Are advertising campaigns really extinct?

I have just read a rather extraordinary whitepaper. According to customer experience “experts” SDL.com, advertising campaigns are extinct. This is because “Digital channels, social media and mobile communications have fundamentally changed the way consumers interact with brands”.

This is a well worn argument and one that many digital evangelists have promoted since the early 1990s. But it is not a valid argument.

SDL start by saying that “customers orchestrate their own experiences, no longer following pre-determined, linear routes from exposure to conversion to advocate”. This statement is absurd. Obviously people need to be exposed to a product before they purchase it (even if that exposure is merely seeing it on a shop’s shelf), and certainly before they become an advocate. A “linear route” is an inevitable component of any behaviour that results in a sale.

Apparently though, the sales funnel is extinct and “marketing success depends on customers seeing, engaging with – and sharing – your content within their trusted social networks”. I don’t deny that content marketing is effective. It’s not exactly new after all (it was being used 150 years ago). But it’s not the only route to success; indeed it’s probably not even the most effective route to success in most cases. Direct response marketing still works, as does buying shelf space in a shop, and (dare I whisper it) mass market advertising.

But, as SDL say, “No one is waiting to be wooed by elaborate campaigns”. Were they ever? Well, yes, I suppose they were once but we haven’t had a supply economy since the 1960s. Perhaps SDL haven’t noticed.

Even old fashioned digital channels such as search marketing and email are dismissed by SDL. Instead, millennials, we are told, “typically discover new and interesting things online” via social networks. I am sure they do. So do I. After all using search or reading your email inbox wouldn’t be a very efficient way of doing this. But just because social media is a popular way of discovering new things, that doesn’t mean email and other outbound marketing techniques don’t work as marketing channels for existing products.

Oh, and we shouldn’t assume that because social media is a great way of discovering new things online, that it is impossible to tell people about new things off line, for instance via TV ads – after all we all watch TV (even millennials) and the vast majority of TV is watched live so you can’t skip the ads.

What does this mean for marketing? According to SDL, you should “Begin by focusing on the personalized experiences your customers want – not campaigns. Make it a priority to build customer experiences that are ongoing, consistent, meaningful and mutually-rewarding”. Well, yes of course a good experience is what customers want – although I think it would be hard for most brands to build “personalised” experiences: how would you do that for the 900 million people who ate Heinz Baked Beans in the last year for example? (Proud to be one of that number.) “Campaigns”, not personalised experiences, are the only way for almost all brands to reach the maximum number of prospective customers.

But it’s all about trust, I hear SDL say. After all “49% of consumers don’t trust digital ads; 38% don’t trust emails; and 36% don’t trust information in branded apps.” I am sure that’s true (in fact I am surprised the figures are so low), and I am sure that similar figures would be found for TV ads and posters. That’s not really the point. A lack of trust in a brand’s advertising doesn’t mean it will be dismissed from a consumer’s consideration set.

In fact SDL seems to be saying that millennials are different from the rest of us and have discovered that advertising doesn’t always tell the whole truth. So anyone in their 30s upwards believes everything they see on the TV then? Hmmm…

Oh dear, there is so much to take issue with in this shrill and deceptive whitepaper. It repeats so many of the things I have heard at digital marketing conferences over the last 20 years. When, when, when will people in content marketing, social media and digital generally have the confidence to accept that, while digital channels are important, they sit alongside existing techniques, and don’t replace them?

Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.

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Measuring social media engagement

Facebook engagement rates fall as your fan base gets higher. At first sight that seems odd. But of course it isn’t.

Most people tend to engage with brands infrequently on social media. Seduced by a particular post they may “Like” it on a whim, but then stay away from your page. They have little motivation to comment on or share other posts unless they are real fans. And of course unless you are spending serious money, chances are they won’t see those other posts.

So most Facebook “engagements” come from people who have recently become fans. The larger your fan base, the longer your “average” fan has been with you; and because of that, larger fan bases have lower engagement rates.

