The COVID pandemic and the race to raise digital skills.

The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly made its mark on many markets and industries – some more than others, of course. But one consequence of the events 2020 appears to cross all industry lines. 

Because of the rapid adjustments organizations have been required in the way jobs are performed – borne out of necessity because of health fears, not to mention government edicts – workers have been forced to come up the digital learning curve in a bit hurry in order to do their jobs properly.

This “digital upskilling” dynamic isn’t affecting only office workers.  It’s happening across the board – in the private and public sector alike. 

Simply put, digital upskilling isn’t a matter of choice.  If workers want to remain relevant — and to keep their jobs — they’re having to ramp up their digital skill-sets without delay.

Moreover, the new skills aren’t limited to the efficient use of mobile devices, digital meeting/presentation functions, cloud applications and the like.  According to LinkedIn’s recruitment data, highly in-demand skills over the past few months encompass wide-ranging and comprehensive knowledge sets such as data science, data storage, and tech support.

Not so long ago, there were “tech jobs” and “non-tech jobs.”  Now there are just “jobs” – and nearly every one of them require the people doing them to possess a high comfort level with technology.

Will things revert back to older norms with the long-anticipated arrival of coronavirus vaccines in 2021?  I think the chances of that are “less than zero.”  But what are your thoughts?  Please share your perspectives with other readers.

The difference between influencer marketing and true word-of-mouth advertising.

The next time you see a celebrity spokesperson speaking about a product or a service … don’t think much of it. Chances are, the celebrity isn’t doing a whole lot to increase a company’s sales or enhance its brand image.

We have affirmation of this trend from ExpertVoice, a marketing firm that has queried consumers on the issue of who they trust most for recommendations on what products and services to buy.

ExpertVoice’s findings confirm that while celebrity endorsements do raise awareness, typically that awareness fails to move the needle in terms of sales. Just ~4% of the participants in ExpertVoice’s research reported that they trust celebrity endorsements.  (And even that percentage is juiced by professional athletes who are more influential than other celebrities.)

As for the reason for the lack of trust, more than half of the respondents noted concerns about the money these spokespeople receive from the brands they’re endorsing. Consumers are wise to the practice – and they reject the notion that the endorser has anything other than personal enrichment in mind.

By way of comparison, here are how celebrities stack up against others when it comes to influencing consumer purchases:

Trust recommendations from friends/family members: ~83% of respondents

… from a professional expert (e.g., instructor or coach): ~54%

… from a co-worker: ~52%

… from a retail salesperson: ~42%

… from a professional athlete: ~6%

… from any other kind of celebrity: ~2%

As it turns out, people are more influenced by good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth testimonials from individuals who are making recommendations based on their actual experience with the products in question.

Moreover, if the endorsement is coming from someone they know personally, they’re even likelier to be swayed.

In a crowded marketplace full of many purchase choices, consumers are looking for trusted recommendations. That means something a lot more authentic than a celebrity endorser.  Considering the amount of money companies and brands have had to pony up for celebrity pitches, it seems an opportune time for marketers to be looking at alternative methods to influence their audiences.

Is automated copywriting the next big innovation in email?

Perhaps — with some caveats.

Considering the rapid pace of innovation in communications broadly, the email sector has remained surprisingly little-altered over the past 25 years.  But maybe that’s about to change.

We’re now seeing developers building tools that can create email copy using text-generation technology.  This past June, artificial intelligence research lab OpenAI unveiled a language model known as GPT-3, which has quickly led to several automated writing tools being developed.

Just what is GPT-3?  Here’s a definition according to The Great Book of Wikipedia:

“Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 is an autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text. It is the third-generation language prediction model in the GPT-n series created by OpenAI, a for-profit San Francisco-based artificial intelligence research laboratory.”

In a nutshell, automated writing tools built on GPT-3 send bits of keyword text provided by an author – otherwise known as “prompts – to OpenAI’s cloud service, which instantaneously sends back full-flowing text that’s deemed appropriate and accurate based on the statistical patterns it recognizes in the online text.

Even though GPT-3 technology accesses a vast information bank of training data comprising nearly 500 billion tokens in cyberspace to “derive” the copy, there’s always the possibility that the results could end up like the early attempts at automated language translation at the start of the 21st century – garbled and awkward.  However, with more AI “practice” and crowdsourced feedback, we’ve seen an established service like Google Translate deliver excellent translations for most commonly used languages like German, French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. 

Languages such as Hungarian, Turkish and Lithuanian are another matter – presumably with more seasoning needed to get those more esoteric tongues in ship-shape for AI translation.

