Marketers and Funnel Vision

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

A couple of years ago, I saw an essay by Elijah Meeks, former Data Visualization Society executive director, about how “We Live in a World of Funnels.” It started out like this:

“You think you’re reading an essay. You’re not. You’re moving through a funnel. This shouldn’t surprise you. You’ve been moving through funnels all day.”

No, we haven’t.

Sorry, Elijah, but the world is not built of funnels. Funnels are arbitrary lenses, invented by marketers, that are applied after the fact. They have nothing to do with how we live our lives. They’re a fabrication — a tool designed to help simplify real-world data and visualize, one that’s been so compelling that we have focused on it to the exclusion of everything that lives outside of it.  

We don’t live in a world of funnels. We live in a world that’s a maze of diverse and complex potential paths. At each intersection we reach, we have to make choices. For a marketer, that seems like a daunting thing to analyze. The funnel model simplifies our job by relying on successful conversions as the gold standard and working backwards from there. By relying on a model of a funnel, we can only examine “the road taken” and try to optimize the hell out of it. We never consider the “road not taken.”

Indeed, Robert Frost’s poem, from which I borrowed a few lines to start this post, is the ultimate misunderstanding of funnels. It is, by most who have read it, considered the ultimate funnel analysis, a look back at what came from choosing the “road less traveled.” But as reviewer David Orr pointed out in this post, it’s at least as much about what might have happened outside of the “funnel” we all try to apply to the poem:

“Because the poem isn’t ‘The Road Less Traveled.’ It’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ And the road not taken, of course, is the road one didn’t take—which means that the title passes over the ‘less traveled’ road the speaker claims to have fol­lowed in order to foreground the road he never tried. The title isn’t about what he did; it’s about what he didn’t do. Or is it? 

The funnel model is inherently constraining in its perspective. You are forced to look backward through the tiny hole at the bottom and speculate on what prevented others from getting to that point.

Why do we do this? Because, initially anyway, it seems easier than other choices. It’s like the old joke about finding the inebriated man outside a bar looking for his car keys under the streetlight. When asked where exactly he lost them, he points behind him to a dark alley.

“Why are you looking for them here then?”

“The light’s better here.”

It certainly seems the light is better in a funnel. We can track activity within the funnel. But how do you track what happens outside of it?  It may seem like a hopeless task, but it doesn’t have to be. There are universals in human behavior that can be surprisingly predictive.

Take B2B buying, for example. When we did the research for the Buyersphere Project, our “a-ha” moment was realizing what a massive role risk had in the decision process.

Prior to this research, we — like every other marketer — relied on the funnel model. Our CRM software had funnel analysis built into it. So did our website traffic tracking tool. Funnels were indeed pervasive — but not in the real world, just in the world of marketing.

But we made a decision at the earliest stage of our research project. We tossed aside the funnel premise and started at the other end, understanding what happens when a potential buyer hits what Google calls the ZMOT: the Zero Moment of Truth. This is defined as “the moment in the buying process when the consumer researches a product prior to purchase.” When we started asking people about the Moment — or the moments before the ZMOT — we found that in B2B, risk-avoidance trumps all else. And it gave us an entirely different view of the buying journey we would never have seen from inside the funnel.

We also realized we were dealing with multiple definitions of risk, depending on whose risk it was. In the implementation of a new technology solution, the risk definition of the person who would be using the solution is completely different than that of the procurement officer who will be overseeing the purchase process.

All this led to a completely different interpretation of buying motivation — one driven by emotions. If you can understand those emotional factors, you can start to understand the choices made at each intersection. It lets us see things beyond the bounds of the “funnel.”

Marketing funnels are a model — not the real world. And as statistician George Box said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” I do believe the funnel can be useful, but we just have to understand that there’s so much you can’t see from inside the funnel.

The Privacy War Has Begun

It started innocently enough….

My iPhone just upgraded itself to iOS 14.6, and the privacy protection purge began.

In late April,  Apple added App Tracking Transparency (ATT) to iOS (actually in 14.5 but for reasons mentioned in this Forbes article, I hadn’t noticed the change until the most recent update). Now, whenever I launch an app that is part of the online ad ecosystem, I’m asked whether I want to share data to enable tracking. I always opt out.

These alerts have been generally benign. They reference benefits like “more relevant ads,” a “customized experience” and “helping to support us.” Some assume you’re opting in and opting out is a much more circuitous and time-consuming process. Most also avoid the words “tracking” and “privacy.” One referred to it in these terms: “Would you allow us to refer to your activity?”

My answer is always no. Why would I want to customize an annoyance and make it more relevant?

All in all, it’s a deceptively innocent wrapper to put on what will prove to be a cataclysmic event in the world of online advertising. No wonder Facebook is fighting it tooth and nail, as I noted in a recent post.

