All posts by Jeff Larche

With a background that includes direct marketing and customer relationship management (CRM), Jeff Larche brings an unusual approach to his work. What these other two disciplines have in common is database marketing, and they continue to strongly influence his work as marketing technology leader.

Quad Graphics buys a cool company

Success begets success. So I was not surprised when I learned this week that Quad Graphics has purchased a controlling share of OpenFirst. The company provides direct mail and digital printing solutions, but what has impressed me about them, ever since they formed ten years ago (under the name EPS) is their slavish devotion to database integrity.

I met the company’s president and CEO, Robert Kraft, shortly after they opened their doors, and what wowed me were stories about how they convert, merge and scrub the databases they use … as well as other ways that they use data, which I’ll get to in a moment. It should be common sense, but the programming and safeguarding that Robert described to me was something so thorough and ironclad that one might think he was talking about a nuclear power plant instead of a digital printing company. The reason for that is their chief technical officer, Chuck Olszewski. He’s an engineer who came to OpenFirst from the nuclear power industry. The guy is trained to prevent meltdowns … Exactly what a pricey and time-sensitive direct marketing program needs.

Okay, I know I’m gushing a bit, so I’d better give you an example of what impressed me back then, and still blows me away today. OpenFirst uses something called dataglyphs for at least one of their direct mail clients. It’s a way to embed a great deal of data, encrypted in a photograph or other screened graphic. This data is invisible to any observer other than a properly tuned scanner. To you or me, the photo looks perfectly normal.

What’s more, if you tear, stain or otherwise damage the image, you can still retrieve the data. Check out this dataglyph demo from PARC Research. You’ll be invited to use Photoshop, Paint or some other program to compromise the graphic that you create, and then see how accurately it pulls out and reports that graphic’s hidden contents. Incredible!

This application, which was originally created for the whole cloak-and-dagger-cold-war-passing-of-secret-information thing, is used by OpenFirst for a client who needs to get back from consumers information about them that is only available for use once the consumer has responded to a mailing. It’s a long story about how mailing list companies only consider their client owners of their data once the people on the list respond the direct mail message, but suffice it to say that this clever and private passing of data saves mailers a boatload of money.

And hey, it’s really cool.

Congratulations to OpenFirst. You’ve earned this opportunity to make yourselves and Quad Graphics shine even more brightly!

Make email copy long enough to tell the story

Legend has it that President Lincoln was asked how long a soldier’s legs must be to qualify for his Union army. His answer: “Long enough to reach the ground.” Whether this is true or not is unclear, but the truth behind it can be applied to a subject of heated debate: The copy length of marketing emails.

Melinda Krueger’s latest column addresses the debate with an extremely well-reasoned approach. She writes:

Use as much copy as needed to give readers all the information they need without a preconceived notion of what the “right” amount is. In some cases, you will get fewer clicks but more conversions (sales, donations, leads) from more copy-intensive e-mails, as they deliver more pre-qualified buyers.

She goes on to provide great tips for breaking up longer email copy to make it seem less daunting. Her point is right on, though. Don’t fret over the length of your email copy. Instead, make sure it is optimized for clarity, brevity (to the extent possible) and excitement.

Finally, don’t forget to test, test, test!

Portable marketing is ultimately about place

I attended a seminar on portable marketing yesterday, and was interested to learn that the most popular promotions using mobile phones are still using SMS — i.e., text messaging. I wonder, for instance, when the sending of photos or videos from our phones will figure into large promotions.

We were presented with several examples of promotions where texting was a major component.

In the more exciting of them, the key to success was the place where the user participated. In other words, it wasn’t just that the participant could play a game or request information from anywhere, it was that they could do it somewhere quite specific. For instance, the Van’s Warped Tour is offering the ability to get news on band line-ups and autograph opportunities via your cell phone. According to Cingular, the sponsor, participation so far is over 100,000 messages sent. All branded, I’m sure, with Cingular enticements.

And what could be more place-based than to be updated with what’s happening on the grounds of the very festival you’re milling about in?

Text Message Enabled ChandelierThat reminded me of what is still my favorite “place-based” mobile device. It’s a beautiful spiral chandelier that spells out the messages of people congregating under it, in animated, LED lettering.

