Category Archives: Web Marketing

New ways to create and measure sites so they improve their ability to bring your best customers closer and attact other individuals just like them

Can negative reviews of your product actually help you?

Earlier I had talked about Hosted Conversations, a hybrid online ad and portal to content. All content is about your product … generated by (gasp!) the unwashed masses. Okay, that’s harsh, but sometimes clients look at user generated content that way.

Fellow blogger Chris Brown, and others, were sceptical that the ad unit would represent good cross-sections of opinion. In other words, criticisms would be mild and rare, thus destroying any credibility.

So here are three questions:

  1. If you truly opened conversations up, would you get seriously flamed, and have way more negative than positive opinions voiced?
  2. If the answer to the above is no, would the relatively rare damning reviews hurt your brand and a decision to purchase from you?
  3. Is the risk worth it? In other words, do people trust online reviews in the first place?

I found one person’s opinion on all three. That person is Sam Decker, VP of Marketing and Products at Bazaar Voice. In a report he presented back in September, he provided some clarity to Question #3, when he showed how there is a strong correlation between online and offline reviews. In other words, experience should demonstrate to most consumers that there is reliability in online reviews.

I can also speak for myself and say that my online research has been at least as helpful in purchase behavior and satisfaction than have the opinions of friends and associates. He also quotes a familiar source for a theory on how and why trust can be developed online:

The Edelman group found that ‘trust in someone like me’ has tripled over the last two years. The key phrase here is ‘someone like me.’ Shoppers identify with the reviewer based on the content of the review, user attributes, and product attribute ratings.

For answers to Questions #1 and 2, I refer you to Sam’s contribution to a recent Forrester Research podcast, called Word-of-Mouth (third one down in this list):

We’re finding across our clients that with online reviews, [they] are 8-to-1 positive to negative.

Products with mixed reviews actually drive conversion, because that’s what we as consumers are looking for. We’re looking for that negative review that can give us the right information we need in order to get out of decision paralysis and make a decision. It also drives authenticity, which is what this is about in the first place.

The Take-aways:

If you have a good product, it will get mostly good reviews. And even the bad ones may cause people to buy your product if (a) They don’t relate to the reviewer, or (b) They don’t look at the complaint as a big negative.

As you can tell, I feel that with proper precautions, the risk is ultimately worth it. Be honest, be open, and — oh, yes — be prepared to step into the conversation to add your brand’s perspective to the negative comments.

In a product review I talked about in my previous post, the first (and as of this writing, the only) person responding to a slam on the Hosted Conversations concept was none other than Rick Murray, of … Edelman!

Even Betty Crocker is strapping on the feedbag

Betty Crocker for Boys and GirlsLet’s face it. You know RSS feeds are becoming mainstream when even an ageless, fabricated chef has one. I’m referring to Betty Crocker, and her Recipe of the Day, appearing in an RSS reader near you.

Follow the link to the site and discover a great explanation of RSS (really simple syndication), and an even better argument for using it to serve up your own freshly-baked web content. Every modern kitchen has one.

Thanks to Christopher Kenton of Marketonomy for the heads-up.

The Metaphysics of Netflix

Ever since Netflix announced that they would pay a million dollars to anyone who could significantly improve their recommendation engine, I’ve wondered what it would take. Now I think I know: a philosopher.

For those of you who have been wondering, dozens of individuals and teams have taken the challenge. They’ve downloaded the 10 million-record preference dataset from Netflix and crunched the numbers earnestly, with varying results. As of this writing, NIPS Reject is in the lead, with a lift over the Netflix algorithm of 6.13 percent. (Tough luck, WXYZ Consulting – you’ve been in the lead for nearly a month, but your 6.11 percent just got topped.)

With an additional 3.87 percentage points yet to be racked up, the road to victory is long — possibly impassable. If I understand my statistical modeling correctly, every unit of progress to that 10 percent goal will be a far tougher slog than the one before it. There clearly needs to be a breakthrough in how the problem is approached if anyone has a chance of winning. A couple of days ago, it occurred to me that the source of this breakthrough might be a better ontology.

