Feed Up with Feedback Requests

Sorry Google. I realize this is my last chance to tell you about my experience. But you see, you’re in a long line of companies that are also desperate for the juicy details of my various consumer escapades. Best Western, Ford, Kia, Home Depot, Apple, Samsung – my in box is completely clogged with pleas for the “dets” of my transactional interactions with them. I’ve never been more popular – or frustrated.

I appreciate the idea of customer follow up. I really do. But as company after company jumps on the customer feedback bandwagon, poor ordinary mortals like myself don’t have a hope in hell of keeping up. It could be a full time job just filling out surveys and rating every aspect of my life on a scale that runs from “abysmal” to “awesome” The irony is, these customer feedback requests are actually having the opposite effect. Even if my interactions with the brand are satisfactory, the incessant nagging to find out if I “like them, I really like them” are beginning to piss me off. In the quest to quantify brand affinity, these companies are actually eroding it. Ooops! Talk about unintended consequences.

So, if we accept the fact that knowing what our customers think about us is a good thing, and we also accept the fact that our customers have better things to do with their lives than fill out post-purchase surveys, we have to find a more elegant way to get the job done.

First of all, customer feedback should be part of a full customer relationship continuum. It should be just one customer touch point, not the customer touch point. You have to earn the credibility that gives you the right to ask for my feedback. Too many companies don’t worry about gauging satisfaction “in the moment.” If you don’t care enough to ask if I’m happy when I’m right in front of you, why should I believe that you’ll pay any attention to my survey. But too many companies jam this request for feedback on their customers without doing the spadework required to build a relationship first.

Worse, because compensation is increasingly being tied to feedback results, you get the “please say you’ll love me” pleading on the sales floor. See if this sounds familiar: “You’ll be receiving a survey from head office asking me how I’ve done. I don’t get a bonus unless you give me top marks in each category. So if there’s anything I can do better, please tell me now.” There are so many things that are just plain wrong with this that I don’t know where to start. It’s smarmy and disingenuous. It also puts the customer in a very awkward position. When it’s happened to me, I just murmur something like, “No, you’ve been great,” and run with all speed to the nearest exit.

The next thing we have to realize is that not all purchases are created equal. Remember the Risk/Reward matrix I talked about in last week’s column about how our brains process pricing information? While this applies to our motivational balance going into a purchase, it also provides some clues to the emotion landscape that exists post-purchase. If the purchase was in the low risk/low reward quadrant, like the home improvement supplies I picked up at Home Depot this weekend, it’s a task that has been crossed off my to-do list. It’s done. It’s over. The last thing I want to do is prolong that task by filling out a survey about said task. But, if it’s something that falls into the high risk/high reward quadrant, such as a major vacation, then I am probably more apt to invest some time to give you some feedback. The Rule of Thumb is: the higher the degree of risk or reward, the more likely I am to fill out a survey.

The final thing to remember about customer surveys is that you’re capturing extremes. The people who fill out surveys are usually the ones that either hate you or love you. So you get a very skewed perspective on how you’re doing. What you’re missing is the vast middle of your market that may not be sufficiently motivated to toss you either a brick or a bouquet.

I’m all for getting to know your customers better. But it has to be part of a total approach. It begins with simple things, like actually listening to them when you’re engaging with them.

Deconstructing the Market of One

“So, what are you doing now?” My old college friend asked, right after he finished swearing at me because of my early retirement. He assumed I’d be doing something related to marketing.

“I’m starting a cycling tourism business.”

“A what…?”

“Cycling tours.”

“Do you know anything about cycling tours?”

“Not really.”

“Hmmm. Okay. Well, that’s good. It is good, isn’t it?”

“I guess so. We’ll see.”

Truth be told, I’m probably getting too much pleasure from these little flashes of cognitive dissonance that happen when I tell people about my current project. I like watching as they struggle to connect the dots. Maybe it’s because it gives me some comic relief from my own struggles to connect the dots. But I’m beginning to suspect there may by a silver lining in my ignorance. Because I know so little about this business, I’m also taking a different approach to the one aspect I should know something about – the marketing of it.