Probably the only reason we haven’t seen more of this type of display is the demographics of texting. By far the biggest users of text messaging in this country are those under the age of 30. Two-thirds of all frequent text message users are between the ages of 15 and 35.

Which means that unless you’re organizing a very high-end prom, or are filming an episode of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, this device isn’t going to be a hit. You might as well hang a disco ball.

But I suspect the demographics will change fast. Especially with more executives of all ages using cell phones with QWERTY keyboards and large displays. I predict that it won’t be too long before I find myself under one of those chandeliers or something like it, watching the guests reveal — via SMS messaging — declarations of their silver wedding anniversaries and not their high school’s supremacy.

Progress in measuring TV viewership comes too late to help network ad sales

As Tom Peters famously put it, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. For too many years, network television executives have relied on incomplete and inaccurate measurements of viewership of their programming. This inaccuracy — plus the emergence of other, online ways to reach the same market — has finally come back to bite them, in the form of alarmingly soft TV ad sales.

This week the bulk of ad sales for the TV networks’ fall season has come to a close, and the reports aren’t pretty. I’m reading estimates that the major players will see a drop of 3 percent or more in sales compared to last year at this time.

Many think this is primarily due to the fact that DVRs now filter programming in 16% of American televisions. That means millions of viewers who would otherwise be exposed to advertisers’ messages have the opportunity of fast-forwarding through commercials.

What’s more, television viewership in general is down, regardless of whether a DVR is intervening.

Just as with other industries such as recording labels and movies, technology is changing the rules and causing the ad-driven networks to retrench, if only belatedly and with baby steps.

How? More technology. Nielsen Media Research, whose largest customers are these television networks, recently announced a comprehensive plan to measure electronically all TV viewers, regardless of video platform. With this initiative, called Anytime, Anywhere Media Measurement (A2/M2), Nielsen is developing technology that will measure viewership on the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and other personal devices — all with the intent of eventually merging this data into its Nielsen National People Meter sample.

Other reports from last year described an even more aggressive “People Meter.” This one, the Portable People Meter, would literally be carried by participants in the sample like a PDA. It would pick up ultrasonic identifiers broadcast on television and radio, to meet the pesky challenge of measuring media consumption in taverns, gyms, airports and other public places.

I am fascinated to watch how these huge industries are confronting their eroding markets. A final measure of the level of erosion, and desperate nature of these attempts to win back ad customers, is that avowed competitors are joining forces in the fight. In the Portable People Meter initiative, radio listenership would be measured as well as television viewership. Arbitron, a fierce competitor of Nielsen and a leader in radio audience measurement, is a partner in the technology’s development.

Will these attempts be able to turn things around for broadcast media? It’s hard to say. Tom Peters would point out that they may be taking steps toward better measurement, but that’s only the beginning. Then these measurements must be put to use, to manage better the products being broadcast.

They’ll have a clearer view of their customers — one that’s closer to what database markers are accustomed to seeing right now. And that means they’ll be able to see all of the dissatisfaction and the defections, as they happen. Then what will they do about it? Now that will be interesting to watch.

The fat end of the long tail

In my observation about NetFlix as a purveyer of long tail media, I hinted at all of the other ways that online marketers are prospering with this new business opportunity, made possible by word-of-mouth, suggestive selling and virtual — instead of real — merchandise inventories.

I’ve since realized that so much of marketing technology can be heaped under this category that I need to add it as a tag, along with my intentionally general tags of direct response, database marketing, etc.

True, the term long tail has more than a whiff of a meme ready for replacement, much as how push technology in the early 1990’s crystallized into RSS, and how the overworked online communities, the other buzz of the 90’s, turned into what we’re now calling online social networks.

Regardless of what the phrase long tail becomes, it certainly has legs (why am I thinking of a lizard?). This Google Trends graph shows that in terms of searches and news coverage, it also has a fat end.