Ontology is the study of logically structured categorical models. It helps us understand a particular domain of reality by looking at its essential elements, and especially, how they are interconnected. Because ontology proposes to explain big complicated things, this discipline was honed first by philosophers. More conventional scientists took a little longer to catch up. And as I learned earlier this week, philosophers seem to still have the upper hand. At least, that’s the case with my friend.

A university professor and doctor of philosophy, my friend was filling me in on his latest, fascinating endeavors, as we chatted over Christmas cookies and good Scotch.

When he isn’t teaching at an East Coast university, my friend is doing lucrative consulting work. The computer science company we works with is tapping into a huge demand among Fortune 100 companies for his brand of categorization. They combine this new way of seeing the data with the datamining muscle of leading-edge computer modeling.

He explained that these clients are drowning in data, but these data are in silos that imprison them. It’s hard to tease out the stories they have to tell, and impossible to combine them to make a more complete model of that industry’s “reality.”

My friend has an apparent talent for getting to the essential reality of his clients’ domains. And yes, as you can imagine, he’s doing very well for himself.

I won’t disclose the latest industry with whom he’s involved, but let’s say it’s water desalination. He described how engineers have fed their databases with terabytes of facts, but given little thought, beyond their initial purpose, to the structure of their databases. He helps remedy that with his brand of philosophy.

In a proof of concept meeting with the company, my friend announced to them what he proposed. Ever the showman, he said, “Gentlemen, what we’ll deliver to you is the Metaphysics of Desalination!”

They signed the next day.

Now I wonder if his skills couldn’t be put to this Netflix challenge. I suspect the first question he’d ask is, Why is it so tough? After all, prediction engines for other products, such as books and music, are fairly reliable.

The answer, I suspect, is that films appeal to us on so many more dimensions than songs or written stories. In a cinematic experience, there is just so much information to take in. What’s more, the alchemy of that information — those flickering images projected to give the illusion of movement — seems to take place uniquely in each of our heads.

In order to parse out movies into logical categories, I suspect that the first thing my friend would do is call of more input — perhaps appending data from a rich, relatively impartial source such as the Internet Movie Database. In other words, he’d ask for a second silo to “fuse” with the first.

He would then look at the elements and properties of the films without regard to the reviews of viewers. He would sort out those things that are merely a part of the film, without influence on the viewer, while taking special notice of the items that would likely cause a change in how the other elements are perceived.

It wouldn’t be easy, and it may not be possible. But the reward would be significant. It would also result in a new movie ontology, which is something I and other movie buffs would find endlessly fascinating, the way baseball fans pore over box scores.

As soon as my friend returns with his family to their New England home, I’m going to send this to him, as my own million dollar challenge. Although I’m going to have to scale it back a bit. Maybe another bottle of Scotch.

New ads called Hosted Conversations link to real-time brand buzz

If you are a brand steward and follow the online buzz about your product, you may have wished for a way to swing your computer screen around and show the world the great things users are saying about your brand.

It’s the online equivalent of word-of-mouth. When you hear something good, you want to hear these endorsements shouted from the rooftops. Well, the PR group Edelman, in collaboration with RSS distributor Newsgator, have found a way to do just that.

Edelman’s clients can now order up ad units that are essentially “widgets” displaying headlines linked to user-generated content (UGC) about a brand. You’ve heard of testimonial ads. These are the dynamic equivalent of them. And because they carry the credibility of UGC, I predict Hosted Conversations will be extremely successful if done correctly.

According to this piece on the recently unveiled Hosted Conversations:

The NewsGator-powered product tracks media relating to pre-specified subjects, extracting nuggets from blog posts, mainstream media, and video and photo sites. The PR firm will pluck the highest quality content from those sources based on criteria set by its clients; the choice bits will then feed dynamically into the chosen advertiser-branded units. We’re determining the “memes in conversation, who’s saying the most interesting stuff,” said Rick Murray of Edelman.

What do I mean by executing these ads correctly? I would say they would be doing the brand a favor by sprinkling the glowing reviews with some dissenting opinions. Although they would have no control over these criticizing posts, they Edelman would be able to provide their side of the story in comments associated with the piece.

