Wednesday, June 25

Having Engagement Problems? Make Your Audience The Content

It doesn't matter what study you look up. Marketers always struggle with the same measurements — engagement, lead generation, and sales. They aren't the only ones. Americans feel miffed too.

According to a recent Gallop poll, a clear majority of Americans say social media has no effect at all on their purchasing decisions. A whopping 62 percent say social has no influence over them.

Even when respondents were broken out by age, not much changed. Forty-eight percent of Millennials said that social media had no influence over them (43 percent said it had some).

Consumers are influenced by social media, but it has to be good.

The good news is that the consumer survey by Gallop doesn't prove much. Americans have said much the same about advertising for years. It's not a lie per se, but they are genuinely mistaken.

We don't always know which bits of information are from friends or pass through marketing messages. The same can be said for social and cultural shifts too. You would be surprised how many come from outside of the country before they are shared by Americans inside the country.

On the other hand, most marketers are still only marginally adept at social media because they tend to start out with the wrong intent. They are too "sales" focused, which generally produces a social media campaign akin to celebrating itself online. Nobody wants to visit a social page for push messages.

"How are you? Let's talk about me." It's true. Marketers don't use those words verbatim, but that is what most of the messages become. It's common for many social media experts to let you leave a page but not without pounding you to subscribe to an e-newsletter first. Never mind the risk associated with more studies that are veiled attempts for lead generation a.k.a. permission to spam lists.

The problem with all of it is pretty clear. If the intent is all about sales, then you can't expect the method to magically produce engagement. It's mostly the other way around. If the method produces engagement, then it is very likely the organization will experience incremental sales growth.

If you want better engagement, make your audience the content. 

This simple answer is only slightly deceiving in that the execution is complex. It's complex because every audience or public or group of people or whatever you call them have very different needs.

If you simply run from one organization to the next organization with a cookie cutter solution (or one stolen from a best practices SlideShare deck), people won't care about your content. The reason they won't care is because content creation that aims for engagement is not the same as content created for an editorial calendar. The content people want to read has to be about them, directly or indirectly.

What does that mean? Sometimes the answer can be exceptionally direct — a professional membership organization that focuses on its members and upcoming events (where members meet up) has a great opportunity to develop a vibrant community. Sometimes the answer is less direct — an organization that wants to establish itself on the cutting edge of an industry will seek out innovation (even if it is not their own). And sometimes the answer is in between — an event that brings together hundreds of authors and book enthusiasts makes it easier for the two to connect.

"How are you? Let's talk about you." It's the message that really matters. People mostly don't want to know about your organization, but they may want to know who attends your events. People mostly don't want to know about your program, but they may be fascinated by the advancements being made in the industry. People mostly don't want to know about your product, but they might want to know how to fix a problem or make their lives easier. If it happens to include your product, service or position, then it's win-win. Sales tend to be a by[product of doing everything else right.

In other words, maybe it's time to throw out your elevator speech and work on a deliverable instead. How can you better bring a concept, conversation, or community to your customers that they can actually be part of and care about? Good. Go do that. And once you do, never put it on autopilot.

What do you think? Isn't engagement what made the earliest forms of social media fly? People wanted to connect and the medium helped make it possible. The comments are yours.

Wednesday, June 18

Have Social Networks Become The Colosseum Of Our Times?

There are hundreds of news headlines that will break today. Some of them, such as extreme insurgents gaining ground on Baghdad, are important. Others, such as the giraffe gaffe made by Delta Airlines, are not. And yet, outrage over the latter easily outpaced the outrage over the former.

What did Delta do wrong? There isn't much of a story. In an attempt to bring visuals into its social media mix, Delta congratulated the United States for its win over Ghana with the Statue of Liberty representing the U.S. and a giraffe representing Ghana. The problem? Giraffes don't live in Ghana.

Immediately following the tweet, Twitter lit up with responses, ranging from those that aimed to poke fun at the company to those expressing true outrage and claims of racism. To compound its self-inflicted injury, Delta also followed the gaffe with a typo in the apology.

"We're sorry for our choice of photo in our precious tweet. Best of luck to all teams playing in the World Cup." — Delta

Delta meant to write "previous" tweet (which it eventually sent out as corrected), but that wasn't the only misfire. Identifying the "offensive" tweet as the "previous tweet" only makes sense if you leave it up. Delta Airlines had removed it.

The social media lesson isn't what you think. 

Some public relations professionals said the error is indicative of inexperienced communicators managing social network accounts for big companies. Others said it was an example of Americans being largely ignorant of Africa. And yet others pinned it to a lack of cultural sensitively training.