The Kevin Smith DVD commentary that will change the film world forever

In a prior post I had mused that podcasts are disruptive of established business models, but not yet an economically viable alternative to them. Since then, I have watched a favorite podcast go more mainstream. But don’t get your hopes up. This move to a better neighborhood, in terms of legitimacy and distribution, in no way guarantees a huge financial payback for its producers or the podcast advertisers supporting it. With this news, which I will get to in a moment, I was still waiting for a true breakthrough — something that will spell real, hard cash for the podcaster, in a way that cannot be ignored or discounted.

Then I learned of an ingenious way that Kevin Smith, the writer, director and co-star of the cult movie hit Clerks and its soon-to-be-released sequel, Clerks II, has found to turn a podcast into heavy incremental box office sales.

First, let me tell you about that first development. It’s the move of Filmspotting (formerly Cinecast), the web’s best film review podcast, to WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. Other star programming from WBEZ, such as This American Life, has already gone from a radio broadcast to a streaming audio product, sold through and iTunes. It appears that Filmspotting will be taking a reverse path: I’m guessing it will gradually go from a free audio product to a radio broadcast and perhaps, a podcast only available by subscription through and iTunes.

Filmspotting has sponsors now, primarily the Honda Fit and Peerflix. What will happen to them as Filmspotting goes Public (with a capital P) is just another question I can’t answer. Can anyone comment with more information?

The one aspect I can speak to with a reasonable level of confidence is this. As much as I respect and enjoy the programming of Public Radio, I know it is not the path to riches, either for its producers or its sponsors. As I’ve suggested earlier, though, the big wins of mass media exposure, and the hefty rates that advertisers will pay to achieve these wins, may simply be a thing of the past.

But wait. Perhaps the riches won through podcasting will come from skillful integration with other media. Which brings me back to Kevin “Potty-mouth” Smith. Okay, that’s my nickname for him, but I introduce it with this warning: His movies can be extremely vulgar and prurient. Like John Waters before him, he pushes boundaries of taste and subject matter, and I’m sure Clerks II will be no exception.

This film, which received a strong positive reaction from the audience attending its midnight showing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has two big things going for it: A built-in cult following that every film franchise needs, and a creator who has proved he can still surprise and entertain. For these reasons the film is almost certainly going to do well when it opens in theaters. What’s more, I suspect many fans of the original will come back for a second or third viewing. Did I say suspect? No, I know they’ll be back, consuming even more overpriced concessions and generating even more positive buzz and cash for its distributors.

Clerks II will be helped significantly by a brilliant interactive ploy.

A commentary by Mr. Smith and others close to the production will be produced in the standard DVD audio commentary format. By that I mean, it will run as long as the film, and provide real-time, behind-the-scenes color commentary. But instead of fans waiting for the DVD to come out to enjoy this narrative, they will be able download it as a podcast from iTunes, just in time for the film’s theatrical release. I can’t imagine there will be a cost to this download, but that’s not the point.

The message to fans will be: Enjoy Clerks II the first time as you normally would, then return to the theaters with your iPod or other MP3 player, for a second viewing and a new perspective.

I love two things about this tactic. It is both measurable and viral. Theater owners will be able to visually scan their audiences, and know exactly who has come back for the commentary. White iPod earbuds are hard to miss. Those earbuds are also the main driver of the viral aspect of this tactic.

Let’s say I’m in the audience to see the film. If I see people listening to the commentary and enjoying the theatrical experience just as much — or more — as I am (and, I’m sure, laughing at things that don’t sync up with the film’s laugh lines, because of the podcast’s banter), I am going to find out how I can become a member of the initiated. Yes, I too will seriously consider coming back for a new way to enjoy the film. What’s most exciting is I’ll consider doing this even if I’m only a so-so fan, which is precisely what I am, as a matter of fact.

And what was spent for this surefire sales driver? Almost nothing. Which, not surprisingly, was exactly the production budget of the original Clerks — that audacious and obscene raspberry by Mr. Smith directed at the Hollywood status quo.

A textbook offline / online marketing effort

I’m coming back into the swing of things after a week of vacation. During it, I was struck by the absolutely textbook example of driving folks to a web site from a print ad. The business is Angie’s List.

The uninitiated can read about them on their site, but what is impressive about this organization is that it is publicized by ubiquitous (and I’m sure quite pricey!) newspaper display ads. Featured in both local and national papers, they clearly are successful or they would never be continued.