This is a problem for people using a common metric for evaluating social media effectiveness: the formula “Likes + Share + Comments / Fans” as it can make it look as though your campaigns are getting worse over time.

So how can you evaluate effectiveness on Facebook and other social media platforms? There are a couple of ways.

First there are some comparative measures. For instance you might want to compare engagement rate of different types of posts or different campaign themes. This won’t solve the problem of lower engagement rates with larger fan bases but it will help you focus on improving your campaigns.

Second you can measure engagement of recent fans. By dividing the number of engagement actions (shares, likes, comments) in any one period by the number of new fans acquired in the same period you will get a useful measure of true engagement that should be comparable across time periods.

Purists might argue that the engagement actions in any one period may be coming from people who became fans in an earlier period. That’s true; but I am not sure it matters much. For a start it is probable (at least, if you are using a period of 1 month rather than 1 day) that the number of actions from “old” fans will be low; but also if you compare different months you will be comparing like with like.

Ultimately though, “engagement” on social media is a measure of limited value. So what if people have engaged with you? What matters is their behaviour. Measuring that by using your web analytics to track visits generated from social media together with dwell time, page depth, loyalty and conversions is a far better way of measuring the effectiveness of your social media campaigns.

Should UK Government use social media?

 “Seriously though guys, which one of us hasn’t embezzled and cheated the taxpayer?? #FreeMariaMiller” (@DCMS)

It’s been a bad month for public sector use of social media.

Obviously things are going wrong.

The UK Government published a set of guidelines aimed at Civil Servants back in May 2012. The Guidelines, which are surprisingly short at 3.5 pages, encourage Civil Servants to use social media but only offer very general advice. And they make no real reference to the risks of using (or indeed not using) social media.

Without detailed guidance on why and how to use social media – and what to avoid – is it surprising that public servants are making mistakes?

Is it all a waste of time?

Why does the Government encourage civil servants to use social media? Well, we’ll assume that it isn’t simply because someone somewhere feels there is a need to jump on a bandwagon.

The 2012 Guidelines set out a number of reasons to use social media including:

  • Communicate with citizens in the places they already are
  • Consult and engage
  • Be more transparent and accountable
  • Be part of the conversation

I am really not sure about the first one. I don’t really want the Government to find me in places I frequent. Like many people I am sometimes to be found in the pub. I certainly wouldn’t want to be harangued by a civil servant on my way to the bar. Why should I find it acceptable on Facebook just because it is a big media opportunity?

The government also wants to “consult and engage”. Well fair enough: but are social media platform the right sort of environment for this? The danger is that any consultation will deliver very little, and only from a self-selecting segment of an already unrepresentative audience. And a lot of “engagement” may be from people with an axe to grind: useful feedback perhaps but not necessarily representative of the whole population.

Transparency and accountability I can agree with more. Social media provide a channel (so long as it is not the only channel) for government to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it. The main Government Twitter account @GOVUK isn’t doing a lot of that though, with only around 40 tweets in the first 4 months of the year. And while social media may appear to be free, the reality is that is costs a considerable amount of management time, and potentially media spend, to communicate effectively. It is perfectly possible that a lot of “transparency and accountability” would be better and more cost-effectively achieved on formal Government platforms.

Well, these guidelines were published nearly 2 years ago. And perhaps thinking has moved on since then with all Government Departments and local Councils having their own more detailed guidelines. You’d hope so at any rate.

But do these imaginary new guidelines address risk?

  • Are adequate social media password protocols employed in all Government Departments?
  • Do all civil servants understand what it is appropriate to do on social media and what isn’t?
  • Is content posted by civil servants monitored across all social media platforms?
  • Are civil servants protected against online bullying by colleagues and angry members of the public (and vice versa)?
  • Is the return on any investment in social media measured properly?