While any one of those speculations might be true, the better lesson slipped through the cracks. Sometimes a social media crisis is only what we make it. Delta chose to make it serious so it was.

Delta could have made fun of the company instead (which seems more appropriate given that the original mistake was one part ignorance and one part laziness) and followed it up with an image of something more representative of the country. Elephants, for example, do live in Ghana.

Then again, given how many people asked the airlines to avoid the stereotypical safari imagery, they could have chosen any number of other things to do in Ghana instead. They could have even encouraged people to find out what there is to do there with a one-time airfare reduction.

Why not? Delta already flies to the city of Accra, which is the capital of Ghana. There is nothing wrong with promoting a destination. It's what airlines do because every destination becomes their home.

Social media is sometimes akin to the Roman colosseum.

Almost two centuries ago, the Romans used chariot races, arena hunts, mock sea battles, and gladiator contests to entertain its population. The biggest of its arenas is the famed Flavian Amphitheatre, which is estimated to have held between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators.

The games were so successful that they were sometimes held to simply to distract the populace from other problems. It worked too. There was far too much to worry about — who sat where (social standing), what to wear (personal branding), and which gladiators were favored (professional prowess among those who weren't slaves) — to concern oneself with other political problems.

It remained a thriving industry in Rome for almost 300 years. Emperor Honorius had closed down the schools. The contests were finally banned outright when a monk leapt between two gladiators and the indignant crowd stoned him to death. Six years later, the city was sacked by the Visigoths.

Social media can have the same galvanizing effect, easily placing silly cat photos over social justice. There is nothing wrong with that. But then again, it's always smart to consider that social media is what we make it and, in some cases, maybe we're making too much of it like the colosseum as outrage is amplified and the participating crowd wants to extol a pound of flesh.

Sometimes that is a good thing. Sometimes that is not such a good thing. The best rules of thumb are to always check the facts, always consider the source (even friends are fallible), and never pile on the latest crisis just to score social media points for the quip. Save some energy for things that matter.

What do you think? Does social media provide more amplification or distraction in the world today?

Wednesday, June 11

Marketers Renew Their Interest In The Customer Experience

Content marketing might have a lion's share of the social conversation, but more and more marketers are starting to see customer experience (a.k.a. CX) as the single most exciting opportunity for business this year. According to one recent study conducted by Adobe, customer experience even edged out mobile by a narrow margin for the first time in recent years.

It only makes sense. Content marketing and mobile are both part of the customer experience, which includes all customer facing touch points (and I might argue internal facing touch points that can influence customer facing touch points). Ergo, the best lead generation on the planet is pointless if the only outcome is to target those leads with long-term loss leaders such as email spam or telemarketing.

"Every ad is an investment in the long-term image of the brand." — David Ogilvy 

Ogilvy had it right in that every advertisement, message, and touch point has a brand impact. It's only by mapping out the entire customer experience from the first touch point to post-experience that business owners and executives can begin to understand the relationship forged with customers.  

The customer experience concept goes beyond the sales funnel. A typical customer experience journey begins with a need, consideration, engagement, evaluation, purchase, receipt, usage, and post purchase. 

Need Awareness. The three most common types of need awareness are those that are externally generated (friends, influencers, or businesses pinpoint a known problem or unknown need), internally generated (an individual has a problem and is searching for a solution), or purposefully sought after (an individual who already knows what they need). All of them require a different approach. 

Solution Consideration. Once someone accepts there is need, brand loyalty tends to be the first consideration. People generally rely on brand familiarity and measured previous experiences before considering solutions from other companies with which they have had little or no experience. There are exceptions (such as price-motivated customers that never develop brand loyalty). 

Customer Engagement. As part of the decision-making process, customers will likely visit websites, social network pages, retail outlets, mobile apps, visit links, or engage in any number of other direct touch points. Always remember that even if the company is absent from the conversation (such as comments left on a review site), customers still consider the experience as a brand touch point. 

Customer Evaluation. Everything during the experience — from perceived need fulfillment and frontline staff to presentation and ease of purchase — may have an impact the brand relationship. This includes outside interruptions and messages intended to reach customers earlier in the sales cycle. In fact, this is one of the most neglected truths in marketing: the sales funnel is not linear.

Point Of Purchase. Even some of the best companies never consider how many negative impressions they introduce at the point of purchase. Anytime they include an additional charge (e.g., baggage claim), charge too much for shipping and handling, attempt to add on impulse offers or unneeded plus sales, make it difficult to claim a rebate, add unjustifiable financing terms, introduce post-purchase policies, etc., customers add it to the weight of their experience. 