My only critiques are that I would do a better job of tracing visits back to the source, so I could see exactly which papers pull the best. This would be accomplished with unique URLs. Also, I would test other ad sizes and approaches (they may be doing this already). Overall, this is an excellent campaign supporting an outstanding service.

Want more people to use your tricycle? Take a wheel off.

There was a time when a micro site designed specifically to be viral absolutely required a “Tell A Friend” link, to facilitate its contagion. Today, especially with a young audience, this rule is frequently broken. I have a couple theories.

The obvious one is the anti-marketing factor. When you’re communicating to a jaded audience that wants to feel like they’re doing something spontaneous, make the pass-along more difficult.

Take the recent viral campaign waged by SanDisk. It’s to promote their latest alternative to the ubiquitous iPod music player. Talk about David versus Goliath. They’ve taken a shot at felling the giant with, a site that positions the act of listening to a song on anything other than an iPod as the stuff of rebels and iconoclasts.

The campaign includes outdoor and print ads driving folks to the site. The ads appear most notably in the alternative weekly The Onion. This graphic is a screen cap from the site.

Click to expand the cartoon

Most of the ad units are small, and effectively intriguing and edgy. Little but the web address is on them. This cartoon ad is an exception, in that it gives a few more details about why visiting the site might be rewarding.

And what rich rewards await you? The main one is the promise of feeling like an Apple Mac owner in 1984 (how the tides turn, with the Apple iPod being the status quo of portable listening devices!).

Keeping with a less promotional marketing approach, there is only one link in whole site (as far as I can tell) to the SanDisk site, and that’s a link to a dealer locator tool. It allows you to investigate and perhaps buy “The Alternative” — the Sansa e200 MP3 player.

So: To make the site feel right to the audience, take away a helpful feature.

My other theory is that this audience — those under 30 — are far less likely to find the “Email a Friend” helpful in the first place. This market segment would just as likely pass the link along via instant messaging (IM), in the course of an online conversation, or through a personal message (PM). Less likely, it might show up on a social networking page or a personal blog (as I’ll get to in a moment).

My point is that all of the sharing strategies mentioned above require either the typing of a simple, five-letter domain name, or more likely, the cutting and pasting of that web address. Cake.

A youth wasted on generating content (that the press has creatively dubbed “user-generated”) has taught even the least swift of this target market to pass along something without the aid of an email form. The very use of the form may scream of yesterday’s media.

The big question remains: Will this be passed along? And on a macro level: Can anyone not of this demographic create something compelling enough to want to share? These statistics tell the story. The site has a Google Page Rank of zero, and, although MSN has found over 5,000 links to it, Google and AOL showed zip. Goliath can sleep safely.

Forget the ‘Z’ — the latest heat maps show we scan web pages with an ‘F’

Web heat maps are produced by following users’ gazes as they read a web page. The longer the eye lingers on something, the more intense the color produced on that zone of the map.

Preliminary heat map studies talked about users scanning in a “Z” shape. This fit what we knew about scanning in the world of ink and paper. But the latest heat maps I’ve come across show that — with little regard for the type of page we’re taking in — our gaze traces the letter “F.”

The take-aways from these findings:

  • Place navigation on the left where appropriate.
  • Insist that all of the most important points appear near the top of the page, using the journalist’s classic “inverted pyramid.”
  • Begin your headings and lead paragraphs with strong words that help the reader anticipate meaning.

On that last point, I counsel that where possible, lead with a strong verb. Just as I did in the headline and three bulleted items above.

Based on “F” heat maps, as opposed to the “Z,” the bottom content of a page gets very little readership , freeing the writer to type out any old rubbish, including rabbit Ontario astronaut. Wait, you read that last bit? Just my luck. You don’t consult maps.

More evidence for the power of the long tail

A few days ago my wife and I were in a restaurant, commiserating with a friend about her difficulties as a film fan on a mission. She told us she has been taking in as many of the films of Woody Allen as she can rent. It hasn’t been easy. She has been forced to rely on the shrinking inventory of the neighborhood video store, Video Adventures. Not surprisingly, the store just announced it will be going out of business next month.