This shot across the bow of online advertising marks an important turning point for privacy. It’s the first time that someone has put users ahead of advertisers. Everything up to now has been lip service from the likes of Facebook, telling us we have complete control over our privacy while knowing that actually protecting that privacy would be so time-consuming and convoluted that the vast majority of us would do nothing, thus keeping its profitability flowing through the pipeline.

The simple fact of the matter is that without its ability to micro-target, online advertising just isn’t that effective. Take away the personal data, and online ads are pretty non-engaging. Also, given our continually improving ability to filter out anything that’s not directly relevant to whatever we’re doing at the time, these ads are very easy to ignore.

Advertisers need that personal data to stand any chance of piercing our non-attentiveness long enough to get a conversion. It’s always been a crapshoot, but Apple’s ATT just stacked the odds very much against the advertiser.

It’s about time. Facebook and online ad platforms have had little to no real pushback against the creeping invasion of our privacy for years now. We have no idea how extensive and invasive this tracking has been. The only inkling we get is when the targeting nails the ad delivery so well that we swear our phone is listening to our conversations. And, in a way, it is. We are constantly under surveillance.

In addition to Facebook’s histrionic bitching about Apple’s ATT, others have started to find workarounds, as reported on 9 to 5 Mac. ATT specifically targets the IDFA (Identified for Advertisers), which offers cross app tracking by a unique identifier. Chinese ad networks backed by the state-endorsed Chinese Advertising Association were encouraging the adoption of CAID identifiers as an alternative to IDFA. Apple has gone on record as saying ATT will be globally implemented and enforced. While CAID can’t be policed at the OS level, Apple has said that apps that track users without their consent by any means, including CAID, could be removed from the App Store.

We’ll see. Apple doesn’t have a very consistent track record with it comes to holding the line against Chinese app providers. WeChat, for one, has been granted exceptions to Apple’s developer restrictions that have not been extended to anyone else.

For its part, Google has taken a tentative step toward following Apple’s lead with its new privacy initiative on Android devices, as reported in Slash Gear. Google Play has asked developers to share what data they collect and how they use that data. At this point, they won’t be requiring opt-in prompts as Apple does.

All of this marks a beginning. If it continues, it will throw a Kong-sized monkey wrench into the works of online advertising. The entire ecosystem is built on ad-supported models that depend on collecting and storing user data. Apple has begun nibbling away at that foundation.

The toppling has begun.

The Deconstruction of Trust

Just over a week ago, fellow Insider Steven Rosenbaum wrote a post entitled “Trust Is In Decline Worldwide.” He quotes from the Edelman Trust Barometer Report for 2021. There, graph after graph shows this decline. And that feels exactly right. The Barometer “reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”

Here in the ad biz, the decline of trust is nothing new. We’ve been seeing it slip for at least the last decade.

But that is not a universal truth. Yes, trust in advertising is in decline. But trust in brands — at least, some brands — has never been higher. And that is indicative of the decoupling we’re seeing between the concept of brand and the practice of advertising. One used to support the other. Now, even when an ad works, it may be stripping the trust from a brand.

This decline in advertising trust also varies from generation to generation. An Ofcom study in the UK of young adults 16 to 34 found that 91.6% of all respondents had little or no trust in ads. The same study found that if you were looking for trustworthy sources, 73.5% would go to online reviews or recommendations of friends.

One reason for this erosion in trust is that advertising has been slumming. Social media advertising is the least trustworthy channel that exists. The vast majority of us don’t trust what we see on it. Yet the advertising dollars continue to pour into social media.

Yet more than ever, we want to trust a brand. The Edelman Report shows that business is the most trusted institution, ahead of NGOs, government and media. And the brands that are rising to the challenge are taking a more holistic approach to brand management.

More than ever, brands are not built on advertising. They are built on consumer experience, on ideals and on meeting promises.  In short, they are built on instilling trust. Consumers, in turn are making trust a bigger deal. Those aged 18 to 34, that very same demo that has no trust in advertising, is the first to say brand trust matters more than ever. They’re just looking for proof of that trust in different places.

But why is trust important? That seems like a dumb question, but it’s not. There are deeper levels of understanding that are required here. And we might just find the answer in southern Italy.

Trust to the north and south of Naples

Italy has an economic problem. It’s always been there, but it definitely got worse after World War Two. It’s called the Mezzogiorno Problem.

Mezzogiorno means “noon” in Italian. But it’s also a label for the south of Italy. Like many things in Italian culture, it can make even problems sound charming and romantic. It has something to do with being sunny.

Italy has two economies. The North’s economy has always been more robust than the South’s. Per capita income in the Mezzogiorno is 60% of the national average. Unemployment is twice as high. Despite repeated attempts by the government to kickstart the economy of the South, the money and talent in Italy typically flow north of Naples.