Delivery/Installation. Many marketers consider the the point of purchase to be the end of the sales funnel, but the purchase is only the beginning of the customer experience. How something is shipped, the length of time required for delivery, the ease of installation, additional costs that were unintended or expected are generally attributed to either the manufacturer or retail outlet. 

Promise Delivery. If modern marketing has learned anything in the last century, it ought to be that the expectation marketing creates with a value proposition needs to be closely aligned with the ability to deliver on that promise. It's often the difference between the proposition and promise delivery that makes or breaks the company. 

Post-Purchase Satisfaction. Even after a purchase is made and the customer owns the product, post-purchase touch points have an impact. When companies send too many post-purchase incentives, any time the company is embroiled in controversy, or if the life cycle of the product or service fails to meet expectations (and sometime even if it does), post-purchase satisfaction remains ever-present.

Every touch point deserves consideration within a communication strategy. 

When you begin to think from the perspective of the customer's experience, things change. Retailers don't settle for a low price leader claim, they make lower prices part of the customer experience. Innovators do more than make a motorcycle helmet, they augment reality to make it safer and smarter. Shoe companies do more than tell you to just do it, they innovate the tools to help you get it done while considering the customer experience from introduction to the next innovation. 

At every stage of the customer experience, there is considerable room for communication. Marketers have an opportunity to express a need, help people find a solution, ensure the right message, make purchasing easy without being overbearing, create the first post-purchase touch point, reinforce the promise delivery, and continue to add value (not sales pressure) until the product or service life cycle is complete. 

Marketers desperately need to develop comprehensive plans that better address the customer experience with the convergence of next generation digital, engineering, and personalization. According to the same Adobe study that revealed CX is steadily gaining ground, nearly 75 percent of respondents recognized that marketing still doesn't have the skill sets needed fully realize tech.

While that may be true today, it won't be true tomorrow. The next round of communication convergence will come with an engineering edge — customer experience baked into the products we buy and the services we select. After all, isn't that the real reason companies like Uber and Lift disrupted the marketplace? Technology helped them change the customer experience.

Wednesday, June 4

The Written Word Is More Visual Than You Think

A recent article in The Guardian recalled a 1974 study conducted by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer. The psychologists asked students to watch a video clip that involved a multi-car pileup.

After watching the video, two-thirds of the students were asked one of two questions: How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” or “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” The other third, the control group, wasn't asked a question after watching the video.

When the students returned to the lab a week later, they were asked if there was any broken glass around the accident. Surprisingly, students didn't recall what they saw in the video. Rather, more students recalled seeing broken glass if the word "smashed" had been used in the question. Less students recalled seeing broken glass if the word "hit" was used or if they were not asked a question.

"If you can't draw, you can't think."

The first time I heard the quote it was part of a presentation delivered by Josh Ulm, director of product design at Adobe, at a leadership retreat for AIGA. It wasn't until later that I discovered an earlier manifestation of the quote in an article written by Michael Gough, who also works at Adobe.

Where the quote originated doesn't matter, but it was one of several that really stuck with me. There is some truth in it, given that drawing acts as a bridge between the inner world of imagination and reason and the outer world of communication and sharing. But it's not the only bridge for our brains.

There is increasing evidence that writing helps us think too, but not always the kind we're used to in a post-penmanship world. Although Common Core is notorious for wanting to kids to rely on keyboards earlier, some studies suggest handwriting is extremely important to the learning process.

It makes sense. When we stop trying to divorce writing and drawing, we quickly remember that they are akin to each other. They are akin through handwriting, which opens the same cognitive thought process that drawing does. They are akin in graphic arts through typography. And they are akin in communication because they can both provide context or change our perception.

We don't even need to rely on a study to know it. If you ever had a friend call for a caption contest, you already know that whatever photograph is shown will adapt to whatever line of copy we give it.

The future of communication is a mixed medium

While there is an increasingly persistent conversation that attempts to separate language from art and art from language, the opposite holds true. The best artists know the title can be just as important as the painting. The best writers remember that the words leap off the page when they are vivid.

Just as it is impossible to pick between Sunflowers by Van Gogh over The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (or Pythagoras over Beethoven), it is impossible to separate art and language when they are so often the same. And in knowing this, we might work harder to teach our children the importance of writing and handwriting and drawing and painting and music and photography in the greater context not only of communication, but also in our ability to think and then share our thoughts.