Although these folks have stumbled publicly lately, I suspect that if anyone can pull of this feat they can. For example, read Rick Murray’s quick response to this criticism of the very concept of the new ad unit. When you browse down past the blogger’s post, the very first comment you’ll see is by the owner of the brand in question. And a very tactful response it is. Well played, Rick!

Online use of a primal reaction to eye contact

In a previous post, An online ad tip from an eye-tracking expert, I described how the only consistently successful online advertising tactic found by one researcher was the use of a pair of human eyes staring directly back at the web page visitor. These ads drew visitors’ attention like magnets — an important factor, since you must attract viewer attention before you can do anything else (like generate a click from that person).

Now a study conducted by Newcastle University in the UK finds that being “watched” by a poster showing a pair of eyes has a startlingly large influence over consumer behavior. It suggests other ways that images of eyes (whether they are on a wall or on a web page) can have an effect over those in their “gaze.” Here’s an excerpt:

We all know the scene: the departmental coffee room, with the price list for tea and coffee on the wall and the “honesty box” where you pay for your drinks — or not, because no one is watching.

In a finding that will have office managers everywhere scurrying for the photocopier, researchers have discovered that merely a picture of watching eyes nearly trebled the amount of money put in the box.

Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room. Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked directly at the observer.

In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers. “Frankly we were staggered by the size of the effect,” [reports] Gilbert Roberts, one of the researchers.

Telling stories in online marketing is more important than ever

This morning I heard political pundit Paul Begala make a great point about politics and the media. What he says has lessons for all marketing, but especially marketing online.

He says that a fault of the Democrats is they tend to communicate to the media in lists. “They have a four-point plan for solving every problem.” Conversely, Begala says that Republicans tell stories. Policy decisions aside, clearly the latter strategy works better in today’s media landscape.

What does this teach us about selling things other than political ideology? A lot. We all know (or should!) that benefits have to be communicated along with features. But if you simply list them off in quick succession, you risk diluting any potential to resonate with the consumer.

Go ahead and create the list. But make the benefits of the list clickable. Send readers to a single, strong, supporting story for that benefit.

Then rip another page from the political playbooks. Conduct your online PR one message at a time. Today focus on reliability. Next week, tell your flexibility story. And after that, hammer home the next story, and the next.

It’s important because we all need many rational reasons to buy a product, but before we go seeking those supporting reasons (additional features and benefits), we need that first single story to inspire us to look further.

This technique is especially effective with online marketing because people can arrive at those stories from various ways. Also, satisfied consumers can help, by backing up your story with their own comments, containing unique details and similar stories.


Always look for your dramatizing story — in your press releases, on your product information, and wherever people gather to find out about you. Then focus on those stories, one at a time.

Copy remains key to an online ad’s success, but only in service of the promise

You need only look at the success of sponsored advertising, as found on search engines and elsewhere, to see that copy is key to an ad’s success. After all, these ads are pure text. Not a picture in sight. And by success, I mean the ability of an ad to cause a user to click on the ad to get more information.

Why is this so? Aren’t we a post-literate society?

Get There AdI think the answer is trust. No one has the time to click on a link that doesn’t promise something of value. It’s difficult if not impossible to do that with imagery alone, both online and in the real world. Even red octagonal traffic signs, which promise the opportunity of not getting creamed by oncoming traffic, have a big “STOP” message to improve response rates.

Whether you’re writing a two-line sponsored search listing or a 50-word online display ad, pay attention to every word, and ask yourself if you are promising enough to the reader to generate a click. While you’re at it, here are other tips to keep in mind:

Include a headline. That is your promise in a nutshell.

Don’t shy away from longer headlines. They can work as well as shorter ones.

Dramatize a benefit of your product or service. Don’t just say, “Our GPS cell phone lets you navigate even when you’re not driving.” Say, “Get there on foot or by car.” That’s the benefit of this type of mobility.

Ask for the click. Don’t expect the reader to know that more information is a click away. Unless it’s clearly a hypertext link, be sure your copy asks for the desired action.

