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

Lessons learned about RSS feeds

What are the lessons to be learned from Facebook’s recent dilemma? This college online social network has struggled this week to quickly deal with an unprecedented backlash against their new RSS distribution of profile changes.

Lesson #1: People can’t be trusted to think through the consequences of posting things about themselves on the internet (big surprise!)

Lesson #2: RSS feeds are a powerful new information distribution channel that we — as an online society — will need to better understand, in the same way we needed time to understand email and web sites.

The power of RSS will someday soon be harnessed, and that power will further propel and advance marketing technology. Until then, prepare, as Facebook did, to be surprised by unintended consequences.

Boomers aren’t immune to the branding power of user-generated content

User-generated content (UGC) is a major force in influencing buying behavior among the young and habitually online. That’s irrefutable. But this morning a friend who is neither made the argument that its power ends with that generation. He said that bloggers and such don’t reach people like him — and that’s a serious problem for marketers like me.

He said his generation (the very recently retired) possesses the most disposable income of any age group, and also has plenty of spare time to spend that money. It’s a huge and important audience, and one completely lost to anyone who puts too many eggs in the UGC basket. He almost had me convinced. Then, nearly in the next breath, he completely blew his theory.

This all happened over an early morning coffee. My friend explained that he was recently looking to buy a sailboat. I’ll call this friend “Pete” (although I don’t know why I’m disguising his real first name, since he says he doesn’t read blogs).

Pete loves to sail, and it’s clear he’ll never have a better opportunity to live out a lifelong dream than right now. So he started shopping last month for a 36-to-40-foot used sailboat. The length of a boat dictates a lot about what it has and how you can use it, so every foot or so is an important consideration.

He excitedly told me about his search for, and eventual purchase of, the ideal boat — one that’s reliable, fits his lifestyle and is at a price he can live with. In his explorations, he found a promising model, built by a good manufacturer. It was a 36-footer and seemed to have it all. Then he did what anyone with an internet connection and a favorite search engine would do. He checked the boat out online.

He didn’t go to user groups or blogs. But they came to him. When he typed in the name of the boat along with words like “problems,” he found four or five accounts of a defect that was big enough to be a deal-breaker. Worse, it was a problem that the manufacturer had not yet publicly acknowledged or tried to correct. In fact, when Pete went back to the broker with this knowledge, instead of the broker taking the problem seriously and trying to negotiate a solution that wouldn’t kill the deal, he got defensive and then angry. Naturally, Pete walked.

The story ends happily of course. Pete found his boat, a 39-footer, and it sounds wonderful. I hope to travel down to see him and his wife this fall or winter, and hopefully join them for a sail.

As you might guess, Pete’s new boat wasn’t built by the same manufacturer as that 36-footer, and it wasn’t purchased through that same pugnacious broker. The sale was, however, facilitated by mostly anonymous boat owners who cared enough to share their frustrations with the internet world.

We all know UGC is influential, but we may underestimate its reach, for the following reasons:

  1. Thanks to search engines and the ubiquity of web connectivity, this type of persuasion finds people at pivotal moments in their purchasing activity, regardless of their age or their inclination to regularly read blogs or other UGC.
  2. Conversely, a surprising number of people do regularly read UGC — at least 2 out of every 5 web users. I say at least 2 out of 5 because the latest research on blog readership gives that proportion, and blogs are a subset of total UGC*. And this new statistic is no idle guesswork. According to a recent phone survey by Pew Internet American Life Project, conducted with over 7,000 people, 39% of U.S. internet users read blogs. That’s a really big number.

Those statistics mean that roughly 57 million Americans would say they read blogs if they were surveyed today on the phone.

As for Pete? If he was one of those 7,000 surveyed, he’d have said he never reads that type of content, and never will. But the truth is slightly different. A search engine will likely point him to UGC again. It will happen the next time he’s considering an important purchase.
 
*I define UGC as the freewheeling “public” content on blogs, discussion groups, folksonomies and wikis (most notably Wikipedia, the site I just used to define folksonomies).

Are you handing too much control over to search engines?

