Twitter is looking more and more like the old, hidebound player in social platforms.

tWe’ve been hearing for a while now that Twitter’s go-go-days might be in the rear-view mirror.

But even so, the latest growth forecast for the company still seems pretty shocking for a “new media” participant.

In its most recent forecast of Twitter usage in the United States, eMarketer has lowered its projections of Twitter growth in usage to essentially “treading water” status.

More specifically, digital data research company eMarketer forecasts that by the end of the year, ~52 million U.S. consumers will be accessing their Twitter accounts at least once per month.

That will represent just a 2% increase for the year.

Long-term growth prospects for Twitter don’t look any better. At one point, eMarketer was forecasting growth estimates of nearly 14 million new Twitter users by 2020.  But today, that forecast has been downgraded significantly to only about 3.5 million new users.

In the world of social media platforms, such paltry growth expectations mean that Twitter’s share of domestic social network users will continue to decline. (It’s at around 28% now, which is already a bit of a drop from last year.)

What’s making Twitter seem like such a “passé player” in the go-go world of social media? Oscar Orozco, an analyst at eMarketer, sums up its challenges succinctly:

“Twitter continues to struggle with growing its user base because new users often find the product unwieldy and difficult to navigate, which makes it challenging to find long-term value in being an active user. Also, [Twitter’s] new product initiatives have had little impact in attracting new users.”

Who’s eating into Twitter’s market presence? How about Snapchat and Instagram, for starters.  A host of other messaging apps are also hurting Twitter’s growth prospects.

It hasn’t helped that Twitter has been struggling mightily to monetize its service offering. While it has made valiant efforts to do so, Facebook and LinkedIn have done a more effective job of leveraging their massive user data into attracting advertising dollars.

Facebook is a cash machine … LinkedIn does a respectable job … while Twitter seems almost hopeless by comparison.

After flying high for so long – even to the degree that many companies still speak about social media as one mashup term “Facebook-Twitter-LinkedIn,” Twitter’s decline is all the more surprising.  Poignant, even.

Are self-driving cars finally set to become the breakout stars of the highway?

Uber's first self-driving fleet of cars arrives in Pittsburgh in August, 2016.
Uber’s first self-driving fleet of cars arrives in Pittsburgh in August, 2016.

It looks as if self-driving cars are poised to make the leap from “stuff of science fiction” to “regular sight on the roads” within the coming half-decade.

In the past few weeks, CEO Mark Fields and other senior leadership people at Ford Motor Company have stated as much. They’re giving their predictions on what’s going to happen with self-driving cars, along with explaining what their own company has been doing to move the ball forward.

Here are some key takeaways from the Ford pronouncements:

  • Rather than being a novelty, self-driving cars will start being a regular sight on the highways by 2021.
  • Most of the first self-driving automobiles will be conventional cars or hybrids, rather than full electric vehicles.
  • The first self-driving cars on the road will be heavily geared towards ride-sharing fleets and package-delivery services, rather than vehicles sold to the general consumer market.
  • Self-driving technology will be too expensive for individual ownership – at least until 2025 or beyond.

Several additional predictions from other industry observers are also worth noting:

  • Johana Bhuiyan of Vox Media’s Recode predicts that the price of ride-hailing services like Lyft or Uber will decline because of lower human resources requirements (drivers), thanks to self-driving vehicles.
  • Brian Johnson, an analyst at Barclays, believes that once self-driving vehicles are in widespread use, auto sales will decline precipitously (as in nearly 40%), as more people come to rely on ride-hailing services that are priced significantly more affordably than taxi or ride-hailing services have been up to now.

If these predictions are accurate, it means that the biggest advancement in consumer transportation since the inception of the automobile itself is right on our doorstep.

Consumer banking changes … but there’s a lot that stays the same, too.

cbThere’s no doubt that electronic banking is a win-win for both bank customers and banks themselves. Not only has convenience been improved exponentially, but electronic banking has helped financial institutions expand the scope of their services without incurring as much of the cost associated with bricks-and-mortar branch banking expansion.

And yet … with nearly a half-century of electronic banking behind us, consumer attitudes about personalized banking services persist.

We’re reminded of this in Nielsen’s latest survey of American consumers, conducted this summer. The study shows that while apps, online banking services, and the granddaddy of them all — ATMs — have made banking easier than ever before, there’s still a fundamental desire for physical branches.

The reason? The “customer experience” plays a major role in financial services, and for many consumers, that experience plays out in the trust that comes with personal interaction.