The roots of the Mezzogiorno problem go to a not totally surprising place: a lack of trust. Trust is also called social capital. And southern Italy has less social capital than the North. Part of this has to do with geography. Villages in southern Italy are more isolated and there is less interaction between them. Part of it has to do with systemic corruption and crime. Part of it has to do with something called Campanilismo — where Italian loyalties belong first to their family, second to their village or city, third to their immediate region and, lastly, to any notion of belonging to a nation. People from the South have trouble trusting anyone not from their inner circle.

For all these reasons, the co-ops that transformed the agricultural industry in the north of Italy never gained a foothold in the South. If you were to look for an example of how low trust can lead to negative outcomes for all, it would be hard to find a better one than southern Italy.

But what does this have to do with advertising? That begins to become clear when we look at the impact trust has on our brains.

Our Brains On Trust

Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak has found that trust plays a key role in the functioning of our brains. When trust is present, our brain produces oxytocin, which Zak calls the trust molecule. It literally rewards our brain when we work together with others. It pushes us to cooperate rather than be focused exclusively on our own self-interest. This is exactly what was missing in southern Italy.

But there’s another side to this: the dark side of oxytocin. It can also cause us emotional pain in stressful social situations. And these episodes tend to get embedded in us as bad memories, leading to a triggering of fear or anxiety in the future.

We have to think more carefully about this question of trust. The whole goal of advertising is simply to get an impression to the right person. I suspect most marketers might define an unsuccessful ad as one that gets ignored. But the reality might be far worse. An ad that is shown in an untrusted channel might cause an emotional deficit, leading to the creation of future anxiety about or animosity towards a brand.

Once this happens, the game is over. You now have a Mezzogiorno of marketing.

COVID And The Chasm Crossing

For most of us, it’s been a year living with the pandemic. I was curious what my topic was a year ago this week. It was talking about the brand crisis at a certain Mexican brewing giant when its flagship brand was suddenly and unceremoniously linked with a global pandemic. Of course, we didn’t know then just how “global” it would be back then.

Ahhh — the innocence of early 2020.

The past year will likely be an historic inflection point in many societal trend lines. We’re not sure at this point how things will change, but we’re pretty sure they will change. You can’t take what has essentially been a 12-month anomaly in everything we know as normal, plunk it down on every corner of the globe and expect everything just to bounce back to where it was.

If I could vault 10 years in the future and then look back at today, I suspect I would be talking about how our relationship with technology changed due to the pandemic. Yes, we’re all sick of Zoom. We long for the old days of actually seeing another face in the staff lunchroom. And we realize that bingeing “Emily in Paris” on Netflix comes up abysmally short of the actual experience of stepping in dog shit as we stroll along the Seine.

C’est la vie.

But that’s my point. For the past 12 months, these watered-down digital substitutes have been our lives. We were given no choice. And some of it hasn’t sucked. As I wrote last week, there are times when a digital connection may actually be preferable to a physical one.

There is now a whole generation of employees who are considering their work-life balance in the light of being able to work from home for at least part of the time. Meetings the world over are being reimagined, thanks to the attractive cost/benefit ratio of being able to attend virtually. And, for me, I may have permanently swapped riding my bike trainer in my basement for spin classes in the gym. It took me a while to get used to it, but now that I have, I think it will stick.

Getting people to try something new — especially when it’s technology — is a tricky process. There are a zillion places on the uphill slope of the adoption curve where we can get mired and give up. But, as I said, that hasn’t been an option for us in the past 12 months. We had to stick it out. And now that we have, we realize we like much of what we were forced to adopt. All we’re asking for is the freedom to pick and choose what we keep and what we toss away.

I suspect  many of us will be a lot more open to using technology now that we have experienced the tradeoffs it entails between effectiveness and efficiency. We will make more room in our lives for a purely utilitarian use of technology, stripped of the pros and cons of “bright shiny object” syndrome.

Technology typically gets trapped at both the dread and pseudo-religious devotion ends of the Everett Rogers Adoption Curve. Either you love it, or you hate it. Those who love it form the market that drives the development of our technology, leaving those who hate it further and further behind.

As such, the market for technology tends to skew to the “gee whiz” end of the market, catering to those who buy new technology just because it’s new and cool. This bias has embedded an acceptance of planned obsolescence that just seems to go hand-in-hand with the marketing of technology. 

My previous post about technology leaving seniors behind is an example of this. Even if seniors start out as early adopters, the perpetual chase of the bright shiny object that typifies the tech market can leave them behind.

But COVID-19 changed all that. It suddenly forced all of us toward the hump that lies in the middle of the adoption curve. It has left the world no choice but to cross the “chasm” that  Geoffrey Moore wrote about 30 years ago in his book “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers.” He explained that the chasm was between “visionaries (early adopters) and pragmatists (early majority),” according to Wikipedia.