We have to stop thinking of our home pages as the main point of entry to our sites’ contents. That distinction is slowly trending toward the search results pages of major search engines. In his excellent Mine That Data!, Kevin Hillstrom reviews his own site’s traffic statistics, and then poses some questions for your business site:

Assume twenty percent of your traffic arrives via a search engine. You have essentially given control of one-fifth of your business to Google, Yahoo! and MSN. How do you feel about that? … How do you regain control of your business if that percentage significantly increases, or if the search engines decide to use an algorithm that sends less traffic to your site? Online retailers need to think hard about how much control they have ceeded [sic] to search engines. On the surface, the traffic that comes from search engines seems like it is all incremental business. I highly doubt that it is.

His point is excellent. This search traffic should not be perceived as incremental icing on the cake, unless you are quite comfortable with the idea of handing control of these visits completely over to the search engines. If you aren’t being proactive about taking strategic search engine results pages as your own (through search engine optimization), this steady flow of traffic could be diverted tomorrow to your key competitors.

The stakes can be considerable. Since search engine visits have been shown to convert more often to customers, compared to visits from other sources, losing this flow of traffic could be devastating to your business. If you don’t have a search engine optimization plan in place yet, start one now. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll be protected from the caprices of a search engine’s ever-changing algorithms, but it can reduce the risk to your bottom line.

An online ad tip from an eye-tracking expert

I’ve just returned from a fascinating afternoon of presentations on internet marketing best practices, put on by the Chicago Technology Executives Club. One of the speakers, Bob Schumacher PhD, of User Centric, discussed his company’s work doing consumer eye tracking analysis of web sites.

Specifically, they looked at ads. They attempt to learn where on a major site’s web page (examples: weather.com or imdb.com) are ads being noticed, and where are they being overlooked. By measuring the time people linger over certain ad units on certain web site pages, User Centric is helping to more fairly judge the branding power of online ads.

An example taken from an ad, courtesy of Adverlicio.usDuring the Q&A session, someone asked Dr. Schumaker what lessons he has learned about building an online ad that gets attention. Significantly, he had only one fact he could declare with certainty: Ads where someone is looking straight back at you attract a great deal of attention. Every time. All other techniques were more hit-and-miss, in his experience.

I share this tip at the risk of helping to trigger a trend in sites that scrutinize me as I check the sports and weather. But it’s too promising a technique to ignore.

According to carefully controlled eye tracking heat map results, following this suggestion can improve the odds that even if your ad doesn’t get a click, it will at least deliver some amount of brand value.

All I Really Need to Know About Social Online Communities I Learned Peering Over My Wife’s Shoulder

My wife Julie is a gifted humorist. She is also a good and loyal friend to those she has welcomed into her life. These qualities have served her well, especially since several of her friendships have been forged exclusively online.

Dr. Deborah Tannen, a sociolinguist, has written and lectured about the wide chasm between the way men and women tend to communicate. In her book devoted to the subject, which predates the whole Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus book franchise of the 90’s, she says that you can ponder whether it’s nature or nurture or a little of both, but the fact remains: The genders use language very differently. Men tend to use language as a weapon — as a way to establish and defend hierarchy while getting work done.

[brief interruption in writing]

Sorry, I’m back now. My wife called me into the next room to read something on her computer, a comment that was posted on her favorite online community.

It made her guffaw, and I admit, the comment was a pretty imaginative riff. A friend she’s never met was lampooning one of her comments posted earlier today. She’s now firing off a public reply. And so it goes.

As I was saying, Dr. Tannen reports that generally, men use words as ways to divide, or at least categorize, while women tend to use them to build consensus and — well — community.

Both linguistic techniques have their merits. But one approach definitely helps in the service of intimacy, and I never would have imagined that so much intimacy — non-sexual in this case — could be nurtured so remotely.

The knowledge my wife has about online communities was acquired slowly, one post at a time, while responding variously to discussion threads on the forum board of an ageing rock musician’s official web site.

I have a theory why she connected so quickly and deeply with a few of the board’s members. It is, after all, a forum associated with a revered singer-songwriter, someone who is known for both literate lyrics and catchy but often intricate melodies. 