Connected People in NetworkI could have jumped in and started lining up search campaigns, digging into social media targeting and setting up email campaigns. But instead, I took a step back and looked at the most successful cycling tourism operation I know – the Hotel Belvedere in Riccione, Italy. It’s become a mecca for road cyclists. This year, TripAdvisor rated it as one of the top 20 hotels in the world, based on the rave reviews of it’s cycling clientele. If you’re a road cyclist, chances are pretty good that you’ve heard of the Hotel Belvedere. And if you have heard of it, chances are extremely good that you heard about it from a friend who also cycles. The Belvedere has built its substantial business largely on word of mouth.

We all know word of mouth is the most effective form of advertising. But why is it so effective? We typically assume it’s because the message is coming from an objective source that we trust. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I think it’s because word of mouth is almost always delivered from one person to another. Word of mouth is messaging to a market of one.

There are some fundamental aspects of this that bear closer examination. Word of mouth usually occurs between friends, or, at the least, acquaintances. That means both parties have at least a passing understanding of each other. They know of common interests and personal likes and dislikes. This allows the message to be tailored for optimal reception. The most effective points of persuasion can be embellished and the least effective ones can be skimmed over. Messages are pre-filtered based on an implicit understanding of the audience.

Secondly, word of mouth advertising is based on a two-way conversation. The message evolves according to that conversation. Questions can be asked. Areas of interest can be explored more deeply. Concerns can be addressed. And, all along the way, both parties learn more about what a future engagement between the prospect and the product in question would look like.

I suspect the power of Word of Mouth comes not just in the objectivity of the sender of the message, but also in the medium in which the message is delivered (thank you Mr. McLuhan). And, if this is the case, then we should see how the strengths of that medium could be extended to other marketing efforts. We should deconstruct the advantages of targeting a Market of One.

The biggest hurdle seems to be the lack of mass normally associated with marketing. In my case, I’m actually planning for a slower approach to marketing, building allowances into the business plan for a marketing plan based on building engagements one at a time. If you’ve ever read Eric Ries’s excellent book, The Lean Start Up, you already know such things are possible. The advantage of the Market of One approach is that each encounter also provides invaluable market feedback, allowing to you to continually evolve your offering. You focus on going deep, rather than going wide. Each encounter gives you the opportunity to create a friendship.

Wrenching Changes in Ad Revenue Models

This week, I’ve talked about the importance of information foraging in understanding online behaviors and our interactions with content, the fact that we don’t really think our way through online interactions, but rather navigate through instinct and habit, and yesterday, how different intents lead to different levels of engagement with ads. All of this has been to show how Rupert Murdoch and other publishers are seriously off base in trying to put walls around their content to protect their obsolete business models.

The Planting of Intent

But, as comScore Chair Gian Fulgoni commented on yesterday’s post, does all this mean that display ads have no value? Yes, we agree, ads aligned with intent, such as search and relevant text ads, are the ideal, but something needs to plant that intent in the first place. Something needs to create awareness, which sparks need and kicks the brain into gear to go seek information. In Gian’s words:

there’s another issue that needs to be addressed: not all consumers search for information via an online search query. They’re just not all that rational. As a result, using display ads can get an advertiser a far higher reach against the target audience. And that higher reach can cause the total sales lift from a display campaign to rival that from search – even if the sales lift among those exposed is higher in the case of search.

There’s also another even more important point that we need to consider: brand building. That needs to occur even when the consumer isn’t foraging for information in support of an impending buying decision. Otherwise the value of an individual brand name isn’t going to be as meaningful to the consumer when he / she is in the shopping / buying mode. CPG manufacturers know this well. Every week, their special prices (“temporary price reductions”) are shown in the local newspaper feature ads. Placed by the retailer but funded by the manufacturer. The consumer can pick and choose the products they intend to buy and where they will buy them (and, incidentally, store loyalty is not the norm). This information – delivered by old media still, but, I would argue, aligned with consumers intent to shop and buy – determines, to a great extent, the store at which a consumer shops and the brands they buy in a particular week. But the important point is that the CPG manufacturers don’t just leave it with running these types of feature ads. They understand that they need to be supplemented with “branding” advertising that they run themselves because they need to make sure that their brand value has been firmly established in the mind of consumers before they compare prices across brands at the shopping / buying stage. This type of branding advertising is delivered via TV, print and radio – and increasingly today, via the Internet. It’s a critical part of brand marketing, and I think it should remain that way even in today’s Internet world, because — as one of our clients recently said to me — “God forbid that price becomes the only determinant of consumers’ brand choice!”