This has some interesting market implications. After I wrote my post, a few readers reached out saying they were working on solutions that addressed the need of seniors to stay connected with a device that is easier for them to use and is not subject to the need for constant updating and relearning. Granted, neither of them was from Apple nor Google, but at least someone was thinking about it.

As the pandemic forced the practical market for technology to expand, bringing customers who had everyday needs for their technology, it created more market opportunities. Those opportunities create pockets of profit that allow for the development of tools for segments of the market that used to be ignored.

It remains to be seen if this market expansion continues after the world returns to a more physically based definition of normal. I suspect it will.

This market evolution may also open up new business model opportunities — where we’re actually willing to pay for online services and platforms that used to be propped up by selling advertising. This move alone would take technology a massive step forward in ethical terms. We wouldn’t have this weird moral dichotomy where marketers are grieving the loss of data (as fellow Media Insider Ted McConnell does in this post) because tech is finally stepping up and protecting our personal privacy.

Perhaps — I hope — the silver lining in the past year is that we will look at technology more as it should be: a tool that’s used to make our lives more fulfilling.

Why Free News is (usually) Bad News

Pretty much everything about the next week will be unpredictable. But whatever happens on Nov. 3, I’m sure there will be much teeth-gnashing and navel-gazing about the state of journalism in the election aftermath.

And there should be. I have written much about the deplorable state of that particular industry. Many, many things need to be fixed. 

For example, let’s talk about the extreme polarization of both the U.S. population and their favored news sources. Last year about this time, the PEW Research Center released a study showing that over 30% of Americans distrust their news sources. 

But what’s more alarming is, when we break this down by Republicans versus Democrats, only 27% of Democrats didn’t trust the news for information about politics or elections. With Republicans, that climbed to a whopping 67%. 

The one news source Republicans do trust? Fox News. Sixty-five percent of them say Fox is reliable. 

And that’s a problem.

Earlier this year, Ad Fontes Media came out with its Media Bias Chart. It charts major news and media channels on two axes: source reliability and political bias. The correlation between bias and reliability is almost perfect. The further a news source is out to the right or left, the less reliable it is.

How does Fox fare? Not well. Ad Fontes separates Fox TV from Fox Online. Fox Online lies on the border between being “reliable for news, but high in analysis/opinion content” and “some reliability issues and/or extremism.” Fox TV falls squarely in the second category.

I’ve written before that media bias is not just a right-wing problem. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC show a significant left-leaning bias. But CNN Online, despite its bias, still falls within the “Most Reliable for News” category. According to Ad Fontes, MSNBC has the same reliability issues as Fox.

The question that has to be asked is “How did we get here?”  And that’s the question tackled head-on in a new book, “Free is Bad,” by John Marshall.

I’ve known Marshall for ages. He has covered a lot of the things I’ve been writing about in this column. 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

Upton Sinclair

The problem here is one of incentive. Our respective media heads didn’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what we need to be? A lot more biased!” They have walked down that path step by step, driven by the need to find a revenue model that meets their need for profitability. 

When we talk about our news channels, the obvious choice to be profitable is to be supported by ads. And to be supported by ads, you have to be able to target those ads. One of the most effective targeting strategies is to target by political belief, because it comes reliably bundled with a bunch of other beliefs that makes it very easy to predict behaviors. And that makes these ads highly effective in converting prospects.

This is how we got to where we are. But there are all types of ways to prop up your profit through selling ads. Some are pretty open and transparent. Some are less so. And that brings us to a particularly interesting section of Marshall’s book. 

John Marshall is a quant geek at heart. He has been a serial tech entrepreneur — and, in one of those ventures, built a very popular web analytics platform. He also has intimate knowledge of how the sausages are made in the ad-tech business. He knows sketchy advertising practices when he sees them. 

Given all of this, Marshall was able to undertake a fascinating analysis of the ads we see on various news platforms that dovetails nicely with the Ad Fontes chart. 

Marshall created the Ad Shenanigans chart. Basically, he did a forensic analysis of the advertising approaches of various online news platforms. He was looking for those that gathered data about their users, sold traffic to multiple networks, featured clickbait chumboxes and other unsavory practices. Then he ranked them accordingly.

Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty strong correlation between reputable reporting and business ethics. Highly biased and less reputable sites on the Ad Fontes Bias Chart (Breitbart, NewsMax, and Fox News) all can also be found near the top of Marshall’s Ad Shenanigans Chart. Those that do seem to have some ethics when it comes to the types of ads they run also seem to take objective journalism seriously. Case in point, The Guardian in the UK and ProPublica in the U.S.

The one anomaly in the group seems to be CNN. While it does fare relatively well on reputable reporting according to Ad Fontes, CNN appears to be willing to do just about anything to turn a buck. It ranks just a few slots below Fox in terms of “ad shenanigans.”