Facebook, which has developed its own “walled garden” automated translation app, appears to be lagging Google considerably in the quality of its output – even when working in the most common languages like translating from French to English.

For now, the most practical applications of the GPT-3 language model look to be in the realm of business email writing, rather than for long-form business thought-pieces or most forms of creative writing.  In email communications, the author can jot down three or four key points and let the writing application do the rest. In this manner, instead of having to craft a memo completely from scratch, authors can provide key snippets — then take a moment or two to edit the proffered text before sending the email on to its intended recipients.

For those of us who write for a living, such a procedure might not seem particularly attractive. But for the many people who dislike the task of writing business communications — or find it laborious and too time-consuming — the new AI-powered writing may well be a welcome tool.

OpenAI’s automated writing service is on the pricey side today, but we can expect that it won’t take long before costs borne by end-users start to drop precipitously — no doubt due to the proliferation of free services subsidized by the same monetization model that now supports Google Maps and Google Translate.   

And this brings up a question that people should start to think about sooner rather than later:  Who will own the copyrights to the automated texts generated in this manner? 

For the many people who will undoubtedly choose to use freeware, the freeware’s terms of use may explicitly override the provisions of most copyright laws that vest ownership with the party who hires the ghostwriter.  In other words, if someone wishes to keep the copyright, then he or she has to pay for the writing service; otherwise, the service retains the copyright.

It’s only a matter of time before the leading purveyors seek to leverage their ownership of the freeware and the licenses they grant to use it – thereby giving them the ability to promote or censor whatever information they please.

The social acceptability of this medium could also be eroded when the volume of ghostwritten email masquerading as personalized communications begins to overwhelm people’s inboxes. At some point, email recipients will come to realize that any message that doesn’t include a disclaimer such as “I am the author; please disregard all spelling and/or grammatical errors,” can be marked as spam and routed automatically to the recipient’s junk email folder.  In such an environment where we’ll have a perceived quality demarcation between “real” and “manufactured” writing, we may find ourselves in the same place as we are today with tweets — that is, weighing if they are the work of humans or bots and judging their worth accordingly.

In other words, the new “next thing” in email communications won’t be happening without its share of issues and controversies – along with more than a little disruption.  It will be quite interesting to see how it all unfolds in the coming years.

What are your thoughts on the role of AI in writing?  Is the technology poised to become mainstream quickly, or will it remain more of a curiosity for a good while longer?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

What exactly are “good results” with email marketing?

In my work in marketing communications, I’m asked pretty often what expectations are realistic for a successful e-mail marketing initiative.  While the goal is to achieve as much engagement as possible, the reality of overflowing e-mail inboxes means that engagement may never rise to the level we would like it to be.

So, it’s good to know what “reasonable expectations” might be.  And for that, we can look to evidence gathered by Campaign Monitor, a leading e-mail marketing platform. Based on analyzing actions and engagement on the millions of e-mail campaigns deployed from its platform, Campaign Monitor has assembled performance benchmarks for a number of industries, and they are instructive.

In broad terms, here are the average metrics Campaign Monitor has compiled across all of the industries it has studied:

  • Open rate: ~17.9%
  • Click-to-open rate: ~14.1%
  • Clickthrough rate: ~2.7%
  • Bounce rate: ~1.0%
  • Unsubscribe rate: ~0.2%

So … a campaign that may seem at first blush to be doing only a middling job might actually be performing noticeably better than many others.

Across the various industries evaluated by Campaign Monitor, it turns out that the “gap” between the best-performing open rate averages and the lowest ones isn’t all that great.  The top-performing category is not-for-profit organizations, where the average open rate is ~20.4%.  At the low end of the scale is government entities, where the average open rate is ~15.1%.

As for the best-performing days of the week to deploy e-mails, open rate stats are strongest on Thursdays, while the best performance on clickthrough rates is Tuesday.

These benchmarks are informative, but for many marketers an equally important measure of performance will be to compare against their own past results as the baseline.  That could well be a more realistic (and easier) way to determine what success actually looks like for a particular company or brand and its products.

What sort of metrics are you seeing in your own segment of industry?  How do they stack up against the overall metrics that Campaign Monitor has compiled? Please share your observations with other viewers here.

Fair weather friends? Consumers tie loyalty programs to getting discounts and freebies.

As more consumers than ever before have gravitated online to do their shopping, loyalty programs continue to grow in importance.

But what do consumers really want out of these loyalty programs?

The short answer to that question is “freebies and discounts,” the Loyalty Barometer Report from HelloWorld, an arm of Merkle, makes clear.

Of the ~1,500 U.S. consumers polled, ~77% of the respondents said they expected benefits for their loyalty to be in the way of free products, and an almost-equal percentage (~75%) expect to be offered special offers or discounts.