I voiced similar opinions in a previous post, No Search is an Island. Search itself has a naturally limited inventory. If no one is searching for a term, there is no inventory to buy. This lack of scale and reach has been the single biggest limiting factor in search marketing. If you suddenly cut out all awareness advertising, you’ll eventually find your available search inventory dwindling in lock step. Gian’s points are well taken, and indeed, one of the biggest questions for me is how much residual branding value is derived from an ad that is noticed but not clicked. As I said yesterday, I think it depends on how pressing the user’s intent is. If they’re browsing content, my suspicion is that the residual value would be higher than if they’re on a focused information finding mission.

Differing Shades of Gray

As is most transitions, the truth is there there is no absolute answer here. One is neither right or wrong, black or white. What is happening is a shift from one type of behavior to another. The answer is gray, and each day, that shade of gray is gradually shifting more from black to white. Murdoch won’t suddenly find his revenue model shutting off one day. But what will happen (and there are dozens of newspaper bankruptcies to support my case) is that the revenue model will gradually erode. In fact, it has been happening for some time. As we switch our behaviors from a destination information economy to a just-in-time information economy we’ll spend less time casually browsing content and more time taking brief forays through search to find specific pieces of information. And when we do so, all the challenges in ad engagement I addressed yesterday will have to be dealt with. Murdoch’s revenue model won’t shut off tomorrow, but it will gradually melt away to the point where it’s unable to support the business. That is why there’s more than a hint of desperation in his rantings. He knows the ship is sinking and he’s lashing out at what he thinks the cause is: Google. Unfortunately, he’s lashing out at the wrong cause. The real cause is his reader’s changing behaviour.

Brand Building = Fence Painting?

The other point I would make about brand building is this: Gian is right, we need some way to build brands in public consciousness. But even the options for building brand are rapidly shifting. It used to be that mass media was the most efficient choice. It offered reach and frequency. It was scalable and could be measured in GRPs. The market was treated like a fence to be painted. What was the most efficient way to apply as much paint to as much area as possible? The answer, the biggest possible spray gun. It was a pretty simple equation: Area of fence X density of paint = complete saturation. The spray gun didn’t even need to be that efficient at painting, we just had to keep pouring in more paint. Which was fine, as long as the fence was all in one place. But now, the fence is scattered over an impossibly large area. There are fragments spread everywhere. Suddenly, the spray gun isn’t working so well anymore. We need a new approach to brand building, and we’re beginning to explore new techniques, such as tapping into social networks and word-of-mouth. It seems in today’s world, Tom Sawyer had it right..the best way to paint a fence is to enlist an army of recruits to do it for you.

You Can’t Put a Wall Around News

The challenge advertisers face now is trying to find a way to reach an increasingly fragmented market who is spending less time with traditional media and are increasingly seeking information in bite-sized pieces, rather than sitting down to a full meal. And that’s a challenge that traditional media, represented by Rupert Murdoch, seem unable and unwilling to face. Their answer seems to be to rant, rave and hope the whole mess will go away. If people are increasingly seeking information through Google and not looking at my ads, fine, I’ll just lock out Google and lock in my audience by forcing them to pay. Murdoch is skiing down the wrong side of the adoption curve. And, as Danny Sullivan pointed out in his Search Engine Land post, you can no longer put a fence around information and keep it proprietary, especially in the news industry. Breaking stories will break in hundreds of ways online – through Twitter, networks, blogs and news aggregators. Even if the Wall Street Journal breaks a new story, they can’t control it. People don’t care about the source anymore, all they care about is the information. Even if Google is locked out of Murdoch’s content, it will find it somewhere else and will index it. And people will go where ever Google lets them go. For this reason, I disagree with Danny about the viability of a mutually exclusive relationship. Google doesn’t need the Wall Street Journal, but I do believe that the Wall Street Journal needs Google.