This man’s music attracts artists and writers from many age groups, and these folks particularly have responded well to Julie’s droll observations and quips. They enjoy her company for many of the same reasons that her “non-board” friends do.

Take this example from earlier today, a comment she posted in a thread where newer members are welcomed into the fold by board veterans when they have racked up a certain quantity of posts. This post is directed to “Tom” (no real names here), but readable by the rest of the community:

Congratulations, Tom, on your thousandth post! Now you’re eligible for our prescription drug plan. Just don’t take as many as John!

How different from the work-oriented dialogs I engage in on the forums that I frequent!

I’m sure John loved the attention of Julie’s post, as did Tom. And although these two members aren’t female, it’s no coincidence that it was two women from the board who have enjoyed her posts enough to begin first an emailed correspondence, and then frequent phone calls. This summer one of these online friends traveled 800 miles to meet Julie and the other friend. They greeted each other like old buddies, and had a wonderful time visiting and sharing. The relationships continue to deepen on the board.

So what has Julie taught me about a social online community? These are her lessons for me so far:

  • The closest (non-sexual) relationships seem to grow among women. I use as further evidence the activity on SecondLife, a metaverse that I wrote about in May, and that attracts a surprising number of women of Julie’s generation.
  • Similar to a successful cocktail party, an online social community will be more of a success if the mix of women to men is fairly even. I suspect that in both, the women tend to keep the men around.
  • To continue the analogy, it helps if you have the same level of courtesy and empathy that makes for good cocktail party conversation. Maintaining a fair level of sobriety also helps.
  • From a marketing perspective, online social communities have loyal readerships that are willing and eager to endorse products and services they like. Julie has passed along to me several viral ad URLs she’s learned about on the board and thought I’d enjoy. This forum is currently buzzing about the movie Snakes On A Plane. I’m hoping they’re being ironic.
  • Finally, these freewheeling forum threads keep the site’s Google AdSense advertisements fresh and varied. One ribald thread attracted ads focused on hemorrhoid medication for three days. No one was asking for help of this type, but the embarrassment factor makes this type of product perfect for online advertisement. The fun context of the discussion might conceivable even lower consumer defenses and encourage clicks on the ads (does anyone have statistics to suggest this is so?).

Dr. Tannen says that men tend to not want to talk about work when they come home. It’s the wife who usually transgresses, with questions like: How was your day? What Dr. Tannen couldn’t know is I continue my work education at home, every time I ask Julie, “So what’s new on the board?”

Girding for the looming battle for subscription space

Thank you, Seth Godin, for again saving the day. In early 2007 the next major upgrade of Internet Explorer (IE) will be released. Among its features is an easier way for IE users to subscribe to sites via their RSS feeds. I’ve struggled with how to explain to clients (and many of my readers) the urgency of acting now. If your site warrants it, immediately set out to begin adding an RSS feed that announces your new content, and then promoting this site feature like crazy before the competition for user subscriptions really heats up.

In my attempt to find the right metaphor to illustrate the situation, I’ve been reminded of a comment that Al Gore made in a pre-election interview in 2000. The interviewer asked this clearly very studious politician what he has lately been studying. “Semantics,” he said. He explained that this digital age has left us with a dearth of ways to communicate its concepts. Survival hinges on our society retooling its language to fit this new reality. A group of people, whether they are a corporate board or a national electorate, cannot affect change on something that they can’t discuss accurately.

The best I’ve been able to do in my attempts to set the scene is to quote those who have predicted that RSS — this lower-risk (from a privacy perspective) permission marketing alternative to the opt-in email — will quickly trump that tactic in user popularity and marketing effectiveness.

Forget about “bookmark this page,” I’ve stated, “the RSS subscription is a more aggressive bookmark — one that hollers when the ‘book’ it is ‘marking’ has added a ‘page.'” Notice the metaphors. They are all dusty; descriptively hidebound. They are semantically crude, mostly because they lack the dynamic element that push technology delivers.

Mr. Godin found a better metaphor. It was hiding in his iPod.