Given current events is seems unlikely that the answer to all these questions is “yes”.

Of course it is good that the UK Government is trialling social media use. But the opportunity has been around for a long time and a rather more professional approach might be expected by now.

Hats off by the way to HMRC who, as usual with things digital, seem to be doing a great job with social media, including an informative Twitter stream and a Facebook page aimed at graduate recruits.

Archiving social media

Does it really matter what you said on Twitter last week?

Archiving may not be the most exciting subject in the world, but as organisations increasingly use social media to communicate with consumers there is an ever growing need to archive their social media conversations.

Why archive?

There are four excellent reasons for archiving social media content.

Litigation

Litigation is an ever present problem for organisations. This can be staff bringing cases for unfair dismissal or discrimination. Or it can be consumers bringing cases relating to unfair contracts or products and services that don’t deliver as promised.

Compliance

Archiving of marketing communications can be a compliance requirement for certain industries such as financial services; although there are some record-keeping requirements imposed on all companies.

Business operations

It can be important to archive records so that negotiations and transactions can be continued in the event of systems failure. In addition, an easily accessible record of social media can in some circumstances make it easier for employees to work efficiently (e.g. finding an important email or chat record easily).

Knowledge management

A good archive can be used to generate learning and case studies.

How much to archive?

Ideally you would archive everything in social media that relates to your organisation. But this may simply not be feasible. For instance, if people get customised views of social media it is obviously impossible to archive these. This is also true of websites that are delivered “on the fly” where one may be confined to recording for instance the different experience of a logged in and a logged out visitor.

Two questions need to be asked:

  • What is it reasonable to invest in archiving (given the size and nature of your organisation)
  • What is it important to keep  (not all social media data is equally important)

There are no hard and fast rules here, except that more is likely to be safer than less. But bebar in ind that how uch you archive is likely to affect how much you pay.

How to build an archive

There are some fundamental requirements of social media archiving systems:

Capture

You need to capture both “static” content that is not changed on a regular basis (such as a Twitter profile) and “interactive” content which delivers a stream of data from the organisation and consumers or other stakeholders.

With interactive content, there is generally a good deal of important contextual information that goes beyond the simple text of a post and this need capturing. This can include:

  • Actions such as “Likes” and Shares
  • Views and subscriptions to content streams
  • Phototags and hashtags
  • Page URL
  • Links
  • The nature of the conversation, in  particular whether it is a public exchange or a private (e.g. Direct Message) exchange

Another important consideration for archiving is whether deleted posts can be recorded. When data collection happens on an occasional basis, for instance every day, posts that are deleted may well be lost to the archive. One solution is to record data directly via the platforms API rather than from the web.

Storing

There are a number of storage requirements for any archiving system and these include:

  • Data and information security: archives should be secure so that only authorised people can access them
  • Resilience: the will always be a need to have one or more back ups of the archive so that data can be retrieved in the event of system failure
  • Access logs: A record of who has used an archive is an important management tool – as anyone who watches “whodunits” on TV knows
  • Integrity: It is important to prevent modification or deletion of content within the archive which means that data should be stored as “read only”

Searching and retrieving

In most circumstances social media records should be searchable at least by the following:

  • Platform (e.g. Twitter) and type (e.g. re-tweets, direct messages)
  • Author
  • Date and time
  • Content “strings” (i.e. keywords and key phrases)
  • Metadata (e.g. tags on Facebook pictures)

Once data has been found then it needs to be exportable easily and in a sortable format e.g. XML.

Choosing the right tool

There are dozens of archiving tools available. Some are free, other range from low prices that an SME will find attractive to “enterprise level” expense.

And the functionality offered offers widely too, with some tools very much simple back up tools while others are more truly information management tools.

As a result choosing the right tool isn’t simple. Ideally, your requirements will be agreed by a multi-functional team composing of IT, archiving, compliance, workflow, website and social media experts. But if you are uncertain that you have the right knowledge in house, then Mosoco will be very happy to help.