So what about the deal with Bing? Is that the answer to Murdoch’s woes? After all, you still get search visitors and you control your content. Again, for all the reasons I’ve stated over the past week, I don’t think this is any answer at all. It may look good on paper to two companies that are entrenched in command and control thinking, but it doesn’t reflect the real world at all. And if Murdoch would take a few minutes to glance at the latest search market share numbers, even he might see why it doesn’t make sense to kick the elephant out of bed to make way for the mouse (okay..perhaps a small dog).

In the final analysis, we have people changing their information consumption habits, which is giving advertising a wrenching kick right in its revenue model. The dramatic success of search was indicative of the power and speed of this behavioral change. The successful model of the future will understand and embrace the reality of information foraging and will leverage the changing habits of people. The search part, aligning with consumers when intent is present, is the easy part to work out. The challenging bit will be to swim upstream and figure out the pieces that have to be in place to spark intent and put the mental train in motion. My suspicion is that mass solutions will no longer work. We’ll have to figure out how to brand build one prospect at a time, one relationship at a time. None of this is good news for traditional publishers, but hey, if everyone won in evolution, the world would be a much more crowded place.

Aligned Intent: A Different Ad Engagement Metric

On Tuesday, I talked about the importance of information foraging in understanding our online behaviors. Yesterday, I talked about how we navigate online based on habit and instinct, keeping our thinking to a minimum. Both of those behaviors are threatening  traditional ad revenue models. The very nature of engagement with advertising is undergoing a dramatic shift. Today, I want to talk more about that shift, because at Enquiro, we’ve seen dramatic evidence of it in our research over the past few years.

The Traditional Model

Let’s begin by exploring how advertising has worked up to now – the model that Rupert Murdoch is still pinning all his hopes on.

In the past, we used a “destination” based information gathering strategy. We depended on someone to gather the information and get it to us at a destination that would become a mental landmark for us. This was the model that gave rise to our traditional news industry. We trusted our favored sources to cover the world for us. It was their job to stay on top of what was happening, interpret it and present it back to us. Publishers developed editorial voices and we grew to trust those voices. We didn’t have time to cover every possible news channel, so we short listed it down to the information sources that best matched our interests and personality. We picked our favourites and trusted these few sources to keep us informed. These favorites formed the most visited locations in our mental information “landscape”.

Once we had our list of a handful of information sources, we would set some time aside every day to stay informed. It was a different paradigm of information gathering. We treated our sources as destinations and made the trip worthwhile by investing some time in it. We’re read the paper in the morning. We’d watch the news at night. We’d listen to news radio. In each of these cases, we’d take a discrete and substantial chunk of our available time and devote it to “staying informed”. There was no specific piece of information we were looking for. We trusted our information sources to serve us something interesting. Our intent wasn’t tied to any particular topic, although there might be sections that we favored (sports or business). Our intent was simply to spend some time with our favorite information source. Just like a trip to a physical destination, we understood that this journey would take some time.

This relationship, that of a favored source, then offered the published a willing set of eyeballs without any set agenda. The audience was there to browse through the content offered. That was the objective. And that objective allowed publishers, and through them, advertisers, to make some safe assumptions: the audience would be there for awhile, the audience had no other urgent priorities, and the audience could be safely categorized by the characteristics of the ideal audience of the channel. One could assume that the reason they favoured the channel was that they matched the target profile. All of this formed the foundation of traditional advertising as we know it.

The publishers job was to amass the audience. By doing so, they could then go to advertisers and deliver the audience. And it was the advertiser’s job to catch the audience’s attention. Again, remember, the audience had already set a significant chunk of time aside to spend with the publisher and the audience had no specific intent other than visiting their information “destination.” This mindset is critical to understand, because it forms the “before” state of the shift I’ll be exploring. The audience had to be distracted by the advertising, but the distraction was a minor derailing of our attention. Let’s dive a little deeper here.