He calls it “shuffleworld.” Seth points out that the shuffle feature means that the muchness of a hard drive bursting with songs empowers the listener, but also makes it difficult to listen to a favorite song, or even artist (he mentioned Elvis Costello — Mr. Godin is a man of good musical taste!). If I weren’t tiring of comparisons that are soooo last millennium, I’d say that this shuffleworld phenomenon has hidden any particular song like a needle in a haystack.

His point: Web sites are hidden in a similar way, and can only rise to the surface when they are voted worthy of attention on sites like digg, or when a new headline is pushed into an RSS subscriber’s consciousness.

So many sites, and so little browsing time!

Subscriptions help. But any particular user can only subscribe to so many feeds before being overwhelmed with their new content announcements. IE will make subscribing easy for the typical user, but it will also make unsubscribing, or not adding new subscriptions, just as easy.

Okay, web marketers. You’ve got a metaphor to grasp the problem. And you have a deadline. Wake up now. Add and promote those RSS feeds before your best prospects are too overwhelmed with other feeds to consider adding yours.

Is it time to add this to your privacy policy?

What with the recent AOL gaffe, where they distributed a huge data warehouse full of search data without proper anonymization, I’ve been wondering if it’s time for a few of our clients to add a clause to their privacy policy.

The clause would have to do with use of internal search data. After all, I’ve written here about the utility of mining this type of search data. These data are important markers to user behavior, and should not be ignored.

So, since consumers are realizing their search behavior is attracting attention, how about a privacy clause such as, “The owners of this site will not release user internal search data, nor will they allow it to be used to make observations about individual users. Instead, the owners pledge to use the information only in aggregate, to improve the experience of exploring this site.”

I know from looking at our clients’ web logs that privacy policies are being read over, or at least given a quick review. Therefore, this addition could help clients’ online images in the eyes of these readers, and also encourage these readers to go ahead and search within the site with confidence.

Big Brother may be watching, but he’s benevolent.

Less is more with some on-demand software

There are many situations where, from a marketing perspective, less is more. In these instances a smaller number of features improves a product. One is when you want to add a coolness factor. Examples:

A more common situation is streamlining to reduce complexity, and thus improve adoption. Sometimes a handful of added frills — frills that R&D engineers and a minority of users may find irresistible — actually works against a product. Swiss Army knives have their fans, but most pocket knife owners prefer something less bloated. If they want a screwdriver or corkscrew, they’ll buy one.

The rule of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies equally well to software, because learning and installation time are two important constraints to adoption. This is especially true of software that you need to use with other users, simultaneously and remotely.

That’s why I was fascinated on Friday to learn more about a pared-down, lower-cost competitor of WebEx. This category of on-demand software product enables a designated host to share content with others during live web sessions. It’s one of the fastest-growing types of software provided by application service providers (ASPs).

And WebEx is this category’s leader. Their revenue growth has been 23% for each of the past two years and their reported clients now number more 20,000. Needless to say, WebEx has developed an impressive product. But it takes some time to learn, is a little overwhelming in its many features, and requires hosts and participants alike to download special software. That’s a vulnerability.

I was thinking of all of this Friday morning at 8 AM when I was riding the elevator to my appointment with Brevient. I was to meet with Lisa Noone to learn about their MixMeeting — an online collaboration tool for the needs of small and medium businesses.

Of particular interest was the prospect of meeting Brevient’s founder and CEO, Matt Lautz. He was still a teenager when he started the company (who can explain how the lad squandered the first 18 years of his life?), and in a very short time since, he’s created an impressive company with at least one product worth checking out. It truly promises to grab a good share of its market.

I didn’t have to wait long to wait to meet Matt, by the way. It turned out the unassuming fellow in the tee shirt riding across from me in the elevator was noneother.

I’ll know more about the product as I give it a test spin, but the demo was impressive in its brevity (thus the name?) as well as its implied promise of making presentations easier for both my clients and my account services team. The money savings with MixMeeting, and the fact that I’d be supporting the business of a literal neighbor, would be icing on the cake.