It's only when writers recognize the structure of their content matters and artists recognize their work is a language or perhaps several languages that either elevate the experience, expression, or object of their communication. John Dewey once wrote (Art as Experience, 1934) about art by saying: "Because objects of art are expressive, they are a language. Rather they are many languages. For each art has its own medium and that medium is fitted for one kind of communication. Each medium says something that cannot be uttered as well or as completely in any other tongue."

And the takeaway? Merely flipping the medium for more attention is not an answer. Sooner or later you have to pledge yourself to stop making boring art, whether or not that art is a vibrant painting or handful of words scrawled across the page. Sooner or later, we have to recognize that every skill set (typing and handwriting and drawing and coding) can be an important part of the experience — our own and the one we invite others to share as an experience or expression. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, May 28

How Social Connections Helped Save The Town Of Neptune

Veronica Mars
When Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell succeeded in raising an astonishing $5.7 million from more than 90,000 donors to produce a movie centered on the one-time teen private detective Veronica Mars, most people called it one of the greatest Kickstarter successes of all time. But much more than a crowd-funding platform success, the Veronica Mars movie marks a much bigger milestone.

As Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler called it, the Veronica Mars movie is one of the greatest fan stories of all time. He's mostly right. Kickstarter provided the platform, but it was the dedicated fan base of the cancelled television series that convinced Thomas and the cast to consider a revival.

Fans stuck with Veronica Mars for six years.

The fans didn't just promote the cancelled television series online. They promoted it offline too. And even after rumors that Thomas was making a movie in 2009 fell apart, few of them gave up hope. They continued to promote the series with contests, events, book clubs, and social networks.

"We were told that we made a difference in the decision to even launch the Kickstarter campaign," says Mark Thompson for Neptune Rising. "But once the the Kickstarter launched, we were just a pebble in the storm that represents the true fandom of Veronica Mars."

According to Thompson, he heard about the Kickstarter campaign in its seventh hour and Thomas had already raised his first $1 million for the film. Within 24 hours, the campaign raised $2 million.

At the same time, the entire campaign proved what the Neptune Rising team had said all along. The fan base behind Veronica Mars was much bigger than any social media metrics might demonstrate.

Even on the last day of the Kickstarter campaign, Thomas asked fans to meet him at an Austin bar. He anticipated 30-40 people. More than 700 fans showed up, including Jason Dohring.

Rob Thomas
"I always had high hopes," said Thomas at the campaign party. "And yet there was this little bit of doubt in my mind ... what if the people telling us to make a movie are the same 20 people?"

His one little worry is now long put to rest. Not only are there thousands of fans behind Veronica Mars, but they also represent the first wave of a shifting paradigm for television and film production that started in 2007. The size of an audience isn't the only consideration. Its passion is just as important.

Even after fans invested $5.7 million into what became a $6 million film, they also turned out to see it in theaters. The movie went on to earn another $2 million during its opening weekend. After earning its top ten release spot, it slowly tapered off and settled somewhere around $3.3 million.

Although it would likely take about $12 million for Warner Brothers to really consider a second movie, the fans who helped make the first one possible are doing everything to ensure their neo-noir detective won't slip away again. They're promoting DVD sales as well as a Veronica Mars novel.

You can stay up to date on the progress of the film via By The Numbers. While many fans already own a copy of the Veronica Mars DVD, it's not uncommon for fan bases to spike sales by purchasing an additional DVD and gifting it to a friend. They've also spiked reviews, giving the movie higher ratings on iTunes and Amazon than most mid-level releases (although critics genuinely liked it too).

If you haven't seen the film, suffice to say that diehard fans will love it as Veronica Mars resurrected. It takes place immediately after she finishes law school with Thomas and the cast planting plenty of insider tidbits and cameos to thank the fans for their long, hard fight. Unfortunately, everyone was so caught up in this as a labor of love, it wasn't as good as it could have been for a true introduction.

And this is the reason it didn't do even better at the box office. It felt too much like a reunion.

Fans are ready to stick with Veronica Mars for another six. 

Even so, does it matter? Warner Brothers could easily take the information it gleaned from this release and adjust for the next budget accordingly. Thomas could also pen a script that stays away from the reunion obligations and fights to make Mars into the neo-noir thriller she can be.

The fans, it seems, are already working to support such an effort. Not only are fans from sites like Neptune Rising promoting DVD sales, but they are also coordinating book readings for the first official Veronica Mars book, Veronica Mars: An Original Mystery by Rob Thomas: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Vintage) with Jennifer Graham.

"As far as what's next, we'll have to see," Thompson told me. "But the fans of Neptune Rising plan on seeing even more of our favorite sleuth on either the big screen or the small screen."