Nielsen’s June 2016 research shows that consumers prefer using a physical bank branch for a variety of reasons — paramount among them being the personal interaction with bank employees.  Here’s how this and the other reasons stack up:

  • Personal service and interaction with bank associates: ~31% cited as a reason for preferring visiting a physical banking facility
  • Convenience: ~24%
  • Ease of use: ~14%
  • Concern about the security of a transaction: ~14%
  • The dollar amount of the transaction: ~5%
  • Prefer not to use a computer or mobile device to interact with the bank: ~4%

Note that an aversion to using computers or mobile devices is hardly a factor in consumers’ preferences to dealing with a physical banking location. It might have been at one time, but that factor is rapidly disappearing as a reason.

cnWhich activities are best “aligned” with the personal experience many consumers expect to receive? Nielsen found that these are the most important ones to accommodate: 

  • Opening checking or time savings accounts
  • Cashing and depositing checks
  • Seeking financial advice
  • Taking out a loan

The Nielsen study provides clues for financial institutions as to how they can align their products and services at each physical location — which might not be the same at each branch, based on the “dynamics” of the customer base being served.

More information about the Nielsen study can be viewed here.

How about you? How often do you take trips to the bank versus handling everything online?  Would you miss having your branch easily accessible if suddenly it was located more than 10 miles away from you?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

E-Mail Marketing: On the Subject of Subject Lines …

emWith groaning inboxes, is it any wonder why so many e-mail messages get ignored by their recipients?

Indeed, with it costing so little to send an e-mail – especially when compared to the “bad old days” of postal mail – it’s too irresistible for marketers and others to deploy hundreds or thousands of e-mail missives at a pop, even if the resulting engagement levels are so paltry.

And therein lies the problem: The “value” of such e-mails diminish to the point where recipients have a very good idea of their (lack of) worthiness without needing to open them.

In such an environment, what’s the the likelihood of something important inadvertently slipping through the cracks? Not so great.  And so users go on their merry way, hitting the delete key with abandon.

Faced with these realities, anything senders can do to improve the odds of their e-mails being opened is worth considering.

As it turns out, some of those odds can be improved by focusing on the e-mail’s subject line.

We know this from research conducted recently by e-mail platform provider Yesware. As reported this week in Fast Company, Yesware’s data scientists took a look at ~115 million e-mails of all kinds, gathered over the course of a 12-month period, to see how open rate dynamics might be affected positively or negatively by differences in the subject line.

ywThe Yesware analysis was carried by analyzing most- and least-used words and formats to determine which ones appeared to be more effective at “juicing” open rates.

As the benchmark, the overall e-mail open rate observed across all 115 million e-mails was 51.9% and the overall reply rate was about 29.8%. But underneath those averages are some differences that can be useful for marketers as they consider how to construct different subject lines for better impact and recipient engagement.

The findings from Yesware’s subject line analysis point to several practices that should be avoided:

Subject line personalization actually works against e-mail engagement.

It may seem counterintuitive, but adding personalization to an e-mail subject turns out to suppress the open rate from 51.9% to 48.1% — and the reply rate goes down even more dramatically from 29.8% to 21.2%.

Yesware surmises that this seemingly clever but now overused technique bears telltale signs of a sales solicitation. No one likes to be fooled for long … and every time one of these “personalized” missives hits the inbox, the recipient likely recalls the very first time he or she expected to open a personal e-mail based on such a subject line – only to be duped.

“First time, shame on you; second time, shame on me.”

Turning your subject line into a question … is a questionable practice.

Using a question mark in a subject line may seem like a good way to add extra curiosity or interest to an e-mail, but it turns out to be a significant turnoff for many recipients. In fact, Yesware found that when a question mark is used in the subject line, the open rate drops a full 10 percentage points (from 51.9% to 41.6%) – and the reply rate also craters (dropping to 18.4%).

It may be that turning a subject line into a question has the effect of reducing the power of the message. Yesware data engineer Anna Holschuh notes that posing a question is “asking a lot of an already-busy, stressed-out professional.  You’re asking them to do work without providing value up front.”

On the other hand, two subject line practices have been shown to improve e-mail open rates – at least to a degree:

Include numbers in the subject line.

Subject lines that contain “hard” numbers appear to improve the e-mail open rate slightly. Yesware found that open rates in such cases were 53.2% compared to 51.9% and the reply rate improved as well (to 32%).  Using precise numbers – the more specific the better – can add an extra measure of credibility to the e-mail, which is a plus in today’s data-rich environment.

Use title case rather than sentence case.

Similarly, Yesware has found that the “authority” conveyed by using title case (initial caps on the key words) in e-mail subject lines helps them perform better than when using the more informal sentence case structure.

