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.”