Marshall also breaks out those platforms that have a mix of paid firewalls and advertising. While there are some culprits in the mix such as the Daily Caller, Slate and the National Review, most sites that have some sort of subscription model seem to be far less likely to fling the gates of their walled gardens open to the ethically challenged advertising hordes. 

All of this drives home Marshall’s message: When it comes to the quality of your news sources, free is bad. As soon as something costs you nothing, you are no longer the customer. You’re the product. Invisible hand market forces are no longer working for you. They are working for the advertiser. And that means they’re working against you if you’re looking for an unbiased, quality news source.

Is the Marketing Industry Prepared for What Lies Ahead?

It was predictable. Humans are starting to do what humans do. We are beginning to shift gears, working our way through the stages of shock. We are daring to look beyond today and wondering what tomorrow might be like. Very smart people, like Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, are concerned about what we may trade away in the teeth of this crisis.

Others, like philosopher Barbara Muraca, climate change advocate Greta Thurnberg and Media Spin’s own Kaila Colbin,  are hoping that this might represent a global reset moment for us. Perhaps this will finally break our obsession with continual year after year growth, fueled by our urges to acquire and consume. We in the advertising and marketing business kept dumping gas on this unsustainable dumpster fire. There is hope by some – including myself – that COVID-19 will be a kind of shock therapy, convincing us to take a kinder, gentler approach to both the planet and each other.

My own crystal ball gazing is on a much-reduced scale. Specifically, I’m wondering what advertising and marketing might be like in our immediate future. I started by looking back at what history can teach us about recovery from a crisis.

Both World Wars resulted in explosions of consumerism. One could probably make the argument that the consumerism that happened after World War II has continued pretty much uninterrupted right to the current day. We basically spent our way out of the dotcom implosion of 1999 – 2002 and the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009.

But will this be different? I think it will, for three reasons.

One, both World Wars repressed consumer demand for a matter of years. With World War I it was four years, plus another 3 marked by the Spanish Flu Pandemic and a brief but sharp recession as the economy had to shift gears from wartime to peace time. With World War II, it was 6 years of repressed consumerism. 

Secondly, the wars presented those of us here in North America with a very different psychological landscape. We went “over there” to fight and then “came home” when it was done. The war wasn’t on our front stoop. That gave us both physical and emotional distance after the war was over.

Finally, when the war was over, it was over. The world had to adjust to a new normal, but the fighting had stopped. That gave consumers a clear mental threshold to step beyond. You didn’t have to worry that you might be called back into service on any day, returning once again to the grim reality that was.

For these three reasons, I think our consumer mentality may look significantly different in the coming months. As we struggle back to whatever normal is between now and the discovery of a vaccine – currently estimated at 12 to 18 months – we will have a significantly different consumer reality. We don’t have years of pent up consumer demand that will wash away any pragmatic thoughts of restraint. We have been dealing with a crisis that has crept into our very homes. It has been present in every community, every neighborhood. And – most importantly – we will be living in a constant state of anxiety and fear for the foreseeable future. These three things are going to have a dramatic impact on our desire to consume.

Blogger Tomas Pueyo did a good job of outlining what our new normal may look like in his post The Hammer and The Dance. We are still very much in the “Hammer” phase but we are beginning to wonder what the “Dance” may look like.

In our immediate future, we are going to hear a lot about the Basic reproductive rate – denoted as R0  – or R naught. This is the measure of the number of cases, on average, an infected person will cause during their infectious period. A highly infectious disease, like measles, has a R naught of between 12 and 18. Current estimates on COVID-19 put its R naught between 1.5 and 3.5. Most models assume a R naught of 2.4 or so.

This is important to understand if we want to understand what our habits of consumption might look like until a vaccine is found. As long as that R naught number is higher than 1, the disease continues to spread. If we can get it lower than 1, then the numbers stabilize and eventually decline. The “Dance” Pueyo refers to is the actions that need to be taken to keep the R naught number lower than 1 without completely stalling the economy. With extremely restrictive measures you theoretically could reduce the R naught to zero but in the process, you shut down the entire economy. Relax the restrictions too much and the R naught climbs back up into exponentially increasing territory.

Much of the commentary I’m reading is assuming we will go back to “normal” or some variation of it. But the new “normal” is this dance, where we will be balanced on the knife’s edge between human cost and economic cost. For the next several months we will be teetering from one side to the other. At best, we can forget about widespread travel, large public gatherings and sociability as we previously knew it. At worst, we go back into full lockdown.