The ad pictured above is a good example of all of these lessons. You can see it in action on

Virtual offices need receptionists too

Reading about the Grand Opening of PA Consulting’s Second Life office reminded me of our own impending move. Our agency has bought a century-old, bricks-and-mortar building, located on Wisconsin Ave. near Lake Michigan. Last Wednesday the team got a tour of the mid-renovation, construction-zone-cum-office-building.

When I read about the unique challenges of staffing a virtual office with a receptionist, I couldn’t help but think of the very different challenges we’re facing with placing the reception area in a part of the building that is both publicly accessible and able to accommodate the other physical needs of the space. Here’s an excerpt from the news item liked above, describing the unique requirements of putting out your shingle in cyberspace (including a payroll in Linden Dollars, the currency of the virtual world):

Claus Nehmzow, who leads PA’s Second Life initiative, admitted that he had never met, in real life, the people who designed and built PA’s virtual office. When it was decided to hire a receptionist to greet people at the virtual PA office, interviews were conducted in Second Life. He joked that he was waiting to find out what would happen when the human resources department discovers that he has hired a person without knowing their real name and that the receptionist avatar is being paid in Linden Dollars.

It’s taken us more than a year to plan our physical move. But somehow I suspect that PA Consulting’s branch office on a virtual patch of land wasn’t much quicker. Probably less dusty, though.

Related entries:

Have some fresh Carnival of Marketing with that turkey sandwich

It’s a holiday weekend and, not surprisingly, this Carnival of Marketing installment has a little less to chew on. But there’s good stuff nonetheless. It’s been a pleasure hosting it these past two weeks, and I look forward to doing it again. If you can’t get your fill of actionable marketing news and advice from this batch, check out the leftovers — last week’s Carnival!

I’m starting off with a very personal recommendation, written in the spirit of gratitude that this holiday week engenders.

I grew up in a small town in the wooded, remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the “U.P.”), at a time when we were so cut off from the rest of the state — and the country — that many U.S. maps didn’t bother to include us. We were depicted as part of Canada. As a boy I was a bit of a runt, and not interested in sports or hunting. Instead I gravitated toward books, and they became beloved teachers and companions.

But the U.P. was a poor part of the country. Books didn’t figure prominently in a typical household. Luckily I could still feed my passion, thanks to my town’s Carnegie Public Library. Astonishingly, Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy reached deep into the mining and logging outposts of the Northwoods.

I am convinced that Mr. Carnegie’s library saved my life (if only by keeping me indoors, lest I get the tar beaten out of me). So when I was driving through my hometown on Friday, midway through a nine-hour drive to my Milwaukee home from a family celebration in Lower Michigan, there was only one boyhood landmark I couldn’t drive by without taking pause.

I pulled the car in front of the building wistfully. Long ago sold to private owners, to God knows what purpose, it has been usurped by a newer library down on Main Street. But this classically designed stone landmark still looks the same, regal and welcoming. Perhaps what’s keeping it looking so good is the psychic force of fond memories, from hopeless dorks like me, now well into middle age.

Which leads me to my first Carnival entry.

In her debut to the blog 800-CEO-Read, Rebecca Schlei recommends a business biography of this great man by David Nasaw. You’ll find it in her The Other Side entry:

[The book] Andrew Carnegie is a cross-genre event, much like the man himself. While Carnegie’s lifelong philanthropy is a major thread in the story, Nasaw also focuses on his early scoot up the corporate ladder and aggressive business practices. An advocate for disarmament, a champion of free and public libraries, a writer and a visionary, Carnegie towers — in spite of his small build — as one of the most fascinating characters in U.S. history.

Hey! He was even short like me. I like this guy more all the time.

Is trust scalable through social networking sites? Or is business guru Charles Handy right when he says that trust is too personal to be replicated through bits and bytes? Charles H. Green examines that question, along with presenting some interesting definitions of what trust is as it pertains to sales and marketing, in Charles Handy vs. Web 2.0 posted at Trust Matters.