As for the most important reasons people participate in loyalty programs, the Merkle survey reveals that most people take a purely “transactional” approach to them.  Discounts and free products far outweigh other considerations:

  • Participation to receive discounts or offers: ~43% of respondents cited as the most important reason
  • To earn free products: ~27%
  • To gain access to exclusive rewards: ~10%
  • To receive members-only benefits: ~9%
  • To stay connected to a “brand I love”: ~6%
  • Other factors: ~5%

Notice how far down the list “brand love” falls.

As for negative aspects of reward programs, it turns out that there are a number of those.  The following five factors were cited most often by the survey respondents:

  • It takes too long to earn a reward: ~54% cited
  • It’s too difficult to earn a reward: ~39%
  • Receiving too many communications: ~36%
  • The rewards aren’t very valuable: ~32%
  • Worries about personal information security: ~29%

[For more details from the Merkle report, you can access a summary of findings here.]

The results of the Merkle survey suggest that rewards programs may be more “transactional” in nature than many brand managers would like them to be.  But perhaps that’s happened because of the very way the loyalty programs have been structured. When loyalty marketing is focused on discounts, it’s likely to drive transactions without necessarily engendering much if any actual customer loyalty.

On the other hand, if we define customer loyalty as when people are willing to pay a premium, or go out of their way to purchase a particular brand’s product or service, that represents a significantly smaller group companies than the plethora of companies offering loyalty programs to their customers.

Which brands do you consider to be true loyalty leaders?  A few that come to my mind are Amazon, American Express and Nike — but what others might you posit?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Let the AP Stylebook explain it all to you …

For many people – not just journalists but also business and tech writers – the Associated Press’ AP Stylebook is something of a Bible when it comes to adhering to proper presentation of the written English language.

There are other style guides out there – FranklinCovey is another popular resource – but the AP Stylebook has been the “go-to source” for so many decades, it’s hard not to think of it as the ultimate arbiter of what’s considered “proper” in written communications.

This vaunted reputation is why so many people take notice whenever new revisions to the AP Stylebook are released.  The most recent ones, published within the past few months – all 991 of them – are in some cases eyebrow-raising.

Reading through them, it appears that the Associated Press has gone all-in on “keeping up with changing times” by tackling a wide range of sometimes-provocative topics.  Here are some examples:

  • AP is weighing in on environmental terminology, contending that “climate change” is a more accurate scientific term than “global warming.”
  • References to people with disabilities should now exclude descriptions that connote pity, such as “afflicted with,” “battling” or “suffers from.” Moreover, referring to a disability as a “handicap” is no longer appropriate.
  • The word “mistress” should no longer be used to describe a woman involved in a relationship with a married man (although rendering judgments about “paramour” or “kept man,” common references to the male version of the same, are noticeably absent from the guidelines).
  • On ethnic/racial topics, the term Black is now preferred over “African American.” What’s more, the term should always be capitalized whenever used.  (No similar pronouncement is made about capitalizing the word “white” in the same context.)
  • When it comes to age demographics, “senior citizen” and “elderly” are no longer appropriate terminology. Instead, the reference should be to “older adult” or “older person.”

But the most extensive new guidelines in the updated AP Stylebook are the 11 paragraphs and 22 specific examples presented under the heading “gender-neutral language.”

Banished are terms like “businessman,” “manpower,” “man-made,” “salesman” and “mankind.”  In their place are “businessperson,” “crews,” “human-made,” “salesperson” and “humanity.”

“Freshman” is now also frowned upon – but at least the replacement term isn’t the awkward-sounding “freshperson,” but rather “first-year student.”

While AP is to be commended for attempting to keep current on cultural changes, let’s hope that its efforts don’t devolve into the level of parody; some may think that it already has.

But I do have one question:  When will AP finally acknowledge that the entire world is using U.S. Postal Service abbreviations for state names – and has been doing so for well-nigh decades now?

These days, it seems that nobody other than AP is writing “Ore.” for “OR,” to cite just one example among 50.  Tenaciously holding on to outmoded state abbreviations — when no one else is doing so — seems almost like a nervous tic on AP’s part.  (Or is “nervous tic” yet another descriptor we can no longer use?)

What are your thoughts about the newest AP Stylebook guidelines?  Right on the money … or blunt overkill?  Please share your views with other readers here.

Brand statements get a real workout in 2020.

The bigger the company, it seems, the heftier the brand statement documents are that are associated with it.  And it’s gotten even more so in 2020 with several consequential current events being added to the mix – namely, the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest.