There isn't any reason to doubt them. Years ago, when an entire season of cancellations happened to decent shows (The Black Donnellys, Jericho, Journeyman, and Veronica Mars), Veronica Mars landed in the uncomfortable position of being on the near-abandoned bubble. It looked like fan efforts were going to fail. Seven year later, there are more diehard fans today than there were then.

It's something to think about. In one form or another, Veronica Mars seems a long way off from solving her last case. And likewise, the movie proves that how networks and studios size up potential franchises is still evolving into smaller but increasingly loyal pools of viewers. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 21

Real Marketing Strategies Aren't Built On Search Or Social

The most common explanation for pushback related to changes to social and search platform changes is that people are resistant to change. Some companies have even mapped out classic reactions to it.

It follows a cycle. People deny the change will happen and then become upset when it actually occurs. This is sometimes followed by confusion, depression, and crisis. We're seeing it today.

Companies were laying people off after Google made changes to Panda. Companies used teams like reachpocalypse after Facebook became more like paid media. Both platform changes have been highly publicized as if they are unique, but it happens all the time — tweaks, adaptions, and deaths.

The Internet is in a constant state of change. Some people like to equate it to a world map, but it plays out much more like the chaos of a new cosmos. Every day, major players use their gravitational juice to expand, contract, and buy out other solar systems. It's a billion dollar game being played by titans who largely ignore the little people who worship or try to exploit them, except for the occasional swat.

"We're playing in their backyard but don't want to play by their rules - conundrum." — Shawn Elledge, Integrated Marketing Summit

My response? There are plenty of backyards. Problem solved. 

This isn't a new idea (and it doesn't mean that you abandon Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. outright). All it means is that anybody who has been deep in the social space for any length of time has learned a lesson or two about playing in other people's backyards with other people's sand. Just not en masse.

Sure, social and search can work wonders for some companies. But it doesn't work that way for all companies. It largely depends on who they are, what they do, and the kind of customer they reach.

For example, it makes sense for search and social to play a prominent role in the outreach efforts of an Asian restaurant in Las Vegas that derived most of its business from hotel deliveries. While the restaurant has a loyal customer base, its primary revenue was derived from hotel staff referrals and visitors searching for Asian takeout. It made sense because there are two primary search drivers.

1. People search for things because they have no idea what exists.

2. People search for things because they know they exist somewhere.

Content marketing and social media were mostly built to help capture the first kind of searchers while simultaneously engaging a few of those people enough to make them second kind searchers or, better yet, direct referrers who bypass searching all together. Ergo, sharing is an expression of gratitude that sometimes creates second kind searchers — people who have heard of you, your product, your service, your idea, your company. For a restaurant, it might mean someone saying "make sure you eat at >place< when you are in >city<" or it could manifest on any number of review and travel sites.

Conversely, a speciality commercial contractor may have have a presence on social networks and earn reasonable placement on search engines, but search and social are not primary drivers. Generally speaking, this kind of business isn't driven by first kind searchers. They rely on second kind searchers and direct referrers. As a result, the social and search portion of a marketing plan differ.

Instead of popularity, the company needed to engage decision makers within their space — designers, architects, and general contractors who would have a specific need for the specialty provided. And the best way to accomplish that as a new company (but veteran owners) not to load up on search and social, but to create content that featured the designers, architects, and general contractors they were trying to reach and thereby giving their target audience an opportunity to become direct referrers.

In both cases, while the restaurant clearly has some reliance on search (which was still eclipsed by hotel staff recommendations), neither company was overtly reliant on fleeting tips and tricks to gain temporary boosts from a search or social networks that are all too often treated as marketing channels. There are better ways to invest a marketing budget than website traffic or social network likes alone.

Put the power of choice in the hands of customers not the platforms. 

The point is that all marketing plans ought to revolve around your own backyard, where it can be much more effectively managed. This is accomplished not by understanding platforms so much as understanding your customers, what they need, and when and how to deliver on that need.

The more you understand about your existing customer, the more likely you will be able to expand that base by delivering on the value proposition and/or other closely content they will value. And this approach makes much more sense than what many companies do to inflate the appearance of success.

1. Companies spend money to rank higher across accidental and unrelated search queries.

2. Companies spend money to send people to social networks instead of their backyard.

3. Companies spend money to interrupt consumers at the wrong time and place.

The most important takeaway for any organization is that all platforms change and they change so often that marketing professionals ought to be weary about any ticks and trips related to those three tactics because today's boost will be tomorrow's penalty and today's best investment will be tomorrow's waste of time. Stay focused on the constants of your company and customers first.
 

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