just trapping them in crappy ad buys.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Do You Need An Agency?

This week on Twitter, Deloitte posted a link to a co-sponsored study.  The tweet read “Do you need your agency?” and provided a link to the study from the CMO Council on the 2011 State of Marketing.  While the actual study did little to convince me of a need for an agency (or lack thereof), the tweet itself did enough to raise my blood pressure a few points.  As someone who worked for a large agency during the lean times of 2008-2010, it always made my blood boil a little when a consulting firm called for companies to abandon their agencies for one reason or another.

I saw many of my clients cut budgets during the recession.  Programs that had taken months of selling and preparation were being tossed aside to “review when times were better.”  Client organizations were pressing our agency to get better results from a smaller campaign.  Nearly ten percent of my colleagues were let go, an indirect result of the lower overall revenue.   It should be easy to see why the simple question “do you need your agency” can stir up a few emotions from me or anyone who has worked in an agency in the past few years.

I was not expecting this study to be in favor of agencies.  Thanks in part to “Office Space” consultants have the reputation of causing firings and layoffs in the name of “efficiency.”  “Mad Men” has probably not helped the view that agencies are a vital part of today’s business economy.  I promise you, I have never smoked a cigarette in my office, and any alcohol consumed was for a party or celebration.  While there is certainly some overhead and what may be seen as frivolous spending, these should not be used to overshadow the real value that an agency brings to the equation.

What I found interesting about this study is that it all but said that not only do firms need their agencies, firms need them now and firms need agencies to do more.  A survey in the study revealed that most marketing executives are struggling with customer data that is siloed, inaccessible, and overwhelming.  Additionally, the same respondents indicated challenges with online/offline integration, maintaining brand identity, and not understanding search marketing practices.  As we continue to allow technology to be a larger part of our lives, these issues are going to compound and make an executive marketers job more challenging.

Referring back to Finance 101, an agent is defined as one party authorized to act on behalf of another.  This is the spirit of what an agency is; a group of experts with authority to act on behalf of those lacking the same knowledge.  Marketing executives are practically begging for help, and agencies need to step in to offer services.  This is not to say that any agency will be right for every job.  Now more than ever an agency needs to become a trusted partner and ally to the firm.  An agency needs to understand the firm as if it were their own company.  The agency or agencies that can address the challenges and fears of the executives will be the agency or agencies that are successful.

This is going to require a lot of change for both parties.  Agencies need to start viewing themselves as allies to the firm and less as a vendor of services.  Firms need to open up a bit and accept that help is needed (with very careful selection of course).  While technological advancements are happening every day, with the right partnership firms will be able to successfully conquer their fears.  It is my hope that at that point, even if the economy is again in a lean time, firms will unabashedly say “Yes I do need my agency.”

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Flipping Off Don Draper

I don't normally take the freeway home from work.  It's typically just a mess.  For unknown reasons, I decided to give it a shot last night.  It was not as bad as I expected, but there were some areas of nasty gridlock.  In one of these jams, I saw something that made me a bit angry; a motorcyclist splitting lanes.  Not only was I irked by his action (it's illegal in PA), I was also annoyed that this motorcyclist was performing an act akin to flipping off the other motorists as he sped by.

The rest of my commute went by without incident, but the motorcycle rider and his attitude had me thinking about my work and my responsibilities to my clients.  In this frantic and hectic marketplace, our clients all too often want us as marketers to adopt this same way of thinking.  Advertising campaigns used to be fairly formulaic - TV spots based on demographic, some sexy print ads, and maybe radio and billboard.  As our industry has evolved and we now slap ads on everything, it is a lot more complicated to come up with the right mix.  In addition, our clients want us to be the next big viral thing.  Our clients are asking us -no, paying us - to flip off the accepted norms.

The unfortunate side-effect of this demand is that we must constantly be on our toes.  It is no longer acceptable to copy, mimic, or even borrow from another campaign.  If Progressive Insurance were to take their popular Flo character and have her answer answer tweets in real-time on YouTube, it would be a complete failure.  That has already been done by Old Spice, and it can never be done again by anyone else.  As a result, digital marketing is no longer just about selling the product.  Digital Marketing is now a convoluted practice that includes selling the client on your ability to innovate and improvise.  After all, sometimes you may have to weave in and out of the safe drivers in order to get where you are really going.