Unfortunately, these new challenges have come with their share of socio-political ramifications.  We’re dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods, after all, and there isn’t really a “one size fits all” response that will work for many brands.

Companies are having to address two aspects, actually.  One pertains to internal (employee) audiences.  To build and maintain trust, employees and others who represent a company’s brand need to be briefed on the brand implications of the events in the news.

What to communicate depends on a variety of factors – and it’s also prone to mid-course adjustments in rapidly evolving environments.  (We’ve certainly experienced numerous twists and turns with the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest over the past six months.)

What’s most important is for internal messaging to assure employees that the work environment will be supportive when it comes to issues of physical (and mental) health, instances of alleged racism or discrimination, and the like.  And beyond this, to assure that employees have options and avenues to raise concerns, and that those concerns will be considered on the merits.

Some aspects of internal messaging may be uncomfortable to address, but keeping silent on the issues isn’t usually a practical option, considering the intensity of the current environment and how it has affected so many aspects of our daily lives.

As for what to say to the outside world, many companies and brands have released public statements as well; my inbox has been positively stuffed with them over the past months.

On the other hand, other companies have remained quiet.  Should they be doing so?

The answer to that question begins with the company’s own “DNA.”  What has its public face been over the years?  Has it been in the forefront with public statements in the past?  For some brands, any such statement will feel like a normal, regular extension of the brand as it’s been perceived — par for the course.  But if this hasn’t been the “culture” of a company up to now, to make a statement now might come across as insincere.

A company is an amalgam of the people who make up the organization.  That makes it wise for corporate leaders to trust their own instincts.  If their gut tells them it isn’t the right time to put certain public-facing content out into the world, such discretion is probably warranted.

But even if the decision is to remain mum, this is as good a time as any to consider if the “quiet company” approach might need to change going forward.  More than a few organizations are undertaking some form of “genetic re-engineering” to bring their brand DNA in line with modern expectations.  That’s probably a good thing.

Finding the Sweet Spot in Ad Personalization

Marketing and advertising professionals know that personalization can be a very useful part of promotional strategies.  But doing personalization the right way has its challenges as well.

Those of us “of a certain age” remember when personalization first began to be used in promo campaigns.  Too often it was a joke – or carried out in such a way that it actually did more harm than good.

Probably the worst cases were when direct mail pieces would incorporate a person’s name inside the customer communications.  Often, the resulting piece was über-awkward – particularly if the name was misspelled or otherwise not presented how the recipient would normally be addressed; how many marketers know their customers’ nicknames?

Even worse was when mistake was repeated multiple places in the same promo piece – magnifying the problem to the level of farce.

Things are more sophisticated these days, and it’s pretty clear that targeted, relevant marketing works much better.  But after nearly 25 years of personalization and microtargeting in the digital realm, things have reached the level of diminishing returns:  ROI in deeper personalization declines as the efforts get more granular.

The more microtargeting that happens, the harder it becomes to find a large enough number of targets for each highly personalized ad.  At the same time, development costs increase even as the returns diminish, because creating a higher volume of microtargeted promotions aimed at highly specialized niche groups means that more effort has to go into ad creative, copywriting and production.

Of course, Facebook and Google have developed sophisticated ways to target advertising to the most lucrative prospects, to the degree that it’s often easier and more cost-effective to rely on those resources rather than undertaking personalization efforts in-house.  But there’s another potential issue with a relentless pursuit of personalization in advertising.  Engaging in it too much has the potential of creating a backlash, with some customers finding the practice overly intrusive – even creepy.

Ad retargeting is a particularly obnoxious practice – the digital equivalent of a salesperson following you around the store trying to get you to purchase an item you may have merely glanced at in passing interest.

Pushback is also manifesting itself in regulations such as CDPR (general data protection regulation), which aims to protect consumer data and how it’s used by making it more difficult to collect and store this kind of data.  Google has added fuel to the fire by ending support for third-party cookies – yet another barrier to obtaining worthwhile granular data.

All of this means that while personalization that increases relevancy remains a valuable marketing tool, it hasn’t turned out to be the silver bullet that some might have hoped.  Instead, it’s creating a good a balance between data and creativity that makes for the most successful campaigns.

Change agent: COVID-19’s ripple effect on BtoB marketing and sales.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world of business (and nearly everything else), marketing and sales in the BtoB realm had already undergone some pretty big changes in recent decades.

Historically, B2B sales were primarily a matter of face-to-face, physical contact. Often, the “road warriors” of those times would spend the majority of their weeks traveling to visit with customers and prospects at their places of business, or meeting them at trade shows.