Alas, our friend has a lot of Woody Allen yet to cover. My wife and I almost simultaneously blurted out the obvious solution: Netflix.

Netflix has an extensive film selection, excellent search capabilities and the brilliant ability to build and share your film wish lists. It’s the perfect tool for a film completist such as our friend.

Allowing customers to rent videos from home, without the threat of late fees, is an obvious point in the favor of Netflix over the brick-and-mortar video store business model. But the other major reason Netflix has become such a marketing force, and a threat to the video store, is its ability to exploit the long tail phenomenon.

If the term long tail is new to you, I recommend you read Wired editor Chris Anderson’s article, if only to learn the origin of the name (here’s a hint: think of the slim, wedge-shaped outer region of a graphic showing gross sales numbers along the vertical axis and the amount of variety of titles along the horizontal).

The significance for marketers of the long tail is described well by Anderson below:

[The emergence of] unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service … People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture).

When I first read that article I was skeptical. After all, Hollywood has done a great job of dictating to the masses what they should be viewing. And true “video adventurers” like our friend are rare.

Are we truly willing to take a chance? When given the opportunity to scratch an itch for more movies like those that we’ve enjoyed, even if they are obscure and heretofore unknown, is the typical consumer really going to risk disappointment?

Now I have my answer.

In his latest column, New York Times technology writer David Leonhardt explains that Netflix stocks approximately “60,000 movies, television shows and how-to videos that are available on DVD (and that aren’t pornography).” He continues below:

Just as important … Netflix lets users rate movies on a one- to five-star scale and make online recommendations to their friends.

The company’s servers also sift through the one billion ratings in its system to tell you which movies that you might like, based on which ones you have already liked. [Something described in a blog entry last month.]

The result is a vast movie meritocracy that gives a film a second or third life simply because — get this — it’s good. [Here’s a]  brainteaser I have been giving my friends since I visited Netflix in Silicon Valley last month. Out of the 60,000 titles in Netflix’s inventory, I ask, how many do you think are rented at least once on a typical day?

The most common answers have been around 1,000, which sounds reasonable enough. Americans tend to flock to the same small group of movies, just as they flock to the same candy bars and cars, right?

Well, the actual answer is 35,000 to 40,000. That’s right: every day, almost two of every three movies ever put onto DVD are rented by a Netflix customer.

I’ve personally experienced the long tail in music. My musical diet is more varied today than it has ever been, all thanks to access to a nearly unlimited variety of musical genres and artists in digital format. It’s exciting to read that the same exploration is taking place by consumers in the film industry, with the same predictable disruptive effects.

Although I hate to see neighborhood businesses fold, with the resulting ripple effect on local economies, in this case that is outweighed by the fact that I’m a fan of many of those films found in the outer reaches of the long tail (and not found in any video store).

So I find this latest news comforting. Less so, the news that our friend actually enjoyed Woody Allen’s Celebrity.

Internal search statistics tell the story

I mentioned in a post last month that internal search data from your site contain insights that can be quite valuable. The assumption was that the people using your internal search aren’t doing it for amusement. They want answers, presumably about your products or services. A recent white paper on the topic by WebSideStory provides two eye-opening stats that hammer home the importance of improving your internal search function and watching its data closely.

The first has to do with who uses internal search. The white paper contends that these “searchers” are definitely in a buying mood. They were almost three times more likely to make a purchase (or in some other way convert) than people who had not used the internal search function.

But another stat from that report indicates that, “Nearly 12 percent of all site searches led to zero results. Among e-commerce sites, this figure was 8.5 percent.”

In other words, approximately one in 10 of all visitors is being frustrated when they do an internal search — and they are some of the people most likely to be ready to purchase!

To build upon my recommendations in my prior post, follow this tip: Look through your search data for the most common search phrases, and make sure they are yielding good results. If they don’t, create a forced search return index (FSRI). In other words, make sure that the correct page shows up for the search phrase typed in, even if that phrase is misspelled.

According to this new set of findings, and the experience of my team at ec-connection, you’ll be rewarded with more conversions and happier customers.