This is the psychological foundation our consumption will be based on. We will be in a constant state of anxiety and fear. And our marketing strategies will have to address that. Further, marketing needs to factor in this new normal in an environment where brand messaging is no longer a unilateral exercise. It is amplified and bent through social media. Frayed nerves make for a very precarious arena in which to play a game we’re still learning the rules of. We can expect ideological and ethical divisions to widen and deepen during the Dance.

The duration of the Dance will be another important factor to consider when we think about marketing. If it goes long enough, our temporary behavioral shifts become habits. The changes that are forced upon us may become permanent. Will we ever feel good about stepping aboard a cruise ship? Will we be ever be comfortable again in a crowded restaurant or bar? Will we pay 300 dollars to be jammed into a stadium with 50 thousand other people? We don’t know the answers to these questions yet.

Successful market depends on being able to anticipate the mood of the audience. The Dance will make that much more difficult. We will be racing up and down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at a frenzied pace that would make a game of Snakes and Ladders seem mild by comparison.

That’s what happens in times of crisis. In normal times we spend our lifetimes scaling Abraham Maslow’s elegant model from the bottom – fulfilling our most basic physical needs – to the top – an altruistic concern for the greater good. Most of us spend much of our time stuck somewhere north of the middle, obsessed with our own status and shoring up our self-esteem. It’s this relatively stable mental state that the vast majority of marketing is targeted at.

But in a chronic crisis mode like that which is foretold by the Dance, we can crash from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy in the blink of an eye. And we will all be doing this at different times in different locations.

The Dance introduces a consumer scenario marketers have never encountered before. We will crave comfort and security. We will be desperate for glimpses of positivity. And it’s certain that our values and beliefs will shift but it’s difficult to predict in which direction. While my hope is that we become kinder and gentler people, I suspect it will be a toss-up. It could well go the other way.

If you thought marketing was tough before, buckle up!

Saying So Long to SEMPO

Yesterday afternoon, while I was in line at the grocery store, my phone pinged. I was mentioned in a Twitter post. For me, that’s becoming a pretty uncommon experience. So I checked the post.  And that’s how I found out that SEMPO is no more.

The tweet was from Dana Todd, who was responding to a Search Engine Journalarticle by Roger Montti about the demise of SEMPO. For those of you who don’t know SEMPO: it was the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization.

It was a big part of my life during what seems like a lifetime ago. Todd was even more involved. Hence the tweet.

Increasingly I find my remaining half-life in digital consists of an infrequent series of “remember-when” throwbacks. This will be one of those.

Todd’s issue with the article was that much of the 17-year history of the organization was glossed over, as Montti chose to focus mainly on the controversies of the first year or two of its existence.

As Todd said, “You only dredged up the early stages of the organization, in its infancy as we struggled to gain respect and traction, and were beset by naysayers who looked for a reason we should fail. We didn’t fail.”

She then added, “There is far more to the SEMPO story, and far more notable people who put in blood sweat and tears to build not just the organization, but the entire industry.”

I was one of those people. But before that, I was also one of the early naysayers.

SEMPO started in 2003. I didn’t join until 2004. I spent at least part of that first year joining the chorus bitching about the organization. And then I realized that I could either bitch from the outside — or I could effect change from the inside.  

After joining, I quickly found myself on that same SEMPO board that that I’d been complaining about. In 2005, I became co-chair of the research committee. In 2006, I became the chair of SEMPO. I served in that role for two years and eventually stepped down from SEMPO at the same time I stepped away from the search industry.

Like Todd (who was the president of SEMPO for part of the time I was the chairman), I am proud of what we did, and extraordinarily proud of the team that made it happen. Many of the people I admired most in the industry served with me on that board.

Todd will always be one of my favorite search people. But I also had the privilege of serving with Jeff Pruit, Kevin Lee, Bill Hunt, Dave Fall, Christine Churchill and the person who got the SEMPO ball rolling, along with Todd: Barbara Coll. There were many, many others.

Now, SEMPO is being absorbed by the Digital Analytics Association, which, according to its announcement,  “is committed to helping former SEMPO members become fully integrated into DAA, and will be forming a special interest group (SIG) for search analytics.”

I’ve got to admit: That hurts. Being swallowed up, becoming nothing more than a special interest group, is a rather ignoble end for the association I gave so much to.

But as anyone who has raised a child can tell you, you know you’ve been successful when they no longer need you. And that’s how I choose to interpret this event. The search industry no longer needs SEMPO, at least as a stand-alone organization.

And if that’s the case, then SEMPO knocked it out of the park. Because that sure as hell wasn’t true back in 2003.

Search in 2003 was the Wild West. According to legend, there were white-hat SEOs and black-hat SEOs.

But truth be told, most of us wore hats that were some shade of grey.

The gunslingers of natural search (or organic SEO) were slowly and very reluctantly giving up their turf to the encroaching new merchants of paid search. Google Adwords had only been around for three years, but its launch introduced a whole new dynamic to the ecosystem. Google suddenly had to start a relationship with search marketers.