Yesterday, I talked about the switching on and off our our neural autopilots as we do any mental task. Our attention and the full power of our brains only get focused when we need to. The rest of the time, we’re subconsciously scanning to see if there’s anything that merits our attention. The arousal of intent, the mental embedding of a clear objective, kicks the brain into high gear and causes us to focus our attention, including the full power of the frontal lobes – what we can consider the turbocharger of the brain. With those mental mechanics understood, let’s look at how we might browse a newspaper.

Newspapers, or any traditional information source, look the way they do because over years of trial and error, publishers and advertisers have discovered what it takes to catch a few fleeting seconds of a brain’s attention while it’s idling on autopilot. As we pick up the paper, there is no intent which has aroused the full power of the brain. It’s doing what it should be doing, idling as the eyes scan the headlines, graphics and other information cues, looking for something of interest that merits the brain kicking into a higher degree of engagement. What catches our eye depends totally on what we’re interested in. With no set mental agenda, when we look at a newspaper, a story on major crime, a business report on a company we know, a box score for a team we’re a fan of or an ad for a car we’ve been considering all stand a good chance of dragging our eye balls to them and jolting our brain from it’s semi-slumber. The typical display ad (at least, the effective ones) have been honed by years of experimentation to be very good at this. Their entire purpose is to stop the eyeball just long enough for a fragment of the message to sink into the brain.

The Just In Time Information Economy

Now, let’s look at what’s shifted. Through the ubiquity of information online and the reasonable effectiveness of web search in making that information instantly available, we’ve changed the way we gather information. We’ve moved from a “destination” to a “just in time” information economy. Let me return to our food foraging analogy for just a second to illustrate this.

When you shop for groceries, you probably have a favoured store. You trust this store because they have a good selection, the produce is fresh, the deli counter has your favourite cheese, the prices are reasonable, the location is convenient and the staff is courteous. This store becomes your primary food destination, just as a newspaper could become your primary information destination. For certain items, prices may be a little cheaper elsewhere, the produce might be a little better at an organic whole food store and the deli counter may be amazing at a little store you know across town, but it’s just too much trouble to go to all these destinations. You compromise and stick with your store, giving it your loyalty.

But let’s imagine that you could build a pick up window right into your kitchen. Through this pick up window, you could order any food item and it would instantly be delivered to you from any store in the world, right when you need it. No travel was necessary. The idea of a destination suddenly becomes obsolete. Food comes to you, just in time. What would this do to your foraging strategies? How often would you visit your favourite store? Perhaps there would be occasions when an item from your store was offered by your magic “food window”, and you might order it. You might even feel twinges of old loyalties. But the nature of the relationship has forever changed. You’ve become store “agnostic”. Now all you care about are the food items you order. And your intent has also changed. Previously, you went on a “shopping trip” for an hour to a store to pick up a list full of items. Your intent was focused on the store, not an individual item. But with your magic window, if you’re making a recipe and suddenly find you’re out of shallots, your intent is focused on the item you need, not the store you get it from. All you care about is getting the best shallots at the best price. It’s an important mental shift.

That’s what search has done for information. We care much less about the source of the information and more about the nature of the information itself. Also, we have shifted our intent away from the source of the information and to the quality and relevancy of the information itself. This has a profound effect on the nature of engagement with advertising that may sit alongside that information.

The Alignment of Intent

The Just in Time Information Economy has implanted intent in the minds of online users now, dramatically raising the attention threshold that must be bridged by advertising. Think of our mental process as a train. If the train is idling through a rail yard with no particular destination, it’s not that difficult for a hitchhiker (which is what most advertising is, messages interrupting you just long enough to hop on your brain for the ride) to jump on board. But if the train is going full speed towards a destination, the hitchhiker had better be a very fast runner. The Just In Time information economy has meant that many more visitors to online information sites are speeding express trains with a firm destination in mind, rather than than idling in a rail yard. We visit sites because we’ve come through a search engine looking for specific information. The site that hosts that information is secondary to our intent.

In the past few years we’ve done a number of studies of engagement with advertising that have yielded some surprising findings:

  • When it comes to ad awareness (participants remembering seeing an ad on a site) display and video perform best, search and text ads perform worst.
  • When it comes to brand recall (participants remembering the brand featured in the ad) display and video still perform better than search and text, although the gap is dramatically less.
  • When it comes to click throughs, search performs best, followed by text, display and video
  • When it comes to purchase intent, search and text are substantially better than display and video.