The difference? Open rates that have title case subject lines came in at 54.3%, whereas when using sentence case in the subject line resulted in open rates at just 47.6%.

Similarly, reply rates were 32.3% for e-mails with subject lines using title case compared to 25.7% for e-mails where the subject line was sentence case — an even more substantial difference.

Generally speaking, e-mail marketing succeeds or fails at the margins, which is why it’s so important to “calibrate” things like subject lines for maximum advantage. The Yesware analysis demonstrates how those tweaks can add up to measurable performance improvements.

The financial goals — and worries — of affluent consumers: It turns out they’re more similar than different from the broader population.

But gender differences do exist …

acIn this year’s U.S. presidential election campaign, there’s been a good deal of attention paid to so-called “working class” voters. No doubt, this is a segment of the electorate that’s especially unhappy with the current state of affairs in the country.

But what about other population groups?

As it turns out, affluent Americans are worried about many of the same things as well. A recent survey of affluent Americans conducted by the Shullman Research firm reveals that their worries are fundamentally similar to other Americans.

Here’s what survey respondents revealed as their to worries:

  • Your own health: ~36% of respondents cited as a top worry
  • Your family’s health: ~31% cited
  • Having enough money saved to retire comfortably: ~30%
  • The economy going into recession: ~28%
  • Terrorism: ~27%
  • Inflation: ~23%
  • The price of gasoline: ~22%
  • Being out of work and finding a good job: ~20%
  • Political issues / warfare around the world: ~15%
  • Taking care of elderly parents: ~15%

[One mild surprise for me was seeing how many respondents cited “the price of gasoline” as a source of worry, considering not only the recent easing of those prices as well as the affluence level of the survey sample.]

Generally speaking, the research found few gender differences in these responses, but with a few exceptions.

Men were more likely to cite “inflation” as a concern (28% for men vs. 18% for women), whereas women were more likely to consider “the economy going into recession” as a concern (30% for women vs. 26% for men).

Where there’s more divergence between genders is in how people’s identify their top financial goals. Here’s how the various goals tested by the Shullman research ranked overall:

  • Having enough money for daily living expenses: ~57% citied as a top financial goal
  • Having enough money for unexpected emergency expenses: ~56%
  • Having enough income for retirement: ~46%
  • Reducing my debt: ~41%
  • Improving my standard of living: ~40%
  • Remaining financially independent: ~39%
  • Becoming financially independent: ~33%
  • Keeping up with inflation: ~30%
  • Providing protection for family members if I die: ~29%
  • Purchasing a home: ~19%
  • Providing for my children’s college expenses: ~19%
  • Providing an estate for my spouse and/or children: ~16%

Obviously, some of the goals that rank further down the list are more applicable to certain people at certain stages in their lives — whether they’re just getting started in their career, raising young children and so forth.

But I was struck at how many of these supposed “affluent” respondents cited “having enough money for daily living expenses” as a top financial goal. Wouldn’t more people have already achieved that milestone?

Another interesting finding: With many of the goals, women place more importance on them than do men:

  • 63% of women versus just 50% of men consider “having enough money for daily living expenses” to be a top financial goal.
  • 63% of women versus just 47% of men consider “having enough money for unexpected emergency expenses” a top financial goal.
  • 48% of women versus just 33% of men consider “reducing debt” a top financial goal.
  • 45% of women versus just 34% of men consider “improving their standard of living” a top financial goal.
  • 36% of women versus 30% of men consider “becoming financially independent” a top financial goal.

caOne explanation for the differences observed between men and women may be the “baseline” from which each group is weighing their financial goals. But since the survey was limited to affluent consumers, one might have expected that the usual demographic characteristics wouldn’t apply.  Perhaps the differences are rooted in other, more fundamental characteristics.

What are your thoughts? Please share them with other readers.

More information and insights from this study can be accessed here (fee-based).

Whole Foods may now have to settle for half-a-loaf.

wfThe Whole Foods chain of upscale “healthy grocery” outlets just released its 2016 3rd Quarter results … and things continue to look a little less fresh and a little more droopy for company.

Sales for stores open one year or longer have now declined for the fourth consecutive quarter, and the latest ~2.6% drop is steeper than analysts had been predicting.

Company profits have slid more than 20% since the same time last year.

One bit of good news is that Whole Foods’ total sales have increased by around 2%. It isn’t exactly the double-digit growth experienced up until a couple years ago — but at least it remains a gain.