Before that, the only Google attempt made to reach out was thanks to a rogue mystery poster on SEO industry forums named “googleguy” (later suspected to be the search quality team lead Matt Cutts).  To call search an industry would be stretching the term to its breaking point.

The introduction of paid search was creating a two-sided marketplace, and that was forcing search to become more civilized.

The process of civilization is always difficult. It requires the establishment of trust and respect, two commodities that were in desperately short supply in search circa 2003.

SEMPO was the one organization that did the most to bring civilization to the search marketplace. It gave Google a more efficient global conduit to thousands of search marketers. And it gave those search marketers a voice that Google would actually pay some attention to.

But it was more than just starting a conversation. SEMPO challenged search marketers to think beyond their own interests. The organization laid the foundation for a more sustainable and equitable search ecosystem. If SEMPO accomplished anything to be proud of, it was in preventing the Tragedy of the Commons from killing search before it had a chance to establish itself as the fastest growing advertising marketplace in history.

Dana Todd wrapped up her extended Twitter post by writing, “I can say confidently Google wouldn’t be worth $1T without us. SEMPO — you mattered.”

Dana, just like in the old SEMPO days when we double-teamed a message, you said it better than I ever could.

And Google? You’re welcome.

‘Twas the Night Before the Internet

Today, just one day before Christmas, my mind swings to the serendipitous side. I don’t know about you, but for me, 2019 has been a trying year. While you would never know it by the collection of columns I’ve produced over the past 12 months, I have tried to find the glimpses of light in the glowering darkness.

Serendipity Sidetrack #1: “Glowering” is a word we don’t use much anymore. It refers to someone who has a dark, angry expression on their faces. As such, it’s pretty timely and relevant. You’d think we would use it more.

One of my personal traditions during the holidays is to catch one of the fourteen billion airings of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Yes, it’s quintessentially Capraesque. Yes, it’s corny as hell. But give me a big seasonal heaping helping of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and that “crummy little town” known as Bedford Falls.

Serendipity Sidetrack #2: The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is based on a 1939 short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. He tried to get it published for several years with no success. He finally self-published it and sent it to 200 friends as a 24-page Christmas card. One of these cards ended up on the desk of an executive at RKO pictures, who convinced the studio to buy the rights in 1943 as a vehicle for its star Cary Grant.

That movie never got made and the project was shelved for the rest of World War II. After the war, director Frank Capra read the script and chose it as his first Hollywood movie after making war documentaries and training films.

The movie was panned by critics and ignored by audiences. It was a financial disaster, eventually leading to the collapse of Capra’s new production company, Liberty Films. One other stray tidbit: during the scene at the high school dance where the gym floor opens over the pool (which was shot at Beverly Hills High School), Mary’s obnoxious date Freddie is played by an adult Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, from the “Our Gang” series.

But I digress. This seasonal ritual got me thinking along “what if” lines. We learn what Bedford Falls would be like if George Bailey was never born. But maybe the same narrative machinery could be applied to another example: What would Christmas (or your seasonal celebration of choice) be like if the Internet had never happened?

As I pondered this, I realized that there’s really only one aspect of the internet that materially impacts what the holidays have become. These celebrations revolve around families, so if we were going to look for changes wrought by technology, we have to look at the structure and dynamics of the family unit.

Serendipity Sidetrack #3: Christmas was originally not a family-based celebration. It became so in Victorian England thanks to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens. After the marriage of the royal couple, Albert brought the German tradition of the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle. Pictures of the royals celebrating with family around the tree firmly shifted the holiday towards its present warm-hearted family center.

In 1843, Dickens added social consciousness to the party with the publication of “A Christmas Carol.” The holiday didn’t take its detour towards overt consumerism until the prosperity of the 1950s.

But back to my rapidly unraveling narrative thread: What would Christmas be like without the Internet?

I have celebrated Christmas in two different contexts: The first, in my childhood and the second with my own wife and family.

I grew up with just my immediate family in rural Alberta, geographically distant from aunts, uncles and cousins. For dinner there would be six of us around the table. We might try to call an aunt or uncle who lived some 2,000 miles away, but usually the phone lines were so busy we couldn’t get through.

The day was spent with each other and usually involved a few card games, a brief but brisk walk and getting ready for Christmas dinner. It was low-key, but I still have many fond memories of my childhood Christmases.

Then I got married. My wife, who is Italian, has dozens and dozens and dozens of relatives within a stone’s throw in any direction. For us, Christmas is now a progressive exercise to see just how many people can be crammed into the same home. It begins at our house for Christmas morning with the “immediate” family (remember, I use the term in its Italian context). The head count varies between 18 and 22 people.