Ads that are relevant to the information they sit beside (as in Google’s AdSense network) also have this strange inverse relationship:

  • For ad awareness, non contextually relevant ads performed better than contextually relevant ones
  • For brand recall, it was close to even, with contextually relevant ads having a slight edge
  • For click throughs, contextually relevant ads blew the doors off non contextually relevant ones
  • For purchase intent, again, contextually relevant ads were the clear winner.

Why Ad Awareness Does Not Equal Ad Effectiveness

This is counter intuitive. If an ad is noticed and recognized as an ad, it should have done it’s job, right? According to the old rules, that’s all we ever asked an ad to do. But somehow it seems the rules have changed. Suddenly, ads that often don’t even seem like ads (after all, they’re just a few lines of text) are drastically outperforming more traditional ads where it counts, motivating a prospect to take action. We’ve tested a number of traditional best practices, including more effective creative, increased exposure both through frequency and more channels and this inverse relationship held: search and text outperformed flashing graphics, blaring video and looping audio. What gives?

The answer is the introduction of intent. By having intent planted in the minds of the prospect, by focusing their attention on an objective, the rules of interaction with ads has suddenly changed. When we have intent, we plant a mental objective which narrows our attention and focuses it only on relevant items that get us closer to the objective. Anything not aligned with that intent suffers from “inattentional blindness”. In eye tracking, we see this often has people scan a page, looking directly at an ad for several seconds yet afterwards swear they didn’t see the ad. The most famous example is the video “Gorillas in our Midst.” The unsuspecting are asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed in the video. Once attention is focused, most viewers don’t even notice the man in the gorilla suit walking right through the middle of the teams. If you haven’t seen this, I just spoiled it for you, but you can still try the experiment with your friends.

If a visitor lands on a page with a specific intent, their interactions look much different than those with no intent. They’re laser focused on relevant content. They spend almost no time looking at content that’s not aligned with their intent, including ads. Often, a single glance to identify it as advertising (thus the high ad awareness recall) is the limit of interaction. And the more an ad looks like an ad, the quicker it’s eliminated for consideration. The visitor becomes blind to it.

But if an ad is aligned with intent, it ceases to be an ad. It becomes a relevant information cue, a navigation option, a link laced with information scent. It becomes valuable because it matches our objectives. The user evaluates it along with all the other relevant navigation options on the page. This is exactly what happens with search ads, and the more relevant a text ad on the page, the more likely this is to happen.

Why This Does Not Bode Well for Rupert Murdoch

Murdoch, and for that matter, everyone else who still depends on a revenue from a “Destination” based ad model, will lose in this transition. The ones that will win are those that effectively leverage the alignment of intent and the “Just in Time” Information economy. Tomorrow, I’ll walk through the specifics of why the “Destination” ad model is doomed.

A Tale of Two Houses

First published May 21, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I have a difference of opinion with Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore. Actually, it’s not so much a difference as a question of context. He believes there’s room for more visual branding on the search results page. I believe this is a potentially dangerous area that has to be handled very carefully on the part of the engines.

This issue came up during the opening session of day two at the recent Search Insider Summit, when I posed a question  two different ways to the audience. First, I asked them, as marketers,  how many would like to see richer branding opportunities on the results page. Almost every hand went up. Then I asked them the same question, but this time as users. Some hands went down immediately. Many others wavered noticeably, as the paradigm shift exposed underlying hypocrisy. Others remained resolutely high on the idea.

The reason for the mixed reaction was that, for users, the ideal search experience depends on the context of the situation. Visually richer is not always better. There’s some subtle psychology at play here. So let’s explore it in a story.