But the turn away from that traditional model began in the 1980s and 1990s with building security concerns. Then along came 9/11 …

Technology has played a big part in the evolution — and has actually helped accelerate it with e-mail, database management, digital advertising, online RFP pricing/bid systems and other innovations affecting the nature of customer engagement.

Let’s not forget social networks, too — with LinkedIn being a particularly lucrative tool assisting many sales and marketing professionals in finding and nurturing prospects.

Somewhere along the way, the functions of marketing became much more than merely branding, advertising, and lead generation. Today, BtoB marketing is involved in every stage of the customer relationship.

Along comes COVID-19 in early 2020, which seems certain to drive further change. For one thing, virtual engagement has become a necessity instead of a merely an option.

At the same time, one could posit that customer retention has taken on more importance than ever before. It’s no wonder we’re hearing the phrase “retention is the new acquisition” stated with such frequency at the moment.

Roger McDonald

International strategic business advisor Roger McDonald believes that business has come full circle, returning to Peter Drucker’s classic maxim from more than 30 years ago: “Business has only two functions: marketing and innovation. These produce revenues. All others are costs.”

In McDonald’s view:

“Perhaps we are at a tipping point, where senior management will move beyond metrics of lead generation to nurture marketing’s evolving role as an organizer of systems, IT initiatives, and salesperson engagement for both acquisition and retention.”

One thing seems quite clear as we emerge from nearly three months of mandated COVID-isolation: We won’t return to an “old normal.” Those eggs have already been broken and scrambled.

What are your thoughts on which BtoB marketing and sales fundamentals have changed in light of the coronavirus disruption? Please share your thoughts with other readers in the comment section below.

As the American workplace reopens, not all employees are onboard with returning to the “old normal.”

A new survey finds that nearly half of employees who are currently working from home want to keep it that way.

The forced shutdown of the American workplace began in mid-March. Only now, ten weeks later, are things beginning to open back up in a significant way.

But those ten weeks have revealed some interesting attitudinal changes on the part of many employees. Simply put, quite a few of them have concluded that they like working from home, and don’t much care to return to the “traditional” work routines.

It’s an interesting development that illustrates yet another manifestation of “the law of unintended consequences.” For decades, the opportunities to work from home seemed to be a realistic proposition for only a distinct minority of certain white-collar workers and top-level managers.

Reflecting this dynamic, prior to the Coronavirus outbreak just ~7% of the U.S. private sector workforce had access to a flexible workplace benefit, as reported in the 2019 National compensation Survey released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Suddenly, working from home went from being a rarefied benefit to something quite routine in many work sectors.

In late April, The Grossman Group, a Chicago-based leadership and communications consulting firm, conducted an online survey of nearly 850 U.S. employees who are currently working from their homes.  A cross-section of age, gender, geography, ethnicity and education levels were surveyed to ensure a reliable representation of the U.S. workforce.

The topline finding from the Grossman research is that nearly half of all workers surveyed (48%) reported that they would like to continue working from home after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

The reasons for preferring work-from-home arrangements are varied. Certainly, the prospect of reduced commuting time is a major attraction, along with other work/life balance factors … and while some employees have found that setting up an office in their home isn’t a simple proposition, it’s also clear that many employees were able to adjust quickly during the early days of the workplace lockdown.

David Grossman, CEO of The Grossman Group, sees in the survey findings a clear message to employers:  Worker preferences have evolved rapidly, necessitating a re-imagining of traditional ways of working. Grossman says:

“A great deal has changed in employees’ lives in a short time, and if we want them to be engaged and productive, we’re going to have to be willing to meet them where they are as much as possible … that’s a ‘win-win’ for companies and their people.”

He adds:

“Many employees have gotten a taste of working from home for the first time – and they like it.”

Interestingly, the Grossman Group survey found practically no generational differences in the attractiveness of a work-from-home option; whether you’re a Baby Boomer, a Gen X or Gen Z worker, the attitudes are nearly the same.

Of course, not every type of work is conducive to working remotely. Many jobs simply cannot be done without the benefit of a “destination workplace” where mission-critical machinery, equipment, laboratory and other facilities are accessed daily. But the COVID-19 lockdown experience has shown that employees can be productive no matter where they are, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the workplace likely won’t cut it in the future.

This might be a little difficult for some people to hear, but employers will have to set aside concerns about potential slackening employee motivation and productivity in a remote working environment, lest they lose their talent to other, more flexible employers who are figuring out ways to manage a remote workforce effectively over the long-term.

As David Grossman contends, “More flexibility adds value to the employee experience, builds engagement, and brings results.”

Additional findings from the Grossman Group research can be accessed here.

What are your thoughts on the topic, based on your own experiences and those of your co-workers over the past 10 weeks? Please share your opinions with other readers here.