Then, we move to Christmas dinner with the “extended” family. The challenge here is finding a house big enough, because we are now talking 50 to 75 people. It’s loud, it’s chaotic — and I couldn’t imagine Christmas any other way.

The point here is how the Internet has shifted the nature of the celebration. In my lifespan, I have seen two big shifts, both to do with the nature of our personal connections. And like most things with technology, one has been wonderful while the other has been troubling.

First of all, thanks to the Internet, we can extend our family celebrations beyond the limits of geography. I can now connect with family members who don’t live in the same town.

But, ironically, the same technology has been eroding the bonds we have with the family we are physically present with. We may be in the same room, but our minds are elsewhere, preoccupied with the ever-present screens in our pockets or purses. In my pre-Internet memories of Christmas, we were fully there with our families. Now, this is rarely the case.

And one last thought. I find — sadly — that Christmas is just one more occasion to be shared through social media. For some of us, it’s not so much who we’re with or what we’re doing, but about how it will look in our Instagram post.

Just in Time for Christmas: More Search Eye-Tracking

The good folks over at the Nielsen Norman Group have released a new search eye tracking report. The findings are quite similar to one my former company — Mediative — did a number of years ago (this link goes to a write-up about the study. Unfortunately, the link to the original study is broken. *Insert head smack here).

In the Nielsen Norman study, the two authors — Kate Moran and Cami Goray — looked at how a more visually rich and complex search results page would impact user interaction with the page. The authors of the report called the sum of participant interactions a “Pinball Pattern”: “Today, we find that people’s attention is distributed on the page and that they process results more nonlinearly than before. We observed so much bouncing between various elements across the page that we can safely define a new SERP-processing gaze pattern — the pinball pattern.”

While I covered this at some length when the original Mediative report came out in 2014 (in three separate columns: 1,2 & 3), there are some themes that bear repeating. Unfortunately, I found the study’s authors missed what I think are some of the more interesting implications. 

In the days of the “10 Blue Links” search results page, we used the same scanning strategy no matter what our intent was. In an environment where the format never changes, you can afford to rely on a stable and consistent strategy. 

In our first eye tracking study, published in 2004, this consistent strategy led to something we called the Golden Triangle. But those days are over.

Today, when every search result can look a little bit different, it comes as no surprise that every search “gaze plot” (the path the eyes take through the results page) will also be different. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons for this. 

SERP Eye Candy

In the Nielsen Norman study, the authors felt “visual weighting” was the main factor in creating the “Pinball Pattern”: “The visual weight of elements on the page drives people’s scanning patterns. Because these elements are distributed all over the page and because some SERPs have more such elements than others, people’s gaze patterns are not linear. The presence and position of visually compelling elements often affect the visibility of the organic results near them.”

While the visual impact of the page elements is certainly a factor, I think it’s only part of the answer. I believe a bigger, and more interesting, factor is how the searcher’s brain and its searching strategies have evolved in lockstep with a more visually complex results page. 

The Importance of Understanding Intent

The reason why we see so much variation in scan patterns is that there is also extensive variation in searchers’ intent. The exact same search query could be used by someone intent on finding an online or physical place to purchase a product, comparing prices on that product, looking to learn more about the technical specs of that product, looking for how-to videos on the use of the product, or looking for consumer reviews on that product.

It’s the same search, but with many different intents. And each of those intents will result in a different scanning pattern. 

Predetermined Page Visualizations

I really don’t believe we start each search page interaction with a blank slate, passively letting our eyes be dragged to the brightest, shiniest object on the page. I think that when we launch the search, our intent has already created an imagined template for the page we expect to see. 

We have all used search enough to be fairly accurate at predicting what the page elements might be: thumbnails of videos or images, a map showing relevant local results, perhaps a Knowledge Graph result in the lefthand column. 

Yes, the visual weighting of elements act as an anchor to draw the eye, but I believe the eye is using this anticipated template to efficiently parse the results page. 

I have previously referred to this behavior as a “chunking” of the results page. And we already have an idea of what the most promising chunks will be when we launch the search. 

It’s this chunking strategy that’s driving the “pinball” behavior in the Nielsen Norman study.  In the Mediative study, it was somewhat surprising to see that users were clicking on a result in about half the time it took in our original 2005 study. We cover more search territory, but thanks to chunking, we do it much more efficiently.

One Last Time: Learn Information Scent

Finally, let me drag out a soapbox I haven’t used for a while. If you really want to understand search interactions, take the time to learn about Information Scent and how our brains follow it (Information Foraging Theory — Pirolli and Card, 1999 — the link to the original study is also broken. *Insert second head smack, this one harder.). 

This is one area where the Nielsen Norman Group and I are totally aligned. In 2003, Jakob Nielsen — the first N in NNG — called the theory “the most important concept to emerge from human-computer interaction research since 1993.”

On that we can agree.

Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.