It’s a Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood

Imagine we both live on the same street. In fact, we’re next-door neighbors. I travel a lot. I happen to know you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. So begins the story of My House and Your House:

Your House

In this story, the reason I travel a lot is because I’m a commissioned travel agent. I get paid if I book you on a trip somewhere. And you don’t know it, but I get paid a lot more if you go to Disney World. So every morning, I come over to your house and knock on your door wearing my Mickey Mouse ears, carrying in one hand a portable stereo blasting “When You Wish Upon a Star” and in the other a fistful of Disney travel brochures. Each day, I visit with a determination to book you on the next flight to Orlando.  Now, if Disney is in your travel plans, perhaps this isn’t as obnoxious as it sounds. But if two weeks in the Magic Kingdom sounds as appealing as the Bataan Death March, my neighborly welcome will wear a little thin. Sure, I got your attention, but you also listed your house for sale shortly after my visit.

My House

Now forget all of the above. This time, I travel a lot because I’m worldly, adventurous and wise. I’m also wonderfully informative. Over the backyard fence, you mentioned that you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. In neighborly fashion, I invited you over for a coffee and to ask me any questions about past trips I’ve taken, in case any of my previous destinations might be appealing. You take me up on the offer and ring my doorbell. We sit down and I ask, “So, any particular areas you’re thinking of visiting?”

“Hmmm, I’ve always dreamed of the Mediterranean. Perhaps the French or Italian Riviera?”

“Cinque Terra is wonderful, so is Nice, Cannes and Monaco, but don’t rule out Spain or Portugal. I’ve been to them all.”

A House Divided…

Think of your reaction, first in your house, then in mine. As you no doubt realized, your house represents typical advertising; my house is search.

And the context is different in subtle but important ways. That’s why it becomes dangerous when we start trying to combine the two. In my house, you’re engaged and curious. You’ll ask me what I love about Portugal, or why I didn’t recommend Cannes more enthusiastically.  And you’ll trust me more if you know you’re getting my objective opinion. After I know a little about your preferred destinations, you might be interested if I introduce you to my friend, the travel agent.  You would even find that helpful. You’re open to a sponsored message, as long as it’s relevant to your interests and fits into the rules of the overall experience.

All this gets to the context of my difference of opinion with Gian. Visual richness is appropriate if it’s relevant and welcome. It’s annoying if it’s intrusive. And that line would be in the control of the engines and the advertisers.

If I come to your house uninvited, my job is to convince you to open the door. But if you come to my house, my job is to inform and help. You came through the door on your own. The house we live in is a great place, but there are rules we have to live by. Otherwise, no one will come to visit us.

Live from Captiva: The Digital Divide

First published May 7, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Gian Fulgoni has a better view of the online landscape than most of us. As the chairman of comScore, he has access to a massive database that captures every click of online activity from over 2,000,000 panel members. So when it comes to spotting trends, Gian’s got a pretty good vantage point.

Online Branding for CPG

As you’re reading this, Gian’s probably giving the opening keynote at the Search Insider Summit  on Captiva Island in Florida. I’m not sure what Gian will be covering, but he did share a few slides with me and I’m sure they’ll make their way into his keynote.  They’re the results of a study that showed the relative effectiveness of online and television advertising in driving purchases of consumer packaged goods ranging from cookie mixes and pizza to toothpaste and deodorant.

Eighty-two percent of the online campaigns showed positive sales or unit lift, with an average lift of 18%. Further, short-term online campaigns matched the effective lift of long-term TV campaigns (9% lift with online, 8% with TV).

Consumers Don’t Differentiate, So Why Do Marketers?

What is interesting about the study to me is the artificial line we still tend to draw between online and offline marketing.  And when I say “we,”  I mean “we” the marketers, not “we” the people. The chasm between online and offline is slightly narrower than it was before, but I find true integrated marketing only exists in the sales hyperbole of agencies, with little evidence of it in the real world.  With the advertisers I’m familiar with, the online marketing department barely talks with the offline Marcom folks, let alone sits down with them to plan out an integrated strategy.

Consumers don’t do this. If a consumer is considering a purchase, she pursues the most effective means necessary to research the purchase. Offline awareness leads to online consideration. Online consideration leads to offline visits to a retail location. Offline visits can lead to online price checking. We as consumers jump back and forth across the digital divide with ease, yet for marketers, the chasm seems unbridgeable. Why is this?