Thank you, Macromedia, for giving us the next killer app

In a client meeting the other day, we were discussing with several individuals in the company their soon-to-launch international sites. The sites, which will have domain names in various European and Latin American countries, showcase the same streaming videos (with appropriate translations). So my team was asked a reasonable question: Will anyone have trouble playing the videos?

Even three years ago, this would have been a tough question to answer with confidence. Those were the days when you had to have separate formats for Quicktime, RealMedia and Windows Media. The answer would have been complicated and unsettling. Now, the problem is solved by presenting the videos in one format only: Macromedia’s Flash.

My reply: “Yes. Because they are presented in Flash, and because Flash is a universally accepted browser plug-in, you can be confident that everyone in every country will see them. After all, YouTube wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Flash!”

This was the first time I realized just how ubiquitous Flash really is. It’s true. I blurted out my YouTube declaration, but upon reflection, I seriously can’t imagine that the site could be so addictive if it weren’t for the ease with which you can view its contents. How addictive is it? YouTube is, as of today, the twelfth most popular site on the web, according to Alexa. That’s a lot of addicts!

When Flash emerged as a way to show rich content that was independent of browser type, I recognized its value for photography, typography and animation. But I never would have anticipated that it would be video’s “killer app.” Thank you, worldwide propagation of broadband connections.

And thank you, Macromedia.

Attention B2B marketers: Your prospects are tired of white papers

In working with clients who sell to other businesses, I and my team are witnessing something I can only characterize as white paper fatigue. Remember when a truly well-written white paper that you could download from a corporate site was, although never truly a novelty, at least a welcome way to consume important information? Me too.

And it still is to some extent. I still find their contents valuable. The trouble is I’m spending less time reading and more time scanning. Therefore, the white paper has come to represent for me a workaday chore, not an opportunity to learn. Clearly others are in the same camp, because the offer of a white paper, when posed on a site or packaged in an email, is not as measurably compelling to our clients’ prospective customers as we have observed in the past.

There is an alternative, and I’m pleased to see it’s quickly on its way out of the “novelty” category of web site offerings. I’m talking about the audio white paper. AKA, the podcast.

Recent research reported in eMarketer.com suggests that the B2B audience is not just receptive to white paper content in this format: They want more of it. Here is an excerpt:

The respondents [in this survey of business and IT professionals] were actually enthusiastic about podcasting — and wanted more. Nearly 60% said business and tech information in white papers or analyst reports would be more interesting as podcasts, and 55% said they would be more likely to use the information if it were delivered in podcasts, rather than as reading material.

This same report showed how these are not just early adopters (from a statistical perspective) but are a growing base of business people who like podcasts, and use them both personally and professionally. This is encouraging news for companies who are seeking new ways to engage their target audience. 

As often happens with quickly emerging media trends, the challenge now becomes meeting this exciting opportunity — quickly — with content that truly takes advantage of the medium. Have any of my readers found strong examples of podcasted (and video!) white papers? I encourage your comments.

 

The chasm between IT and “the suits” remains wide and deep

My work is the management of a decidedly mixed marriage. The business I oversee, which is part of an advertising agency (filled with your more traditional businesspeople), is chiefly populated by technologists. And we know how well these two groups get along. So it is my delight to report that for the most part, we all get along quite well, thank you. Visit us and you’d see a surprisingly high level of respect and productive collaboration between these two very different types of information workers.

Good thing, too. That’s what sets us apart in the interactive marketplace.

I bring this up because a friend, who is a very gifted programmer, had the following as his IM greeting today. It’s a link to a blog entry showing dramatically how wide and deep the chasm still is between the IT world and the “business world.”

The blog entry itself was interesting, and illustrates this ongoing mistrust. Moreover, the long list of comments it generated, which runs below the entry, starkly documents the passion of opinions on both sides. Man, the anger!

Every day I see the incredible things that can be accomplished when professionals of both disciplines work together. For this reason, I’m particularly saddened that much of the rest of the world has not yet found a way to agree on something that seems obvious:

Both parties — “techies” and “suits” — are invaluable.