LinkedIn Groups vs Google+ Communities

I am a long-time user of LinkedIn but recently I wanted to set up an online community (focussing on the business risks of using social media since you ask) and, without thinking, I went to Google+ to do this.

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Having set it up, I started to wonder whether I had made the right decision. I think I have. But it is useful to think about where the strengths and weaknesses of the two platforms lie.

Here is my take on it all.

Google+ appears to be a bigger platform (twice the size of LinkedIn): but can you trust the figures? Does the “activity” of Google’s “active” users match the activity of LinkedIn users. I don’t know, so I am leaving user numbers out of the equation and focussing on the experience of users (community managers and members).

A big difference is the fact that Google+ has hangouts and the ability to plan events. This is a big, er, plus, especially the video hangouts which can be recorded and then shared with more people on YouTube. In contrast LinkedIn has the ability to run polls: useful but not so very.

Then there is visibility. Google+ posts appear on the timeline of all community members. But LinkedIn posts will only appear on my timeline if I am a first degree connection to the LinkedIn poster. And it stands to reason that Google is likely to be kinder to Google+ posts than to LinkedIn posts, making them still more visible.

Google+ makes it really easy to set up a series of sub areas for different discussions within the community. LinkedIn comes pre-packaged with less than a handful so it is harder to focus on a particular area.

Another point is that Google+ doesn’t limit the number of communities you can join to 50, as LinkedIn does. Now 50 seems like a lot but if you are a marketer, or a job seeker, you may well want to be active in more than 50 places.

And finally there are those +1 buttons. Google makes it really easy to share with your community from any +1 button across the web.

I didn’t set out to write this post in favour of either of the platforms. It just seems to have come out that Google+ beats LinkedIn hands down when it comes to the user experience. That doesn’t mean it is the better platform of course. If your audience is on LinkedIn rather than Google+ then that’s where you should be.

If you have any other PROs and CONs for Google+ or LinkedIn then I’d love to hear them. And of course if I am wrong about any of my points then do tell me! But in the meantime I think I am pretty glad I chose Google+ for my new community.

Valuing Facebook

Reports that Facebook has raised $500m from Goldman Sachs and a Russian investment company, in a deal that values the social networking company at $50 billion, take me back to the good old days of 1999 when Freeserve was valued at around $2 billion.

OK, it’s not quite as bad as that. Freeserve had around 1 million users, which meant that each one was valued at about $2000.

In contrast Facebook has well over 500 million Unique Visitors (according to Google), valuing each one at around $100.

At least Facebook has valid business model in terms of its advertising, even if it doesn’t yet necessarily justify such a robust valuation. According to the Guardian, Facebook is predicted by eMarketer to be heading for $2 billion ad revenues in 2011, making around $4 in ad revenues per user.

Given that it is hard to square $4 with $100, Goldman Sachs presumably feels that there is other value contained within the site. There might well be.

It is possible that the advertising could generate more value. At present the industry undervalues Facebook advertising because (in part at least) click through rates aren’t great. People are generally highly engaged when visiting Facebook and so less likely to escape to advertising.

Engagement doesn’t mean they don’t see the advertising, however. And highly engaged visitors may well be more highly swayed by advertising when they see it than they would be if they were less engaged. Certainly there is evidence to that effect from the world of TV.

And the data they collect means that Facebook can deliver some great ad targeting – by age and gender as well as by keyword association.

So if Facebook were successful in selling their site as a premium branding site rather than a commoditised cpc site, then they might generate a far higher yield from the advertising inventory.

It is hard to see where else they could generate revenue, though. A premium subscription service would surely be a very niche product.

And the data they collect may well be less robust, and less valuable, that they like to think (don’t tell me you have registered your real birthday with them, or that all your Facebook friends are people you engage with socially).

There are of course opportunities to make money out of e-commerce, but beyond that it’s hard to see where real opportunities lie.

