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: or 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.