You don’t have to be a hardcore sports fan like me [wink] to enjoy End It Like Beckham posted by Starling David Hunter at The Business of America is Business. Major League Soccer (MLS) is changing a rule about who gets to play on a team.

Nicknamed the Beckham Rule, because it would allow a team to hire such a superstar (without giving away its ability to afford to hire other players to join him on the field), this change is ultimately about getting the sport in front of more fans, and on more television sets. But will it work? Mr. Hunter is skeptical.

When it comes to feature / benefit selling, which should come first in today’s time-pressed sales environment: the features or the benefits? Jim Logan explores this in The Role of Features and Functionality posted at his company’s blog.

Using an interesting metaphor, Barry Welford suggests in Walled Gardens – The Walls Keep Tumbling Down that although some companies have adopted the Walled Garden approach to their mobile technologies and services, others are dropping this closed approach when they see the advantages of more open system. It’s posted at StayGoLinks.

Customer service is more important today than ever. So Juuso Hietalahti poses the question Is Bad Support Better Than No Support at All?, as it relates to the development of interactive games. You’ll find it on his GameProducer.Net.

Mike Murray presents The Decline of Hardball posted at Episteme: Belief. Knowledge. Wisdom. He’s referring to a book on how women can learn to compete in business using zero-sum tactics. Its revised edition recognizes that the rules of business (and Mike suggests marketing as well) have changed quite a bit since the book first came out.

Using blogging as an example, he explains, “Rather than learning to play hardball, we all need to spend more time learning to play softball – to build relationships and create connections that allow us to collaborate rather than to compete. The benefits of a relationship-based, collaborative strategy have never been more clear to me as they have been since I have started blogging … I am developing friendships with those out there who, in an age of hardball would have likely been viewed as competition.” It’s a thoughtful piece by an interesting writer.

Last but not least, Priya Jestin offers up Customer Satisfaction Online: Simple & Tough (as in difficult) posted at CRM Lowdown.

This week’s Carnival of Marketing

Welcome to this week’s edition of Carnival of Marketing. It’s my first time as host, and I’ve sifted through the many submissions to find those that offer actionable news, perspectives and advice. Those that didn’t make the cut? Let’s just say I’ve tried to leave the carnival pitchmen and women out on the midway. So, step into the tent, watch where you step, and let the carnival begin!

Do you want to market to twenty-somethings? Start by reading The Many Lessons of Scion, by ThirdWayBlog. David Vinjamuri is adjunct Professor of Marketing at NYU, and President of ThirdWay, Inc. He offers a dissection of the success of Scion, a car that most people my age think of less as a vehicle than the packing crate it came in. “Scion has excellent lessons for the modern marketer. More than many other brands targeting young adults today, Scion has understood that ubiquity and brand strength are not complementary goals and has been willing to forgo the former to gain the latter. The very brave decision to scale back manufacturing to avoid over-saturating the brand shows both the intelligence of Scion marketers as well as the commitment of Toyota executives to the brand promise.” Read on for other lessons, including one of David’s latest posts, about why Microsoft’s Zune will deservedly get creamed by the iPod. Good stuff.

Ever wondered how social causes get showcased in weekly television programs? Nedra Weinreich reports that “Getting your issue on TV is not as simple as sending a fact sheet to the producer of a show. People who are working in this field have developed relationships over time with writers, researchers, producers and others in the entertainment industry. They are trusted not to push an agenda or a specific plot line, but to provide accurate facts and ideas that writers can then weave into their storytelling.” Read about it in Social Marketing Product Placement, from her Spare Change blog.

Charles H. Green presents Advertising, Borat, Fairy Tales and Trust posted at Trust Matters, saying, “Once upon a time there was a ‘Chinese Wall’ that provided some sort of ethical boundary between marketers/advertisers and media content itself.” This excellent blog lists recent examples of where this wall has been breached, and how this trend has eroded our trust in both the storytellers and their sponsors. This is a new blog to me, and one I will be returning to often.

Here’s one that is already a favorite of mine. Kevin Hillstrom presents Williams Sonoma: Incremental Online Sales and Matchback Analysis posted at The MineThatData Blog. Marketers struggle with how best to allocate sales from one advertising channel to another. Kevin describes two popular methods.