So the $100 valuation per user does seem optimistic.

And of course it does assume that Facebook is going to be a leader in the social media space for a good while: remember MySpace, remember GeoCities…

The dirty dozen of e-commerce

At the User Experience conference in Brighton yesterday Harry Brignull ( http://www.90percentofeverything.com/) was talking about underhand online design tricks some of which he has started to list at darkpatterns.org .

Well, I won’t pretend that I agreed with all his examples – some, such as preventing people from comparing prices easily, seem to be legitimate standard marketing practices while others, like intertia marketing, are commonplace, if aggressive, tools.

But he came up with some interesting examples in his talk and, importantly, suggested that it would be beneficial to agree a set of best practice guidelines that “ethical” websites could follow. Perhaps some form of kitemark could then be awarded to sites that comply with the guidelines.

It’s a good thought. There are certainly some dodgy practices out there and while many of them are I believe counter productive in the medium term, others will have the effect of fooling some people into doing things they don’t want to do.

I think it is possible to exclude “black hat” SEO practices from a list of underhand practices because Google is perfectly able to police this itself. And “black hat” social media marketing is generally going to backfire so again it is probably sensible to take out social media practices out of a list of ethical practices in order to get as simple a list as possible.

But there are other areas of web marketing – in particular e-commerce – where a set of best practice guidelines might well be helpful.

Obviously , in addition to any list of ethical guidelines, any online retailer needs to comply with existing laws and regulations. But these don’t always work well online. For instance the CAP code (http://bcap.org.uk/The-Codes/CAP-Code.aspx)  applies to corporate websites does start to address unethical online sales practices. But it only addresses content as opposed to structure and functionality and could potentially allow unethical marketing practices to be given the green light.

So here is my first attempt at a “dirty dozen” set of underhand marketing techniques that reputable companies should probably steer clear of.

  1. In any form designed to collect personal data for first-party of third-party marketing, all data collection options should work in the same way: all should either be “opt in” or “opt out” and making the choice should always either involve ticking a check box or leaving a check box unticked. That way users don’t get confused.
  2.  Only personal data relevant to the task in hand should be collected in a mandatory field. To be honest this is good practice from a marketing perspective anyway – but some companies are tempted to trawl for as much data as they can get
  3. It should be simple to unsubscribe from emails – the unsubscribe process should take the form of a single “unsubscribe” click or a simple email; the unsubscribe link or the email address should be published visibly on any email generated as a result of the personal data that has been collected
  4. All costs for buying a product should be stated upfront and not only on the checkout page; these should include taxes, obligatory insurance and post and packing. Again this is simply good marketing practice and companies who hide this data may well be shooting themselves in the foot
  5. Details of the carrier that will be used to deliver products together with an indication of delivery time should be given up front as issues around delivery can affect people’s decisions
  6. A  customer service telephone number should be given on all ecommerce pages including check out pages. Again this is no more than a sensible sales technique
  7. The name of the company providing the service or selling the products and a physical address should be provided on all ecommerce websites, as part of the “contact us” page
  8. It should be simple to cancel a purchase after it has been bought (but before it has been shipped or downloaded); the cancellation process should be online and  take no more clicks and data input fields as the purchase process
  9. “Recommended” products or services should never be added into a shopping basket without the purchaser actively requesting this
  10. Information about how to return products should be easily available on the website before and after a purchase is made and this information should include details of the returns address, any data required when the package is returned, and any other requirements such as postage
  11. Misleading input field prompts and options  should be avoided. For example, where the question is “Do you want to buy insurance” it would be confusing to have a prompt in the data field which says “Input your country of residence”, a list of countries of residence in the drop down options, and a single “No thanks” as an option hidden within the list of countries of residence.
  12. Where an online retailer also has offline retail outlets, the specifications and quality of any product sold online should be the same as the specifications and quality of the same product when sold offline