Part of it is attitude. Traditional marketers ignored online until it was too late. Their tardiness left us digital folks free reign to set up shop, thinking it would be, at best, an incremental channel that would never threaten the main event. But now, just a few short years later, you’ve got studies like Gian’s coming out saying that online might just be as effective as TV in driving sales of potato chips and pop. Hard to fathom, but true.

Branding: One Search at a Time

Even more startling, lowly search seems to have some brand-building chops of its own, at least when measured at one critical consumer intersection, active consideration of a purchase. My company has done a number of studies for Google, in seven different product categories and markets from Australia to North America showing the brand lift of search. Guess what? Lowly search, described by some as the ValPak of online, consistently delivered brand lift numbers averaging in the double digits. And that was before consumers even got to where the real brand building happens, the manufacturer’s Web site. Just a search ad alone lifted brand awareness, brand affinity and likelihood to purchase. Not bad for a handful of words showing up somewhere on a results page.

I have no idea what the “buzz” of Captiva will be, but I suspect we’ll spend at least some time talking about this ridiculous divorce between online and offline. Ironically, it seems like the recession is finally bringing the two sides a little closer together. I don’t understand why we marketers are taking so long to get it. Buyers seemed to figure it out a long time ago.

Measuring Success After The Click

First published April 23, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Avinash Kaushik speculates that Bounce Rate might be the sexiest Web metric ever. Scott Brinker has a whole blog dedicated to post-click marketing.  I believe it was Craig MacDonald at Covario who said bad landing pages are where good leads go to die. And I’ve been quoted as saying (categorically, no less) that the single most important thing we can do for the client happens after the search click.

Start Swimming Downstream

It always amazes me that search marketers spend huge amounts of time tweaking everything to do with the search page and very little time worrying about what happens downstream from it. It’s symptomatic of the siloed nature of search, a marketing practice that sits apart from other channels and the online user experience itself. Yet, what’s the point of a good search campaign if we end up dumping all those leads onto a poor Web site?

Perhaps the reason we don’t spend more time worrying about user experience is that it forces us to learn something about the user. You have to take responsibility for connecting the dots between intent and content, reading the user’s mind and trying to deliver what it is he or she is looking for. When it’s all said and done, maybe it’s easier just to worry about maximum costs per click or generating more link love.

But everything that matters starts with the search click rather than ends with it. That’s the first introduction to the prospect, the first opportunity to make a good impression. And from that moment on, the success of that blossoming relationship depends on the success of the user experience.

Post-Click Live at Captiva

 At the Captiva Island Search Insider Summit in a few weeks, we’ll actually be talking about the world of opportunity downstream from the click in a panel I’m very excited about. “After the Search Click” will be a live, clinical look at the success of the onsite experience. Enquiro is even bringing our eye tracking lab down so we can do some on-site testing and share the results with the group. The aforementioned Scott Brinker from Ion Interactive and Lance Loveday from Closed Loop Marketing join me. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a stage with both of these gentlemen multiple times in the past.

Students of Human Nature

 To me, the immense gray area of the onsite experience has always been infinitely more interesting than the more black and white tactics of search marketing. For me, the latter is simply the means to an end, and the end requires you to be a student of human nature. For example, I’m fascinated by the subtle but distinct differences between how males scan a page and how females scan it.  Or the difference in behavior between those who grew up in the online world versus those who have adopted it and adapted to it as adults.  And if I showed you the heat map of a visitor who went to a Web site with one specific task in mind, as opposed to those who are just there to browse, the difference would astound you. But how often do we stop to think of these things as we put our search campaigns together? All too often, those leads are dumped on a generic home page or an anemic landing page with nary a scrap of relevance to be seen anywhere. Of course, even a good landing page is no guarantee of success. It’s just one more step to the end goal, a journey that could be cut short by poor site search tools, bad navigation or an overly inquisitive form.

I could make a blanket statement saying I see far more bad sites than good sites out there. But really, that’s not for me to say. The success of a site depends on the people using it and what their goals are. It should be a clean, well-lighted, well-labeled path.  I can say, as a frequent online user, it’s very rare that I’m impressed by a web experience. So in that regard, there’s much to be said still about improving the post-click experience. Join us for the discussion in a few weeks in Florida.