Noah Kagan, founder of this Carnival, wonders WWSGS: What would Seth Godin say? What are the mistakes of this ad? Guess what they are, and then, buried in the comments, you’ll find what errors Noah found.

This carnival has several entries about blogging. Personally, I try not to write about the subject myself, on the grounds that my readers are mostly non-bloggers who want information without pondering how the content is delivered. Ironically, Jim Cronin’s is the best of the blog-related entries this week, with his Who Are You Blogging For? In it he offers that most fundamental marketing advice, Know your audience. It’s advice worth repeating.

Barry Welford has an interesting and carefully reasoned blog on mobile computing called StayGoLinks. In it he writes that the theme for XTech 2007 Conference, to be held in Paris in May, is The Ubiquitous Web. That is also the title of his blog entry. He explains, “The Ubiquitous Web describes efforts to ensure that all can be in touch and stay in contact with the Internet whatever device they are using, whether it be cell phone or desktop PC.” The problem in his view is there are no common standards, and his blog proposes a temporary solution, the Multi-web Practice.

Benjamin Yoskovitz has gotten several PR groups approaching him recently about endorsing books, and other products and services, in the pages of his Instigator Blog. That caused him to post this advice to bloggers: When Your Blog Gets Pitched, Pitch Back. He stresses there that, “It’s absolutely essential that you maintain the integrity of your blog and keep separate what you do for money and what you do voluntarily.”

A neighbor of mine to the south, whose name is simply Praveen, reports in his Branded Interactive Features Coming to DVDs about the use of new DVD formats to carry branded interactive games and calculators. This prolific Chicago blogger cites how Progressive Direct, the auto insurance company, has teamed up with Universal to create a “crash calculator” for the HD DVD version of “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Although Praveen contributes to more blogs than I have clean shirts, he chose to post this particular news at his My Simple Trading System. Thank you, Praveen. Your many blogs are interesting and full of helpful content.

Pushpa Sathish writes that it is, “Simple logic that the person who uses the product the most [is] the best to offer suggestions for its improvement.” Is this the case with major CRM systems? CRM Lowdown: Collaborating with Your Customer to Drive Innovation posted at CRM Lowdown, explores this question.

Finally, Mister Juggles, making his parents the Juggleses proud, presents How successful has Domino’s been in bringing pooplets to market? posted at Long or Short Capital. In what may be an attempt to drive down Domino’s Pizza’s stock price, Mr. J. suggests that the pizza delivery chain is selling something that even the makers of Soylent Green would find unappetizing, “To the Drunk/Stoned market, which is known to be both price and taste insensitive.” They also laugh at anything.

That concludes this edition. I’m doing next week as well. Submit your blog article to the next edition of Carnival of Marketing using this submission form. Past posts and future hosts, can be found on the blog carnival index page.

In online video as well, Mom and Dad hog the remote

Forbes reports that, contrary to popular opinion, online video is being viewed by someone who is typically older. Online video for the post-pubescent set even has its own nearly octogenarian poster child: geriatric1927. This chap has been posting video blogs for three months and has over 30,000 subscribers to his ongoing narratives (as well as hundreds of thousands of occasional viewers).

The marketing implications of this trend are considerable, because consumers well out of college have more disposable income. They also have many more consumer needs. Insurance. Healthcare. Luxury items. All of these and many more are the domain of grown-ups.

As marketers follow these consumers online, streaming video content will continue to expand and fragment. Soon there may not be a single consumer category that cannot be supported with simple and often inexpensive narrow-cast video messages. These messages may not — and some would say should not — be commercials as we know them. Instead, think sponsorships, product placements and even interactive demos that take full advantage of the burgeoning online medium.

The often low cost of this content, and the ability to find and cater to thinly sliced niches, is particularly exciting. Once again marketers will be given the opportunity and the challenge of mastering a long tail strategy for attracting and wooing narrow segments. 

Move over, Son.

I was vegging in front of a glowing screen long before you were even born.

Postscript: Here’s a study that speculates on online video advertising growth over the next several years.