In a nutshell, the problems faced by Whole Foods, which describes itself as the “World’s Healthiest Grocery Store,” is a maturation of the market for high-end groceries and other foods. In the words of Stephen Tanal, a vice president at Goldman Sachs, as reported by Forbes last week:

“Wellness has gone mass, and it’s not coming back – never again to be relegated to niche specialty retailers serving price-insensitive early adopters.”

Underscoring Tanal’s contention is the fact that ~75% of Whole Foods store locations now have one or more Trader Joe’s located within five miles.  More than half of them have a Kroger store within five miles, and nearly 85% have a Costco outlet located within ten miles.

In response to the heightened competition, Whole Foods is speeding up implementation of its plans to open a line of smaller outlets called 365 by Whole Foods Market. According to the company, these are “value-driven” locations that feature a streamlined operating model while benefiting from centralized buying and auto-replenishment of inventory.

Reportedly, pilot locations in California and Oregon have been positively received, and a third location will be opening soon in the Seattle suburbs.

Other initiatives being undertaken by the company fall under an umbrella described by co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey as a “back to basics” program including refocusing on the customer experience as well as improved store layouts and wayfinding, signage and the like.

… And lower prices, too, one would presume – if the company is serious about reclaiming the mantle of “good for you” food market leader from Kroger, Wegmans, Redners and other “mainstream” chains that have been encroaching on Whole Foods’ turf.

Will Whole Foods regain the momentum … or continue to be on the defensive?  We’ll see how it plays out in the coming quarters.

Cutting Some Slack: The “College Bubble” Explained

huThere are several “inconvenient truths” contained among the details of a recently released synopsis of college education and work trends, courtesy of the Heritage Foundation. Let’s check them off one-by-one.

The Cost of College

This truth is likely known to nearly everyone  who has children: education at four-year educational institutions isn’t cheap.  Here are the average annual prices for higher education in the United States for the current school year (includes tuition, fees, housing and meals):

  • 4-year public universities (in-state students): ~$19,550
  • 4-year public universities (out-of-state students): ~$34,000
  • 4-year private colleges and universities: ~$43,900

These costs have been rising fairly steadily for years now, seemingly without regard to the overall economic climate. But the negative impact on students has been muted somewhat by the copious availability of student loans — at least in the short term until the schedule kicks in.

The other important mitigating factor is the increased availability of community college education covering the first two years of higher education at a fraction of the cost of four-year institutions.  Less attractive are “for-profit” institutions, some of which have come under intense scrutiny and negative publicity concerning the effectiveness of their programs and how well students do with the degrees they earn from them.

Time Devoted to Education Activities

What may be less understood is the degree to which “full-time college” is actually a part-time endeavor for many students.

According to data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics over the past decade, the average full-time college student spends fewer than three hours per day on all education-related activities (just over one hour in class and a little over 1.5 hours devoted to homework and research).

It adds up to around 19 hours per week in total.

In essence, full-time college students are devoting 10 fewer hours per week on educational-related activities compared to what full-time high school students are doing.

Lest this discrepancy seem too shocking, this is this mitigating aspect:  When comparing high-schoolers and full-time college students, the difference between educationally oriented time spent is counterbalanced by the time spent working.

More to the point, for full-time college students, employment takes up ~16 hours per week whereas with full-time high school students, the average time working is only about 4 hours.

Full-Time Students vs. Full-Time Workers

Here’s where things get quite interesting and where the whole idea of the “college bubble” comes into broad relief. It turns out that full-time college students spend far less combined time on education and work compared to their counterparts who are full-time workers.

Here are the BLS stats:  Full-time employees work an average of 42 hours per week, whereas for full-time college students, the combined time spent on education and working adds up to fewer than 35 hours per week.

This graph from the Heritage Foundation report illustrates what’s happening:

CT

Interestingly, the graph insinuates that full-time college students have it easier than many others in society:

  • On average, 19-year-olds are spending significantly fewer hours in the week on education and work compared to 17-year-olds.
  • It isn’t until age 59+ that people are spending less time on education and work than the typical 19-year-old.

No doubt, some social scientists will take these data as the jumping off spot for a debate about whether a generation of “softies” is being created – people who will struggle in the rigors of the real world once they’re out of the college bubble.

Exacerbating the problem in the eyes of some, student loan default rates aren’t exactly low, and talk by some politicians about forgiving student loan debt is a bit of a lightning rod as well.  The Heritage Foundation goes so far as to claim that loan forgiveness programs are leaving taxpayers on the hook for “generous leisure hours,” since ~93% of all student loans are originated and managed by the federal government.

What do you think? The BLS stats don’t lie … but are the Heritage Foundation’s conclusions off-target?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.